Kung Fu Comics: My Iron Fist Addiction

The 70's were an exciting time for superhero comic books. Marvel Comics had revitalized the form in the 60's when Stan Lee and others, including Jack "King" Kirby and Steve Ditko, had created a new breed of heroes dealing with more down-to-earth situations than what was occurring in DC books. These characters tended towards the neurotic and self-doubting, but, more importantly, their lives were set in a world that seemed much closer to the real one. Hell, they had problems and weren't just super powered ciphers. Now some of the art seems archaic and the dialogue is dated and clunky, but at the time superheroes were being redefined for a generation that was mostly consuming horror and romance comics.

After Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent was released in 1954, most comic publishers had accepted a self-regulated comics code that limited horror, sex, and death, among other things, in comics. EC comics got around the code by publishing magazines, such as Mad, but the death knell was sounded for many other publishers and comics genres. Superhero comics took a major hit, fading out of popularity. Of course, DC's big hitters, Batman and Superman, continued, but were relegated to the realm of the banal, often featuring insipid plots and themes including funny animals and other bunk. Superhero comics got a shot in the arm with the introduction of many of Lee's creations, which often took over horror or fantasy titles.

At the advent of the 70's, other creators had taken over many of these creations and were bringing new sensibilities to the inked pages. Some had been weaned on underground comics, macrobiotic diets, and other cultural touchstones that helped shift them into the new decade. Thus fads like mysticism and kung fu became popular themes, and others like horror were again redefined. Writers like Steve Gerber and Gary Friedrich explored dark, odd cultural undercurrents in shockingly 70's titles, including Howard the Duck, Ghost Rider, and Son of Satan.

A cultural strand that holds a resonance with me, kung fu and martial arts comics, had its heyday in this era. I have become increasingly absorbed with Iron Fist and the other characters of this boom. This trend was huge in the early to mid 70's. Marvel introduced the aforementioned Iron Fist and Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, while DC competed with characters that had less ongoing cultural resonance -- Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter among them. Iron Fist and Shang Chi still hold sway, albeit in a diminished form.

As of this writing, I have gotten past the origins of Iron Fist, from Marvel Premiere #15 into his own first short-lived title, marveling at how obsessively writers catalog Daniel Rand's moves (literal martial arts moves and philosophical meanderings) as he attempts to deal with his father's death and his reintroduction to the modern world after being trained in magical K'un L'un as the foremost warrior. The comic contains many of the basic trappings of the superhero genre: Rand's father was a millionaire who left him money; he wears a colorful costume and his iron fist is arguably a superpower. Yet the way he deals with these powers and the world sets it apart.

The art and writing run the spectrum of 70's comic book work, sometimes workmanlike, other times truly dynamic, bordering on neo-underground, especially the Marvel Premiere issues that feature Pat Broderick. Long time comic fans will appreciate Chris Claremont's early writing, even though I don't believe it's as suited to the series as those issues written by Tony Isabella. John Byrne's pencils are just starting to grow on me. His action scenes are sweet, but I really fell in love with the earlier artists portrayals of K'un L'un.

These kung fu and martial arts comics are underappreciated except by the most diehard fans, and I hope to delve further into the genre in upcoming posts. I hope to better determine how realistic the portrayal of martial arts moves is as Daniel Rand moves against the backdrop of 1970's NYC fighting gangs and wrestling with his internal demons. Examining the other strands of myth the writers have drawn from and how these have influenced the series is also foremost on my mind. Comics were changing, but why did martial arts hold a prominent role? Was it the zeitgeist of the times, a steady diet of Bruce Lee movies, or something else?



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