Thursday, March 20, 2008

Iron Fist

Marvel's character Iron Fist has surfaced again. This seems like a good time to look at his original run.

When the superhero craze that marked the Silver Age of comics crested, Marvel was looking for something to keep it going. They came up with a combination of Sword and Sorcery, monster, and martial arts. This was fueled by a loosening of the Comic Code and Marvel's entry into the oversized black and white market. One trait during this period was that, if something sold, then they should create a copy. Marvel was full of these. The list of originals and copies includes:

Dracula/Morbius the Living Vampire
Werewolf by Night/Man-Wolf
Conan the Barbarian/King Kull
Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu/Iron Fist

Where Shang-Chi was the some of Fu Manchu who had been raised by his father in seclusion and trained in the martial arts, Iron Fist was Daniel Rand, a westerner whose father was killed by his partner/best friend over Danny's mother who then sacrificed herself to hungry wolves so that Danny could make it to the safety of an extra-dimensional city called Kun Lun. Danny learned martial arts and performed a ceremony in which he killed a dragon by smothering it with his own body, branding his chest. He then plunged his hands into the dragon's glowing heart, gaining the power of the Iron Fist. Ten years after entering Kun Lun, Danny left it to get revenge on his father's killer.

This led to a high-energy plot involving a mystic ninja. There was little time for characterization and Danny never removed his ceremonial costume or mask. He did manage to pick up a supporting cast including Professor Wing, his daughter Coleen and her bionic partner Misty Knight. At the time Marvel had special titles reserved for premiering new characters. If they sold then they were moved to their own book.

In this case, Iron Fist wrapped up the initial plot just in time to start fresh in Iron Fist #1. The character went through several writers but Chris Claremont was assigned to the the permanent writer. It also had gone through several artists (it seems like it was a different artist each issue). It finally gained a permanent artist a couple of issues in. This was a young John Byrne in his first Marvel assignment.

Claremont started as an assistant editor who wrote a few text stories as filler for the black and white line. He progressed to fill-in writer before getting Iron Fist, X-Men, and a few others. Byrne came from Charleton where he had the reputation as a good story teller who could only draw one face (and that one was oriental). The team of Claremont and Byrne is famous for their run on X-Men but this is where they perfected their craft.

Iron Fist needed a new plot arc so Coleen Wing was abducted and Iron Fist followed her trail to London (Claremont was an Anglophile). He eventually returned empty handed. The London clue was just to distract him while Coleen was brainwashed to hate him. This was all part of a plot by the Master Khan who had connections with Eventually she was Kun Lun. Coleen was unleashed against Iron Fist in a battle to the death.

This is where the strip got interesting. By this point Byrne's art was pretty good but the character was in a rut. He would use his martial arts for most of a fight but he would finish things by using the Iron Fist - a "super powered punch". In order to end this fight he did something different with the power - he used it to force his consciousness into Coleen's. A few issues later he was dying from a poison and used the Iron Fist to heal himself. This opened a lot of possibilities.

Byrne started  stretching as an artist. He worked in several moving figure panels, something that acclaimed artists Steve Ditko and Neil Adams were known for. He also got over his trouble with faces.

Claremont was at his best when focusing on characterization. They did one issue where Danny was given the keys to his parents old townhouse. He spent part of the issue following memory/ghosts from room to room.

Danny also had one of comic's first inter-racial romances with Misty Knight. She was a black ex-cop who lost an arm to a terrorist bombing and had a bionic replacement.

A lot of the characterization focused on Danny's youth and inexperience in the modern world.

One issue is notable for featuring the first appearance of Sabertooth. At the time, Claremont and Byrne meant him to be Wolverine's father but things worked out differently. Later Iron Fist took on the Wrecking Crew by himself and survived (he needed Captain America's help in the next issue to beat them).

There was also a sub-plot about someone with a similar brand.

The 1970s were hard on comics. A lot of great strips were canceled. Marvel had confidence in the character. Claremont and Byrne finished the sub-plot in Marvel Team-up with Spider-Man. Then they created a new team - Power Man and Iron Fist.

Power Man stared as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. He was basically a super-powered private eye working out of the then dilapidated Times Square. The comic changed the name to Power Man to boost sales which only worked for a while. Eventually it was merged with Iron Fist. The premise was that Danny needed the real-world experience that working with Cage would give him.

Sales were good for a while and the team took on a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope feel.

Eventually it just sort of ran down. After a return to Kun Lun, Iron Fist traded his green costume in for a red one and started talking in formal English. At the end a crazed super hero beat Iron Fist to death before vaporizing, leaving Cage wanted on suspicion.

Iron Fist was revived a couple of times. It turned out that an impostor had returned from Kun Lun. Danny was upset that no one noticed how different the impostor acted and figured it out.

With the latest revival it turns out that the current Iron Fist is one of a long line and is expected to fight champions from other mystic cities.

After Iron Fist was canceled, Byrne took over X-Men. The two made it the highest selling book of the time. Claremont continued with X-Men for years after that. Byrne went on to draw and write the Fantastic Four and then was tapped to recreate Superman.

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