Monday, October 08, 2007


Book Report

It's Monday, and that means it's book report time.

This week I'm going to review a book with pictures as well as words, one that I read in individual issues and reread this last week in the trade collection. This may well be the best thing in the history of ever.

Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja's The Immortal Iron Fist

I'm not going to lie to you. Most comics these days suck. I mean, they really suck. In the last few months I've been going through my old comics from time to time, rereading series from just a few years back, and each time I do I'm struck at just how horrible most mainstream superhero comics have gotten the last couple of years. Ten years ago we had the sublime heights of James Robinson's Starman, Mark Waid's Flash, Kurt Busiek's Astro City, and Alan Moore's Supreme. Then for a brief time both DC and Marvel were producing terrific work, really landmark quality, with Grant Morrison on JLA, Mark Waid on Captain America, Kurt Busiek on Avengers, and on, and on.

Then, about three or four years ago, something seems to have started going seriously wrong. The talent on the books has never been better, one might argue, but the end result is often an unreadable mess. The DC superhero comics have completely disappeared up their own ass with editorial driven nonsense (honestly, when Mary Marvel battled a monster made of aborted human fetuses, I knew it was time for me to go), with only odd standouts like Shadowpact and Blue Beetle managing to maintain my interest at all. Because even when the books themselves show real promise, like Allan Heinberg on Wonder Woman or Busiek on Superman or Morrison on Batman, incomprehensible editorial decisions and baffling schedule issues completely spoil things for me (all three of those series mentioned have been plagued by fill-in issues of uniformly bad quality, with the worst example being Wonder Woman, which ran the first four parts of a five part story in its first four issues, then ran the fifth part more than eight issues later in an annual, without a mention of this in an editorial or note in the intervening issues at any point).

None of which has anything to do with The Immortal Iron Fist, really, except to establish that it takes a fair amount for a superhero comic to impress me these days. And this is a book that has impressed me.

Now, I've always had a lot of respect for Ed Brubaker. I read his indie comic Lowlife a million years ago, thought that Sleeper was the best thing to come out of Wildstorm in years, and followed his Captain America until the editorial-driven event nonsense of the House of M and Civil War and all of that silliness finally spoiled me on it. He's never been my favorite comics writer, but he's one that's never disappointed, and always delivered quality work.

Then there's his cowriter Matt Fraction. I'll admit it took me a while to warm to his work. I think it's as much to do with my own misconceptions of what he was all about based on limited exposure to his online persona more than anything else, because in retrospect I'd read only a very little bit of his work. Since developing my deep passion for Iron Fist, I've gone back and reread all of Casanova, as I mentioned last week, and have picked up and enjoyed Five Fists of Science (which shares some inspirations with a notional project of my own, The Sum of Histories).

How to explain The Immortal Iron Fist? Well, first, I'll point out that this is a relaunch of a character first introduced in the 1970s. You don't need to know anything about the character or his background to appreciate the book under review here, but if you do know anything about the character, then you'll definitely want to give Fraction and Brubaker's book a shot.

(And, if you haven't read the original comics and would like to try them, check out The Essential Iron Fist, which collects all of the issues of the original run, in his own book and elsewhere. The first issues are okay not great, with some workman like art from Gil Kane and a different scripter every few issues, but when Chris Claremont and John Byrne take over the series, all bets are off. Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool X-Men fan from childhood, coming at these Iron Fist collaborations of the two was a revelation, as these issues are arguably far superior to their run on Uncanny X-Men, more technically sophisticated and, since the story is brought to some sort of closure at the end, ultimately more satisfying.)

The character of Iron Fist is a product of Marvel's attempt in the seventies to capitalize on the martial arts craze, and the success of things like Enter the Dragon and the Kung Fu tv series. DC and Marvel comics of the period were filled with martial artists on missions of vengeance, who filled the pages of the b&w newstand Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. On the whole, while there was some interesting backstory to some of these (in particular Shang-Chi, the rogue son of Fu Manchu), by and large most of the martial arts characters were pretty forgettable, usually men (and on rare occasion women) who had been done wrong, been trained by some cryptic old dude in the art of the fist, and then sent off on a mission of vengeance, usually with stops along the way to visit Batman or Spider-man, depending on their orientation.

