Friday, December 11, 2009

Immortal weapons #1-5

Marvel's decision to solicit "Immortal Iron fist"#27 as the series' final issue caused quite a bit of confusion with the fans. The new creative team had worked on the book for less than a year when the company apparently decided to cancel the title, without any kind of advance announcement. This kind of behavior is standard when it comes to low-selling titles, but "Iron Fist" has thus far been a very well reviewed book, whose latest incarnation had actually received quite a bit of care from the editorial. By the time #27 was published, Marvel had made clear that they plan to continue the property through a spin-off mini series.

In any event, it was hard to read the issue itself and not draw parallels to #16, the ending of the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja era. Once more, the reader was treated to multiple pencillers working on a single story, albeit with a very clear purpose. By tying up the Hydra subplot, the series' regular writer Duane Swierczynski, made for an action-packed story, that served as a temporary ending. Yet, providing the finale to a cancelled book that was both unrushed and filled with a proper sense of closure seemed a far cry from Matt Fraction and David Aja's last issue, published a year before. Certainly, by #27 the creative team of Duane Swiercynski and Travel Foreman's seemed to have given their best to tie up all of the plot strands introduced since the series' beginning.

For all intents and purposes, the immediate future of Iron Fist was to be decided by the success of the "Immortal weapons" mini-series.

In many ways, it made a lot of sense for Marvel to green light the project. After all, as supporting characters, Immortal Weapons were very well received, with Fat Cobra particularly standing out as an early favorite. After months of rumors around some kind of Special issue devoted to Iron Fist's fellow champion, it only made sense that he was the first to be spotlighted when the mini-series was finally announced. Interestingly, the company opted to have a different creative team tackle each of the episodes, with the departing Iron Fist creators providing a back-up story that linked the five parts together.

Interestingly, despite the attachment of Jason ("Scalped", "Ghost rider") Aaron on writing the debut issue, the pages were still divided amongst seven different pencillers, thus providing no break from the artist mash up that has characterized so much of the parent series. Nominally, Mico Suayan lent his talents to visualizing the present day sequences, which ended up as being little more than a frame around which Aaron structured his writing to encompass a wide variety of characters and events.

The writer tried for a very peculiar combination of comedy and pathos to create a unique story, that mashed perfectly with the Iron Fist mythology. By presenting Fat Cobra as a more fully developed, Aaron set himself a potentially risky task of ruining the comic relief that has characterized the Immortal Weapon thus far. He tried to smoothen out the balance by paying homage to various historic highlights, both real and Marvel universe-related. In any event, the controversial story managed to clearly set up the character's native Capital city of Heaven, and his rise to power as the martial arts champion.

Jason Aaron's contribution stands out as the strongest and best structured of the bunch, as the rest of the creative teams seemed much more concerned with working in almost an anthology format. This is perhaps the clearest in the mini-series' second issue, centered around the Bride of Nine Spiders.

By pairing the novice writer Cullen ("the Damned") Bunn, with the industry veteran Dan ("the Nocturnals") Brereton, the editorial seemingly gave them the freedom to flesh out a mysterious and largely underdeveloped character. Unfortunately, the resulting work brought fourth some of the mini-series' largest flaws, both in the concept and the realization.

Nominally, the story pays tribute to the mysterious lineage of exotic warriors, which is tied to the present in a much more active way than the Fat Cobra outing. Unfortunately, all of this ends up as mere window dressing for a traditional pulp tale that aspires to nothing much as entertain readers before it ends on a very predictable note. Contrary to Aaron, Bunn limits his world building to the tropes necessary to sell his McGuffin, in the process shortchanging the title character. Not only does the writer forgo to use this first chance to shed light on Bride of Nine Spiders' origin and her rise to power, but he effectively turns her into a one-note villain in this glorified haunted house scenario. Instead, the focus is shifted to a bland team of mercenaries caught up in the dealings of shady occult connoisseurs, previously unheard of in the Marvel universe.

