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Iron Fist

Longbox Graveyard #121

I’ve already blogged about my affection for Bruce Lee, and how Marvel jumped on the martial arts craze of the early 1970s with books like Master of Kung Fu. While Shang-Chi was unquestionably Marvel’s most successful and longest-running martial arts character, there is a second hero from that era that remains at least somewhat well-known today. Less ambitious than Master of Kung Fu, with more emphasis on action and traditional comic book superheroics, Iron Fist was Marvel’s “other” kung fu book of the era, and despite its relatively short run the series offered several superior issues, and the character of Iron Fist (in various guises) has persisted into the present era — and come 2015, he’ll even be a television star! The book was also notable for the first Marvel Comics work of John Byrne, who would partner with Chris Claremont on the book before the two went on to make history together with X-Men (by way of Star Lord!)

Marvel Premiere #17, Gil Kane

Iron Fist debuted in the pages of 1974’s Marvel Premiere #15, an origin tale from Roy Thomas and Gil Kane that is a a mixed cocktail of borrowed tropes (with a savage chaser). We first meet Danny Rand — the future Iron Fist — as a child, trudging through Himalayan snows with his mother, his father, and his father’s evil business partner, looking for the fabled city of K’un Lun, a kind of Shangri-La that opens to the outside world only once per decade. In short order, Danny’s father is kicked off a cliff by his partner (evil, remember?), cartwheeling and ragdolling off the rocks while young Danny looks on … and then if that wasn’t enough, after Danny and his mother are abandoned to die, Danny gets to watch his mom torn apart by starving wolves before he is rescued by the warrior monks of K’un Lun.

Marvel Premiere #15, Gil Kane and Roy Thomas

It’s enough to make you yearn for a benign origin, like watching your parents gunned down in a Gotham City alley, but this trauma is put to good use, as Danny is adopted into the mystical city of K’un Lun, and montages into a vengeance-fueled martial arts master, eventually wrestling a dragon to the ground to steal the power of its heart, and refusing the gift of immortality to leave the city on a mission of vengeance when the gates reopen a decade later.

The book had a carousel of creative teams, as was often the case with 1970s Marvel series. Roy Thomas and Gil Kane were aboard only for the first issue (though Kane would do several striking covers for the series), and caretaker writer Len Wein quickly yielded to Master of Kung Fu scribe Doug Moench, who turned in a couple action-packed issues with the artistic team of Larry Hama and Dick Giordano that saw Iron Fist fight his way to the top of a skyscraper deathtrap, seeking revenge for his father’s death.

Marvel Premiere #18, Doug Moench and Larry Hama

After Moench, Tony Isabella more-or-less held serve for several issues (most notable for introducing Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, who would loom large as this series matured), but the art took a substantial step backwards under Arvell Jones, and Iron Fist might have been bound for untimely cancellation …

Iron Fist #3, Chris Claremont and John Byrne

… were it not for the arrival of Chris Claremont in Marvel Premiere #23, and, two issues later, the debut of John Byrne, marking the beginning of one of the great teams in comics history, and a definite upswing in Iron Fist’s fortunes. It takes a couple issues for Byrne to really get his mojo going (and the shift to Frank Chiarmonte’s inks from Al McWilliams didn’t hurt, though Byrne would fully arrive under Dan Adkins’ brush), but Claremont hits this series like a Double Leopard Paw Blow from the get-go, deepening the book’s characterization by giving Danny a personality (somehow overlooked to this point), and expanding and enhancing the strip’s supporting cast.

Iron Fist #7, Chris Claremont & John Byrne

Most startling is the transformation of Colleen Wing, going from an extra in a kung fu movie to a Third Dan Black Belt who can (almost) hold her own sparring with Iron Fist, and definitely scores a knockout lecturing Danny on the strengths of the “weaker” sex. By the time Danny invades the fortress of Jera’ad Al-Din in Iron Fist #6, springing Collen from captivity, it is unclear who is rescuing who.

