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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Tomorrow, Marvel’s Iron Fist will be released via the studios’ partnership with streaming service Netflix. In honor of the latest Marvel hero to make his debut, today’s column is going to take a look back at over 4 decades of Iron Fist comic book tales and give you a few classic tales to sink your teeth into as you binge watch! Locate your chi, and let’s dive into the illustrious history of Danny Rand, the Iron Fist.
Kung Fu Action in the Mighty Marvel Manner (1970s)
People like to complain these days that the large comic publishers have sold out, preferring to chase trends and gimmicks as opposed to crafting original and creative concepts and stories like they did in whatever era they first fell in love with the medium. Truth is, from day one, Marvel has always walked a fine line between artistic integrity and success in sales. As with any art that had a commercial component, the financial consideration is disregarded at your peril, and cashing in on a fad or trend is only tacky when it doesn’t connect with your audience.
Enter Iron Fist. In the early to mid 1970s, there were two major new genres exploding in the culture. The first was blaxploitation, which resulted most notably in Marvel’s “Hero for Hire” series starring Luke Cage. And there was also what was called “chop-socky”, a regrettably racist name for the influx of martial arts movies imported from Asia, initially begun when Bruce Lee shot to fame. Marvel wasn’t going to miss out on this trend any more than it wasn’t going to try to increase African-American readership with Luke Cage.
And so, in the space of a few years, a whole slew of martial art inspired characters came to the fore, most notably Shang-Chi, an overt Bruce Lee-inspired character who enjoyed solid critical acclaim but limited sales success. But perhaps the most popular and longest-lasting character to come out of Marvel’s Kung Fu craze is Danny Rand, Iron Fist. The character made his debut in the pages of “Marvel Premiere,” one of the many “try-out” books had during this period whose focus was to introduce readers to new characters.
Created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in Marvel Premiere #15, Danny Rand was an American raised and trained in the martial arts in the mystical city of K’un-L’un. When he was child, Rand’s parents Wendell and Heather traveled to a desolate frozen mountain range in an effort to locate the mysterious city, which only appears on Earth ever ten years like Brigadoon. Wendell Rand was from K’un-L’un and wanted to show his wife and son the city. But Rand’s business partner Harold Meachum betrays the family, stranding them on the mountain after pushing Wendell off a cliff to his death. Heather sacrifices herself to a pack of wolves in an attempt to save her son, and the young Danny is saved when he reaches K’un-L’un. The masters take him in and train in their martial arts, leading up to the point where Danny is proficient enough to challenge a dragon named Shou-Lao to combat. The challenge is a rite of passage, and Danny defeats the dragon, plunging his hand into its heart, gaining the power of the Iron Fist, which focuses Danny’s chi and gives him increased strength and stamina and the ability to focus the energy into his fist for a single superhuman strike.
The thing about Iron Fist and his origin is that it kind of perfectly captures the era. Characters created during this period had this bizarre mix of darker and more complex elements (such as the horrific betrayal and deaths of Danny’s parents) merged with fantastic elements drawn from a variety of sources (the Brigadoon elements, the martial arts, the fantasy stuff with the dragon) to become something booth goofy and yet still relatable. While Silver Age Marvel creations all stuck fairly closely to the formula of 50’s super-science meets 60’s neuroses, the Marvel of the 1970s added social commentary, weird hippie new age mysticism, elements of pulpy fantasy, and set it all within a world that tried to reflect contemporary society. The result should be ridiculous, and it kind of is, and yet there’s an irresistible quality to something as bonkers as the concept of Iron Fist.
There’s also no denying that Iron Fist also represents a pretty egregious example of cultural appropriation. I’m not sure why Danny Rand couldn’t have been Asian in some way, even an Asian-American who had lost touch with his heritage and embraced the American culture in which he was raised. That actually would have been pretty interesting. And I’m not blaming Thomas or Kane. For all I know they might have intended Rand to be Chinese-American or Korean-American but were vetoed by Marvel editorial. Who knows? But in any case, Iron Fist raised a pretty common spectre that affected comics of the time; publishers wanting to be diverse but lacking the input of creators that actually WERE diverse. As a result, we get a comic book character raised by Asian monks in Asia, trained in martial arts, wearing stylized martial arts attire, being depicted as a blond-haired, blue-eyed white American man. At the time, it probably didn’t occur to many readers (at least many non-Asian readers) that this could be an issue. But to modern eyes, it’s a bit problematic.
