Nov 12, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 1

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Like Unto a Thing of Iron
Part 1: Fighting Crime with Kung-Fu Billionaire, Iron Fist

When I was a kid, Iron Fist was arguably my second favorite character in all of comics. To this day, I couldn't even tell you how I discovered the character. (Those of you that pay attention know I was mostly a Spider-Man and X-Men kid.) I imagine I either saw his entry in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, or I found an issue of his in the quarter boxes. (Man, I miss quarter boxes. 25 cents for a comic, or 5 for a dollar. And they were good comics too, not just old 90s comics the store is trying to get rid of. So many new characters were discovered through the quarter box. Off the top of my head, The Flash and Captain Carrot. How can you go wrong with Captain Carrot? You can't, I say.) Regardless of how I discovered him, I'm sure I would have been drawn to the cool costume, sweet dragon tattoo, and the fact that every kid growing up in the 80s loved Kung-Fu. (Ninjas, especially, were everywhere. Movies, cartoons, Milwaukee.)

So, what's so darn great about Iron Fist? Let's find out...

Marvel Premiere #15. Author/Editor: Roy Thomas; Artist: Gil Kane; Inker: Dick Giordano

The legend begins with Iron Fist, poised for combat, surrounded by several attackers.

He makes quick and brutal work of them, all while mysterious robed individuals watch from on high. The central hooded figure is Yu-Ti, the August Personage of Jade. (He will be a central figure in the Iron Fist mythos.)

Having successfully passed the "challenge of the many," Iron Fist now declares himself ready to "meet the challenge of the one." Yu-Ti suggests he take a moment of contemplation before beginning, and Iron Fist thinks back to the events that brought him to this point.

Ten years ago, a nine year old Danny Rand searches the Himalayas with his mother and father, and his father's business partner, Harold Meachum. Wendell Rand was obsessed with finding the K'un-Lun mountain, mystical dwelling place of immortals from Chinese legend. Danny trips, sending him and his mother falling down a snow-packed mountainside. Wendell hangs on to the side himself, calling for Meachum to pull him up. Meachum has other ideas. 

Danny watches as his father falls to his death.

Meachum wanted their company to himself, and apparently, Wendell's wife as well. (That's cold-blooded man.) She's not having it though, so he leaves them to die. "Let my son grow up to kill you with his own two hands—or let him die, like his father!" (Side note: Kane sure does draw a pretty face.)

Back to the present, Iron Fist is met by a big hulk of a man named Shu-Hu.

They fight, with Iron Fist's blows having little effect on the giant of a man.

As he lays bloody and discouraged, Iron Fist thinks back again. Of him and his mother, climbing back up the side of that mountain. As they wandered, they found themselves being trailed by a pack of wolves. Out in the middle of nowhere, they spot a man-made bridge, and run for it, as the wolves close in.

Seeing that they weren't going to make it, Heather stops while Danny continues on. Hoping to give him the chance to survive, she hurls herself at the wolves. (Any parent worth anything would sacrifice themselves for their children. I would gladly hurl myself at a pack of hungry wolves to save my two boys. But, I'd also like to think I could take down a pack of wolves without dying either. Stupid wolves. Also, I sure hope my boys like to read comics when they get older, or else I've been lugging a bunch of crap around from place to place for nothing.)

Once again, Danny watches as a parent dies.

This time, he is saved by residents of K'un-Lun, the mystical city they had been searching for the whole time.
Present day again, Iron Fist wonders who his attacker could possibly be. A knife shot from the palm of its hand confirms that he doesn't face a man at all, and the memory of his mother's death spurs him into a berserker rage.

His furious blows stagger the machine. As it stands there, Iron Fist focuses all of his concentration and resolve down into his fist, until it becomes like unto...a thing of iron!

His fist smoldering with energy, he strikes one final, triumphant blow, and the machine falls to the ground defeated.

Iron Fist says, "First, the challenge of the many, then of the one. And lastly, the challenge of myself, of my will to live, of my fitness to live! I stand bloody but unbowed. Never bowed! And I claim, at last, the right which now is mine to claim!"

Yu-ti responds, "Yes, my son. You have won, the right is yours! The right to choose between immortality...eternal life...and death!"

My brain thoughts: I had no idea until now that Roy Thomas co-created Iron Fist, doesn't really strike me as a character in his usual wheelhouse. (That being obscure characters soaked in complicated continuity.) This was also during the pre-Jim Shooter era of the Marvel writer/editor. Not usually a great idea to have you editing your own work, but it worked out okay here as far as I can tell. It's probably easier when Gil Kane is penciling your book, he was simply a master. Not much more needs to be said about that. What a brutal origin story. Watching your father betrayed and murdered, fall down the side of a mountain (like a ragdoll). Follow that up with seeing your mother brutally ripped apart by wolves, and I'd call that a bad weekend. Nothing about this story, besides the costumes, really seems like a superhero story. Perhaps that is what I enjoyed about it so much. It's your standard Kung-Fu revenge type of story, and it's impossible not to want little Danny to grow up and get violent revenge on Meachum. (Trying to steal his mom alone is enough for a rage-filled montage of karate training through the ages, but then they both died.)