Iron Fist was a bit different. He was an American who had been raised in K'un L'un, a kind of Shangri-La that, like Brigadoon, only appeared in our world for a brief span every ten years. Instructed in the martial arts by Lei Kung, the Thunderer (under the watchful eye of the August Personage in Jade), young Daniel Rand becomes the most bad ass of bad asses, and is allowed the attempt to defeat Shou-Lao the Undying, a dragon. He wins, naturally, getting in return a dragon-shaped burn-mark-tattoo on his chest, the ability to channel energy into his fists (which become things "like unto iron", of course), and the mantle of K'un L'un's champion and defender, Iron Fist. When K'un L'un reorients with Earth, he travels back to America to seek for answers about his late father, fights supervillains, gets pursued by the Steel Serpent, another K'un L'un native who wants the power of the iron fist for himself, makes friends with Luke Cage (the bad ass of bad asses), and falls in love with an African-American policewoman with a bionic arm. He discovers that he is heir to one of the world's largest fortunes, the Rand Corporation, and sets up a side business as a hero for hire.

That's about all you need to know about the original series, and all of it covered in flashback and exposition in the present series. The new book, The Immortal Iron Fist, picks up exactly where the original series left off, and goes in entirely new directions.

The conceit of Fraction and Brubaker's take on the character is that Daniel Rand is just the latest in a long string of men (and one woman) to wear the mantle of the Iron Fist. The previous bearer, Orson Randall, was a soldier in the trenches of WWI before roaming the world as a pulp adventurer with his band of sidekicks the Confederates of the Curious, complete with airship and be-goggled dog. Randall had been raised in K'un L'un as well, after his father, a Victorian-era steampunk adventurer who had crashed his airship into the city during its brief appearance on Earth, along with his pregnant wife. Earlier Iron Fists include Bei Ming-Tai, who faced off against the Mongol hordes, pirate queen Wu Ao-Shi, and Boxer Rebellion leader Bei Bang-Wen.

Orson, it turns out, isn't dead after all, but has been hiding out smoking opium for the last few decades. The Steel Serpent returns (the K'un L'un native who wanted the iron fist for himself), now at the head of the Hydra secret society, and allied with Crane Mother, the ruler of another Brigadoon-like city. Because, we now discover, K'un L'un is only one of seven cities of heaven that phase in and out of Earth's plane of existence, and the purpose of the immortal weapons, of which Iron Fist is only one, is to meet ever few decades in deadly combat to determine which of the seven cities will have preeminence for the next cycle. And then the ass-kicking commences.

And now I'm just recounting the entire plot.

I can't help myself. The book is a compendium of all of my obsessions, from clash of cultures, to multidimensional hoohah, to steampunk and pulp adventurers, to generational and legacy heroes, to martial arts, and all points in between. This is a book aimed directly at me, and it couldn't be more perfect.

I don't know what the working relation between the two cowriters is like. In interviews they suggest that Fraction writes the first draft of each script, then Brubaker rewrites, then Fraction polishes, then Brubaker polishes. If that's the case, then it perhaps explains how The Immortal Iron Fist manages to somehow be greater than the sum of its parts. Fraction's own comics are almost invariably about things I myself obsess over constantly, but in some cases the final execution falls a little short of the conception (as, to be fair, it would almost have to do, given the ambitious reach of his ideas). Brubaker's work, on the other hand, is technically unassailable, but sometimes fails to grab me at a visceral level, most often falling outside my personal wheelhouse, as it were. The two of them working together, however, are this crazy Frankenstein of talent, each compensating for the other, and constantly amping things up.

(Of course, this could all be a misread of the real working relationship, and it could simply be that the subject matter here is closer to my heart, and that Fraction in some cases writes one issue himself from start to finish and Brubaker in other cases does the same, in which case I'm just talking out of my ass again.)

Okay, now I really need to get back to work, as I've bloviated on this far longer than I'd planned. The upshot is this, though. If you follow my blog at all, and find that you share tastes in common with me in terms of books, or movies, or comics, you would be well served to seek out The Immortal Iron Fist and give it a shot. It really is one of the best things in the history of ever, and one of the bright shining lights in the giant ocean of suck that modern superhero comics have become. Highly, highly recommended.


I'm waiting for this to hit softcover trade status and then I'm all over it.
Amazon has it down as a November 14th release, so it doesn't look like you'll have long to wait.
Yeah, I looked it up after I made the comment. Knew it wasn't too far away.
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