Iron Fist #7, Chris Claremont & John Byrne

Claremont was known for writing strong female characters in Ms. Marvel and X-Men, and he is no different here, both with Wing and her erstwhile parter, Misty Knight, who cuts a forceful and foxy figure, providing instant direction for Danny’s aimless heroics, and rocking a groovy “MK” belt buckle with a quasi-superhero outfit that shows the creative team didn’t know quite what do do with her.

Misty Knight

But that would change, as Misty Knight quickly evolved into one of the strongest “supporting actresses” in the Marvel line, both figuratively and literally. With her mysterious bionic arm, Misty is outwardly powerful but secretly traumatized by the loss of her limb.

Misty Knight, bionic woman

With Colleen offstage, Misty proves Danny’s adventurous equal, and even tells our hero to get stuffed, walking out on him as Claremont plants the seeds for their eventual romance. In this transformation of stock characters — Misty, Colleen, even Danny — into compelling and multi-dimensional heroes, Claremont proves himself one of the most talented scribes of his era.

Claremont also gives Danny a zest for life (even a bit of a sense of humor), and promises future possibilities (never realized in this run) when he makes Danny the heir to his father’s fortune. Even K’un Lun gets a makeover, transformed from a generic lost paradise into a nest of intrigue, greed, and envy, where Danny was an orphan and an outsider, resented by the other students for his gifts and presumed arrogance in seeking the Heart of the Dragon.

Iron Fist #8, Chris Claremont & John Byrne

some joyful Iron Fist action, with the book’s creative team getting a cameo as the innocent bystanders

It is a heady transformation — in just a handful of issues, Claremont and Byrne pivot Iron Fist from another short-lived Marvel exploitation book and build a franchise. Unfortunately, the book never got traction with readers, and I remember its cancellation as one of cruelest I suffered as a young comics reader. Marvel would keep the character alive by splicing him into the re-named Power Man And Iron Fist, but first Byrne and then later Claremont would depart for mutant pastures, and the rich promise of Iron Fist would fall to other creators to realize.

It was fun while it lasted. The first several Marvel Premiere stories are uneven but the Claremont books constitute a minor classic, and are available on the back issue market for reasonable prices (aside from the first appearance of Sabertooth in issue #14). Apart from Wolfman and Colan on Tomb of Dracula, and Thomas and Buscema on Conan, few teams stuck together for long at 1970s Marvel, so it was always a matter of when (not if) the A-team Byrne and Claremont would depart the B-list Iron Fist … but there is such skill and joy in this brief run that the book can’t help but seem a path not taken. We know Claremont and Byrne would work mutant magic with X-Men. I would dearly love to have seen where they took Iron Fist.

Iron Fist #7, Chris Claremont & John Byrne

it was played for laughs, but Iron Fist held his own against the X-Men (for awhile)

The book had its idiosyncrasies, particularly as it found its footing, most memorable of which was the second-person narrative captioning style introduced by Roy Thomas in the character’s first appearance, and then adopted by following writers as a kind of holy writ (though it was eventually de-emphasized by Claremont). The style gave the book a distinctive voice, but could prove cumbersome and distracting, and I expect it drove Iron Fist’s writers batty.

Imagine if I wrote Longbox Graveyard in second person!

With trepidation and some self-loathing, you click on Longbox Graveyard. Will there be a new feature today? A new headline stalks into view. But you are cautious, Young Dragon. You have been burned before … by senseless “Panel Galleries” and regurgitated Pinterest links. Your breath quickens as you remember clicking on that “Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters” link every time you saw it on Twitter, forgetting that it was the same damn article every time. Every sense alert, you mouse-wheel down, revealing the garishly-attired green-and-yellow form of Iron Fist. You try to read the article as fast as possible, skipping the text and lingering on the art. A link appears — but does it promise enlightenment, or just a recursive visit to a Longbox Graveyard article of years past? Still your soul, exhale, and click …

Phew!

Let’s clear the palette with another John Byrne action page!

