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The Immortal Iron Fist #4
posted April 23, 2007
Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth
Marvel, comic book, 32 pages, April 2007, $2.99
There are two particularly clever elements in the re-launching of Marvel's Kung-Fu superhero Iron Fist by writers Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker. The first is they took the blank slate elements of the character's past and filled in those blanks with an Eternal Warrior set-up, a sturdy pulp structure which amazingly, as far as I can tell, no Marvel character currently employs. The second is in taking all of the things that have been slightly disappointing about the character's past appearances -- the limited gimmickry of his power, his half-assed relationship to immense material holdings, his seemingly laissez-faire attitude towards being a superhero at all -- and turned them into an extended plot point about a superhero that may be working far short of his potential. The two together give Fraction and Brubaker a chance to re-contextualize the character in terms that give him a much firmer base than his weak, jumbled mess of 1970s mix of kung-fu movies and James Hilton, enough story momentum and a hint of grandeur to allow him the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with the more established Kirby-style icons.
In the current story, modern-day Iron Fist is joined by the pulp-era Iron Fist (in flashbacks we have also seen village defending Iron Fist and pirate queen Iron Fist) Orson Randall. In the process of a long story from the older character to the younger about the Iron Fist "mantle" and Randall's personal story regarding same, they enter an old underground headquarters that connects to Randall's past and, as he asserts, Rand's as well. A fight scene begins. Those scenes work pretty well. There's a natural fit between overman-type pulp narratives and superheroes that I don't think Marvel's explored except maybe one weird Spider-Man/Doc Savage not exactly a team-up from 30 years ago, and a few of the better runs on Master of Kung-Fu
. In fact, artist David Aja may remind many of the better 1970s Marvel artists in the way he ignores certain loyalties to representation in favor of a broader range of effects, the way Steranko would make the Hulk 12 feet tall because it's more important to underline his power and monstrous qualities than to match the character as depicted in a previous cover. Aja employs a kind of moody certainty to his pages that comes out in each issue's depiction of violence, the notion that fighting is dark and messy and not usually choreographed..
Less successful is the writers' secondary plotline weaving in and out of the first, tracking the recurring Iron Fist
villain the Steel Serpent and this month's misdeeds. It may be that there's too much work to be done, and Fraction and Brubaker have chosen to resuscitate a character that was dead on arrival. Still, like a good wrestling bad guy being transformed into a monster heel, Steel Serpent is fed a huge number of nondescript baddies that he overcomes with little effort and works the microphone a few times to let everyone out there know he had bad intentions. There are even mystical reasons folded into the storyline, an argument for the reader to assume he's serious business, up to and including alliances and relationships I don't think he had before. One of the captions even notes his family connection to Rand's martial arts teacher, which brings with it a note of intimacy that the older Iron Fist
comics fairly blew right past. While the rehab from ersatz copy into serious contender is far from over, this issue smartly makes clear the Serpent's goals is Randall's death, not the lead's, which because it's potentially achievable increases his interest level more than any fight or torture scene could. Another area for concern may be the stately pace, which doesn't reward during serialization as much as one might think it will when collected, at least not the way the individual issues are structured so far. This is where a long conversation can sometimes do more harm than good -- it may make for a more resonant catharsis to impart this information over several pages, or even a couple of issues but it can also feel like the entire issue took place during a single exchange of ideas. And, as always with the newer, better superhero comics, I wonder how big an audience there is for work in this genre crafted in this particular way. I'm not sure that's a fair standard to apply to any specific piece of art, but the question remains.