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Friday, March 17, 2017

Cover Story - Top 10 Iron Fist Covers

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So, let’s talk about Iron Fist.  By now you’ve probably heard at least a little about him from his new Netflix show and the stewing Online controversy over it.  I don’t want to get too bogged down in that particular conversation, largely because we’re here today to talk about comic covers.  

However, I am still looking at artwork revolving around a white savior trope with a lot of it steeped in Orientalism.  In that regard let me just say that Iron Fist as the great white hope has always been a bad character concept, even when it was widely considered okay back in the mid-'70s. 

What’s more, I’d dare argue that Iron Fist has always been brought down by the awkwardness of trying to fit an Asian pulp aesthetic into the superhero world, so much so that I was barely able to fill out this list of covers.  However, there are still good Iron Fist covers out there and some of the best ones actually manage to address this pretty well.  So, let’s dive into the 40 years of Iron Fist history to see the best of the middle ground. 

This first cover comes to us from a late 2000s series called Immortal Iron Fist.  Originally penned by superstar authors Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, the series was an attempt to revitalize Iron Fist’s brand the same way Luke Cage had recently been up-jumped to a major part of the Marvel universe.  

A big part of that was expanding Iron Fist’s mythos, as that’s an easy way for writers to expand on the very limited original material.  In the case of Immortal Iron Fist, they opted to expand Fist’s hidden city home of K’un-Lun into 7 hidden cities, each with their own unique living weapons like the Iron Fist.  The living weapons became the team assembled here on this decidedly neat and impressive cover. 

The cover and the very concept works as an exploration of one of kung-fu pulp’s most enduring ideas: a fighting tournament.  All the characters are admittedly just stereotypes of the kung-fu genre, but at the same time, the visual language of genre stereotypes endures for a reason.  

They’re basically on par with the average collection of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter characters, which is actually a context I think Iron Fist really works within.  He may not be the most compelling solo character, but as a supporting character, his dopey outsider/unlikely living weapon shtick plays a lot better.  Also, this team features Fat Cobra, a super sumo wrestler character, so that’s just awesome. 

This cover dates back to Iron Fist’s original run of appearances in the anthology comic Marvel Premiere.  This is where Marvel was trying out a lot of character concepts before fully committing to a monthly series like Dr. Strange, Iron Fist, and Son of Satan.  Despite the timing of this cover, it’s actually kind of a curiosity in its form and structural design. 

The biggest element that stands out is the scale on display here, specifically the wonky perspective being forced with Danny, the woman he’s rescuing, and the collapsing statue.  I initially thought that figure was meant to be coming to life and attacking them but, if you look, you can see it’s just fallen over towards that altar.  As a result, though, all the action ends up a lot more compressed, though I do like the visual element of the statue’s head blocking the logo. 

As for the actual content this is a good indicator of the unique blend of pulp and exploitation genres that informed the initial Iron Fist stories.  The character himself was loosely based on Bruce Lee, who was becoming a major fixture of the street level cinemas of New York at the time alongside the blaxploitation flicks that inspired Luke Cage.  

However, in realizing the character, you were dealing with authors and artists whose conception of the “mystic Orient” was drawn from pulp serials and adventure novels, the kind of stuff that eventually made up Indiana Jones’ collective origin point.  It’s always been an awkward combination, but I think concepts like this find a good blend between the martial arts and lost temple stuff. 

Back to The Immortal Iron Fist, this one actually written by Matt Fraction and featuring one of the coolest minimalist covers I’ve ever seen.  I’m honestly not even sure how this design came about.  My knee-jerk guess would be something relating to I Ching, maybe trying to find common ground between the hexagram designs and comic panel layout, but that’s not the case at all.  There’s nothing here that matches those origin points, it’s just a breathtaking and well-realized work of minimalism.  That’s doubly rare for this series as it had a bad habit of actually misusing minimalism. 

