Friday, December 5, 2008

the Mortal Iron Fist

The just concluded "Mortal Iron Fist" story-arc numbers #17-20 of Marvel's Immortal Iron Fist comic, an action book working closely to it's original martian-arts films inspiration. It's also the first storyline of the new creative team, Duane Swierczynski and Travel Foreman. The duo had a difficult task, seeing as how the preceding run by Brubaker, Faction and Aja made such a big impression on fans and critics, in the process rehabilitating Marvel's long-time 2nd tier character. In his departing oneshot, Matt Fraction left Swierczynski with a great foundation to build on, ending on a cliffhanger that the new writer immediately picks up on. Avoiding huge changes to the already working set-up, Marvel has ended up with a book that proceeds smoothly from what went on before, not forgetting a single plot tread left in the air.

Nevertheless, the story is framed around the event that supposedly takes place 10 years in the future, that serves as little more than the window-dressing to try and achieve a bit of the tension right from the start. Knowing how the comic book business is run, it's clear that the succeeding writers won't have much respect for such restricting story-telling conventions, rendering the whole exercise superflous. Thankfully, very little space is taken with this exercise, as the story moves back to present-day, rendered in Foreman's style concentrating on bold, stylized, that brings to mind Leinil Francis Yu. From then on, save for the one page devoted to it in the last issue, the story stays in the now, undercut only by a few standard flashbacks depicting the troubles of Orson Randall, as well as the extended recollections of the final days of Kwai Jun-Fan, a 19th century Iron Fist.

The book flashes back to these short 4-page sequences every issue, all depicted by Russ Heath. Contrary to the previous creative team's used of this convention, Swierczynski uses it to tell a story that not only parallels Danny Rand's tribulations, but brings also depicts the new villain's history in a very organic way. Indeed, this whole segment of the book functions much better than what was established before, it does not suffer from the slow pace and the sense of false importance that the previous team's flashbacks carried. Kwai Jun-Fan's final fate is depicted in a manner that grabs the reader's attention from the start, without making us wish the creators should just get on with the present story already.

Danny Rand's front and center of the creators' attention, with a supporting cast made up mostly of a small circle of his superhero friends, along with a few employees of the Rand corp. Celebrating his thirty third birthday (which roughly corresponds with the number of years since the character was created, hinting that the plot originated with the first issue of the current series), he's shocked to discover that none of the champions that preceded him have managed to live past that point in life. In typical superhero fashion, he does not waste too much time on pondering the mid-life crisis, as the villain of the piece shows up to help Danny externalize and confront his fears.

Everything we are introduced to in "the Mortal Iron Fist"'s beginning pays off until the end of the arc, be it the true alliances of Danny's two new employees, or the state of his on again, off again relationship with Misty Knight. Of course, the book doesn't fail to entertain with the obligatory fighting sequences, but they are usually spaced in complicated double-page layouts, that lack energy and the kung-fu action movie flair that David Aja depicted so well.

The only major problem lies with the villain of the piece, who remains a bit bland despite all of the threat he poses and is defeated in a way that feels to easy. The critical part of the story-arc somehow drops the ball on Danny actually being in grave danger, largely due to the supporting cast, that takes gets dragged too much in Danny's fights, stacking the odds in his favor a bit too much. Still, the creators promise that the villain will be back, hopefully in a manner that is memorable in a way that is not only visual.

The overall feel of the book is very entertaining, and the new creative team goes out of their way to include as much of previously established characters as settings as possible. In the process, the seeds are sown for not only the return of the villain and the Danny's blossoming relationship with Misty, but also for his compatriots' other Immortal weapons search for the Eight mystical city, that all seem very promising. These plots points, and indeed, the whole manner of storytelling at hand is very fast-paced, and jumps around a lot, but is always kept very clear, as Swierczynski goes out of his way to assure the readers that the book they like remains in capable hands. In fact, at one point he overdoes this, as the book could have done without the sequence featuring Orson Randall's confidante Ernst.

Travel Foreman's art remains strong and steady, a relief after the art jam that made reading the previous story-arc so difficult. The sparse backgrounds are hidden from the readers' eyes by the palette of colors that is both energetic and aggressive, ie. perfectly suitable for the book involving kung-fu superheroes. There are some panels where Foreman's angular style works better than in the others, as some of the exaggerations don't come off as looking too sleek, but overall the book is in good hands, and we can only hope that Marvel finds a way to prevent the delays that characterized the first couple of years of it's existance.

Throughout, the story retains it's particular feel, one that is wholeheartedly in synch with the Iron Fist mythos, proceeding briskly with twists and turns. A lot of exposition is told in a really accessible way, all the while Swierczynski prepares the foundation for future stories. Let's hope that both creators continue their hard work on the book, as the Ed Brubaker's, Matt Fraction and David Aja's re-imagination of Iron Fist continues in a really solid way.

Judging by the recent Orson Randall Special, the readers have nothing to fear, as both Swierczynski and Marvel seem very clear on the fun, pulpy tone that is making this book stay one of the best and most innovative titles among the superhero comics.

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