When Netflix announced the collection of Marvel heroes it would be bringing the small screen, I was overjoyed to see Iron Fist amongst them, but with Daredevil now in its second series, and Luke Cage’s stand-alone show being slated as the next in the pipeline, I’m beginning to wonder what sort of a show we’ll end up with.
Starting as a Bronze age series, capitalising on the success of films like “Fist Of Fury”, and “Kung Fu: The Invisible Fist”, Roy Thomas & Gil Kane’s character was more than just a cardboard cut-out martial artist, or a “white saviour”, as Doctor Strange had been a decade before. He was an outsider to an Eastern culture, struggling to understand it, and find his place in it. A culture, which was obviously that of the Marvel Universe, but also recognisable as my own, or at least the diagesis of the heroes and magic I had grown up reading and watching on TV and at the cinema.
Iron Fist tells the story of Danny Rand, who, at the age of nine, is brought by his parents to the snowy Himalayas as they search for the legendary city of K’un-Lun, which his father Wendell, had visited in his youth. Their traveling companion, Wendell’s business partner Harold Meachem, betrays the family, pushing his friend to his death, and abandoning Danny and his mother to die in the snow. Danny alone survives, and reaches K’un-Lun. Upon seeing his great potential, he is raised, and trained by its mightiest warrior, Lei-Kung the Thunderer. After ten years, and driven by a burning desire for revenge, the adult Danny undergoes a death-defying challenge of defeating a dragon to gain the powers of the Iron Fist.
The mystic city of K’un-Lun is very much based on Chinese myths and legends. Marvel Premiere 15, the issue that introduced Iron Fist, openly describes it as “the mythical dwelling place of the immortals, in Chinese legend”. As well as being an actual mountain range, Kun Lun exists in Chinese fantasy lore, as a land inhabited by gods, where Man was first created. Where rare beasts and rarer plants are found and where struggling Wuxia (Chinese term for KungFu fantasy) heroes find what they seek. The comic’s depiction of K’un-Lun remains faithful to this essence. A legendary city, the existence of which is unknown to the outside world, but inspires awe in everyone who hears of it. The travelling monk Da Tempa who visited K’un-Lun describes it as “a shimmering city of breathtaking gold, like a glittering jewel set in the virgin snow”. Although Rand’s story begins in the present, and his flashbacks are mainly montages of his training, we see glimpses of soaring, esoteric architecture, elaborately cast metal work on huge doors and shimmering trees, dragon kings in their long flowing robes. A picture of Otherworldliness.
K’un-Lun is the home of perhaps the greatest cipher of Chinese culture and power. Dragons. Not only are there four dragon kings in human form, but also an ancient serpent, who bears the heart of Shou-Lao (首老, literally “the eldest”) the Undying, the mightiest dragon-lord, whom Danny must defeat to become our hero.
Between its isolation, its mystic air, and its supernatural citizens, K’un-Lun is essentially an interpretation the Chinese version of heaven. Danny Rand’s teacher, Lei Kung the Thunderer, is based on Lei Gong (雷公)or Grand Thunder, the Chinese equivalent of Thor. Yu-Ti, the main dragon king, is a “Marvelised” Yu Huang Da Di (玉皇大帝, literally “The Great Jade Emperor”), the emperor of Heaven. Even P’an T’ao, garden of the immortals, gets featured in Rand’s flashbacks. It’s based on the mythical Garden of Celestial Peaches where every 9000 years, the trees bear fruit that can make one immortal (famously ransacked by the Monkey King in “Journey to the West”).
The rock of Iron fist, an upright, bold and strong American superhero, is honed with the typical Chinese chisel. His destiny to become Iron Fist is set by the actions of his father, Wendell Rand. Danny Rand’s early life of hardship follows the pattern of many Wuxia stories. Orphaned at a young age, he trains and grows into adulthood driven by a burning sense of vengeance, pounding his fists into sand, then gravel and then rock to strengthen them before he even gains any mystic powers. It is with this drive that a nineteen-year-old Danny manages to defeat Shou-Lao, gaining the power of the Iron Fist.
