The Immortal Iron Fist #25

Duane Swierczynski's Iron Fist has been a problematic book. Unlike the writer's almost flawless run on Cable, the former series has been consistent only in its inconsistency. The almost perfect stand-alone issue #21, assisted by Timothy Green, came only after near-total disappointment of the "Mortal Iron Fist" arc. The current narrative, "Escape from the Eighth City," had, until the current issue, been shaping up to be a more or less satisfying, if not particularly exciting story. With issue #25, however, Swierczynksi opens a new level of meaning for the story and indeed for superhero comics as a whole, largely thanks to the three pages of the comic illustrated by Juan Doe.

Swierczynski has a periodic tendency to emphasize shifts in narrative point-of-view within a story by switching up illustrators. His employment of this technique is particularly effective because aside from the obvious cue that a switch in focus has occurred, he chooses illustrators in such a way that the stylistic changes in the illustrations also bring into focus other aspects of the story that may not have been previously apparent. The Jamie McKelvie illustrated sections of issues 11 and 12 of Cable introduced the notion of Hope's maturation into a pubescent girl, interspersing ideas of innocence and experience and soon-to-be budding sexuality into that already thematically complex series.

In the case of the current issue of Iron Fist, Doe's illustrations pick up the story of Quan Yaozu, the first Iron Fist and now chieftain of the Eighth City. Of particular interest is the image of Quan Yaozu that spans the entire left side of the second page of this section. The illustration depicts the first Iron Fist hanging from his wrists, presumably to be tortured by the beasts he himself had condemned to this inescapable hell. The image is reminiscent of a sort of neon El Greco Jesus and opens up an allegorical reading of the story as being about Iron Fists, or superheros in general, as saviors and the nature of messiah-ship.

This is not the first time that Swierczynski has linked the idea of a superhero to that of a messiah or savior. The story of Wah Sing-Rand relayed in Iron Fist #21 is precisely that of a late-arriving savior. Moreover, the entire occasion of the writer's run on Cable was the need to protect the infant mutant-messiah. What is particularly effective the employment of Christian imagery in this book is that it highlights the very problematic nature of messiahs and particularly how people deal with them. Were one to take the words of Christian preachers at face value, when Jesus returns to earth for the second and final time, everyone will recognize him for who he is and we will all certainly welcome him.

Historically this hasn't been the case, however, and I think this relates to the fact that on the one hand, messiahs are something you wait for, rather than something that actually comes. Every time there has been a suggestion of the arrival of the Jewish messiah--from Jesus in the first century, to Sabbatai Zvi in the 17th and even the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the 20th--the reaction ranges from skepticism to outright violent disbelief.

Jesus is a particularly instructive example in relation to this comic and not just because he is the savior we are all generally most familiar with. I think it is easy for Christians--hell, for everyone--to forget that Jesus' intention was to be a leader of Jews, not Gentiles. But as history tells us, he was most immediately shunned by his own community, forcing his few Jewish followers to turn outside their community to build their new religion. There are parallels to this in the story that Quan Yaozu relates to Danny Rand. The first Iron Fist eventually became lord over the beasts he had condemned precisely because his own people had abandoned him and he hopes to save Danny from the same fate.

This reading of superheros as something of a deconstruction of the very notion of a savior or messiah doesn't begin and end with Swierczynski's books; he has just helped to bring that reading to the fore. With few exceptions, the iconic superheros basically have to give up something significant--like any semblance of a normal life--in order to make the choice to devote themselves to doing good. Superman is the most obvious example of this, but Batman/Bruce Wayne fits as well. The story of Jesus in the New Testament is filled with these notions of doubt and ambivalence--precisely the ideas that the Christian faith as it is known today asks its adherents to dispense with.


samuel rules said...

mannnnnnnnnn i gotta get back into this book!

david e. ford, jr said...

yeah, despite it's weaknesses, i still ultimately thing it is a book worth reading. with iron fist in particular, swierczynski seems to do really well with one shots--issue #21 is one of the best comics i've read this year and #24 was quite good as well. i think iron fist is a little bit of a tricky character for a writer to make compelling and i think you are right that the great move was to create a mythology out of it--like a saga, or whatever.