Iron Fist’s adventures continued in “Marvel Premiere” until issue #25, and were successful with readers. Over time, a variety of creators tried their hand at the character, including a young penciler named Larry Hama, who succeeded Gil Kane on the run. Hama was not only Asian-American, but also martial arts trained, though his time on Iron Fist was short but worked as solid showcase to lead to other work. Just before Iron Fist’s time in “Marvel Premiere” ended, writer Chris Claremont took over, and was paired with artist John Byrne. The duo would act as the creative team on the new Iron Fist ongoing solo title soon to launch.
Claremont and Byrne’s Iron Fist title featured much of the magic that they were soon more famously to display in their legendary run on “Uncanny X-Men,” albeit in a rougher, less polished form. However, much of the energy and skill at deepening character and crafting long-form ongoing storylines were evident even at this early stage. The team kicked things off with a seven issue arc revolving around Danny’s global search for his private eye ally Colleen Wing, with Iron Fist aided by Wing’s partner Misty Knight.
Though Iron Fist only lasted 15 issues, and is often more remembered as the genesis of the Claremont/Byrne team more than the stories themselves, reading the stories proves they are worthy of re-examination. Frankly, if these creators hadn’t been so innovative with this character, it’s likely he might have gone the way of other Marvel creations of the period. But the title was used as an opportunity for both creators to push the envelope in subtle ways. Claremont employed second-person narration on the title, a technique he would occasionally use on “X-Men” for intimate issues or moments. But Iron Fist featured the technique throughout, keeping Danny, his emotions and thoughts front and center for the reader to connect and identify with. Claremont and Byrne would lay the foundation for Danny and Misty’s romance, a rare interracial love story in comics’ at the time, introduce long-time antagonist Steel Serpent , and use the title to debut the perennial bad guy/antihero/Wolverine slash fiction stalwart Sabretooth. And this was all created alongside John Byrne’s art, which was rapidly growing in skill and confidence to become the best in the business at the time.
Iron Fist would be cancelled with issue #15, and storylines left dangling would be resolved in the pages of “Marvel Team-Up.” But this was not the last we’d see of Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, as he would soon be paired with another Marvel character with sales challenges but a cult following. And the partnership they’d form would become one of Marvel’s most enduring and fondly remembered ones.
Essential Reading: Marvel Premiere #15-16, Iron Fist 1-15, Marvel Team-Up #63-64
Heroes for Hire (1970s and 1980s)
Luke Cage’s title, originally called “Hero for Hire” before switching to “Power Man” was struggling somewhat, as was Iron Fist. But both presumably enjoyed their own followings, so why not get these two crazy kids together? You put Blaxploitation in my Kung Fu! You put Kung Fu in my Blaxploitation! Two great tastes that taste great together!
In order to get the partnership off to a solid start, Claremont and Byrne created a three-issue storyline that began in Power Man #48, leading to the title’s renaming to Power Man and Iron Fist with issue #50. That 50th issue retold the origins of Danny and Luke to readers, and redefined both characters. Where Luke was a man raised poor and African-American, a former convicted felon who knew the prejudice and bigotry the marginalized faced on a daily basis in American life, Danny was wealthy and privileged, a man largely unfamiliar with America’s good and bad points. One was was proudly down to earth, the other connected to spirituality. One was a perfect fighting machine of lethal grace, the other an indestructible blunt instrument. But both connected over their impulsiveness, the premium they each placed on loyalty, and a rigid moral code that meant more to them than following societal norms. The partners re-established Cage’s dormant “Hero for Hire” business, though this time with Danny’s wealth funding the project, and they became champions for the little guy who normally couldn’t get the attention of the Avengers and their ilk. Then there were Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, the Daughters of the Dragon PIs who were easily interesting enough to almost carry their own series (a few attempts have been made but never really stuck), and then there was Jeryn Hogarth, their skilled and devoted attorney. An overlooked facet of a series’ success can be how strong its supporting cast of characters can be, and in Power Man & Iron Fist you got a bunch of solid support.