Rand’s martial art abilities are augmented by mystic super powers, based on Qi (气), the cosmic force, the omnipresent flow and manipulation of which, is the one of foundations of Chinese philosophy, medicine and Kungfu. Whilst it would have been easy for the creators to make the character some sort of hard punching wizard-wrestler, I was relieved to find, that the creators and developers, had a certain deference for Eastern combat and ideas of the hero.
Although Roy Thomas was initially inspired by film (most likely “Duel of the Iron Fist”, 1971), it was up to penciller Gill Kane, a gymnastic and martial arts enthusiast, to make Iron Fist’s moves, like the Ram’s Head Punch, Dragon Stamp Kick and Defensive Cat Stance, look realistic as well as charged with the style and energy of Eastern action cinema. When Len Wein took over writing duties, with Thomas still retaining creative control as editor, new penciller Larry Hama joined the creative team. An artist who, to quote Thomas, had “been into martial arts back when the rest of us thought the term referred to basic training at a U.A. Marine base”.
The love of Chinese cinema, and the obvious research into Chinese mythology and history that went into these early issues, help to produce a rounded culture within the comic. Yet with this obvious cultural appropriation, we are told that K’un-Lun was founded by extraterrestrials, jointly ruled by sorcerer Khan and an alien race. Perhaps for the less culturally accepting audience, a hero learning the ways of an alien race was more acceptable than having been raised by the dreaded “Yellow Peril”, especially when Iron Fist would go on to appear in other Marvel titles such as Avengers and Daredevil.
To what extent was it culturally unacceptable, then, to depict a major character as oriental, especially a superhero? The creators seemed to take pains, whilst presenting a world of exotic strangeness, to ensure that the readers could see themselves in the protagonist. Iron Fist’s early stories are all told in the second person, directly drawing the reader into Danny Rand’s thoughts as he journeys to New York, seeking revenge, and finding new friends as he continues in battle with enemies of K’un L’un. It is only when he inherits his part of the Rand Meachem business, and finds a voice as New York superhero, that his thoughts begin to be expressed in the first person.
Even back in 1973, this representation was not able to cater for all of Marvel’s readers. The problem of having a hero in an Asian setting with Asian powers but not being Asian was succinctly pointed out by a William F. Wu of Kansas, whose letter, Marvel had published as part of the early comics, to their credit.
IRON FIST might have been a pioneer, a publishing coup. Instead, it’s just another new superhero. Marvel now has two regular comic-book titles featuring martial arts experts. The total of Asian ancestry in these is one-eighth and belongs, of course, to the symbol of the “Yellow Peril”, Fu Manchu. Marvel continues to turn away from Asian protagonists, even when the heart of the storyline is Asian in basis.
Marvel’s omission of an apparently human Asian hero is reminiscent of the omission of black protagonists in the early ‘sixties. For many years, racial consciousness has been growing, and with the success of the kung fu films, the problem of identifying with pen-and-ink Bruce Lee is gone.
The depiction of the Shou-Lao tattoo is, to me, the epitome of the “white-washing” of the Orient. Whilst the dragon’s body is drawn in an oriental style (though missing its claws), it features the splayed wings only seen on a Western dragon (and giving it a silhouette not dissimilar to a certain other millionaire vigilante).
The portrayal of the duality in Danny Rand’s identity creates an interesting space in Iron Fist. We virtually never see Rand wielding his powers without his mask. Apart from the sheer jarring sight of a blond white man churning out Kungfu moves, we are let in to Danny’s musing around New York, as he comes to the conclusion that Danny Rand wants a different life from Iron Fist. And that separate identity, belongs to K’un-Lun alone. “And as you walk, you know that only in K’un-Lun could the man called Iron Fist ever be truly happy.” In the mask, Danny’s race becomes secondary to the being who could wield the mystic powers, channel and focus the Qi in his body and in the cosmos, into those fiery fists. His upbringing, and biological heritage diverge, with very obvious signifiers of which state he is in.
