Today, Patrick and Taylor are discussing Iron Fist 1, originally released March 22, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
“Chose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
Patrick: I’ve always been fascinated by this idea that one can recognize their own state of perfect happiness and fulfillment when they encounter it. How can you follow this ancient wisdom, and chose a job you love, if you can’t identify “a job you love”? After all, we engage in all kinds of activities in our day-to-day lives that may bring fleeting happinesses or that may dull the pain of the mundane world, but that’s a far cry from something we love. Iron Fist 1 opens on a Danny Rand who is very much mistaking one for the other, trying to find oneness in fights with petty criminals. That should fit the bill, right? Nah — Danny doesn’t love fighting, he loves the fight.
That’s a fussy distinction, but writer Ed Brisson and artist Mike Perkins make a pretty compelling argument for the difference between beating up scrubs and Danny actually applying his craft. The issue is divided into three discrete sections: Bulgaria, flashback and Cambodia. The Bulgaria portion begins promisingly, with an eye towards atmosphere. As colored by Andy Troy, Perkins’ work takes on an almost Andrea Sorrentino-esque quality (just, y’know, without the innovative paneling).
It’s unmistakably cool, but the sequence lacks any real personality. Additionally, Perkins tosses out any notion of clarity to the action scene that follows. The majority of the fight takes place between the credits on the title page, which is kind of a genius move. It implies that this is the kind of hollow action that plays out under a music cue that cost more to license than the fight did to film. It’s secondary — a matter of course with no meaningful weight.
On his way out, Danny notes that whatever he was looking for, it wasn’t in that warehouse-fight-club. Brisson is putting the words of the audience in Danny’s mouth. Readers don’t pick up an Iron Fist comic to see some generic, disorienting action sequences. This leads both Danny and the reader to ask the following question: “okay, then what am I looking for?” That’s a fascinating prompt, and is almost the opposite of how most adventure stories start. There’s no Call to Adventure and Refusal, there’s only Daniel struggling to identify what his Call is.
The middle act of this issue — which I dubbed “flashback” above — is where my frustration sets in most heavily. Danny narrates his ennui under a series of indeterminate flashbacks, sampling moments of empty violence from his recent search for meaning. It’s grim, depressing shit, but through it all, Perkins insists on a few interesting details. In the airplane bathroom, Danny looks in the mirror and remembers his idealized form of himself — as the Iron Fist, Champion of K’un-Lun.
I love the detail of the K’un-Lin temples in the background of that third panel — it insists on a strong sense of place, which in turn implies history and meaning. But check out how that damn seam of the mirror in this shitty airplane bathroom slices through Danny’s memory. Perkins is actually quietly asserting the place-ness of the here-and-now in that first panel too — we can see the reflection of the toilet seat, and there’s a little no-smoking sign that we’re going to see again in a couple panels. These are tiny, and ultimately meaningless, details, but they establish both Danny’s desire to escape his current state and his totally inability to do so.
Which leads us to Cambodia. I can’t be certain until we get a few issues deeper into this series, but I’m guessing that this final scene represents the kind of ol’ fashioned kung-fu story Brisson and Perkins are setting out to tell. Choshin appears mysteriously as Danny tries to drink himself into oblivion and the magic returns to Iron Fist. Sure, he’s still not able to light up his fists, but the storytelling priorities suddenly re-align as if he could. Perkins’ action becomes both clear and kinetic, spilling out between otherwise-orderly panels. For his part, Brisson starts labeling individual strikes, giving them names and implying all kinds of mythology tucked away behind every punch and every kick.
That’s undeniably more fun than any of the previous fights we’ve seen in this issue, and the reader recognizes that Danny has stumbled into something meaningful at the same time the character does.
I really liked the journey this issue takes us on, but I do kind of worry about how Brisson and Perkins will continue to double-down on this sense of re-discovery. Danny’s got the scent of the job he loves, now it’s just a matter of tracking it down. What about you Taylor? Did the ramp back up into Iron Fistery work for you, or would you rather have just seen him punching and kicking at 100% from the jump? Also, man, how cool is the juxtaposition of Perkins’ dark, inky artwork and Troy’s vibrant colors? Lastly, do you ever find yourself naming your own moves? “Jaguar Claw Proofreading!” “Shark Tooth Block Quote!”
Taylor: Oh yeah, totally. “Hippo Butt Sit on Couch!” or “Sloth Climb Into Bed!” The naming of moves is a bit silly but I’m a total sucker for them. Having grown up watching Dragon Ball Z and similar anime shows of questionable quality, I had a brief affair with Kung-Fu films so I appreciate seeing tropes from those movies reappear here. Like you said, the implied history behind these moves makes this a fun scene, but what I like even more is why this fight scene even happened in the first.
Danny is in Vietnam, ostensibly looking for another fight ring to penetrate and find the missing thing he’s looking for. At this point he’s approached by a mysterious stranger who challenges him to a duel. They go through the motions, Danny’s first real challenge in ages, but then the fight gets cut short.
Choshin, so Danny learns, has actually been sent to find him and bring him back to Liu-Shi, another mythical Chi city. However, instead of asking Danny to verify his identity and credentials by just talking to him, Choshin engages him in battle. This is a kung-fu movie trope, the mysterious stranger who battles the hero only to later reveal himself to be an ally, and it’s used wonderfully here. It lets me know exactly what type of story Brisson is trying to tell in this series, and what type of world he is trying to create. In this world, fighters talk with their fists, so Danny and Choshin’s battle has less to with actually trying to hurt each other and more to do with just getting to know each other. I’ve always liked the idea that you can understand someone by their fighting style, so it’s fun to see that story device used in this issue.
