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Iron Fist(pop culture)
On the prowl for new pop-culture fads to seize upon, Marvel Comics began exploiting kung fu films in the early 1970s, beginning with their hero Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu (Special Marvel Edition #15, 1973). The early success of Shang-Chi—a fairly straight adaptation of the martial arts film hero, mixed with elements of Sax Rohmer’s pulp stories of the 1910s and 1920s— convinced Marvel to try integrating such characters into the ranks of its costumed superheroes. Iron Fist (Daniel Rand), the creation of writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, represented the first such attempt (Marvel Premiere #15, 1974).
Wealthy businessman Wendell Rand, an exile from the interdimensionally hidden Tibetan city of K’un-L’un, dies at the hands of his business partner Harold Meachum, while seeking the city of his birth. Rand’s wife Heather and their nine-year-old son Daniel end up stranded in the Himalayas; only the boy succeeds in reaching K’un-L’un alive. Inside the mystical realm—which resembles a cross between the Shangri-La of Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon and the eponymous Scottish village of the 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon—young Danny is taken in by a martial artist named Lei Kung the Thunderer, who recognizes him as part of the royal line and spends a decade training him in all aspects of the martial arts, both physical and philosophical. At the age of 19, Rand undergoes his coming-of-age ritual by slaying Shou-Lao the Undying, a powerful dragon. The combat leaves Rand with a stylized black dragon tattoo emblazoned across his chest and the Power of the Iron Fist—the ability to focus the power of his spirit (his “chi”) into his hand, making it as strong as iron, all but impervious to harm, and capable of delivering devastating blows that crackle with mystic energies. Like the martial arts themselves, Rand’s new power has more than one aspect, giving Rand the ability to heal as well as to destroy. His only vulnerability: When Rand uses his Iron Fist, his energy is depleted, and he becomes exhausted for hours afterward.
Intent on avenging his parents’ deaths by killing Meachum, Rand leaves K’un-L’un for the United States. But when he confronts the man whom he had hated for the past decade, Rand discovers that vengeance holds no solace and decides instead to settle for taking over his late father’s position controlling the Rand-Meachum Corporation—only to witness Meachum’s murder at the hands of ninja assassins. The authorities blame Rand for the murder, and it takes several months for him to clear his name, with some help from female adventurer (and future long-term ally) Misty Knight (Marvel Premiere #21, 1975).
Iron Fist’s “audition” in Marvel Premiere (a testing ground for new Marvel heroes, not unlike DC’s Showcase title of the 1950s and 1960s) proved successful, despite frequent changes of creative personnel throughout 1974 and 1975, and landed the character in a self-titled series (Iron Fist vol. 1, 1975), written by Chris Claremont and penciled by John Byrne. This creative team, though destined for fame in the early 1980s on X-Men, couldn’t keep the series running past its fifteenth issue (1977), by which time the sun had set on the kung fu movie fad. But Claremont and Byrne continued presiding over Iron Fist’s brief stint on Marvel’s guest-star circuit (Marvel Team-Up #63, 1977; Power Man #48, 1977), as well as the first several issues of his lengthy tenure as half of Power Man and Iron Fist (formerly titled Power Man), which began in issue #49 (1978). After Claremont and Byrne left to concentrate on X-Men, a raft of creative talent rotated in to replace them, including such writers as Ed Hannigan, Mary Jo Duffy, Bob Layton, Steven Grant, Mike W. Barr, Dennis O’Neil, Kurt Busiek, Archie Goodwin, Alan Rowlands, Jim Owsley, and Tony Isabella, and such pencilers as Mike Zeck, Sal Buscema, Lee Elias, Trevor Von Eedon, Marie Severin, Kerry Gammill, Greg LaRocque, Frank Miller, Denys Cowan, Keith Pollard, Ernie Chan, Geoff Isherwood, Richard How-ell, Steve Geiger, and Mark Bright.
