Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Enter the (Young) Dragon: The Essential Iron Fist Vol. 1 Review.

'The dance of battle is always played to the same impatient rhythm. What begins in a surge of violent motion is always reduced to the perfectly still.'~ Sun Tzu

The Martial Arts. A road to better awareness of the self, the seamless blend of mind and body moving as one in perfect sync, ancient wisdom handed down to provide the means to better the soul and broaden the horizons. Oh, and whip-kick someone in the face in one of the sickest things I have ever seen.

Let's face it, most people will never be quite on book with what the founders of styles like Kung-Fu or Karate or Aikido were trying to impart through their teachings, but we see the results in our popular media and find it to be, in the more common parlance, utterly badass. Martial Arts films still remain a draw at the box office, and as Batman: Arkham Asylum has clearly proven computer scientists are hard at work devising new and effective methods of conveying the giddy feeling of punching someone in the trachea, rearing back, and then driving your boot directly into their solar plexus sending them hurtling into a concrete wall. Simply put, the Martial Arts remains a keen source of entertainment for audiences everywhere. It was as true in the 1970s in the grindhouse theatres as it is today on the DVD shelves of your local Blockbuster.

One thing I absolutely, positively adore Marvel Comics for is it's ability to do it's best to stay current with trends in popular culture. It may not be as true now as it was then, but in the 1970s there was a feeling of mad science to a lot of Marvel's books. Where monsters were big, such as the Hammer Horror films, Marvel resurrected (heh) it's monster comics with titles like Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night, Zombie, and Man-Thing. When post-apocalyptic dystopian futures were the rage, enter Marvel's Amazing Adventures, featuring the exploits of Killraven amidst the ruins of civilization in the wake of the second invasion from Mars. And when Marvel grew hip to the growing popularity of Kung-Fu Flicks, they immediately jumped in with both feet. Shang-Chi, the heroic son of Sax Rohmer's epic villain Fu Manchu, soon became the star of his own book with The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu. Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu was the second such title, but another character took the stage in Marvel Premiere #15 in May of 1974, one who has endured to this day as perhaps one of the Marvel Universe's deadliest warriors: Daniel Rand, the Iron Fist!

Daniel Rand is the son of a wealthy Industrialist, Wendell Rand. Together with his mother Heather and partner Harold Meachum, the three seek a mystical site that Wendell once visited years ago, the fabled city of K'un L'un in the Tibetan mountains. En route Harold Meachum seizes an opportunity to murder Wendell and attempts to convince Heather--whom he has always loved--to come with him back to civilization. Heather rejects him and mother and son fight to survive amidst the harsh cold and the savage animals of the mountain range. Heather gives her life valiantly to save her son and young Daniel finds himself taken in by the monks of the ancient city, a site that fades into and out of our reality every ten years.

Taken in by the warrior-monks, young Daniel is taught by the legendary martial arts instructor Lei Kung the Thunderer, who teaches him mastery of the martial arts. A rare honor is bestowed him as Daniel is given the rare chance to obtain the power of the Iron Fist by defeating the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying in ritual combat. Yes, Shou-Lao is an actual dragon, who must guard the still pulsing fiery heart that had been torn from his chest countless eons ago. During the battle Daniel's chest is branded by the Scar of Shou-Lao, and in his defeat of the dragon he staggers to the brazier containing the heart and plunges his hands in, granting him the power to channel his living essence or Chi into his fist until it becomes. . .like unto a thing of IRON!

Have I mentioned lately that I love comics? It bears repetition.

Passing his final test with his newfound power, Daniel prepares to re-enter the world of man as K'un L'un rematerialized onto the terrestrial plane. Leaving the fabled city, the Young Dragon seeks the man who killed his parents, determined to exact justice for their murder and see the guilty punished. Does he succeed? Yes and no.

Created by the amazing team of writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Iron Fist went on from his humble beginnings to become one of the premier martial arts heroes of the '70s. Even when the Kung-Fu boom began to fade he was paired with Blaxploitation-themed hero Luke Cage to become part of the crimefighter/mercenary duo of Power Man & Iron Fist. The character has always been a cult favorite, and recently had a resurgence in the spotlight thanks to titles like New Avengers, spinning off into a title all his own in The Immortal Iron Fist written by the killer team of Ed Brudbaker and Matt Fraction with art by David Aja, which played with the mythology to delicious effect. The Essential Iron Fist Vol. 1 features work from writers like Len Wein, Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, and then Chris Claremont. The art chores went through a number of hands from Kane's skilled pen through to such luminaries as Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, and Pat Broderick before eventually introducing us to some of the earliest work by artist (later artist-writer) John Byrne. This first meeting of two such amazing talents would prove lightning in a bottle, and their earliest work together shows the initial sparks that would give way to the bonfire.

My enthusiasm for the work is as obvious as it is unabashed, and there are a metric ton of things I'm biting my cheek not to spoil for you; from battles with ninjas to cultists to supervillains alike. The inevitable battle betwixt the Fist of K'un L'un and a certain armored Avenger, the first meeting between Iron Fist and Power Man and the story threads that lead to an amazing showdown at the end of his initial title which is just pump your fist awesome. Were the Iron Fist stories meant to be ruminations on power and responsibility and the place of the individual in society and the inevitable letdown of high ideals versus modern cynicism? Of course not. They were meant to be entertaining adventure stories that did exactly what was promised on the tin; Kung-Fu action in the Merry Marvel Manner. And boy howdy did these talented men deliver on the promise. With 584 pages of black and white adventure for about $16.99, this book--like most of the Essentials line--is an amusement park's worth of pure reading fun that's both easy on the wallet and guaranteed to provide hours of entertainment. Recommended most highly.


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