The power of the Iron Fist to transcend individual identities was picked up in the most recent series, by Brubacker and co. In “The Immortal Iron Fist”, Danny Rand meets his mentor Orson Randall, his father’s teacher and a previous wielder of the Iron Fist. Through Randall, Rand eventually accesses the skills of all preceding holders of the Iron Fist tattoo.
The fact that the series began its run at around the same time as the Nickelodeon series “Avatar, the Last Airbender” could be a sign of mutual influence, but also indicative of the zeitgeist of our millennial anxiety and desire for civilization to perpetuate itself through cycles that build on the experience and wisdom of the past. With this storyline already set up, and with the recent drive for diversity in comics, it’s about time for the next character who wields the power of the Iron Fist, to be Chinese. At least “The Immortal Iron Fist” offers brief glimpses of the previous incarnation, Bei Ming-Tian, Bei Bang-Wen, and Wu Ao-Shi. This is not so much acknowledging diversity, as paying a small tribute to the culture from which the comic appropriates.
Although I prefer not dwell on political polemics, I should mention the colonial reading of Iron Fist. It could be seen as an intrusion into another civilization with irreversible consequences. Before he brought Danny there, Wendell had trained in K’un L’un, fathered a daughter with a local woman who spurned her former suitor, and was offered a place as new heir to rule the city. He declined and left K’un-Lun, leaving the locals to deal with the disruption to their way of life.
Having done his part re-enacting Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, Wendell then leaves his son in the care of the hidden City. He thrives there, before slaying the most powerful being of that realm, thus incurring the wrath of the rulers and sowing seeds of resentment for decades to come. Having been nurtured by the Other realm and gained its powers, Danny turns his back on its way of life, leaving trails of destruction on Earth as Khan pursues him with an ever-growing list of agents. To his credit though, Rand does try to save K’un L’un a few times.
“No! Though I am doomed to remain apart from that fabled city, I shall never allow any peril to menace it!”
Though one can argue that K’un-Lun’s increasingly imperiled state is pretty much down to Iron Fist’s New York lifestyle, and the parade of villains, like the Steel Serpent, Khan and Chi who are now constantly trying to steal those powers, or seek some weakness to take control of the city.
Iron Fist’s allies and foes also read like a list of extreme overkill of the Other and diversity. With his Eastern upbringing, Danny Wand arrives in New York to battle a string of Asian, Eurasian and generally opponents of colour, from the Kult of Kara-Kai, The Scimitar, Chaka, to Dhasha Khan (the Fu-Manchu/Mandarin type arch villain), Bushmaster and Nightshade. His allies again, seem to represent a “multiculturalism” not seen in the “main” marvel titles until relatively recently. His common companions Power Man, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, are supplemented by the likes of White Tiger, Shiang-Chi and occasionally the likes of Black Panther. The creators make no distinction when inserting Japanese weapons and moves into Iron Fist’s otherwise Kungfu techniques. This lumping together of not only all that is Asian, but all that is non-white, and the invisible division between ethnically inspired characters and everyone else, may have felt like a bonus to some fans of such comics at the time, but now, feels grossly offensive and utterly unnecessary.
One can’t write about Iron Fist without writing about Power Man. Marvel’s teaming up of these two superheroes in an action-packed double bill was influenced by a wider phenomenon in cultural history. The 1970s saw an explosion in cinema and a golden age for Chinese Kungfu films. The major studios in Asia, Shaw Brothers, was making Kungfu films on Hollywood production schedules and dubbing them just as quickly for export. Major cinemas in cities across the US provided viewers with doses of fast-paced martial arts carnage on a weekly basis. Bruce Lee had become a byword for Cinematic Action. Marvel’s creators wanted a piece of the action. The Comics Code had been heavily revised at the beginning of the 1970s, and comic authors were looking for exciting settings and plot lines with their new freedom. Many turned to film for inspiration. Before “Iron Fist”, Marvel was already publishing “The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu”, featuring amongst others, David Carradine, who found fame in a TV show simply called “Kung Fu”, originally a role that had been meant for Bruce Lee.
