Friday, March 24, 2017

Iron Fist

There's been a lot of talk about the Netflix Iron Fist series, most of it bad. It's worth reviewing where the character came from and why Netflix chose him.

It started with the TV series Kung Fu and the first of the Bruce Lee movies. Both of these were released in the US around the same time and started a huge martial arts craze. At the same time, the Silver Age was winding down and super heroes weren't selling like they had been. Marvel was looking for something new and decided to try a martial arts comic. But that wasn't Iron Fist, it was "Shang-Chi, Master of the Martial Arts". Shang-Chi was the son of Fu Manchu who had been raised in seclusion to be his father's weapon. It only took a single issue for Shang-Chi to realize that his father was a bad guy and to join forces with Nayland Smith and the British Secret Service. The character was a hit.

At the time Marvel had a policy of milking hits, usually putting a super-hero spin on the follow-up strip. When Dracula was big, they also introduced Morbius the Living Vampire. Werewolf By Night was imitated by the Man-Wolf. Both Morbius and Man-Wolf were characters from Spider-Man. When Conan was big, Marvel started a strip featuring King Kull who had also been created by Robert E. Howard.

So it was inevitable that Marvel would do a second martial arts character and make him sort of a super hero. Marvel also followed the literary origins of Shang-Chi by inventing the mystic city, K'un-L'un inspired by Shanghai-La and Brigadoon. The population of K'un-L'un practiced martial arts and the city was only on Earth one day every seven years.

The hero, Danny Rand, accompanied his parents and his father's partner in a search for K'un-L'un. When they found it, the partner killed Danny's father over his mother. She in turn sacrificed herself to a pack of wolves so that Danny could make it to the safety of the mystic city just before it vanished for seven years. Danny was taught martial arts and eventually defeated a mystic dragon, bathing his hands in it's heart and taking the ceremonial title Iron Fist. When K'un-L'un returned to Earth, Danny left to seek revenge for his parents.

As Iron Fist, Danny was part martial artist and part super hero. He wore a costume and a mask. Most of Iron Fist's fights were straight martial arts but if he needed to he could summon sort of a super-punch.

Marvel was a bit of a mess in the 1970s. New titles would be launched by a known team, in this case Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, then it would be turned over to a succession of junior writers and artists. The character would be just a footnote if it hadn't been given to Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Both would become comic superstars but this was pretty early in their careers. Byrne in particular was still learning his trade and this was where he developed his skills. You could see his art improving every issue. Among other things, it featured the best action sequences since Steve Ditko left Spider-Man.

None of Marvel's spin-off titles lasted long. Iron Fist was cancelled before it could wrap up a plot involving a rival from K'un-L'un. Claremont and Byrne were also producing a Spider-Man team-up so they wrapped things up there.

One thing to remember about Marvel, though, is that it seldom abandoned characters. Someone got the idea of pairing Iron Fist with Luke Cage, Power Man (the first black character to have his own solo comic). It was a goofy idea but it worked. After seven years in K'un-L'un, Danny needed a mentor and the two characters were fairly evenly matched in powers. Claremont and Byrne wrote the first couple of issues pairing them before moving on to the X-Men where they became famous. Luke Cage and Iron Fist developed into sort of a Hope and Crosby style partnership (that's a movie reference, look it up) and had a fairly long and successful run.

There was a lot of talk about cultural appropriation when Iron Fist was announced but the character has a much longer history as a street-wise character. Both Iron Fist and Luke Cage have been revived several times in various forms. The whole point of the character was a western kid being taught by a sort-of eastern civilization then returning to discover his western roots.

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