Clearly, when introducing so many new characters in the space of a single plot-oriented 30-page story, the weight of the character building falls on the shoulders of the artist. In his place, Brereton tries his best to live up to his creative partner's strange edicts, adding his warm and fluid style to the proceedings. Considering that the story takes place entirely in our world, the artist's tries his best to add some suspense to the typical surroundings of a mysterious mansion. The reader only has Brereton to thank that the story this filled with hallucinations works as clear as it does. The artist is particularly to be commended for his ability to delineate the faces of four mercenaries so that there is no confusion among identifying the principal players in many of the story's strange twists.

Unfortunately, the production seems to have had endured some problems, as no less than three different inkers were brought in to help smoothen out the story. Combining the work of Tom Palmer, Stefano Gaudiano and Mark Pennington brings a very uneven result. Perhaps the problem was as simple as the penciller needing more time with the story, forcing him to send some of the pages over to his collaborators in the layout stage. Whatever the reason, colorist Paul Mounts tries his best to make for a cohesive experience, but in the end the story simply never rises above it's humble aspirations.

The third story at least gets back to the mini-series' presumable intent, introducing Dog Brother #1, and explaining the concept behind him. Rick ("Black metal") Spears and returning "Immortal Iron Fist" artist Timothy Green II go even further to distance themselves from the previous issue, as their story draws heavily from a particular historical milieu.

By placing their story in Hong Kong, following the First Opium War, the creators set out to work in as much real world elements, hoping for an emotional climax that stems from the confrontation of the characters' hopes and dreams against their cruel reality. This is a very peculiar place to set a story featuring an Immortal Weapon, in a way trying for the opposite effect when compared to the Fat Cobra issue. Unfortunately, Spears' story doesn't feature a new Capital city of Heaven at all, as the concept of Dog brother #1 seems completely tied up with the urban legends of Hong Kong's underworld. And while it works to propel the story, it makes it very unclear as to how the title character even ties to the concept of Immortal weapons, as established in the previous Iron Fist stories.

Still, taken on it's own, it does make for an emotional comic. Green II's wispy detailed figures strike an almost mathematical balance between the simple moments of hopeful conversation and the complicated chaos that separates the main characters' dreams from reality. Edward Bola's coloring works to give the story an added sense of urgency and atmosphere, always set on highlighting the penciller and inker's distinctive art style. This leads to perhaps the most visually innovative issue of the mini-series, which so far seems to happen with all of Timothy Green II's work.

In the end, the creators end up trying their best at telling a coming of age story in the confined space of an extended comic-book issue. While this might make for some simplifications, they only add up to the mythical dimensions their tale achieves in the end.

Interestingly, the fourth issue features the regular "Immortal Iron Fist" writer Duane Swiercynski extending his commitment above the back-up strip. Working on the main feature, spotlighting the Tiger's beautiful daughter is also Khari Evans, no stranger to the mythos, and actually one of the fill-in pencillers of the very first issue of the "Immortal weapons" mini-series.

Unsurprisingly, the writer uses his chance to really spotlight the character's origins and birthplace, setting all of his story on a different plane of existence. Unfortunately, this is exactly the reason why the story becomes one of the weakest entries in the series, albeit for some very peculiar reasons. Perhaps the writer felt slighted at the fact that the tale of Tiger's beautiful daughter stands full seven pages shorter than any of the main stories of her four fellow Immortal weapons. Or it just may be that he found little to relate to with this particular Brubaker/Fraction creation, but it's no excuse for turning in a surprisingly underdeveloped premise.

By placing most of his story on a particular event, Swierczynski obviously opted to make it very clear how the defining events of a future champion's life took place. Still, setting the tale in the distant past doesn't become a problem by itself, it's just that the basic idea behind it needed a lot more work to succeed in this particular form. And while the writer certainly lays in the necessary character work and some heavy foreshadowing, it's just that the big reveal still makes very little sense. Choosing to unravel a horrible secret hidden from an exotic civilization is always a hard proposition in a fantasy story. With Tiger's beautiful daughter, it certainly seems that the creative team decided to forgo spending more time on depicting the deep cultural implications realistically involved with a centuries' old civilization to center on a quick, character-oriented piece.