#16. Writer: Len Wein; Penciller: Larry Hama; Inker: Dick Giordano; Co-Plotter/Editor: Roy Thomas

Open on Iron Fist, walking through what I assume are the streets of Marvel New York.

Seem like it would be strange to see a man dressed like
that walking through the streets, but hey,
this is the Marvel universe.

He walks down an alley, where he finds himself a surrounded by a group of tough guys. One of them reveals that there is a contract out on a man with a dragon tattoo on his chest. He makes short work of most of them, but one of them is able to get in a shot to the back of Iron Fist's head with a lead pipe.

As he kneels staggered, Iron Fist flashes back to his arrival at the city of K'un-Lun. First he meets Yu-Ti...

...and then the man who would be his tutor in the ways of the martial arts, Lei Kung the Thunderer. (Another key figure in the ongoing history of the Iron Fist.)

As he thinks back on his training in the past, Iron Fist leaps back to action in the present. He finishes off his attackers, and sends them running off, leaving him to wonder who could have known he was coming, and why they have placed a bounty on his head. (Isn't it kind of obvious?)

Flashback again, to Danny strengthening his hands, preparing for what is to come.

His shot at the power of the Iron Fist. To face the dragon Shou-Lao, the undying. The mystical creature eternally condemned to guard the molten heart that had long ago been torn from its body. (I don't care who you are, that is just damn awesome. If you don't like that, you need to find another hobby. Maybe stamps.)

His attacks having little lasting effect, Danny makes one final ploy, lunging at the scar where the beast's heart had been, and bear-hugging the creature into submission. Searing the dragon shaped tattoo onto his chest that still remains to this day.

Entering the dark chamber, Danny finds the heart of the dragon, and plunges his hands into its molten essence, over and over again.

Thus, the Iron Fist was born!
Present day, Iron Fist now finds himself face to face with an attacker by the name of Scythe, brandishing a kusari-gama weapon.

Scythe manages to wrap the chain of the weapon around Iron Fist's neck. As he lays choking, Iron Fist thinks back this time to recent memories. Having just winning the challenge of the one, he was given the choice between eating from the tree of immortality, or leaving the city for the world of men, never to return. His hatred still fueling him, Iron Fist chooses to return to the city, despite the revelation from Yu-Ti that Wendell Rand was his brother. (I'm not sure if this was ever followed up on, or even acknowledged later on.)

Snap back to the present, where Iron Fist finally puts Scythe down with a little bit of help from the power of the iron fist. (They actually use the word chi this time, slowly honing that now regular catchphrase into what it would become.) Scythe, in true tough guy mode, immediately reveals that it was Meachum who hired him, and where to find him.

It seems like the guys making this forgot they needed Iron Fist to fight some kind of costumed baddie in this issue, in-between all the origin flashbacks, so they just threw in this Scythe guy at the end to fill that "requirement." They really didn't need to bother with it.

My brain thoughts: Wein and Hama take over on writing and artist duties on what is basically the second part of an origin story. Can you imagine that happening today? No origin is going to be told in less than six issues today anyway, and the internet "fans" would throw a riot if a creative team was swapped out that early. The funny part is that, as a kid, I would never have even noticed the change. Sometimes I think the focus on the creators making the comic books sucks all the magic out of the characters themselves. Part of that is probably just not being eight years old anymore, and all evidence points to most of the people that still buy comics as being older readers these days. Creator rights and artistic freedom are great things, but I guess what we sacrifice with that are a truly immersive experience in these worlds. I'm not saying one is better than the other, or that they are mutually exclusive. Maybe I just spend too much time on the internet.

Anyway, wrestling with dragons. That's cool. It's interesting to note that future G.I. Joe master Larry Hama got his start drawing an issue of Iron Fist.

#17. Writer: Doug Moench; Artist: Larry Hama; Inker: Dick Giordano; Editor: Roy Thomas

Iron Fist makes his way towards Meachum's building, contemplating how much the city has changed in the years he has been gone. (After ten years away in a mystical city, everything must seem so strange to him. If nothing else, the music should freak him out. Lady Gaga alone...)

(Side note: my favorite band, the Deftones, are releasing a new album tomorrow. They always seem to release a new album around a major change in my life. White Pony always reminds me of my first assignment/base. Saturday Night Wrist came out right after I moved to Mississippi. We worked ten-hour days there, with every other Friday off, so I remember blaring that in my red Ford F150 through the deserted streets of Biloxi, driving to work at the ungodly hour of 5:30 am. Diamond Eyes came out while I was on my way to Korea. I was laying on the floor of an Alaskan airport, desperately trying to download it on some horribly slow WiFi before the plane started re-boarding. This new one is coming out after yet another change in my life, one I can't tell you about yet.)

