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The Immortal Iron Fist Omnibus

My name is Daniel Rand. I am the Immortal Iron Fist. And though it may be in chaos, my world just got a little bigger. My sense of self has grown ten thousandfold.

– Danny Rand reflects on the first half of his run

Who the hell is the Immortal Iron Fist, I hear you ask? It’s a good question. The character traces his roots back to 1974, with Marvel attempting to work off the success of the period’s kung-fu films with a line of martial arts comics. Just like they used to have western comics and war comics and so on. However, the character – despite enjoying success at the time and creating a vocal supportive fan base – never really breached pop culture consciousness in the same way that the truly big comic book characters did. He remained mostly a cult figure, beloved of some and virtually unknown to others. Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker, two very talented comic book creators who had recently found a home at Marvel, decided to stage a revival of the character in the middle of the last decade. Apparently Marvel was so happen with the result that they omnibus’ed it, releasing it in one giant collection.

Okay, maybe ‘giant’ is exaggerating, but it’s certainly impressive.

Everybody was kung-fu fighting...

The series ran a scant sixteen issues before finishing up, but that’s kinda nice. It’s great that the entire story can be collected in a single volume, and read independently of virtually anything else. Of course, Brubaker and Fraction make nods towards various wider aspects of the Marvel Universe – this series takes place after Civil War, and is partially spurred on by the events of Brubaker’s run on Daredevil, which saw Danny Rand adopt the iconic red costume, and there’s an appearance from the go-to terrorists of the Marvel Universe in the form of HYDRA – but it reads well as a self-contained volume. It’s a rarity in modern comics saddled with decades of mythology, but here it works.

Which is itself kinda ironic, because what Brubaker and Fraction have done here is to effectively backport a mythology on to the character. The collection opens with a lone figure in green confronting the Mongol hordes in thirteenth century China, before taking us to the modern day. Over the course of the run, we discover that the Immortal Iron Fist is, after a fashion, immortal. It’s a legacy title passed down from generation to generation. There has always been an Iron Fist and there will always be an Iron Fist. Over a mere sixteen issue run, Brubaker and Fraction introduce us fleetingly to several of these, but they smoothly establish the grander scheme of things. The tale contained here – split roughly into two halves (the misleadingly titled The Last Iron Fist Story and The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven) – takes on a great scale because of this approach. It feels more substantial – and it’s also filling.

Fat Cobra, one of the other champions of the seven cities, speaks of “fascinating myth cycles”. If anything, this story is certainly cyclical. Though it has a clear linear progression, begining with Danny’s mentor’s plea that “I want you to remember who you are” before working through to a fitting and logical conclusion for all involved. However, the storytelling is blessedly non-linear. This is the story of Danny Rand, but it is also the story of his father Wendell Rand, and his father’s mentor, Orson Randell, along with countless others. The story cycles through. Danny’s time as the Immortal Iron Fist began with the death of a dragon, and the story suggests that the birth of the dragon may be approaching.

A fistful of iron...

It’s no coincidence that Fraction and Brubaker are both handling Marvel’s flagship books at the moment (The Invincible Iron Man and Captain America, respectively) as they are very talented writers. Hell, I’ll even concede that Fraction’s somewhat distracting narrative voice feels perfectly at home here –  the best example being the narration of the stand alone chapter The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay, which takes great joy in directly addressing you as “dear reader”. It’s that sort of quirky tongue-in-cheek approach, along with a healthy sense of melodrama (“Time itself is your true foe, Iron Fist,” he is warned, in an ominous manner), which helps the collection breeze by, perhaps too fast. Coupling gratuitous notions like nineteen-thirties “airships” and the “mechagorgon” or the heavenly city which can only materialise on the earthly plane once a decade, it’s clear that both writers are having the time of their lives writing the title – bouncing ideas out there with such energy it’s hard to resist the series’ charm.

Befitting the collection’s generational narrative, it’s somewhat fitting that the core theme of the work is family. Not necessarily literal family – Danny knows nothing of his actual father (and is one of many characters in the piece separated from blood relatives), and does not even share the bond of Iron Fist with him – but those we surround ourselves with. For Danny, it’s his surrogate father figure in the ‘lost’ Iron Fist Orson Randall and a pseudo-brother in the form of former partner Luke Cage. The narrative makes clear that such bonds grow from the strangest places, and that they can form the strongest foundation (between a fisherman and an Iron Fist, for example).  In contrast, we have the distorted family relationships, with the Crane Mother sacrificing her own daughters for power, or Davos rejecting his own father Lei-Kung (believing he has found his own surrogate son). The dynamics are quite complex, but they are all intertwined – it’s all connected. Despite the epic scale of everything that is happening, they are all connected – anchored – by the bonds that they share.

Gun fu...

Though Iron Fist may be known to superhero fans, and may be considered a superhero (being involved with Daredevil, Heroes for Hire and Civil War among others), this is really more of a fantasy epic. As mentioned above, it nods politely towards the greater Marvel Universe, but it has a story about an immortal tournament fought by the seven capital cities of heaven to determine the frequency of the visits to the mortal plane. It isn’t like any other superhero saga, and feels much more abstract and stimulating. I mean it as a compliment when I say that the scenes set in the seven cities, merging to form a single heart, feel like the celestial politics of The Sandman.

The artwork by David Aja is impressive. Following a somewhat similar pattern to that other retroactively legacy hero, Starman, Brubaker and Fraction craft the story so as to minimise the strenuous demand on Aja (I believe this was he first interior work, though I may be wrong). Other artists step in to offer glimpses of past heroes to carry the name Iron Fist, each drawn in a style befitting their period. Ancient versions are drawn as though these are illustrations on a scroll with distorted figures and vibrant colours, while the early part of the last century is grim and dirty and gritty. Aja’s work is impressive here, particularly his striking (and uniform) cover style. The artwork in this collection certainly recommends itself.

The omnibus itself is impressive and contains a lot more extras than most of the more modern collections – including a pitch, some scripts, some additional material, all lovingly prepared. It’s clear that this is a loving attempt by Marvel to add depth and character to a figure who has been around for years. Danny Rand observes that his “sense of self” has grown dramatically, but our sense of him has also grown. There are more than a few other characters in mainstream comics who would benefit from a similar treatment.

I could go on and on about the collection, but I don’t want to spoil it. It’s probably best left as I found it – a bit of a hidden gem which snuck in under the radar (or my radar at least). If you’re interested in something a bit different from your typical heroes-in-spandex costumed adventuring and like a bit of old-fashioned pulp entertainment, then this is the set for you. What we have here is a fantasy saga which certainly deserves the rich treatment that it has received.

2 Responses

  1. Iron Fist has never been a big name character so its happy to see he has a great run. Marvel seems to have at least one great story for all its characters. DC needs to catch up.

    • DC tends to have bigger individual and easily packageable stories and short runs than Marvel. Frank Miller’s DKR, Batman: Year One, or Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Morrison’s All-Star Superman. In contrast, I think Marvel does better work with longer runs. Miller Daredevil, Simonson Thor, Brubaker Captain America, etc. There’s like a 100-issue stretch of Daredevil in the 2000’s which is just incredible, not to mention the consistent quality of the big Silver Age runs like Amazing Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four. There are exceptions, of course, on both sides – but it is an interesting distinction.

      Which perhaps explains the prestige formats of both companies. DC tends to have gigantic collections of short issue runs, Absolute Editions of Vertigo comics like Sandman or Planetary or Transmetropolitan notwithstanding. In contrast, Marvel tends to have gigantic 20-40 issue hardcover collections of years and years of comic.

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