Friday, January 1, 2016

REVIEW ROUNDUP: THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST

INTRODUCTION
It was never my intention to do two straight months of comic reviews, but I was recently lent a series done by Marvel which follows their lesser known hero, Iron Fist. The series consists of five volumes with a one-shot volume that features some of the characters known as the Immortal Weapons who all make appearances in Iron Fist's story-line. I've always been a big fan of how the character looks and the general mystical kung-fu warrior vibe that he gives off, but never really knew what he was all about so I am very excited to be diving into this series and adding new reviews to this post like I did with my NEW 52 NOVEMBER post.

I should also note that I read all of these in print and found them to be good quality. Because of that, I cannot comment on the fidelity of the digital version.

REVIEWS:

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 1: THE LAST IRON FIST STORY
4/5
Enter Danny Rand, otherwise known as The Immortal Iron fist. Our first glimpses of him feature the striking green and yellow gear that makes him such a visually interesting character and right away it becomes clear that this will be a very beautiful piece of graphic fiction to enjoy. Rand is the owner of his own company, but he's not really a billionaire as is the case with other heroes such as Tony Stark. Rand is a humble, if a bit snippy, honest businessman who wears his moral compass as proudly as he dons his kung fu tights. He's an easy enough character to love right from the beginning in that he is an earnest hero, but also a man with plenty of personal flaws. For starters, Danny is a bit reckless. His body is imbued with a substantial amount of power, but that power can sometimes go to his head and get him into trouble. Like other Iron Fists before him, Danny easily forgets that HE himself is not immortal, only the station of The Iron Fist.

In the first pages of the comic, readers are actually shown images of one of the previous Iron Fists and throughout the rest of this volume, we get sneak peaks at some of the other figures from history who earned the power of The Iron Fist. Who and what The Iron Fist is is something that the story takes a little time to unravel though. This is in part because even Danny is not fully aware of the history of this ancient power and makes sense for storytelling purposes, but things did get confusing for me because there is a lot of jumping around between different periods in time. Much of the story focuses on the current Iron Fist's struggle against Hydra (an evil organization known well by any who have watched the more recent Marvel films). In the midst of this conflict there are all sorts of flashbacks to different moments in The Iron Fist's history which largely drop hints at things to come. It all does eventually clear up towards the end though and by that point I was quite engrossed in this complex story-line and felt eager to dive right into the next volume as soon as I'd turned the final page of this one.
Some kickass action shots

For much of the volume, the story feels like pretty typical superhero fare with a bit of mystical kung fu mixed in for good measure. There are also vague allusions to the Marvel event known as CIVIL WAR (a brand-wide event which serves as the basis for the upcoming CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR movie). Personally, I was already familiar with the general gist of how these references were significant, but even if you have no idea, there's little need to be overly distressed by this series's ties to the larger marvel comic universe since Iron Fist's story exists largely in isolation of the CIVIL WAR event. That being said, there are other Marvel heroes who do appear in this volume such as Luke Cage and Misty, though who they are and how they relate to Danny is sufficiently explained. The only bit that is a tad confusing is the eight-page spread (taken from Daredevil's series) of Danny's time spent assuming the role of Daredevil. The moments captured in this section happen before the first issue of Iron Fist's own series so they can be enjoyed for what they are or ignored if Daredevil isn't a character you are familiar with.

A look at an Iron Fist from history

All in all, this is definitely a good read that just takes a while to really get going. The world is full of intrigue and lore, the characters are colorful and depicted in detailed representations, and the action shots are absolutely breathtaking. It's clear that this is just the start of a much larger and even more mystical plot, but the volume does do a nice job of opening and concluding it's primary story-arch. It's an extremely worthy read even if that isn't immediately obvious based on the first few issues.

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 1: THE LAST IRON FIST STORY is available in print and digital editions on Amazon.

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 2: THE SEVEN CAPITAL CITIES OF HEAVEN
5/5

Please note: This section of the post contains some spoilers for Volume 1 of THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST series.

The first volume left readers off with Danny being summoned into the mystical realm of The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, the location (or collection of locations) after which this volume is named. Whereas the previous issues felt like a mystical take on a typical superhero story, those in this collection dive fearlessly into the weirder aspects of the Iron Fist character and the story couldn't have been better for it.