Power Man and Iron Fist saw some shake-ups almost immediately. John Byrne was only on the book for the one issue, while Claremont soon handed the reigns over to others. Claremont did love Iron Fist, and hated to give the title up reportedly, but with so much already on his plate, something had to give and he wasn’t about to drop “X-Men” or his favorite solo title “Ms. Marvel.” Mary Jo Duffy was soon tapped to be the regular writer on the book, staying on the title for nearly 30 issues. Duffy’s run tended to eschew overblown super-heroics for smaller scale character pieces that kept their focus on Luke and Danny’s relationship. For antagonists, Duffy avoided villains with big power-levels, considering her two leads were guys that basically punched things. Electro or Blastaar would simply zap them and fly away and non-powered villains would turn Luke and Danny into bullies. So she solved the problem by having Power Man and Iron Fist battle bad guys with special skills who could generate interest by either being slyly manipulative or just plain infuriating to a Luke Cage who suffered no fools, or a Danny Rand who lacked cultural context. This brings me to the next aspect of Duffy’s tenure that sparkled; namely her focus on humor. The stories were never jokey, but they did feature a sense of humor, and she enjoyed putting the duo into situations that frustrated or poked fun at their foibles, or let them poke fun at each other. For much of her run, Duffy was paired with artist Kerry Gammill, and it’s their time on the title that is generally considered the book’s heyday.
Duffy was dropped from the book with issue #84. Marvel Editorial apparently wanted the book to head in a less light-hearted direction. In a CBR article on the history of Power Man and Iron Fist, Duffy recalled:
It was editorial pressure. There were people behind the scenes who were never behind the book. Power Man and Iron Fist was a light-hearted series. It had depths, but it was a light-hearted series….I was kind of replaced because they wanted somebody who was less like me and more like everybody else. I’m not opposed to dark, violent characters, I had a wonderful time when I was writing later “Wolverine” and I had a wonderful time on “Punisher,” but that tone just wasn’t right for Power Man and Iron Fist.
After Duffy’s departure, the book never completely recovered. There were some fill-in issues before the new regular writer was announced, a man new to comics biz named Kurt Busiek. Busiek seemingly never got the memo that Marvel wanted a more intense take on the characters. A long-time fan of Duffy’s approach, Busiek wrote the title as basically an imitation of her tone. Busiek was taken off the book with issue #100. Once again, the title spun its wheels with fill-in teams until a new regular writer took over the title.
That writer was Jim Owsley, and though he was nowhere near as untested as Busiek had been, Power Man and Iron Fist was his first ongoing book for Marvel. Known better today as Christopher Priest (or usually simply Priest), he was also the first African-American to take on the adventures of Luke and Danny. Right from the start, Priest wanted to tone down the Blaxploitation dialogue that Cage had been given by white writers for years. And he soon got flak from Marvel Editorial for doing so, as he reported in a blog post from 2000:
The larger body of work in mainstream super-hero comics is written by whites, and the larger body of African or African-American characters bear not much resemblance to any real black culture. A great deal of it is an appropriation of black culture and voice; it seems to be what white people think black people are. It’s more amusing than offensive, but, taken at face value, black society in comic books seems an almost invented culture, as made up as Smallville or the Legion of Super-Heroes’ headquarters, sewn together by glimpses of television shows or movies.
Priest persisted, however, and when paired with regular artist MD “Doc” Bright, the book started to come alive once again. But, once again, editorial concerns reared their head and the book was cancelled. Priest believed the approach to be a deliberate offing by Marvel:
“Power Man and Iron Fist” was a critical success and was selling in excess of 100,000 copies; not a major hit in those days but the book was certainly profitable. Then the company, for no apparent reason, decided to change the publishing schedule from a monthly release to bi-monthly, which automatically depresses sales, and, once the sales projections skewed downward, that became justification enough to cancel the book to make room on the schedule for a new line of books that became the infamous and notorious “New Universe.”
Issue #125 saw a shocking development deliberately developed by the book’s editor Denny O’Neil and Priest and Bright. According to Priest, O’Neil was deeply hurt by Marvel’s decision to cancel the title, having worked on the book for years, and he wanted to show that anger by killing off Iron Fist and having Luke Cage be blamed for the murder. Iron Fist was in fact killed in his sleep by a super-powered child that he had tried to save, an act of senselessness that Priest was adamant about:
I agreed to write the story on the condition that IF’s death be senseless and, actually, extant to the story itself. The story and plotlines had resolved themselves by the time Iron Fist fell asleep in the hospital and was subsequently killed. It was shocking and unexpected and completely meaningless— which is how we all felt the company had treated us.
After the title’s cancellation, Iron Fist stayed “dead” for nearly nine years, before finally returning because….that’s comics, folks! However, he didn’t really do much of note throughout the 1990’s aside from co-star with Wolverine in a mini-series, because….that’s comics in the 90s folks! The 21st century began with Danny Rand looking like he was going to be little more than a Bronze Age relic, a cheesy seventies throwback that might occasionally guest-star in a title when someone needed to fight ninjas and couldn’t get Daredevil or Wolverine to help out.
But redemption was just around the corner.