Working together, Iron Fist and Power Man (Luke Cage) establish a business venture called Heroes for Hire, Inc., and their disparate temperaments—Rand’s reserved wisdom and Cage’s mercurial anger—prove to complement each other well (combined in a single title, these heroes ended up lasting far longer than either of them had done on their own). Of the innovation that the Power Man/Iron Fist character dynamic represented when it first appeared in the 1970s, latter-day Iron Fist writer Jay Faerber said, “Well for one thing, I think it was refreshing to see a white guy paired with a black guy. And they were equals. Luke wasn’t Danny’s sidekick or his driver. Luke’s stories took center stage just as often as Danny’s did, and that give and take was like a breath of fresh air, even if I was too young to recognize that appeal when I was originally reading the book.” Despite their contrasts, some of which were occasionally played for laughs, one commonality that united both heroes was their keen sense of conscience, which led to a tendency to place the hero ethic above profits; they frequently worked for free, despite being in high demand as detectives and bodyguards.
One of Iron Fist’s most significant travails occurred during the last few issues of the series; after Danny Rand’s inadvertent destruction of his beloved K’un-L’un unhinges him, he turns evil (symbolized by the transformation of his usually green-and-yellow costume into a red-and-yellow one, a development that echoed the 1980 Clare-mont/Byrne X-Men “Dark Phoenix”). All efforts to purge Rand of this evil streak end up failing. In the final issue of the series in 1986 (Power Man and Iron Fist #125), Iron Fist apparently dies at the hands of a character named Captain Hero (not to be confused with Jughead’s superheroic alter ego at Archie Comics), and Power Man is framed for Rand’s murder. “[Iron] Fist’s death was supposed to be shocking and senseless,” writer Owsley said in a 1999 interview. “It wasn’t bad writing. The fact that thirteen years after the fact people are still annoyed about it speaks to the quality of the work, the impact of which has apparently not diminished over time.”
But thanks to John Byrne’s exercises in retroactive continuity (known in the comic book trade as a “retcon”), the dead Iron Fist later turns out to have been a mere doppelganger, with the real Rand imprisoned back in K’un-L’un (and still struggling to control an evil side of his character). Rand’s martial arts instructor Lei Kung joins forces with Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Daughters of the Dragon (Heroes for Hire veterans Misty Knight and Colleen Wing) to free Rand and return him to New York City (Namor, the Sub-Mariner #23 and #28, 1992). Iron Fist subsequently starred in a self-titled (and critically panned) two-issue miniseries in 1996 (written by James Felder and drawn by Robert Brown), before returning to a greatly expanded Heroes for Hire, Inc., which includes not only Power Man and Iron Fist, but also the Hulk, Hercules (his immortality now a thing of the past), Ant Man (Scott Lang), the Black Knight (Dane Whitman), and the martial artist known as the White Tiger (Heroes for Hire #1-#19, 1997-1999, written by Roger Stern and John Ostrander, with pencils by Paschalis Ferry, Scott Kolins, Martin Egeland, and Mary Mitchell).
Iron Fist surfaced again in another three-issue miniseries during this period (Iron Fist vol. 3, 1998), with stories by Dan Jurgens and art by Jackson Guice; Iron Fist assisted Quicksilver and the Inhumans in “The Siege of Wundagore,” thanks to Ostrander and Ferry (Heroes for Hire/Quicksilver Annual 1998). At the turn of the millennium, Iron Fist crossed paths with the X-Men’s Wolverine (Iron Fist/Wolverine: The Return of K’un-L’un #1-#4, 2000-2001, written by Jay Faerber and drawn by Jamal Igle). He was back again to wrestle with more personal demons and with the Black Panther in the latter’s series (vol. 2 #38-#40, 2002), and regained an ongoing title of his own in 2004, in the first comics work by writer Jim Mullaney of the Destroyer paperback series.
Iron Fist starred in yet another new ongoing comics series, The Immortal Iron Fist, co-written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, with art by David Aja, starting in 2006. In recent years Iron Fist has served as a member of the New Avengers. He also has become the mentor of a young superhero, Victor Alvarez, the new Power Man. —MAM & PS