The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven converge at special set intervals when they are also all accessible from the real world. Each of these cities sometimes enters the real world individually, but this convergence is special in that all of them become part of our world at the same time. During this merge, a grand tournament is held in which the seven champions known as The Immortal Weapons (one for each city) must fight each other for ... well it's not actually entirely clear why ... it's just what they do. It is strongly hinted in the previous volume that the tournament somehow maintains a balance between these mystical realms or at least serve some unknown agenda of those who lead the cities. This tournament is particularly tense since Danny's predecessor, Orson Randall, refused to partake in the contest. As a result he was hunted down by the other Immortal Weapons and actually killed one of them. Danny plans to be a far more compliant Iron Fist, but those intentions are interrupted by a secret rebellion led within his own capital city. Meanwhile Hydra is contriving a plan to decimate the cities while they are merged with Earth and using one of Danny's friends to help them. Luke Cage and the Heroes for Hire are working hard to foil their scheme, but find themselves fighting against forces that they do not fully understand.

The stakes are quite high this time, but there is also a healthy amount of character development which takes place in the midst of all the political intrigue and brutal action sequences. Luke Cage and company are featured much more in these issues and I found myself liking this group quite a lot. Danny delves deeper into his identity as the Iron Fist and though he's not necessarily lost or insecure in the role, he does make a lot of personal progress to living up to what his station represents and is granted increased insight into the lineage of the ancient power which he wields. Although now deceased, Orson Randall is also given further character development through the use of flashbacks. Even more prominently explored in these segments is Wendall Rand, Danny's father who previously attempted to become an Iron Fist. As fate would have it Wendell's best friend also happens to be Danny's arch nemesis as well as the son of Danny's mentor. Through these complex relationships we gain a better understanding of one of this story's primary antagonists which makes the conflict feel far more personal than it would have otherwise. Rounding out the cast are The Immortal Weapons themselves who are a rather motley crew of martial artists. They're certainly an interesting bunch who add a lot to the more mystical elements of the story and are as visually interesting as they are personally compelling.


The action shots in this are top notch once again and as a general rule, the artwork is absolutely spectacular. The only section of this that was less than beautiful was the Iron Fist Annual issue which featured an artist who made absolutely no attempt to match the way the rest of the book looks. It's not bad artwork really, at least not bad enough to affect my overall enjoyment of the volume, but it does get hard to look at after a couple of pages. The artist employed this sort of dark oil on canvas look which definitely created a more vibrant visual experience, but the panels also struggled to convey what few action shots are used. When done in this style the panels that are less detailed than others look REALLY lackluster since some of the other shots are so elaborate. Overall though this was a fantastic volume that comes to a climactic conclusion and I am very excited to keep going with this series!

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 2: THE SEVEN CAPITAL CITIES OF HEAVEN is available in print and digital editions on Amazon.

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 3: THE BOOK OF THE IRON FIST
3/5
Please note: This section of the post contains some spoilers for Volumes 1 and 2 of THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST series.

Throughout the first two volumes in this series, readers have been given glimpses into the figures from the past who have wielded the power of The Iron Fist. This volume, however, brings some of those stories to the forefront. While this is certainly a treat for anyone who might have been curious about the various Iron Fists that have shown up in different historical flashbacks, I also felt that it was an awkward interruption to the high-octane tale of Danny Rand who takes the back seat in this volume despite this being HIS series. Now, from a storytelling perspective, I will admit that if the writers were going to take a break at all from Danny Rand's main thread, this was certainly the point in the story to do so. Hydra has been foiled, The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven are saved and The Immortal Weapons have joined Danny in New York City to investigate the possibility of there being an eight heavenly city. We as readers find ourselves in a sort of transitional period and some might very well welcome the chance for a bit of a history lesson while others will be more like me and just want to see what happens to Danny and his band of misfit heroes.

Now let me just throw out that I enjoyed the first two issues of this volume VERY MUCH. They focus on Iron Fists from the distant past and were easily the highlights of this volume for me. The first follows the story of the only female Iron Fist to ever live which is very exciting because she has
The lady Iron Fist!
been shown and mentioned in previous volumes a good deal and it was immensely rewarding to finally get more of her. The story featuring her has this sort of folk-lore feel to it and although it isn't immensely deep, it is quite charming. The second follows an Iron Fist I'm not sure I remember seeing any snippets of before, but his story is great and features some heroes and villains that derive their powers from Hindu-inspired sources.This second issue is by far the most visually distinct of the volume because of these Hindu influences.

