Powerful Panels: The Immortal Iron Fist #21 by Timothy Green and Duane Swierczynski
After the perplexingly lackluster and interminably repetitive "Mortal Iron Fist" story arc, this highly polished gem of a stand-alone issue dropped with all the force of the proverbial lead balloon. Though generally a wildly overused term, the comic is highly cinematic in presentation. The work's most obvious direct influence is unquestionably the comics of Alexandro Jodorowsky's Incal universe--an artist arguably more famous for his handful of cinematic productions than his far more prolific work in comics. Moreover, Timothy Green's illustrations are grounded in Moebius by way of Seth Fisher and his compositions are presented with a painterly flattened perspective, reminiscent of a particular aesthetic most directly associated with the films of Akira Kurosawa.
This particular page encapsulates much of what is great about the comic and can be read in multiple ways, each revealing different aspects of the work that are no less strong for their subtlety. The narration ("But he fought like a man") that opens the sequence follows the opening qualifier of the panel immediately preceding it ("The hero was just a boy"), emphasizing the youth and disconcertingly slight stature of the fighter who ostensibly came to save the last few surviving inhabitants of Planet Yaochi. The boy's diminutiveness is highlighted in the first panel's side-view illustration. The depth-distorting flat perspective of the drawings is enhanced by a reverse reading of the panels on the page. The effect echoes the long-lens shot aesthetic adopted in all of Kurosawa's post-1950 films and mirrors in reverse the shot sequence in Red Beard in which the Mantis surprises the young, arrogant Noboru sulking in his room.
The following panel in which Wah Sing-Rand responds to Min's lament of his tardy arrival is a sort of microcosm of the intense concentration of subtlety and understatement typical of the book as a whole. His response--"I have been with you this whole time"--calls to mind the sorta corny, sorta really affective "Footprints" poem that is central to American Christian kitsch and emphasizes the religious nature of Wah Sing-Rand's role as planetary saviour. Green's portrait of the boy, however, at once confirms and contradicts the message carried by his words. On the one hand, the boy's delicate beauty and the look of penetrating, yet benevolent intelligence in his eyes are of a piece with the stories of the precocious young Jesus. At the same time, that Matrix-y serpent running up the side of his face runs counter to the boy's otherwise overtly Christian characteristics.
Min's response to Wah Sing-Rand's claim in the two panels that follow cement this biblical reading of the comic. His face is all cockeyed disbelief and the skepticism of his words plant him firmly in the 'Doubting Thomas' tradition of those of little faith. This kid just dropped from the sky and single-handedly destroyed the robots which were raring to exterminate Min and his family and all he can think to do is ask why the boy didn't do more.
In addition to illustrating Green's particular perspectival choice, the page's final panel deepens the Christian connection to this Messianic tale. Wah Sing-Rand's response to Min's extremely disrespectful query ("I know the suffering you and your people have endured. I watched it all from above.") adds the God as benevolent father above and outside the world aspect to the God as personified son acting in the world motif developed by his arrival on Yaoching. Moreover, in claiming to have watched their suffering above, it sets up Wah Sing-Rand's story of how he was able to view their suffering and yet not able to do anything about it, which is one of the more powerful and effective permutations of an Iron Fist tale I have yet to read.