A lot of Immortal Iron Fist covers of the early days tended to split the cover down the middle, with one side as an actual image and the other being pure white.  It’s a lazy approach and lacks the clean, simplistic, and evocative design depicted here.  I especially like the way the various boxes have been color coded to go along with Danny’s color scheme.  Actually, what the boxing reminds me of most in this context is 24, which I could see being an inspiration.  Though Iron Fist has classically always been a kung-fu book but Immortal Iron Fist brought in a hefty amount of espionage stuff, even if it was corporate espionage. 

Here’s another cover that really shows off the weird blend of styles that informed the early Iron Fist books.  In the center of the page, we’ve got a martial arts battle that’s been pretty well realized, there’s a lot of action in the character poses and the energy surrounding Danny’s fist manages to look fresh without being distracted.  Basically, everything on the left side of the page and contained to the gem acts a kung-fu story.  However, when we move beyond the weird, magic, viewing device, we shift gears abruptly into something out of Doc Savage or the Shadow. 

I actually really like the idea of there being this shadowy, robed figure who wears the symbol of the Iron Fist and has their own schemes for Iron Fist but I can’t pretend this isn’t an example of deeply problematic Orientalism creeping into the series.  I believe that character is named Yu-Ti and though not necessarily sinister he was always presented as morally ambiguous even though he was Iron Fist’s teacher in the hidden city of K’un-Lun.  As I said, I like this cover for its unique use of space to blend genre, I just wish they were more worthwhile genres they were blending together. 

Now, this is a great example of how ‘70s covers were a unique and groundbreaking era for the medium.  This level of scale was still incredibly rare in comics at the time.  Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, the idea was always to try and fit as much action on scene as possible, to give the viewer a real sense of excitement and whimsy as they were passing the news rack where comics were sold.  

However, come the ‘70s it became a lot more accepted for covers to feature larger figures engaging in simpler actions, under the thinking that comic fans were maturing and their ability to discern quality artwork was growing with them.  This usually meant making figures about the height of the cover, or at least from the bottom of the page to just below the logo. 

This approach of making the main subject bigger than the field of view was pretty rare but remains incredibly impactful when done sparingly.  I especially love the forced perspective visual of this with Iron Fist’s fist hitting you square in the face.  It basically the same visual technique used now in found footage films when they want to convey a sense of impact and realism with a punch to the face.  

I also really dig the speed lines background here as it ends up supporting the energy of the main character without feeling lazy.  A more detailed background easily could’ve cluttered this image while a simple block color would’ve left it limp.  The limited color palette and flow of moment together, however, make it a really memorable image. 

This is the most recent Iron Fist comic- Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, released as part of the All-New Marvel Now branding initiative.  By this point, Marvel has more or less given up on making Danny Rand as big a name character as his fellow Defenders, and this book exists mostly just to fill the space on the shelves.  

That’s not to say it's bad as it manages to delve into some of the more interesting aspects of the Iron Fist mythology, it’s just that those aspects are all “things that don’t have to do with Danny Rand.”  Case in point, this cover depicts the mighty dragon of K’un-Lun that gave Iron Fist his martial arts super power move of the Iron Fist by hugging him so hard it burned a tattoo into his chest. 

The Dragon kung-fu power this is another example of Fist’s creators trying to blend ‘70s Martial arts exploitation with classic pulp serial Orientalism, but the idea of having a sentient dragon who’s a master of Kung-Fu is a pretty solid one.  That’s basically the truth of most of Iron Fist’s mythos- a lot of solid ideas let down by problematic nature of the age that created them.  

As for this cover, while I’m not a huge fan of this artwork style I do think it works for the dragon.  This kind of artwork tends to focus on extremely exaggerated physicality, which can often invoke an inhuman appearance, but the dragon is already pretty inhuman, and it’s huge, so the exaggerated design works in its favor. 

Back to Immortal Iron Fist for this really cool and smart visual design.  I’m not exactly sure what this cover is meant to represent with Danny as a hollow, shattered being though there’s clearly more going on here than him just getting beat up real bad.  Firstly, the background color work again has created a really great palette to support the main content here. 