Iron Fist #10, Chris Claremont & John Byrne

There’s also an early over-reliance on providing each of Iron Fist’s attacks with an exotic-sounding name, perhaps as an attempt to spice up lackluster action art. I half suspect early Iron Fist writers were working from one of the innumerable martial arts manuals hawked on pages of early 70s Marvel books. In his many battles over this two-dozen issue run, Iron Fist employs the …

… Monkey Blow, Rock-Smash Blow, Lightning Kick, Cat Stance, Sword Hand, Ram’s Head Blow, Elephant Kick, Dragon Stamp Kick, Blow of the Hammer, Locking Block, Bear Thrust, Double-Circular Block, Upward Sweep, Reverse Smash, Horse Stance, Spinning Whip Kick, Flying Roundhouse, Leaping Deer Block, Cross-Arm Throw, Boulder Block, Swing Throw, Crane Stance, Crescent Kick, Leopard Paw Blow, Reverse Throw, Passive Stance, Double Monkey Blow, Tiger Claw Blow, Scorpion Blow, Ram’s High Kick, Dragon Kick, Thunder Punch, Reverse Shoulder Throw, Heel Palm Thrust, Thunder Kick, Double Sword Hand, Two-Handed Throw, Side Kick, High Line Block, Shoulder Toss, Double Dragon Kick, Inverted Fist Strike, sundry miscellaneous “blows” and “smashes” …

… and a good, old-fashioned right cross, which we’re told Danny remembers from watching television as a child!

Marvel Premiere #15, Gil Kane & Roy Thomas

But what of Danny’s finishing move — his eponymous “Iron Fist” attack? This attack is more rarely seen.

How rare? I’m glad you asked!

  • Marvel Premiere #15: Knocks the head off of robot Shu-Hu.
  • Marvel Premiere #16: Destroys Scythe’s … uh … scythe.
  • Marvel Premiere #17: Punches through an elevator door!
  • Marvel Premiere #20: Haven’t seen it in awhile, so Danny uses it twice — first against Batroc, then against Batroc’s whole “Brigade!”
  • Marvel Premiere #22: Destroys the Ninja’s flaming sword.
  • Marvel Premiere #23: Knocks Warhawk clear through a wall, and into the river.
  • Marvel Premiere #24: Wrecks a car (which, to be fair, Danny thought was a dragon!)
  • Iron Fist #1: Knocks Iron Man on his ass (for a moment).
  • Iron Fist #2: Thumps Sssesthugar The H’ylthri (don’t ask).
  • Iron Fist #3: Breaks open the chest plate of Radion, the Atomic Man, indirectly blowing up London’s General Post Office Tower!
  • Iron Fist #4: Danny heals himself with the power of the Iron Fist, as Chris Claremont expands our hero’s bag of tricks.
  • Iron Fist #5: Clear through a wall after punching at Scimitar (and missing).
  • Iron Fist #6: Used to “mind meld” with Colleen Wing (!)
  • Iron Fist #9: Punched through another wall, and also through Chaka (or a guy wearing his pajamas); also used to heal.
  • Iron Fist #10: Takes out Chaka’s weapon, a curiously-familiar “triple-iron.”
  • Iron Fist #11: Danny jumps up to Asgardian class, getting his butt kicked but also taking out Thunderball and the Wrecker’s weapons.
  • Iron Fist #12: Punches Captain America’s shield (SHKOW!), then gives the coup de grâce to the Wrecker.

Iron Fist #12, Chris Claremont & John Byrne

That’s a pretty impressive dance card for a second-string chop-sockey hero in green-and-yellow pajamas! Iron Fist has proven a surprisingly resilient concept, revisited by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction in 2006’s Immortal Iron Fist (and a new series is on the way), and even as a callow teen hero in the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series. But this original vintage Iron Fist still packs a kick, even after all these years, and this brief run (especially the Claremont/Byrne era) receives my enthusiastic recommendation.

IN TWO WEEKS: #122 Panel Gallery: It’s Clobberin’ Time!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on January 15, 2014, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on johnsonreginald3 and commented:
    Iron Fist

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  2. If Iron Fist and Batman were to go face to face in a martial arts smackdown,who would win?