Then the volume gets a little weird. There is one long, three-part issue featuring Orson Randall and his team which was shown off in the "Iron Fist Annual #1" issue from VOLUME 2. My main problems with this issue are that it employs three different art styles, two of which look really dated and that it doesn't really add all that much to Orson's character. Yeah it tells the story of why he had to separate from his team, and yes there is a bit more of Wendell, and sure there is a bit more insight given into one of the other Immortal Weapons (I won't spoil which one), but ultimately, there just wasn't a complex enough story to be told in so many pages. It just felt like this could have been told in far less space and with WAY less randomness.

Shots from "The Origin of Danny Rand"
Finishing off this volume is three issues that finally return focus back to Danny Rand, the current Iron Fist. The first of these issues returns us to where we left Danny last and centers around his struggle to find normalcy after the events of the previous volume. He has some heartfelt moments with his friend/business partner, his old flame, Misty, and his best friend, Luke Cage and is in a far more reflective mood than we are used to seeing him in. Nothing really happens in the way of action, but it is a really well done transitional issue which ends with a rather shocking twist and does give readers a short reminder of the Immortal Weapon's quest in NYC. Last up are a couple of issues featuring the origins of Danny Rand as The Immortal Iron Fist. These are okay, but don't really show readers that much more than they already knew about our favorite Iron Fist and are done in a slightly older style which was also okay, but I didn't love it.

Over all this volume is good, it's just not great. It won't leave you awestruck like the last one did, but it does have moments where it shines. If you've read the first two volumes, then certainly continue with this one, just know that it is a bit of a break from the main thread, but that it seems Volume 4 will provide readers with more of Danny's story.

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 4: THE MORTAL IRON FIST
5/5
Please note: This section of the post contains some spoilers for Volumes 1 - 3 of THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST series.

It's Danny's 33 birthday, but 33 isn't a happy number for him, or any Iron Fist for that matter. No, 33 is when Iron Fists reach their maximum life expectancy. The only person ever to break this streak was Randall and he took a path that Danny could never stoop to. What Danny is about to find out is that there is a mysterious figure who makes a living out of killing Iron Fists in a heartlessly gruesome way and stealing their hearts so that he can try to kill the dragonling which will grow into the beast that an Iron Fist slays to get its power. No one has ever defeated this heart-eater before, but Danny has the benefit of friends who stick their necks out on the line for his sake. The fight scenes in this volume are by far the most brutal and twisted that we have seen so far and the stakes have never been higher. Across the issues, readers will follow an Iron Fist from history who finds out exactly what the supernatural hunter can do firsthand and this sets up a really dire feeling since we know that's what could happen to Danny.

The entire volume is entirely centered around this conflict which comes as a major disruption to
A previous Iron Fist
Danny attempting to put his life back together. What's more upsetting is the fact that no one ever warned Danny about any of it. Not his mentor, The Thunderer, not The Book of the Iron Fist, not even Orson. There's a lot of mystical intrigue set up around this and even by the end of the volume, we get the sense that Danny is nowhere near out of the woods. There is an overall feeling that there are some larger powers at play and to see Danny's life treated with such disregard on the part of the Capital Cities of Heaven is more than a little disturbing. That said, we do get to see quite a bit more of the other Immortal Weapons who come to Danny's aid and eventually uncover more details about their search for the eighth city.

This is a volume that is every bit as dramatic and passionate as the second in the series and is graced by more beautiful artwork (the styles have changed a bit, but it's still quite good). There's a much more sinister overtone to everything from the visuals, to the finer points of the plot. It leaves me eager to read the fifth and final volume and has reinvigorated my love for the series in general. There is even a fun issue featuring Orson tossed in for good measure. While generally weird and mirthless, it is well done for what it is. There's a lot going on in this entry to the series, but it's all handled remarkably well and is bound to entertain any who have read through the series this far. It's hard to say a whole lot more without divulging some pretty deep spoilers, but suffice it to say that if you weren't thrilled with Volume 3, know that Danny's back and you definitely want to check him out in this installment!
Fighting the beast

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 4: THE MORTAL IRON FIST is available in print and digital editions on Amazon.


THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 5: ESCAPE FROM THE EIGHTH CITY
5/5
Please note: This section of the post contains some spoilers for Volumes 1 - 4 of THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST series.

If you were like me and thought that VOLUME 4 took a dark turn, then you will be blown away by just how morbid and gruesome the conclusion to THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST series is. Last volume, Danny and the rest of The Immortal Weapons discovered how to get to the formerly mythical Eighth City of Heaven. And as one might have guessed based on the creature that came from there to kill Danny, this is not a nice place. In fact it's not much of a heaven at all, it's far more like the other place. Throughout the course of this volume, readers will see The Immortal Weapons imprisoned in a city of sadistic and disfigured monsters led by an ancient madman. They will be beaten up again and again and again, until they are finally able to coordinate an escape plan.