And even as such, it's hard to take the story seriously. Because, for all of the distinctive character work Khari Evans does with depicting the faces of the islanders, the book suffers from the typical problems with the depictions of females in mainstream comic books. Namely, and predictably, it settles for depicting the title character's famed duty in the constant state of near undress that is supposedly in keeping with her place at the start of the story. The problem is that, for all of her character arc, there is no real excuse for the bevy of familiar heavily poised work that has traditionally done a great disservice to the medium's wider acceptance. Moreover, it lends the book a feeling of a "Witchblade" clone, that the near constant lack of backgrounds only works to accentuate. Unfortunately, this also leads to the lack of any kind of distinctive ambiance to the otherworldly locales, that end up becoming little more then an abstractly rendered generic tropic paradise.

Taken as a whole, it could be even said that the story actively undermines the Tiger's beautiful daughter's potential by robbing her of whatever mystique she had, while saddling her with a very problematic back story in an issue that seems to under perform at all counts.

Finally, the series' last creative team end up being a combination of veteran David ("Stray bullets") Lapham, and Arturo Lozzi, once again a penciller/inker who helped out with the initial episode spotlighting Fat Cobra. They are tasked to spotlight Prince of orphans, ironically the only one of the Weapons that has actually been a subject of a special focus. Following the "Orson Randall and the green mist of death", that extensively featured John Aman, a reworking of the Golden Age character of Amazing-Man.

For their credit, the creators present a perfectly serviceable kung fu comic, that might have worked seamlessly as a fill-in in the "Immortal Iron fist" ongoing series. Interestingly, Lapham decides to use the Iron Fist himself as the reader identification figure, perhaps to preserve some of Prince of orphans' spectre-like intrigue. Interestingly, the superhero version of Danny Rand he writes at the beginning of the comic is much more in tune with the classical take on the character. Ignoring his appearances in New Avengers, Lapham initially has his wise-cracking Iron Fist teamed up with Power Man. By having the New York based Danny travel to China by plane the story's tone actively clashes with the current version of the character, that is very much in keeping with the Orient of pulp traditions.

Truthfully, all of the script guidance Lapham gives his penciller seems so iconic that it appears somewhat simplistic compared to the regular series' particular well-research blend of fiction and mythology. Interestingly, none of this hinders Lozzi, who turns out page after page of well-rendered and richly detailed adventure comics. In fact, aided by June Chung's effective coloring, his work takes a particularly special sheen that makes the last issue in the mini-series somehow most fitting when judged by traditional standards of superhero comic book art.

Yet, for all of it's striking visuals and general competence, the Lapham/Lozzi collaboration ends up being defined by what it could have been. For all of using John Aman in a perfectly capable way, perhaps the editorial should have taken note to spotlight a completely different character, namely Iron Fist's nemesis Steel Phoenix. By utilizing what has become a complex moral figure, Marvel could have shed more light on his current position. Ideally, this last could have become a perfect vehicle for Duane Swierczynski and Travel Foreman to provide a clear picture of where they would be willing to take the mythos next to, providing Marvel entrusted them with another take on the "Immortal Iron fist".

On the other hand, getting to review their own back-up strip as a whole reveals some rather unexpected surprises. In order to ensure the fans' continued support, Marvel thought to add the canceled series' creators' new Iron Fist story as a recurring feature in the back of the five otherwise unconnected oneshots. Duane Swiercynski's work on the Tiger's beautiful daughter story notwithstanding, the 'Caretakers' seemed poised to prove why this creative team should be handed back the direction of a new ongoing series, should the editorial decide to try again with the concept anytime soon.

