Monday, May 21, 2012

Marvel Firsts: Enter the Fist

Marvel Premiere # 15 (May 1974)
"The Fury of Iron Fist"
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Gil Kane
Inker: Dick Giordano

Doug: Everybody was kung fu fighting back in 1974, weren't they? Going back to the days when publisher Martin Goodman told Stan Lee to jump on every trend in pop culture, Roy Thomas was certainly part of that legacy. Our subject today follows Shang chi, the Master of Kung Fu by about six months. This character will lean much more toward super-heroics than did the son of Fu Manchu. So let's check out this so-called K'un-L'un Kid!

Doug: We pick it up right in the middle of a brawl. Iron Fist is poised to strike against a cadre of attackers, while several mysterious masked strangers observe. This opening scene covers the better part of four pages, and to be honest I found that it got somewhat boring. Roy seemed to strain to work in the name of every martial arts move that could be identified. Gil Kane's choreography was outstanding, however, and his style really fit the dynamic fluidity of the story. Might as well get the whole art commentary out of the way early -- Dick Giordano was a nice fit for Kane, bringing some of that Neal Adams-like polish to Kane's sometimes-weird contortions.
Karen: You know, two of the things that had often annoyed me when reading Chris Claremont's Iron Fist stories was the narrative tool of "You are Iron Fist..." and the constant naming of martial arts moves. But re-reading this origin tale after so many years, I realize I have Roy Thomas to blame for setting the precedent! But that aside, it's a well drawn sequence.
Doug: As our hero vanquishes his last adversary, he is prompted by the leader of the mysterious figures, the August Personage of Jade, to think back to how he came to be in K'un-L'un. Iron Fist's mind drifts, then, to a time when he was a boy named Danny Rand. His father, Wendell Rand, his mother, and his father's business partner, Harold Meachum, wander the Himalayas. Wendell Rand has brought them on an expedition, looking for his own Shangri-La, the fabled city of K'un-L'un. As the group hiked along, Danny and his mother suddenly lost their footing and plunged off the path to an ice shelf below. Wendell Rand had been roped together with his wife and son, and as the bottom of the rope snapped, Rand clinged precariously to the ridge on which they'd been walking. That's when Meachum revealed his true colors, stamping on Rand's hand with his cleated boot -- and knocking him off and into a death-plunge!

Karen: As usual, Roy Thomas does a good job of filling in the background. We learn that Wendell Rand mysteriously appeared on the scene about a decade prior, becoming a successful businessman in no time.
Obviously there is more than meets the eye to him. It seems ludicrous that he would drag his wife and young son with him at first glance, but then, it seems like he needs to show them this mythical city of K'un-Lun. Of course that's all cut short by his surprisingly violent fall down the mountain. Seriously, I was taken aback by the full page shot of his limp body falling, leaving a huge blood splash on the rocks above.

Doug: Danny Rand watched his father die, and his mother hoped that one day her son would avenge her husband. Meachum proclaimed love for Heather Rand -- of course she spurned him. Believing he'd now take over Rand's company, Meachum exited the scene, leaving the young mother and her son to die in the brutal mountain elements. As that was his first test in life, Iron Fist now faced another more immediate trial -- a giant of a man, bigger and faster and stronger than he. And bent on destroying him! Again, Iron Fist finds himself in mortal combat. As it doesn't go well, he hears naysayers among the mysterious ones, calling him a weakling, and not fit. But Iron Fist is scrappy, and battles on. But his adversary this time is far too strong. Near defeat, his mind wanders again to his youth.

Karen: Did you think it was kind of weird that Danny's Mom was throwing rocks at Meachum? Wouldn't her just telling him she wanted him dead be enough? The battle with Shu-Hu ("He whose fists are like twin thunderbolts") is exciting, since our hero clearly seems out-matched. On a side note, with all the references to Chinese myth and martial arts, I can see in my mind's eye Roy hunched over a bunch of books, trying to fit all this stuff in his script!

