Immortal Iron Fist
Written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction; Art by David Aja
2008 Eisner Winner for Best Writer for Ed Brubaker
In shonen manga (Japanese comics targeted toward boys) there's a stereotypical storyline where the hero is forced to take part in a tournament against an army of freakish opponents. It's popular because there's a lot of action and is a convenient framework for drama but for whatever reason it's only been used rarely in U.S. comics. I think that's because every story in superhero comics comes down to strange people beating each other up so a tournament where a bunch of them get together for this purpose doesn't hold the same thrill. This makes Brubaker and Fraction's stories in Immortal Iron Fist different in two ways. Besides being one of the few instances that this story is used in American comics it's also one of the few times that I have been genuinely interested in how it would play out.
The Iron Fist is an easy superhero to sum up. He's a martial artist who beat up a dragon and consequently can make his hand glow. He was from a hidden city in the Himalayas which can only be reached once a decade. He's also a billionaire playboy who used to hang out with a tough guy from the mean streets and they ran a private detective agency together.
Brubaker and Fraction's story introduces an lineage of warriors who have held the title Iron Fist and one of their main purposes is to fight a tournament against seven other similar warriors to determine which mystic city can reach the outside world. The previous Iron Fist is a man whose father was a steampunk supervillain. When he decided to abandon his position he used his skills and that technology to form a team of pulp adventurers. Forces that pursued him for over fifty years cause the two Iron Fists to collide on the eve of this tournament. And those same forces are raising the stakes for this tournament far higher than they have been before.
If I had to pick a single word to describe this series it would be energetic. It's packed to overflowing with over the top concepts like "an empire of hypothetical science" or a woman who contains an army of spiders. There's no sitting back to provide exposition on why a dog wearing aviator goggles is on a team in the style of Doc Savage and that's fine by me since these are concepts where nothing is necessary beyond the concept itself. And none of it comes across as just random things thrown against the wall; once you accept the broad concept of mystical cities with superpowered kung fu champions then there's no reason not to accept the idea that one of those champions is powered by women who turn into birds. And this stuff never lets up as there's always something new and wondrous around the next corner.
The downside to this is that this is not a deep story. There's no grand unifying theme or deep message. It's about enjoying a hyperkinetic, over-the-top adventure story. I have no complaints on that front since even in superhero comics it's rare that I find one that is this much fun.
The other problem is that there are some aspects that I was left wanting to see more. The other warriors are intriguing and if Brubaker and Fraction could have piled on more just about them. I suspect that if they had continued their work on the series all the things that I want fleshed out would have been explored. Still what they've provided is sufficient for the story they're telling.
I loved David Aja's work on Immortal Iron Fist. He has a lean, lanky style with his figures that looks different from the standard superhero artwork. His characters are lithe martial artists, not overly muscled steroid abusers. He used a style of illustrating action that I've never seen before and connects with the martial arts in a brilliant way. In the middle of his fluid action he has inset panels highlighting the moment of contact; it controls the pacing of the action to freeze the most intense moment. This book has a cinematic feel that is all about control of pacing and how images are framed.
I read The Immortal Iron Fist as an omnibus that collected all of the issues of that these creators had done and their entire story was a fun one. It's complete in one volume in this format and I'd recommend it to anyone who thinks that it sounds like fun. Like most great martial arts films it's not a story that will make you think but it kept me smiling the whole time I was reading it.