Essential Reading: Power Man and Iron Fist #50, 58, 74-75, 116-120, 125
The Immortal Iron Fist (2007)
While Ed Brubaker was writing “Daredevil,” he made Iron Fist, one of his favorite characters, a supporting character in the book. For a short while, Danny Rand was Daredevil while Matt Murdock was in Europe, and this brought him back to the attention of readers after the largely fallow period of the 1990s. With his profile raised, and Ed Brubaker one of Marvel’s superstar writers at the time, the writer was able to get a solo Iron Fist series off the ground.
Brubaker’s pitch to Marvel on a new approach for Iron Fist was immediately accepted, but there was a catch. Brubaker was already writing “Uncanny X-Men,” “Captain America,” and “Daredevil” for Marvel, to say nothing of his other creator-owned projects. Taking on another book’s writing chores was simply too much. And so, he brought aboard a co-writer named Matt Fraction. Together, Brubaker and Fraction developed a new take on Danny Rand’s origins that revealed explicitly that the title of “Iron Fist” had been a ceremonial one bestowed on others throughout the centuries, martial arts masters who would represent and defend the mystical city of K’un-L’un. Though this had been hinted at before, Fraction and Brubaker revealed through flashbacks who these previous Iron Fists were, and further revealed that K’un-L’un was not unique. It was one of seven mystical cities hidden from the rest of the world known as the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. With this initial idea in place, and a rotating art team of David Aja and Travel Foreman in place, Brubaker and Fraction were set to bring Iron Fist back to glory with a series called The Immortal Iron Fist.
The first six issue arc, “The Last Iron Fist Story”, introduced readers to Orson Randall, a previous Iron Fist haunted by PTSD following war-time service. This story revealed the history of the Iron Fists, reintroduced long-time antagonist Steel Serpent and pitted Danny and Orson against him and HYDRA before concluding with the revelation of the other mystical cities. The second arc, called “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven”, addresses the revelation of the heretofore unknown cities as Danny is selected compete in a martial arts tournament held by the cities to determine in which order the cities will briefly be connected to Earth. Each city has its own champion, or Immortal Weapon, as the Iron Fist is for K’un-L’un. While trying to win the tournament, Danny also uncovers a dark history of corruption in the cities, as well as a secret plot to destroy the one he called home.
Ed Brubaker would leave the series after its 14th issue, but not before it was nominated for an Eisner award, and Brubaker himself won an Eisner for best writer in 2008 in part because of his work on the series. Issues #15 and 16 were written by Fraction on his own, and were just as good, with one issue being a flashback story starring a previous Iron Fist, and another being a story about Danny Rand’s birthday that was both touching and foreboding. After that, Fraction and Aja left the series as well.
The Immortal Iron Fist would go on, with writer Duane Swierczynski taking over the writing duties and Travel Foreman staying on as regular artist. Though the series never quite retained the hot streak that it originally boasted, that was inevitable. However, the remaining issues of the run continued to tell exciting and thrilling adventures in the style of the new paradigm Brubaker and Fraction had established for the character. Their vision of Iron Fist became the dominant one, and what was once a somewhat light-hearted kung fu fad character had been redefined as cool and intense as Marvel had long wanted him to be. It’s interesting that this kind of vision for Iron Fist couldn’t have been mandated, but when a strong team with a personal vision came along, the new style resonated with readers and gave the character the new life he needed to succeed in the 21st century.
What made the vision of this series work so well was the intricate detail the teams brought to building the world and mythology surrounding Iron Fist, so that things that might have once felt goofy or too fantastic suddenly had heft and resonance. Danny came alive as being part of a world much larger than we initially thought, and the teams combined this with a renewed specificity when it came to all the martial arts depicted in the book. Aja and Foreman took great care to make Danny and his adversaries’ moves look real and intricate and detailed, as the writers gave each strike and technique its own name. The story of Iron Fist suddenly felt epic, and the addition of centuries worth of characters and backstory meant there was so much to draw upon. As result, Immortal Iron Fist, like a lot of Marvel work of this period (and Brubaker’s in particular) feels like a complete satisfying story, one that fans can easily hand over to new readers to savor.
Though this interpretation of Iron Fist was pretty dominant since it was introduced, the most recent Power Man and Iron Fist series has returned to the more light-hearted tone popularized by Mary Jo Duffy during her run. But with Netflix’s TV series about to drop, I’d expect to see it reflect more closely The Immortal Iron Fist‘s tone.
Essential Reading: The Immortal Iron Fist #1-16
That’s it for this edition of Back Issues. Until next time, see you around the quarter bins!