Iron Fist makes his way into the building and begins to travel up to the top floor. Booby traps meet him at every turn. Spiked walls, mounted machine guns, electrified doors, collapsing stairs, hired goons, acid, a wolf, and a elevator death trap. Iron Fist escapes or evades them all.

After defeating the samurai janitor (!), Iron Fist faces one final obstacle, and receives unexpected assistance from a mysterious ninja, who quickly disappears.

Finally making his way through the final door, Iron Fist does not find Meachum, but he does find yet another costumed goon waiting for him.

My brain thoughts: Man, and fans act like decompression is a new thing. I'm going to call this the first "Tobey Maguire chapter" in Iron Fist's history. Take what is normally an interesting character, and do something boring with him. (You can also replace the word "boring" with other derogatory adjectives. It's fun, try it.)

#18. Scripter: Doug Moench; Penciller: Larry Hama; Inker: Dick Giordano; Editor: Roy Thomas

Iron Fist faces the costumed Triple-Iron, hired by Meachum to kill him.

They trade blows for a while, until the mysterious ninja once again appears, and leads Iron Fist toward the door that leads to the building's control room.

Once inside, Iron Fist severs the cables to the building's power source, and uses them to knock out Triple-Iron.

 A door opens, and Iron Fist is finally face to face with Harold Meachum, the man who killed his father.

Only, he's surprised to find Meachum in a wheelchair, having lost both his legs.

Meachum recounts his tale, after killing his father, he got lost in the mountains, and finally blacked out into the cold snow. When he awoke, he found himself in a small village, where they were able to save his life, but not his legs.

While waiting for transport out of the village, a Tibetan monk visited the old man taking care of him, with tales of the mystical city of K'un-Lun, and how they had recently taken in a young boy from America, whose parents had died in the mountains.

Meachum knew Danny Rand would return to kill him ten years later, and he waited for him to come, but Iron Fist cannot feel hate for this shell of a man anymore, and decides to leave him to his misery.

Meachum cannot allow it, and pulls a gun on Iron Fist. The shot grazes the side of his head. Long enough for the mysterious ninja to appear, and finish Meachum the way Iron Fist couldn't.


Iron Fist recovers to see Meachum pinned to his chair by a ninja sword, just in time for Meachum's daughter to arrive.

Mistaking Iron Fist for her father's killer, she swears vengeance upon him.

My brain thoughts: None of the villains Iron Fist has faced so far have been very interesting. In fact, they've been downright horrible. (Almost Tobey Maguire-ish.) But that's okay, because the real story here is Iron Fist facing down the murderer of his father, and finding him too pathetic to take his revenge upon. Of course, this only means he gets murdered anyway, and Iron Fist gets the blame. Pretty by the book storytelling, but it closes this initial chapter of Iron Fist's story. That shot of Meachum with the sword coming out of the back of his chair is classic Kung-Fu movie imagery. (I remember a ninja movie I watched as a kid depicted somebody's blood as being green, and you know what, I bought it. I thought, "Maybe some blood is green?" This is probably evidence pointing to there being a gas leak in my house growing up. The real tragedy is that the coloring settings on our TV were probably just off.) Meachum's daughter is kind of hot. He probably doesn't have a shot with her, since she thinks he killed her dad and all. ( Probably doesn't have a shot.)

My final brain thoughts: "Like unto iron", hungry wolves, the Deftones, dragon wrestling, green blood, lame villains, mysterious ninjas.

Iron Fist combined Kung-Fu storytelling with Marvel superhero action. The parts that excelled mostly involved the Kung-Fu aspects. The violent deaths of Danny Rand's parents resonate with the reader. Much like Batman, we can imagine training our bodies to perfection, to get revenge on the people that took our parents away from us. (Though, most of us find ourselves training for the perfect plate of nachos more than we do any exercising.) The parts that failed involved injecting generic costumed villains into the stories. The only character capable of becoming an interesting villain, Harold Meachum, was a broken man, murdered before he could become any kind of real threat. Great for the story, but not great for the prospects of future villainy. As much as I like Iron Fist's place in the larger Marvel universe in the stories to come, the best stuff has always kept the superheroics separate, and focused on the Kung-Fu. (Like the instant classic Immortal Iron Fist series, created by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja. Aja truly is the best artist in comics nobody talks about. He's a genius. And this often ignored series was pure greatness. Easily one of the five best comic book series of the past ten years. Go out and buy it right now.), yeah. Awkward closing remarks. Never know how to finish these things. See you next time?

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