The robust purples blend with the slate gray really well and help the muted green and yellow of Danny’s costume to pop without becoming too glaring.  They’re also the colors of Danny’s archenemy, so there’s a double meaning here.  “Double meaning” are the watchwords for this cover as Iron Fist’s shattered chest forms a pattern similar to his dragon tattoo nicely.  

I think what really sells this cover, though, is how creepy and inhuman then crusty, silicon look of Fist’s chest is.  He appears like a broken piece of porcelain that was pretending to be a person, it’s a really horrific image and all very well realized. 

This cover comes from a story about Iron Fist being trapped in hell, and I think this cover really conveys the unique and creepy idea inherent in that.  Superheroes going to hell is shockingly a lot more common than you’d think, mainly because the genre has always been okay with various mythic and religious realms actually existing.  

In the case of Immortal Iron Fist, he’s in a weird, quasi-accurate vision of Chinese hell, though apparently it’s been reworked quite a bit to fit into the Iron Fist mythos.  As such, this place is depicted as an inescapable city of demons hidden from the world where Iron Fist becomes trapped.  A big part of that idea is that the city has no sun, hence the idea of him using his powers for light. 

This whole pitch is a really cool, really Dark Souls esc kind of idea that I think stands as one of the best elements of the mythos.  That dungeon crawler aesthetic of this cover is really what makes it, especially the detail put into the army of demons we’ve got here.  If you look, all of them are incredibly unique and detailed despite filling up the entirety of this scene.  That overwhelming horde of demons is really what makes this cover work, emphasizing how hopeless and destructive Iron Fist’s situation really is. 

Now that is a cool cover.  It’s a perfect blend of elements that made so many of the other covers great- it’s got a great use of minimalism and negative space, the same scale work of the one where Iron Fist punched the audience, but most of all it really has a handle on Iron Fist’s powers.  

Iron Fist has always been sort of a strange character regarding his abilities.  Sometimes they’re explicitly mystical, but more often the concept is that he’s channeling his life energy, his chi, into a powerful and deadly form.  The thing about that idea is that it means Iron Fist’s powers are literally consuming whenever he uses them. 

He’s burning up his life force whenever he’s engaged in crazy superhero antics, and this cover externalizes that idea wonderfully.  The exaggerated aesthetic of the artwork fits the fire design really well, but it’s the way the skeleton is rendered that elevates this.  

There are no hard lines or firm colors, everything is shaky and speckled with the fire design; it really conveys the idea of being consumed by the fire.  There’s also a really great visual touch in having the flames create something like Iron Fist’s mask on the skull.

So there are a lot of reasons I love this cover, but one of the prime ones is that this isn’t Danny Rand.  That’s actually one of the ideas that’s become a cornerstone of the entire Iron Fist mythos and probably its best concept- that Iron Fist is a title held by multiple warriors throughout history, each with their own unique fighting style.  More than that, however, this cover shows off the element of the kung-fu/martial arts side of Iron Fist that’s least often explored: discipline. 

The entire idea of the “art” part of martial arts is about training one's mind and body to move in perfect, graceful harmony.  It’s a complex and beautiful process that rivals ballet in terms of movement as art, but so often people end up only concerned with seeing Iron Fist smash things.  Taking time out from all the energy crackling and punching to just show the Iron Fist moving with nature, the grace of form that accompanies their art, is a thoroughly bold and striking approach to cover design. 

And that’s all just concept I haven’t even touched on the beauty of this execution.  It’s amazing how much warmth and emotion this cover manages to evoke only using a color palette grounded in orange, brown, and yellow.  It’s curious monochromatic without seeming dull or muted at all.  That visual of the sun framed behind Iron Fist is a great use of spacing and color, especially thanks to the silhouettes of the cranes against the auburn sky. 

Most importantly, though, this cover cuts right to the heart of what makes Iron Fist a unique hero.  He’s more than just fighting skill or a glowy hand, that same approach could fit any number of other costumed crime fighters.  Where Iron Fist shines is as a zen warrior, someone fueled by philosophy and a desire to know themselves through the art of movement and meditation.  Intimate moments like this, where we simply see the Iron Fist as they know themselves, bring that point home beautifully.    

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