Doug: Danny's mother was boldly driven to save her son. She nurtured him, protected him, and encouraged him to have strength as they attempted to march to safety. What she didn't know was that a pack of wolves had picked up their scent and was in a distant pursuit. After some time, the animals sensed that their prey was getting weaker, and so charged. Hearing them, Heather Rand now hustled her son along at breakneck speed. Suddenly, a wooden bridge appeared -- could this be her husband's dreamlike civilization of K'un-L'un? Sprinting onto the structure, Heather Rand pushed her son forward... and then turned to face her death. Because that's surely what would befall her. And it did, as the wolves rended his mother. But a savior appeared, as men came onto the bridge bearing crossbows and killed the wolves. Danny Rand was now an orphan.

Karen: Maybe I just like melodrama, but I thought Danny's mother's sacrifice was very touching. Horrific, but touching.
Doug: Regaining his wits, Iron Fist was aware that he was in the shadow of his nemesis. Suddenly the giant emitted throwing knives from the palm of his hand. Huh? Iron Fist now knew that this adversary was more object than man, and with that newfound hope formulated a strategy for defeat. Fighting with abandon, Iron Fist pummeled the robot. Eventually we, the reader, learned why this new hero was named as he was -- summoning unknown energies, Iron Fist's right hand began to glow. He then unleashed a final blow, ending the battle, and the operation of the giant. Turning to face the masked masters, Iron Fist is told that he has earned the right -- to choose between immortality and death!
Karen: The hero gathers his resolve and defeats his enemy. Pretty standard stuff. It's a decent enough tale except for one thing, which really took me out of the story. A robot? The final challenge, in this mystical city based on Chinese legends, is a robot? I found this too incongruous to swallow. Why couldn't it be a spirit or some other supernatural creature? It's like Doc Strange battling some high-tech villain. It just doesn't feel right.
Doug: This issue was OK. I think I've said before, back when we did the Marvel Team-Up issues with Iron Fist, that I've never been a huge kung fu comics fan. I'm not opposed to them per se -- I just don't have the background that Karen does. So I am truly coming to this story as a first-time reader. I'd be curious enough to see the next issue and how this begins to play out -- Roy left just enough along the way to picque my curiosity. And again -- I thought this was some of the best work Gil Kane's ever done (with a nod once more to Giordano's influence).

Karen: I did enjoy the art. It was rare to see Giordano on a Marvel book; I recall reading an issue of Thor where he inked John Buscema and it didn't look/work so well, but on Kane it's a much better fit. Recently I purchased the Marvel Masterworks Iron Fist volume one, as I'd lost all of my Marvel Premieres a few years ago, and I was disappointed with the series overall. I think it really became worth reading when IF got his own title and Claremont and John Byrne were teamed up on it. Now that was good stuff!


William said...

Nice review as usual guys. I have the original of this issue as well as the reprint in "Marvel Firsts" (and Essential Iron Fist). Like Karen I was not to thrilled with the very early exploits of Iron Fist in Marvel Premiere, but I loved his own book once Byrne and Claremont took over the creative reigns.

Matthew Bradley said...

Great write-up! I was never into the martial-arts stuff myself--never read MOKF--but for some reason I (or possibly my older brother) picked up one of the later PREMIERE issues, and I was sufficiently hooked that I bought every issue of Danny's tragically short-lived solo book. Also bought POWER MAN AND IRON FIST as a rote "Marvel zombie," solely because of Danny's presence (had not read POWER MAN previously), but the less said about that the better, in my opinion.

I did get the other PREMIERE issues years later, yet had totally forgotten that Thomas and Kane created the character. Also hadn't remembered Giordano working for Marvel, so this was a nice memory boost. Inevitably, Claremont and Byrne kicked the whole thing up any number of notches, but clearly there was something there already that hooked me right away.

david_b said...

Like Matthew, was never into the martial arts stuff, but this is ONE AWESOME cover.

Nice review as well.

Dougie said...

As I said in my own blog recently, the flop movie musical version of "Lost Horizon" may have been in Thomas's mind. Certainly, he references Shangri-La a couple of years later when recounting the origin of the Thin Man in the Liberty Legion/Marvel Premiere issue.

Although I don't have it to hand, isn't the story dedicated to Bill Everett, Roy's ex-roommate, who died the previous year?
Everett's Amazing Man and PAM's Thunderbolt had Tibetan mysticism in their origin.