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    • The answer is Batman, because he’s Batman.

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      • Yeah, I think Batman has that “Chuck Norris” factor now that means he wins all fights. Didn’t he handle the Hulk once?

        Was doing my big Alan Moore Swamp Thing re-read late last year and it was refreshing to watch Swamp Thing bring Gotham City (and Batman!) to its knees in their two-part crossover. I don’t think we’d see that nowadays.

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  3. This is my favorite write-up to date, Paul. If you haven’t checked out the 2006 volume, I’d highly recommend it. They expand on the “immortal weapon of a mystical city” motif ALOT, and Iron Fist is revealed to be a legacy character, which reaaaaaaaaally got me excited.

    For some reason, taking our modern day heroes and back-dating their avatars with new personas in different eras has always been cool to me. Ghost Riders and Sorcerors Supreme are the other avatars that come to mind that seem to make perfect sense in bygone times. And I guess Thor would be younger Thor in some other century. How cool would that be? All those characters in feudal Japan? Ancient Greece?Oh man…inner fanboy exploding!

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    • I read the first dozen or so of that 2006 series when it popped up on my digital sub. I liked it, but didn’t love it; maybe because I’m stuck in the past, or maybe because I was judging it against Brubaker’s Captain America, Daredevil, and Catwoman runs (all of which I think are near best-in-class). It was good to see Danny getting some run again, and it was superior work even if I didn’t completely tumble to it. I am cautiously optimistic about Iron Fist’s pending TV turn via Netflix (provided they don’t use the snoozy Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a template).

      I’ve always had a soft spot for hero identities that are handed down through the ages, too. The Phantom, Black Panther, Robin, even Doctor Who … I’m sure there are more. Would make a good Top 10!

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      • Oh yeah! I forgot about Black Panther as a legacy persona. It seems like Marvel has started doing that with a lot of characters, what with new characters portraying the likes of Cap, Spidey, Nova and others.

        I have absolutely zero hopes for the Marvel Netflix series. I will definitely check them out, but I’ve been lukewarm to just about every Marvel movie since the first Spider-Man. You know, the one where he fought the Green Ranger.

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  4. Cool revisit of the title, Paul.

    These books still resonate with me. In particular, issues #11-12 (Cap/Wrecking Crew) and #15 (the X-Men). Incidentally, ish #15 was Byrne’s tryout for the X-Men. And, Dave Cockrum actually redraws a panel. The one where Scott walks in on Phoenix doing the Phoenix effect.

    One interesting thing that Claremont and Byrne did in IRON FIST was the romance between Daniel Rand and Misty Knight. I believe it’s the first interracial relationship in Marvel Comics. Maybe in mainstream comics. Mantis and the Swordsman were in love with each other, yes, but they kept their feelings to themselves. Anyways, a white guy and a black lady dating today isn’t a big deal. But, having it portrayed in a comic book in the 1970s was pretty novel.

    -Horace

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    • Those final superhero frolics in Iron Fist are the most entertaining issues of the run. The two-parter with Cap is something I intend to review whenever I get around to my “Team Up” project — I think it’s one of the best (and it also follows the classic Marvel beats of the heroes thinking with their fists upon first meeting before becoming fast friends, which I always liked).

      I think Deathlok beat Danny and Misty by a few months in the interracial marriage department, but it was very subtle in Deathlok, a background element seen only in flashback, and not nearly so front-and-center as it would be in later Iron Fist adventures. I remember thinking it was cool that their relationship was so matter-of-fact and not a big deal. I went into this re-read looking forward to revisiting that relationship but it doesn’t really figure in these issues — Claremont plants the seeds, but you have to be looking for them. The two didn’t become a real couple until after this series was cancelled (I’m guessing in Power Man and Iron Fist? Dunno).

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  5. You can definitely see the changeover when Claremont comes in. It’s all the things he’d later do in X-Men, but here he’s still feeling his way around. And the Byrne art is just great. I don’t think the characters and the supporting cast have ever been as well-served as they were under Claremont-Byrne – I looked forward to these issues as they originally rolled out. It was a nugget of gold in the crazy 70s of the Marvel Universe.

