Friday, 11 October 2013

Essential Iron Fist volume 1

Essential Iron Fist volume 1 contains the character's initial strip in the tryout series Marvel Premiere #15-25, then the complete run of his original solo title, Iron Fist #1-15. Following the ending of the series the storylines were wrapped up in Marvel Team-Up #63-64, and then the character was next seen in Power Man #48-49 before issue #50 saw the two fused together as Power Man and Iron Fist. In addition it includes Iron Fist's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The first Marvel Premiere issue is written by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. Subsequent writers include Len Wein, Doug Moench and Tony Isabella, whilst other artists include Larry Hama, Neal Adams, Arvell Jones and Pat Broderick. The final issue of the Marvel Premiere run is the first ever work by the team of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, even before their run on Marvel Team-Up let alone their work together on the X-Men, and they produce every subsequent issue in the volume.

Marvel Premiere was one of the many try-out series; other issues would carry variously a revived Doctor Strange, Warlock and a whole variety of other characters. (In its last issues the series brought Doctor Who to Marvel US, and there was even one issue starring Alice Cooper.) Marvel have long created series to ride the latest bandwagon and in the mid-1970s the big thing was martial arts, especially kung fu, and the exotic cultures surrounding them. So it's unsurprising to see Marvel made multiple attempts to cash in on the wave. Shang-Chi the Master of Kung Fu was perhaps the most obvious, though his series was somewhat surprisingly combined with elements of the Fu Manchu novels (which means that copyright problems now make it difficult to produce an Essential Master of Kung Fu) but Iron Fist proved to have lasting power. His own strip only lasted three years, including an extended run in a try-out title, but as the end of this volume shows it's always possible to keep a good character going beyond a fad if some effort and imagination are applied.

The strip kicks off with the origin upfront and it's pretty dark but also leaves open multiple possibilities for future stories. We see Wendell Rand searching in the Himalayas for a lost civilisation called K'un-Lun, accompanied by his wife Heather, their son Daniel and Wendell's business partner Harold Meachum. Suddenly there's an accident and Meachum takes advantage to send Wendell to his death. Heather spurns the offer of help and flees with Daniel. They flee and find K'un-Lun but are attacked by wolves as they reach the bridge; Heather sacrifices herself to allow Daniel to get across. He is brought up within K'un-Lun, learning martial arts. Eventually he is skilled enough to receive the power to channel his concentration and make his fist as strong as iron.

K'un-Lun is another of a well-worn type - the lost advanced civilisation located in the Himalayas. It comes with a twist that it can only be accessed from the outside world at certain fixed intervals, like Brigadoon, coming into phase once every ten years. With this in mind I note that the series seems to take place over a much longer scale than most short-lived Marvels, with references to many months passing during or between incidents. Was this perhaps an attempt to get to the next ten year point soon and so allow for a return to K'un-Lun? It would have been incredible advance planning - and yes the writer is Chris Claremont who went on to do a long of this long haul stuff in his decade and a half run on the X-Men but this is contemporary to his earliest years and I'd be very surprised if he had such long term plans lined up at this stage. In any case the series ended about seven years too early to bring back K'un-Lun on the regular schedule in publication time. Iron Fist leaves K'un-Lun in search of vengeance but there are various flashbacks to his time there which establish additional features and conflicts, such as Wendell being originally from the civilisation and indeed the next ruler by heredity, but his brother Yü-Ti now rules and is silent when accused of knowing that Wendell's family was coming that day but acted slowly with the result that Heather died needlessly. However there's no return to K'un-Lun within these pages.

The first eight issues see Iron Fist head out into the real world to seek vengeance on Harold Meachum. Meachum has bee waiting in fear and puts out a bounty that is followed up on by Scythe, a mercenary armed with his namesake tool, and then when Iron Fist reaches the Meachum building he encounters Triple-Iron, a fighter in an exo-suit who has been trapped in a room for many years by Meachum. Iron Fist eventually realises how meaningless it would be to kill a fearful, broken and disabled man and leaves, but then Meachum is slain by a mysterious ninja. The saga then gets drawn out as it takes in a struggle to secure a magical book with disputed contents, the Cult of Kara-Kai and their leaders, the living Goddesses, Meachum's vengeance seeking brother Ward, Batroc the Leaper, Professor Lee Wing, his daughter Colleen and her detective partner Misty Knight. It's a rollercoaster of a saga, made even more convoluted by having no less than four different writers, but the result is easy to follow, if a little overcomplicated.

Once Claremont takes over the writing the villains become more mixed. First off Iron Fist clashes with Warhawk, a superpowered Vietnam veteran who thinks he's still fighting the war on the streets of New York. Later on there's Scimitar, another mercenary named after the weapon he uses. In another realm and flashback are the H'ylthri, a race of moving plant people who were driven from their original home when K'un-Lun was originally settled, whilst one of the longer running storylines involves the sorcerer Master Khan and the various henchmen he deploys in the process such as the swordsman Khumbala Bey. Back on the streets of New York there's yet another attempt by a crimelord to seize control of the underworld, this one is Chaka Khan, head of the Golden Tigers. Elsewhere there's a clash with elements of the IRA, seeking to punish ex-bomber Alan Cavenaugh for deserting the cause. And the penultimate issue introduces by far the best known foe, Sabretooth. Yes, Wolverine's archenemy debuted in the pages of Iron Fist. Meanwhile the series makes use of some foes from other series as well. From an old Marvel Team-Up comes the Monstroid, whilst from Marvel Two-in-One comes Radion the Atomic Man, initially posing under the identity of "Ravager". Out of the pages of Daredevil steps Angar the Screamer. Amongst the more familiar are the Wrecking Crew - the Wrecker, Thunderball, Piledriver and Bulldozer - who I discover actually mostly debuted in the Defenders rather than Thor. From the Hulk's strip in Tales to Astonish comes the Boomerang, now hired by the IRA.