Bizarrely, the result is a very simple tale, about a neighborhood superhero and his influence on the community. In some ways, with the Harlem children relying so much on Danny, it brings to mind the Spears/Green II's Dog brother #1 outing. "Caretakers" strives for a much more realistic approach though, in keeping with the "Powerman and Iron Fist", but again ends up being something else altogether. With it's melodrama and the intense social focus, it brings to mind nothing less than the heavily handed moralizing of Danny O'Neill and Neil Adams' "Green Lantern/Green Arrow".

It doesn't help that artist Travel Foreman gets abruptly replaced after only two installments of very slick and controlled linework, giving way to a completely different art style. The mid-story replacement by Hatuey Diaz works to somehow bring the story's simplicity to the fore, revealing a fairly typical plot at it's heart. With a focus on expressing the turmoiled feelings of his morally conflicted protagonists, the replacement artist works to show a realistic atmosphere, centered on the characters' anguished faces, as they are trapped in the claustrophobic panel layouts. Interestingly, the action packed Foreman installments similarly change up as the loftier concerns start dominating the story.

Diaz's rendition of the Iron Fist's shaggy, ill-fitting mask drives home the uneven quality of the story, as it's heart wrenching slice of life elements feel somewhat stinted and cliched when placed in the milieu of a 30-page Iron Fist adventure. Interestingly, Swierczynski fails to utilize Misty Knight's pregnancy as the plot point, preferring to make what could be his last take on Danny Rand a very unsubtle outing trying for social relevance. In comparison, the Dog brother #1 outing had at least shifted the real life circumstances to a more unique historical perspective, while never forgetting the myth of mystical warriors implied in the book's premise. It's puzzling to see it all traded for a scenario in which a friendly teacher hopes his enthusiasm will make up for the incompetence when it come to helping the neighborhood childrn in a situation he inadvertly created.

Perhaps the Swierczynski/Foreman creative team's original decision was to balance the more fantastic Immortal weapons lead stories with a more down to Earth approach, but it never truly materializes into an honest piece. More importantly, the Caretakers' natur as low-key sid story happens in a very speciic time in the title's history, hen the creative team's single purpose shoud be nothing less than trying to keep the book published.

Taken as a whole, the "Immortal weapons" mini-series unfortunately doesn't rise above the level of a disposable Iron Fist anthology. By hiring diverse creators with varying degrees of care for the concept, on the whole Marvel seems to have got a little more than several generic pulpy Asian tales. In the current market, the book seems to have needed the direction of a singular creative team in order to make it clear why the story matters and where is it going next. By hoping to experiment with using several different combinations of freelancers, the editorial seemingly failed to attract any of the new creators to really invest in the creative overhaul, leaving the stories to stand on their own. In effect, this has made "the Immortal weapons" less than a sum of it's parts, which didn't even try to make a case for a potential ongoing series starring the new characters, but in turn the mini has quite possibly damaged the overall Iron Fist publishing plan.

The only indication into the property's future past the completion of the limited series, seems to lie with the ambiguous role Danny Rand recently played as a guest star. "Thunderbolts"#137, by all accounts a fill-in issue providing a break between the passing of the old creative team and the start of the new direction, ended up featuring the Heroes for hire. Working from a "New Avengers" plot line involving Luke Cage, Rick Remender and Mahmud Asrar provided for a seemingly one-time reunion between Powerman and Iron Fist.

The controversial issue aside, it's doubtful that Danny Rand will remain a part of the Dark Reign centered title, as the event has almost finished. However, only time will tell whether Marvel finally breaks down and leaves Iron Fist in the hands of the new writer. The Thunderbolts roster has already found a place for the Irredimable Ant Man of the Robert Kirkman and Phil Hester's cancelled solo series, but it remains to be seen whether Danny Rand will be delegated to a supporting role in a team book, while the editorial decides on how they should reapproach the concept of "Immortal Iron Fist".

Judging by the sales, and the lacklustre nature of the "Immortal weapons" mini-series, it would be hard to fault the publisher for not rushing to another concrete venture, before severely rethinking their next move.