Tough times for Mr. Rand
In the midst of all of the physical and psychological torture, there are a  number of other dark aspects of the plot which will be slowly unveiled. In my review of the last issue, I expressed concern and suspicion over the actions of the Seven "good" Capital Cities of Heaven and in this installment, those fears are realized in a way that I never would have anticipated. There are twisted secrets aplenty here which made this by far the most shockingly compelling entry into the elaborate saga of The Iron Fist. It's honestly a tale unlike any  that I have read before and I never would have guessed that the story-line would come to this sort of a conclusion after having read the first volume. It's proof that heroes should be very careful when they go about asking questions, since the answers that are uncovered are not always what you want to have brought to light.

Another notable difference this time around is in regards to the cast. Whereas characters like Luke Cage and Misty Knight have played an integral part in past volumes, it is The Immortal Weapons who take center stage in their stead. The Heroes for Hire do show up, but not in the same capacity that readers are used to. While this was certainly a bit of a bummer for me, I also really enjoyed finally getting more time with The Immortal Weapons since they're such a wildly diverse group of warriors and are some of the more visually interesting characters in the entire series. The final villain is also fantastic even though we don't really get to meet him until this volume.
Seriously, who gave this issue the green light?
It all just makes for a very fitting end to an immensely enjoyable series. It has drama, character, suspense, political intrigue, and brutal action. While I won't spoil details of the end, I will say that everything is tied up nicely and that it's rather bittersweet to bring Danny's tale to a close. Beyond those pages are two additional issues that focus on other Iron Fists. One is pretty good and has a sort of folk-lore feel to it. The other is honestly just not worth reading through. The art isn't too great and the story is just awful. It's like someone wanted to make a messed up dystopian, anime-esque type story and just throw elements of Iron Fist's story in. It's truly atrocious and I have no idea why the publisher tossed in such a trash piece to wrap up what is ultimately a fantastic conclusion to a wonderfully done story. My rating for this volume is purely based on the issues which feature Danny Rand, if I included the bonus ones in it, then I'd probably have to drop it a whole star.

THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST VOLUME 5: ESCAPE FROM THE EIGHTH CITY is available in print and digital editions on Amazon.


OVERALL THOUGHTS ON THE SERIES

After Volume 1:
The first volume in this series was an intriguing start to what I hope will be a far wilder story-line. What starts as a somewhat typical superhero story quickly developed into something much more mystical and unique. This weirdness is something I hope the series will dive deeper into as it goes on.

After Volume 2:
If I wasn't 100% sold on the series before, I certainly am now! The characters, setting, plot, and action are all absolutely stunning. This is storytelling done right, pure and simple and I cannot wait to see what comes next in this series.

After Volume 3:
As my review indicated, this was a bit of a dip in what's been an exciting ride. I'm still stoked to see what the next installment has in store, this was just sort of a break from the main flow is all.

After Volume 4: 
The creators took this series to places I'd never thought they would go. The main story has definitely been reinvigorated and seems to be going in a whole new direction entirely. It's not what I expected, but Danny is back and the story is better than ever. I can't wait to see what comes next.

After Volume 5: 
I'm absolutely stunned by the twists and the turns and the uncompromisingly brutal qualities of this fifth and final installment. It is an absolutely legendary ending to a masterfully crafted tale, but it also highlights Marvel's weakness in tossing in bonus issues that  really just don't add all that much to the story and can occasionally detract from the overall quality of a volume.

Closing Thoughts:
When it comes to the story of Danny Rand, what begins as a sort of slow start quickly spirals into the most engrossing tale of mysticism, magic, and kung fu that I have ever had the pleasure of reading through.  It's a memorable tale brought to life with some high quality artwork and ultimately just a piece of graphic fiction that deserves to be widely read. As a whole, it does get bogged down by ancillary issues which typically don't directly relate to Danny's story and in general, don't do much in the way of adding value to the volumes in which they appear. Honestly, though, it's still well worth the read and if these additional issues don't much appeal to you, then I think you could very easily just skip over them entirely without missing out on much of anything when it comes to the main flow of the plot. Questionable publishing choices aside, it's a fantastic series that I'm glad to have read and one I'd recommend to anyone who loves comics or even just literature that is centered around mystical martial arts.

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