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    • The series really was pretty much dead in the water before Claremont turned up. He worked wonders with that supporting cast, which Marvel is still mining now, four decades later!

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      • It’s one of the great things about 70s Marvels, and you’ve touched on this before. There were writers who were clearly putting in time, doing a few issues here then a few issues there and always on the move. But there were others who came in and took fringe titles and gave them a distinctive voice – Moench on Master Of Kung Fu, Gerber on Defenders, Wolfman on Tomb of Dracula, McGregor on Black Panther and Killraven, Buckler on Deathlok, Claremont on Iron Fist (which led to X-Men), and several others. They weren’t always great, but they stood out from the regular Universe titles.

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        • Seems like there was minimal editorial interference at mid-70s Marvel (prior to everything changing under Shooter), which meant that as long as sales weren’t horrid and the team was more-or-less on time, these idiosyncratic series could arise and even thrive. I also think it helped that these creators could develop their own mojo on their books without having to rip everything apart every six months for some mandatory, line-wide crossover event. What little cross-book continuity we see from this era usually resulted from the same author continuing his storyline across multiple books that he was writing (like Englehart on Captain America and Avengers at the same time).

          Many of the books you mention — Master of Kung Fu, Tomb of Dracula, Deathlok, Killraven, Black Panther — were effectively siloed in their own little pockets of the Marvel Universe, and I think they were better for it. I still get cognitive dissonance remembering when Dracula appeared in Giant-Size Spider-Man!

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  6. I loved those Iron Fist comics! Although I did not read them on their original run (too young) I found them later on as an adult and greatly appreciated them. It didn’t bother me that the writers used strange names for the blocks and strikes, but it did bug me that many artists seemingly had little understanding of martial arts techniques. Byrne is a great artist but it seemed to me that he didn’t know the difference between a roundhouse kick and a side kick. One book that stood out in that regard and also in terms of fun great writing was Mike Baron’s Badger. A kooky book that actually displayed accurate if sometimes obscure martial arts’ styles.

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    • I quite liked the Badger during his original run. I still have a pile of Badger books around here … I take them out and consider reviewing them every now and then, but I find the art a little off-putting, so they go back in the box. Haven’t gone so far as to purge the series, though — it is perpetually on the bubble!

      I do recall liking the very street-level, very insane stories in that series, though. I especially remember a montage showing the Badgers many acts of justice, which included going off on some dude for having too many items in the supermarket express line! It was an example of the best independent comics of the 1980s in that it was fresh and very different from the superhero books we’d seen before, and even if it didn’t alway work, it was usually surprising and definitely worth a monthly read.

      Now I will have to look at them again!

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  7. Look who caught up with your blog! Real comment later, as I am at work, but man, what fun to have read all of these!

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    • Take a run around the block or read some Mad Magazines to flush out your brain, or something!

      (And give me time to catch up, now, you just went through nearly three years of effort in as many weeks!)

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      • I have to go back and do some commenting, but I just wanted to commend you for such fine work. I haven’t read everything you put up yet, (I am gonna enjoy some FOOM Friday later this week!) but this was really fun. I hope you keep doing it for a long time. You find the best stuff, and your commentary is really funny without being hatefully snarky. You show what superheroes and comic books can do, and that is elicit laughter, tears, excitement, and groans of both the positive and negative variety. Kudos, fine sir, kudos!

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        • Thankyouverymuch … the shift to bi-weekly saved my ass. I would have exploded like Nitro long since if I hadn’t cut back on outside commitments and reduced the pace of big article publication here at LBG. Now, I can look ahead for the next several months and think, “yeah, I can do that,” rather than staring in terror at four or five deadlines a month. The blog will continue for a good long while.

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  8. The Marvel Kung Fu guys are so much better than the DC Kung Fu guys, with the only guy from Dc who could possibly play in the Marvel Kung Fu sandbox is Bronze Tiger, who is 579834892379823 different kinds of amazing.

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