Recommended Reading: Iron Fist
By: Robert Starsmore (@Jono616)
Welcome to Recommended Reading where I take a recently-released superhero movie or TV show and tell you what comics you should read if you want to know more about the character. This installment: Iron Fist.
Created in 1974 by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Iron Fist was inspired by the Kung Fu craze of the 70s and is very much a product of his time. Danny Rand debuted in Marvel Premier #15. Interestingly, he has only had his own solo title for a handful of issues. His first book was canceled after 15 issues, and he was subsequently moved to Luke Cage’s book and the comic was retitled Power Man and Iron Fist, which became a long-running and much beloved series.
I am almost done with the TV show and it certainly has its problems; this is not intended to be a review of the show (if you want that, check it out here), but I will give some commentary on how each selection relates to the show or what producers could take from it. One of the major complaints about the show was the cultural appropriation inherent with the character. Honestly, that is an incredibly valid criticism, and there is nothing on this list that is going to ease that issue. If you want to read a Kung Fu comic about a Chinese-born character, Marvel actually has a character who predates Iron Fist in Shang Chi. Marvel recently released a series of omnibuses collecting the cult series The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, but sadly, little of that material has yet made it to Marvel’s online subscription service, Marvel Unlimited. The titles listed below, however, are all on Marvel Unlimited. The app can that be a little buggy, but if you want to sample a lot of different titles, it pretty much cannot be beat. So whether you loved the show or hated it, if you are interested in Iron Fist as a character, here are some great places to start.
1. The Immortal Iron Fist (2006 #1-16)
I put this series first on the list because I think it is the most accessible version for readers who are either new to comics or comic fans who have not read much about the character. The primary creators for the series are co-writer Ed Brubaker (who also created The Winter Soldier), co-writer Matt Fraction, and artist David Aja (the latter two would later re-team for an Eisner award-winning run on Hawkeye). This series is heavily rooted in the history of the character while still serving as a great introduction – it is pretty evident that Brubaker and Fraction grew up loving the character. One of my main problems with the TV show is that it did not know what it wanted to be. It is not a gritty crime drama like Daredevil and it does not lean into the campiness the way Luke Cage does, and it really suffers from this lack of identity. The Immortal Iron Fist does not share this issue. The writers knew from the very beginning that they wanted to create a superhero comic that was, at its heart, a pulp adventure story. The run is divided into two arcs. In the first, we meet previous incarnations of the Iron Fist in flashback sequences, which are drawn by guest artists. These flashback sequences have fun playing with different pulp tropes and add a lot to the Iron Fist mythos. The second arc introduces warriors from six other mystical cities who are meant to fight in a tournament to decide their hierarchy. One of the best themes of this comic becomes the fight back against an antiquated ruling system that no longer makes sense. Again, this comic is very rooted in the history of the character, but it is also about taking apart the things that no longer work. Doing things because that is the way they have always been done is no longer a valid argument. One element the Danny Rand of this comic shares with his TV counterpart is a commitment to doing what is morally right even if it is not in the best interest of his billion dollar company. While it does not reach the medium-redefining heights of his later Hawkeye work, Aja’s art is incredibly stylish and one of the major selling point of this comic. The Immortal Iron Fist has been collected in in several different trade paperbacks.