As I mentioned earlier, this scene takes place on the streets of Vietnam at night. It’s an exotic locale and, as you said, Patrick, Perkins uses a lot of moody inks her to create atmosphere. Normally, heavy inking isn’t my cup of tea, but when it’s livened up by vibrant colors, as Troy uses here, it works to great effect. Just check out these couple of panels which establish the setting at the beginning of the scene.
Easily, these panels could be dark and murky, but Troy opts instead for eye catching bright purples and oranges. The result is a setting that looks like it has a vibrant nightlife. The fact that the colors used by Troy are neon-based also gives the setting a certain urban look that feels intoxicating and mysterious. Also, there’s something about the layout of these panels which calls to mind Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks mixed with the dystopian future of Blade Runner. What it is that gives me this feeling it’s hard to say, but it makes this seen engrossing to read.
It was about at this scene where I actually started to enjoy this issue. Before the story arrives in Vietnam with Danny, things are looking awfully dark and depressing for our hero. That on its own is no reason to dislike the issue though. The reason it bothers me is that so little time is spent with Danny as he explores what it means to be Iron Fist without his powers. Instead of taking the time to develop Danny’s character and the bad place he’s at at the beginning of the issue, Birsson opts for a voiceover to just tell us what Danny is feeling.
The golden rule in story telling is to show, not tell, and Brisson blatantly ignores that rule here. That isn’t always a bad thing, but the potential for a good story here is too strong to ignore, especially when it makes the first half of this issue kind of bad. A story about Danny coping with the loss of his powers would be interesting and that could better show why it is important for him to find that special something he is missing and looking for in this issue. Being told directly that he misses being the Champion of K’un-Lun doesn’t effectively give me and idea about the pain Danny is feeling or why he feels the need to beat up random dudes in Eastern Europe.
Still, should Brisson learn from this issue and get to the kicking and punching (or brooding) earlier in the next issue, I could see this turning into a fun little series. It may not work so much as character study, but as a Kung-Fu film inspired story it could be a ton of fun.
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Honestly, I was really disappointed with this issue, and agree a lot with Taylor in the ‘Show, don’t tell’ rule being broken. There are some interesting ideas – Patrick, I love your comparison of the two fight scenes and how the second fight scene actually engages us. Especially as the second fight scene is specifically a reference to Fraction’s Immortal Iron Fist, which is the most definitive Iron Fist story. So the moment Danny starts to feel like the Iron Fist again is when the trappings of what we associate with Iron Fist return.
And yet, despite that, this issue doesn’t feel Iron Fisty. We spend a lot of time with a Danny who has lost his connection with the Iron Fist mythos, but the Iron Fist mythos is generally kept abstract. The name K’un Lun is mentioned a lot, but we don’t get a true feeling of what is lost, just that it is lost. Combined with the fact that we have so much ‘Show, don’t Tell’ on Danny’s mental state, and there is very little to truly differentiate him from a generic martial arts protagonist. He feels like a cliche, because everything that makes Iron Fist unique is missing.
Even Choshin, return of Immortal Iron Fist style fight scenes aside, doesn’t really do much to show what makes Iron Fist unique, even as his purpose is supposed to be finally reconnecting Danny with who he is. Tournament on mysterious island is the most cliche kung fu story ever. What makes this series different to any other martial arts story?
It is easy to think of a fix, that keeps the basic idea intact. What if, instead of a generic martial arts tournament, K’un Lun’s destruction means that the Tournament of Heavenly Cities is being refought to redecide each city’s placement in the celestial cycle? It certainly sounds more interesting than a generic tournament
The breaking of ‘Show, don’t tell’ strips us of the chance to truly understand Danny’s psychology and makes him feel like a banal and boring cliche and the lack of any real use of Iron Fist elements stripping the story of any unique elements, this is the most banal and boring way to tell a Iron Fist story. At least the Netflix show tried the interesting idea of combining business drama with kung fu.
Apparently that other Iron Fist book that was announced at the start of Marvel NOW is still in development. I may just wait for that instead. That actually looks interesting
I struggled with this, not for any story tellig mechanic issue, but more of, “Why the hell do I care about Iron Fist?”
This issue didn’t really answer that.
I’ve never really read any Iron Fist on purpose other than the new Luke Cage and Iron Fist series, which was/is obviously delightful. But other than seeing Danny as Luke’s best bud, there wasn’t a whole lot that was too deep there as far as Danny went. It definitely seemed to focus more on Luke.
So I wondered if this would help me care. It didn’t, which is disappointing.
If you want to care, I highly recommend Immortal Iron Fist. I’ve only read the Fraction/Aja part (yes, the Hawkguy team did it, and you can tell that Immortal Iron Fist is Hawkeye’s predecessor). But that does a fantastic job in showing you why you should care about Iron Fist.
Because yeah, that’s what was missing. This issue stripped every unique element of Iron Fist out to create the most generic kung fu story ever. Remove everything unique, and all the read can do is ask ‘Why do I care about Iron Fist?’