I remember being shocked by the brutality of the Rands' deaths- a similar note of horror and sadism had run through the first appearance of Shang-Chi.

Shu-Hu the robot makes sense once Claremont and Byrne imply that K'un- L'un is a crashed spaceship that seems to phase in and out of our dimension, IIRC.

Doug said...

Dougie --

Yes, the dedication to Everett is indeed at the bottom of the last page of the story.


And a "by the way" to all of our readers -- the new Blogger interface ain't what it's cracked up to be. If you ever happen by one of our posts and wonder "hmmm, not the usual high-quality, polished finish the BABers usually provide to their readers", let's just say that Karen and I often leave a post in the queue looking one way and then it publishes with spacing issues. We've complained about this to each other, but since I know several of you also have blogs of your own, I'm just throwing this out there.

Fred W. Hill said...

I have most of the Claremont/Byrne run but hadn't read this or the other Premiere issues. Essentially, I just looked upon MOKF & Iron Fist as part of Marvel latching onto a fad and didn't expect the stories to be any good. Later, of course, I gave them both a try and made them mainstays of my collection while they lasted because the writing & art were good enough to keep me coming back. If I'd gotten this issue, I might've been interested enough to see how Danny eventually avenged his parents' deaths. Great art and an origin story that even with its exotic setting and multi-issue form, isn't all that different from that of BatMan or Daredevil. As a solo star, Danny didn't do quite as well as Shang Chi, but he had a reasonably good run for a new Marvel character of the mid-70s and had a better run partnered with Luke Cage.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I've never read the Iron Fist stories, but based on this maybe I should. It looks a lot better than the chop-socky stuff I assumed it would be.

Of course, that may just be my reaction to the teaming of Roy Thomas & Gil Kane, a mac n' cheese-like combo for Bronze Age comics.

Kane's art here is especially good, I think. Does anybody know how long he stayed with the title? Or any title during his Marvel years?

My understanding was that he only did short runs and fill-ins, spending most of his time working on covers instead. Or am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

I was into the Kung Fu thing back then, really into Iron Fist and Shang Chi. I picked up Iron Fist during the Clairemont/Byrne run (hating the "You are Iron Fist" schtick) and even got the MOKF annual where they teamed up together, but really didn't get into him until the PM/IF of the great "buddy" comic books.


Anonymous said...

You are Iron Fist and you will type this blog .....

Hah well unlike some of you guys I'm fond of the 'you are Iron Fist' shtick. I personally believe Roy did that so as to differentiate Fist from Shang Chi, whose narrative was always in first person ('I am Shang Chi, my name means the rising of the spirit').

BTW somehow I was always more into Iron Fist than Shang Chi mainly because Chi always seemed to be Marvel's knockoff version of Bruce Lee. In some of Chi's books, especially the early ones, you can definitely see the artist draw Chi's poses exactly mirroring Bruce's poses (even Shang's face looked like Bruce) from the movies or posters!

As for naming all the kung fu moves, hey remember this was the 70s and martial arts were all the rage. In Trinidad especially in the 70s every weekend there was some new kung fu flick premiering. So I can understand why Roy and later on Claremont seemed to be unusually preoccupied with naming moves. I still remember the issues when Fist fought Steel Serpent and Chris kept naming the moves - using Japanese karate move names! I think he dug up a karate book somewhere and just inserted the moves into his story!

By the way, I recently bought some back issues of the excellent Immortal Iron Fist series by Matt Fraction & Ed Brubaker. Definitely worth a read. They really extended on the Iron Fist legend by having the Iron Fist be a legacy hero, with each Iron Fist being one in a long line of Iron Fists. The influence of Lee Falk's the Phantom is the obvious inspiration here.

Iron Fist as you already mentioned was inspired in part by Bill Everett's Amazing Man.

SHHHHHKOWWWW .......... :)

- Michael from Trinidad & Tobago.

Anonymous said...

Came here as I was just discussing the character with my friends who are anticipating the Netflix show, and wanted to relive reading the origin. I wasn't sure where it had appeared (I read it in a black and white UK reprint around 1982), but found this straight away. I've seen Karen's stuff in Back Issue. Anyway, thanks for rekindling some memories - particularly of that praiseworthy Kane art. I better re-read this issue!

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