The Rundown: Life, Death and The Immortal Iron Fist

In The Rundown, Deadshirt dives into our cardboard long boxes to shine a light on important, unusual or otherwise remarkable comic runs (mainstream or otherwise) from a specific creative team.

The Immortal Iron Fist. Art by David Aja.

The Immortal Iron Fist. Art by David Aja.

The Series

The Immortal Iron Fist (2006-2009)

Issues 1-14 co-written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction

Issues 15, 16 and specials written by Matt Fraction

Art by David Aja, Travel Foreman, Tonci Zonjic, Howard Chaykin, Kano, Daniel Brereton, Russ Heath and more.

Marvel

At A Glance

After Marvel canceled Power Man and Iron Fist in the late ’80s, Luke Cage’s kung-fu co-star languished in obscurity in between guest appearances in other titles. It wasn’t until 2006’s The Immortal Iron Fist (directly spun off from the character’s brief tenure taking up an imprisoned Matt Murdock’s tights in Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil) that the character got a major starring vehicle again and became more popular than ever. The reason for this is that, with Immortal Iron Fist, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction (along with an army of artists led by David Aja) crafted a damn-near perfect reboot title.

For those who don’t know the gist of Iron Fist’s origin; young Danny Rand is orphaned and taken in by the people of K’un L’un, an otherworldly city that only appears on earth every 88 years. Sworn to avenge the death of his parents, Danny trains in martial arts and eventually takes on the dragon Shou Lao, killing him and taking his chi in an ancient ritual that grants him the title of “Iron Fist.” As Iron Fist, he returns to Earth, becomes best friends with Luke Cage and fights crime in New York City.

Under the pen of Fraction and Brubaker, the self-described “kung-fu billionaire” found himself under attack from mystical forces led by his old enemy Davos, the Steel Serpent (basically evil Iron Fist). He learns of the 66 previous men and women to take the name “Iron Fist” and discovers secrets both great and terrible at the heart of K’un L’un, his adopted extra-dimensional homeland. But most importantly, Iron Fist felt fresh and exciting in a way the character hadn’t in decades.

Standout Issues

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Iron Fist fails. Art by David Aja.

The Immortal Iron Fist #1

Art by David Aja

To fix something, sometimes you have to break it down, and Brubaker/Fraction kicked off their run by putting Danny Rand through the ringer: While shady businessman Xao attempts to buy out Rand International, his HYDRA agents kick Danny’s ass and throw him off building. Notably, his classic high collared uniform is almost totally destroyed (replaced without comment next issue with a cooler, more streamlined look).

This pinpoints one of the reasons this book was so great: Fraction and Brubaker took Danny Rand from a confident master of martial arts back to school. His confidence is shaken for much of this run as he discovers that he doesn’t really know anything about his Iron Fist heritage or even his own father, the source of the Rand family fortune.

The B-plot of this issue follows Orson Randall, the previous Iron Fist who is being hunted by the same forces making Danny’s life hell. Orson, as well as the other Iron Fists created by Fraction and Brubaker for Immortal Iron Fist, give Iron Fist as a concept some really cool (and much needed) backstory. Iron Fist wasn’t originally conceived as a legacy character but this run corrects some of the questionable race issues that the concept attracts (namely, making a white dude the kung fu champion of a magical Asian city) and softens the blow by introducing some of the previous holders of the mantle. Randall’s white (more on that later) but this issue introduces us to non-caucasian Iron Fists like the cerebral Bei Bang-Wen and the gender role-shredding Wu Ao-Shi, the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay, seen only briefly here but explored in-depth in future issues.

This issue is part one of a six-part arc called “The Last Iron Fist Story.” While not actually the last, the title is still in a very real sense true; Brubaker and Fraction totally toss the table over with these first six issues before transitioning Iron Fist into a whole new status quo with new friends, enemies and personal revelations.

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Iron Fist’s fellow Immortal Weapons: Fat Cobra, Bride of Nine Spiders, Dog Brother #1, Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter, John Aman and Davos. Art by David Aja.

Immortal Iron Fist #8

Art by David Aja and Roy Allan Martinez (flashback pages)

And what a new status quo it is! While “The Last Iron Fist Story” is an enjoyable read, this issue kicks off the total highpoint of Immortal Iron Fist: “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven” arc. With his friend kidnapped and seeking to avenge the murder of his new mentor, Danny willingly follows a summons to return to K’un L’un to participate in an Enter The Dragon-style interdimensional martial arts tournament that pits him against his counterparts in the six other cities on the mystical plane (including Davos).