2. The Claremont/Byrne run (Marvel Premiere #23-25, Iron Fist #1-15, Marvel Team-Up #63-64)
The only reason this is not my number one recommendation is that Bronze Age comics can be a little jarring if you are only used to modern comic pacing. Chris Claremont is well known for his purple prose and all of his ticks are fully on display here. If the creative team sounds familiar, that is because this is the same team behind “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past,” two of the X-Men’s most famous story arcs, and they are no less important to defining Danny Rand as a character. The plot of this series is fairly standard superhero fair with some Kung Fu elements thrown in, but the material is absolutely elevated by a writer and artist who are working perfectly in sync with one another. There is no doubt that the star of the show here is artist John Byrne – the way he depicts action and movement is absolutely superb. Additionally, much like he would do with Jean Grey and Storm of the X-Men, Claremont made the series’ two female characters Misty Knight and Colleen Wing into badasses who were unlike any other female characters in comics at the time. This is the run that introduced Misty’s cybernetic arm. This series is the closest to the TV show as far as Danny’s timeline. He has just returned from K’un-L’un seeking answers about the death of his parents. One of the really interesting aspects is the fish-out-of-water element of the series, which is something I think the show could have had a little more fun with. It is almost the inverse of the typical superhero origin story; usually we see a character learning how to be a hero and in this case Danny is already very comfortable as the Iron Fist and he has to learn how to be Danny Rand. Claremont does this in really subtle ways. For instance, there is a scene where Danny asks what potato salad is. Another element that is played up in the TV show is his anger issues. Similarly, on multiple occasions in this comic, Danny has to pull himself back so he does not severely injure someone. I cannot stress enough how great Byrne’s art is in these issues. This is some of his first work at Marvel and he absolutely hits the ground running. The entire run has been collected in an Epic collection but, but it looks like it is out of print. Still, this series is absolutely worth tracking down.
3. Power Man and Iron Fist. (2016 Vol. 1: The Boys are Back in Town)
Claremont and Byrne only continued for a few issues on Power Man and Iron Fist, after which Mary Jo Duffy and Kerry Gammill were on the book for a long run. It then not only became a cult hit, but really cemented a lot of the characterization that people associate with these characters. One of the biggest elements of this is the genuine friendship that developed between them Danny and Luke. Last year, Power Man and Iron Fist was brought back in a series (by David Walker and Sanford Greene) that felt fresh while lovingly paying tribute to the roots of these characters. The original series was very rooted in the characters’ 70s origins and the series takes place in a New York that still has a little of that 70s grittiness to it. The streets are a little dirty and Iron Fist’s costume has gotten an update that has elements of a Bruce Lee track suit to it. This series is fun and uses humor really effectively. We get some great scenes of characters doing mundane tasks while in full supervillain garb, and we spend a lot of time with some henchmen that feel like they would be right at home on The Venture Bros. In the show, Danny is supposed to be presented as being very naïve, which allows the bad guys to play him, and the problem is that in a lot of scenes, he comes off more as just dumb. Like the show, the Danny in this book naively lets the villains take advantage of him, but the difference is, it is shown that it is really because Danny wants to believe in the best in people. One of my favorite elements of this series is how it plays with the way the characters have changed since their original run. Luke is married and has a daughter with Jessica Jones, and he is trying to stop swearing which has led to a change in his signature catchphrase. Danny, on the other hand, is very much played as that friend you have once you have settled down who is very much still living the bachelor life. Not only that, but he is doing everything he can to drag Luke back into the old days with him. One of the great themes in this book is how relationships with people are going to change over time, but you cannot lose sight of the people who are important in your life. If Netflix is able to develop the friendship between Luke and Danny, this series could be a great blueprint for later seasons of their shows. The collection for volume one is available now.
4. Iron Fist (2017)
The way we consume media has changed so much in recent years: binge-watching has become a huge part of our culture (just look at the Netflix model of dropping all the episode on one day) and this is no different for comics. More and more people are experiencing these stories through collected graphic novels and digital services where you can read through an entire run in one day. A huge part of the comic-reading experience for me is the monthly serialization of these stories. Growing up, I can remember the one-month wait to see what happened to my favorite heroes being truly agonizing. To that end, there is an Iron Fist series that has just come out by writer Ed Brisson and artist Mike Perkins. At the time of this writing, two issues have been released. This book highlights one of my favorite things about the medium: you can have characters that are very much the same character you have loved reading, but change them in ways that serve the story. In this case, we have a Danny Rand that is still the same as the one from the Power Man and Iron Fist book – he even has the same costume – but he has grown unsure of himself. The first issue has a grittier, noir-ish vibe that reminds me a little of Brubaker’s Captain America run with its cinematic art style. Danny has been traveling the world and getting into fights because he feels lost. The second issue brings in the Kung Fu movie elements the character originated from. This series is very violent, but the character still retains some of his quipiness that he would grow to be known for. If you want the true monthly comic book experience, this is a great jumping-on point for the character and the first two issues should be available at most local comic shops.