The last few issues also set up a couple of plotlines with villains that would ultimately have to be resolved in other series; fortunately those issues are included here. One of them involves Davos the Steel Serpent, son of Lei-Kung the Thunderer who trained Daniel and others in K'un-Lun. Davos expected to one day secure the power of the iron fist himself but was beaten by Wendell Rand and then expelled from the city after a partially successful attempt to obtain the dragon's power anyway. He now seeks to take the iron fist from Daniel. This storyline is mostly covered in the pages of Marvel Team-Up. Meanwhile the Bushmaster, a crimelord Misty Knight has been working undercover to bring down, is seeking to be transformed the same way as Luke Cage, Power Man and he turns up in the latter's title where he forces Power Man into a kidnap attempt on Misty. However the tables are turned. The story also features two of Power Man's old foes Shades and Comanche; the final issue in the volume is the first of Power Man and Iron Fist and sees a party attacked by two more, Stiletto and Discus.

Being a part of the Marvel universe it's inevitable that there are various guest appearances by other heroes, but amazingly they don't start until Iron Fist gets his own headlined title after eleven issues of Marvel Premiere. The visits start with Iron Man and later on Iron Fist fights then teams up with Captain America. Misty Knight is sharing an apartment with none other than Jean Grey and so this leads to a clash over a misunderstanding with the X-Men in the final issue. This X-Men appearance is the first time John Byrne drew them, three months before he joined Claremont over on their own title - was this a test piece to see how he handled them? Wolverine is wearing the costume he temporarily took off Fang of the Starjammers over in the X-Men, yet there it was just a temporary replacement after his regular costume was destroyed, not a permanent new appearance. Was the latter at on stage the plan? Once his own series was cancelled Iron Fist ended up on the guest appearance circuit but fortunately his storylines were wrapped up without too many extra characters; just Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up and Power Man in his own title.

In the meantime he also has a surprisingly well developed supporting cast. At its core is the detective agency Nightwing Restorations, Ltd, consisting of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight. Later in Marvel Team-Up #64 they are billed as the "Daughters of the Dragon" but in the meantime they provide a strong mixture of physical support, potential romantic interest and differences of opinion to round out Iron Fist's world. The two are an odd mix - Colleen is the daughter of a professor of Oriental Studies and has been trained in the arts of the samurai whilst Misty is an ex-police officer who lost her right arm when dealing with a terrorist's bomb and now has a superstrong bionic replacement - but they work well both together and with Iron Fist. The pair also have elements that suggest the later partnership between Iron Fist and Power Man - indeed it's here, rather than in the pages of Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, that one can find the natural build-up to that pairing. At first it seems Colleen will fall into the girlfriend role, especially as one storyline sees her captured and later engage in a mind meld with Iron Fist, but later on it seems clear that he and Misty have strong feelings for each other. It was a bold move for the era but it's an encouraging one. Their relationship isn't without its problems such as when they fall out over whether or not to help ex-IRA bomber Alan Cavenaugh when he's pursued by his old comrades seeking to punish his desertion. Further strain is added when Misty is absent for quite a while as she infiltrates the Bushmaster's world. However Iron Fist and Misty eventually realise what they mean to each other and reconcile. The other supporting cast members are less developed but still offer plenty of story potential; they include Joy Meachum, daughter of Harold and now Danny's co-owner of the business, Rafael Scarfe, Misty's former police partner still working for the force, and lawyer Jeryn Hogarth. With such a good mixture there is plenty of material that could allow the series to carry on even though the martial arts craze was dying down by the later 1970s.

The writing on the series is quite good, with the rotation of writers at the start failing to inflict lasting damage and instead the series manages to grow organically, with Claremont taking the elements and successfully building upon them. However one thing I did find irritating was the heavy use of the second person in narration as though the writer - and they are all guilty of this - is directly addressing Iron Fist. It's a technique that never really works for me. Otherwise there's a wise limited use of actual martial arts terms - a few individual scenes may namecheck the moves being used but it is used sparingly so the series doesn't turn into a manual of moves. The art is also quite good, especially when Byrne arrives and gives long-term visual continuity.

The last few issues in this volume see Iron Fist team up with Power Man to the point that they become joint stars in a single title. When reading Essential Luke Cage, Power Man volume 2 I didn't spot a clear sign of the direction things would take from issue #50 onwards. However here it's easier to see the teaming as more natural - it's foreshadowed by Misty and Colleen's pairing and also the adventure that brings them together is a continuation of plotlines begun in Iron Fist, even if it does also bring closure to Power Man's criminal status. Issue #50 sees the team take a step further as the two battle attackers at a party and then Power Man agrees to take up a job offer, bolding well for the future.

Overall this is a surprising gem. It may have been created just to capitalise on a culture trend at the time but then the same could be said of many other series. Here a strong multi-faceted character was created with a backstory containing multiple potentials for further tales and when combined with good talent the results are wonders. It's amazing to realise that this was the first ever collaboration between Chris Claremont and John Byrne but the two of them take to each other like a duck to water and produce a strong dynamic that sustains the series and carries it forward. It's a pity that it didn't last but as this volume shows the character could continue even if the series couldn't.

1 comment:

  1. I had this back in 2003. Didn't read it though. Eventually I ended up selling all my comics when my father died. But this is on my list to get again one day. Thanks for featuring the Marvel Essentials!

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