These warriors, the Immortal Weapons, are one of the best original elements of this run; the writing duo of Fraction and Brubaker give the characters distinct voices (the sumo-built Fat Cobra’s constant, crude delight at the world around him is especially great) while Aja’s character designs are stellar (The Bride of Nine Spiders’ genuinely unsettling ability to expel wave after wave of spiders from her body plays nicely against John Aman’s green mist form, for instance).

Iron Fist vs. a train. Art by Tonci Zonjic.

Iron Fist vs. a train. Art by Tonci Zonjic.

The Immortal Iron Fist #14

Art by Tonci Zonjic, Clay Mann and Kano

One of the really unusual things about Immortal Iron Fist was, as a superhero comic, its very slow burn. It’s clear Fraction and Brubaker are building to something, but what? It’s this issue where things finally explode as Iron Fist has to face down a magnetic train (constructed over the last handful of issues by Xao’s henchmen) that’s filled with explosives and aimed at K’un L’un.

This faceoff is the emotional climax of the entire run; everything Fraction and Brubaker have written to this point has all been leading to this moment. One man. Punching a train. It’s a brief moment but the emotional catharsis of watching Iron Fist (following issue after issue of uncertain confidence and failure) destroy a train with a single massive punch is one of the sweetest payoffs in recent comics history.

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“Golden Age” Iron Fist Orson Randall fights John Aman, the Prince of Orphans. Art by Russ Heath.

Art by Nick Dragotta, Mike Allred, Laura Allred, Russ Heath and others

Following the conclusion of the “Seven Capital Cities” arc and Brubaker’s departure from the title, Immortal Iron Fist‘s final issues under Fraction are more or less a leisurely epilogue that fills in some gaps. While we’re given self-contained issues focused on past Iron Fists, this issue is a post-script for Orson Randall. On a metatextual level, it’s pretty clear that Orson is intended to be a “Golden Age Danny Rand,” sort of a fray-templed Superman of Earth 2 situation. Fittingly, Fraction makes him a Doc Savage-style pulp adventurer (complete with a colorful running crew and run ins with Frankenstein).

What really stands out about this issue is the barrage of artists it throws at you all at once. Immortal Iron Fist employs a huge spread of different artists throughout its lifespan and while there are times where this is unwelcome or jarring, this one-shot expertly matches story tone to art. The lighthearted portions of the story set in the ’30s are depicted in brightly colored vignettes from Mike Allred and (actual golden age artist) Russ Heath; the more somber latter half from Lewis LaRosa and Mitch Breitweiser uses heavy black inks and a more muted color scheme.

The Bottom Line

Dense and art-driven, The Immortal Iron Fist is in many ways the spiritual predecessor of Fraction and Aja’s later critically-acclaimed Hawkeye comics. Fraction and Brubaker took a relatively obscure character and created a genuinely compelling framework around him. In their hands, the conceit of Iron Fist became intrinsically tied with death and rebirth; Danny Rand is no longer the first Iron Fist, just the latest of an unending line that’s evidently fated to die at age 33. Just as Shao Lao must die (and be reborn) for a new Iron Fist to be created, each Iron Fist goes out into the world knowing they are mortal instruments of a higher purpose. It’s fitting that the cliffhanger this run leaves us on is Danny looking at his own birthday candles, afraid.

While many creator-driven comic runs focus on tidy, neat endings, the first 16-odd issues of Immortal Iron Fist deliberately sidesteps this. Instead, Danny’s open fate. as well as new concepts like rival heavenly cities and the secret history of the Iron Fist lineage, leave the potential for future stories on the table and completely viable.

The end of Fraction and Brubaker's Iron Fist story leaves tantalizing questions unanswered. Art by David Aja.

The end of Fraction and Brubaker’s Iron Fist story leaves tantalizing questions unanswered. Art by David Aja.

Additional Reading

  • While it doesn’t quite hit the highs here, Duane Swierczynski’s follow up run on the title before its cancellation does a nice job of answering the questions Fraction’s final issues raise.
  • Fraction briefly returns to the Immortal Weapons in his short-lived Defenders title, which acts as a sort of weird coda to this run.
  • You can’t go wrong dipping into Essential editions of Iron Fist’s initial solo title from the ’70s or the two collections of Power Man and Iron First.

Post By Max Robinson (106 Posts)

Deadshirt staff writer. Conceived by the unholy union of Zeus (in the guise of a corn dog) and ED-209. Has written for City Paper, Courthouse News. Twitter famous.

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