When Iron Fist was “born”, Lee’s last ever movie, “Enter the Dragon” was enjoying great success in the US, along with works such as “The Karate Killer”, “Lady Kungfu”, and “From China with Love”. However, anyone wanting to make the most from their hard-earned dollar, would be seeing these on the big screen as part of a double bill, and more often than not, with one of the equally popular “blaxploitation” flicks, like “Shaft” (1971), “Super Fly” (1972) and “Truck Turner” (1974).
With Blaxploitation cinema giving life to characters like Luke Cage and Misty Knight, is it any wonder that Marvel would pair them up with Danny Rand in their own double bill? They make a pretty good team, sharing harrowing backstories that formed them, a thirst for vengeance growing into a wider ideal of justice, and outfits that could only have stemmed from the 1970s.
The teaming up of Power Man and Iron Fist not only helped Marvel drive up slumping sales on these titles, but also helped to influence whole generations of black Kungfu comic and film fans, creating the unique fantasy and artistic space for black Kungfu heroes that would flourish decade after.
Nearly twenty years later, in the real New York, a group of nine black rap artists formed a group named after a major school of Chinese Kungfu, the Wu-Tang Clan. Their debut album, named Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was a tribute to both Bruce Lee and that iconic Shaw film starring Gordon Liu, “36 Chambers of Shaolin”. The musician who leads the group, RZA, went on to make further explorations in his film “The Man with The Iron Fists” (2012), in which he plays a blacksmith in feudal China who loses his hands. And like the Marvel hero, he seeks new power, driven by Qi, and forged in flames.
One reasons given in the delay of the release of the “Iron Fist” TV series, is the on-screen depiction of Iron Fist’s Qi powers. As Kungfu enthusiasts, the comic’s original creators depicted Iron Fist’s powers with great deference to Eastern martial arts, and to the workings of Qi. Each time Danny uses his mystic powers, he has to go into deep concentration, summoning energy from the core of his being, and channeling it into his hands as they burst into flames.
Any translation from page to screen faces these issues, and whilst they may be cautious about showing a fighter with flaming hands (as were ABC television when they removed the Human Torch from the “Fantastic Four” cartoon). Animation such as the Avatar series, and “Dragon Ball Z”, both also very much inspired by Chinese mythology and Kungfu fantasy, show how well those effects could appear on the screen.
I feel that the other major issue which has been raised, on the casting of a white actor as Danny Rand is ridiculous. Part of his story has been his otherness, his otherness in K’un-Lun, as a pale blond thing in the group, his otherness in New York, having been raised differently. It shows a cultural depth not usually seen in a superhero show, and as long as it isn’t played (purely) for laughs, I stand by their rights to cast a white Iron Fist, with as much vehemence, as I feel against the bizarre casting decisions of The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange”.
Iron Fist was and still is a character with great potential. He was one of the few superheroes in mainstream comics who fought with more than brute strength and superpower Mcguffins. It meant that Kungfu is now part of Marvel cannon. The creators did what they could at the time to make him culturally interesting, and subsequent artists and writers have (mainly) done their best to keep that interest increasing. Thanks to this, the wonderful Chinese mythical world of K’un-Lun with all its gods, warriors and villains, has also been written and drawn into cannon. Everybody seems fascinated by the graceful inscrutable martial arts, and so Iron Fist has survived for four decades, having been killed off completely in his own series, hopping between different planes of existence, and generally keeping himself busy until his latest reincarnation. There were limitations the creators faced in the comic’s early development, dealing with the ethnicity of the protagonist and to some extent that of all the other characters, which, while still present, are at least considered, and increasingly solved. I hope that “Iron Fist” will continue to evolve, and the care shown in the character’s early years will continue to set a path for future development, with more stories that celebrate and spring from other cultures, presented with both respect and innovation.
First published on London Graphic Network, April 2016
Posted in Commentary and tagged china, Chinese, comics, culture, Iron Fist, Marvel