The Immortal Iron Fist #12
Marvel, January 2008
Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction, writers
David Aja, Kano, and Javier Pulido, artists
Immortal Iron Fist is my favorite superhero title on the market these days, though I’m not sure issue #12 makes the best case for that preference. As part five (really six, counting a related stand-alone annual issue) of a storyarc centered around a celestial kung-fu tournament, it’s more of an exposition-laden lull than a bonafide step forward. Moreover it’s capped off by a “threat” to Iron Fist’s pals Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Colleen Wing that you and I and the writers all know won’t be carried out; this is obviously par for the course in franchise superhero comics, but even when we know no one’s gonna die the key is to keep us guessing as to what other consequences there might be, and while Iron Fist’s tournament pulls that off, the Heroes for Hire getting kidnapped by Hydra doesn’t. Artwise, the hugely rewarding structural breakdown the series has heretofore relied on, er, breaks down a bit. Normally, regular artist David Aja handles all the present-day material with his expressive version of the moody-realist modern-day Marvel house style (exemplified elsewhere by Daredevil‘s Alex Maleev, Michael Lark, and Stefano Gaudino and Captain America‘s Steve Epting and Mike Perkins), while a rotating cast of able guest artists tackles flashbacks focusing on previous bearers of the Iron Fist mantle. This time, however, Javier Pulido pinch-hits on a pair of present-day scenes seemingly selected at random, and his art, while pleasant as always, seems oddly loose, almost unfinished, compared to the shadowy stylings we’ve come to expect from Aja.
On the other hand (fist?), the proper guest-star turn by Kano is an absolute killer. His line has a physical presence on the page that imbues his flashback about Wendell Rand (the current Iron Fist’s dad) bailing out of his own date with the dragon who gives the Iron Fists their power, provided he doesn’t kill and eat them first, with real power and grace. As Wendell strides into the snow to face the beast, his body language and position in the frame convey all the date-with-destiny grandeur of “The Immigrant Song,” only to be convincingly transmogrified into absolute panic as he realizes he’s simply not up to the challenge. And man, his brief but fateful fight with ex-friend Davos upon his return is so chock-full of energy that it all but bends the page. This latter scene in particular is enhanced by the witty coloring of Matt Hollingsworth, who along with Dave Stewart is one of the best in the biz–after a decade or two of Vertigo, I never thought earthtones could be this exciting. As for Aja, I’m so used to enjoying his art that I almost find myself speechless about it. Suffice it to say that of all the talented guys I listed above who are doing work similar to his, he’s my favorite, the best able to harness naturalist image-making to super-natural content.
And while, as I said, this isn’t the most dynamic entry in the story so far, the elements that make this such an enjoyable series are all there. It’s quite easy to armchair-quarterback the division of labor between the two writers involved: Fraction injects Brubaker’s melancholy sins-of-the-past obsession with humor and a greater appreciation for this genre’s wild side; Brubaker tempers Fraction’s tendency toward glibness, goofiness, and condescension to his material and his audience with meticulous character work and emotional heft. Both writers are refreshingly, delightfully open to using the things that make the superhero and kung-fu material they’re combining here so much fun: the tournament structure, crazy nicknames and finishing moves straight out of a Wu-Tang Clan sample, the fungible menace of enemy goons (presented by Pulido as a human sea in his finest moment here), an ever-expanding mythos that hews close to what makes the core character concept tick while increasing its possibilities exponentially. If you are open to superheroes at all, this is the one book you should be reading.