Thursday, May 21, 2009

Enter the Iron Fist

There was no doubt about it--the Kung Fu craze had taken over Mighty Marvel in 1973-75.  A few months after Shang-Chi premiered, we saw this teaser in the Bullpen Bulletins page:

Iron Fist Promo

Iron Fist is coming!  There was also a secret coded message that had to be decoded using a key found in FOOM.  It was a tantalizing image, and he looked very different from Shang-Chi.

Marvel Premiere 15 - Iron Fist cover by Gil Kane

On a cold winter day in February 1974, I picked up Marvel Premiere #15 in a store called "The Book Cache" in Anchorage, Alaska.  The origin of Daniel Rand was beautifully executed by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane.  Whereas Shang-Chi broke the Marvel mold of a superhero (becoming a straight action hero), Iron Fist was a hero in the classic Marvel manner, as Iron Fist he:

  • Wore a mask and had a secret identity.
  • Had a Super-Power, the Iron Fist.
  • Was an orphan who watched his parents die.
  • Came from a secret hidden city called K'un L'un.
  • Teamed up with Marvel Super-Heroes regularly.

Thomas has said in an interview that the origin of Iron Fist was inspired by the Amazing Man character (created by Bill Everett).  Danny Rand's training in K'un L'un that culminates in him fighting Shou-Lao the Undying and attaining the power of the Iron Fist is very much akin to Amazing Man acquiring the power of the Green Mist.  Gil Kane came up with the idea of using this origin structure for Iron Fist.

Unfortunately, Thomas and Kane only worked on the debut issue of Iron Fist.  A number of writers handled the character from Marvel Premiere #16 to issue 22: Len Wein (1 issue), Doug Moench (3 issues), and Tony Isabella (3 issues).  The stories basically involved Danny Rand coming to the United States, confronting Harold Meachum (the man who killed his father), and meeting Colleen Wing.

Iron Fist 9 cover by John Byrne

It wasn't until Chris Claremont took over as the writer of Iron Fist (in Marvel Premiere #23) that the character started to shine.  Claremont was given a clean slate and able to put Iron Fist in action against super-villains.  In 1975, Iron Fist #1 was published, and Claremont was joined by his magically talented artist-partner: John Byrne.  Together, they made Iron Fist come alive in a way we had never seen before.  Danny Rand fought Iron Man in issue #1, took on the Wrecking Crew, and beat down SabreTooth, who made his first appearance in Iron Fist #14. 

Iron Fist lost his own color comic after issue 15, with a memorable guest appearance by the X-Men, where Danny proved he could hold his own against Wolverine.  When the X-Men later took off in popularity, the back issue prices for Iron Fist #14 and #15 went through the roof. 

Claremont developed all the elements that make Iron Fist a great character for the Marvel universe.  He introduced Misty Knight, the cyborg arm wielding woman who later became Danny's girlfriend.  He also added to the mythology surrounding K'un L'un, suggesting that ruler Yu Ti had ulterior motives that weren't so honorable.  Claremont also showed that the Iron Fist power could be used for more than just smashing things--Danny used it to heal himself in issue 4.  Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction took these story elements and developed them further in the 2007 Immortal Iron Fist series.

Iron Fist Magazine promo from DHKF 4

Iron Fist even leaped into Marvel's black and white magazine line.  Marvel initially announced that a black and white "Iron Fist #1" magazine would be published in September 1974.  I saw an advertisement for the cover of this magazine, but was unable to find a picture of it for this article.  In FOOM, there was an interview with Tony Isabella about the co-feature, titled "Dragons Two" about a brother-sister team with Kung Fu abilities.

Iron Fist #1 (the magazine) was never published.  Marvel reconsidered, either thinking that the magazine market would not support two Kung Fu titles, or perhaps that Iron Fist's color comic sales weren't as great as Master of Kung Fu.

Iron Fist Rudy Nebres pin up

In Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #9, we saw this beautiful Iron Fist pin-up by Rudy Nebres.  The "movie-length saga" by Nebres and Tony Isabella, intended for Iron Fist #1, was published in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #10 (1975).  Iron Fist returned in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu issues 19 to 24, in a six part epic by Chris Claremont, with Nebres on the art as well.  Doing the research for this article, I discovered a new appreciation for Rudy Nebres art.

Iron Fist survived into the 1980s by teaming up with Luke Cage in Power Man/Iron Fist, but was lost from the Marvel universe after a pointless death at the end of that series.  Thankfully, he was revived by John Byrne in Namor and restored back to glory by Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja in 2007.  Nuff said.

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