Xao and a Disappointing Iron Fist Arc

July 14, 2008

So I enjoyed the first story arc of Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja’s The Immortal Iron Fist, “The Last Iron Fist Story.” Now, Iron Fist is a pretty problematic character. He’s a rich white kid who became the champion of a secret kungfu city (that only appears in the Himalayas once every ten years) by learning their martial secrets and beating the crap out of all other contenders, earning the right to kill their sacred dragon. Despite being a rich white kid who inherited his wealth/privilege, he spends his time slumming it withe Luke Cage and trying to fight urban crime in the inner city. His main enemy, Davos, is a native of the secret city who would have been their champion if that white kid hadn’t shown up and proven he was better. Uh huh.

But despite all that, the first story arc managed to bring some pulpy goodness and not be too horribly grating to my personal sensitivities towards pseudo-Asian fantasy crap. And the action sequences were really poppy and fresh.

However, despite Rob Donoghue giving the second arc, “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven,” high marks, I found it a strong let down after the promise of the first arc. There are a bunch of reasons that I’ll get into some other time — including my main grudge, that it promises to show Iron Fist competing in a martial arts tournament and then shows him losing one fight… and that’s it — but one part was especially frustrating to me and that was the character of Xao.

Xao is one of the leaders of Hydra, an organization of suicidally loyal but completely incompetent evil mook spies. They are basically disposable ninjas. Xao, however, is shown to embody, more than any character I’ve ever seen in comics, modern Western fears and stereotypes about China. Granted, some of this began in the first arc, where we initially encounter Xao trying to weasel Iron Fist, in his daytime role as a wealthy businessman, into a deal over a magnetic train system, which Iron Fist rejects because of China’s horrid human rights record. Because we shouldn’t do business with anyone from a country with a horrid human rights record, even if the business has no connection at all. Yup.

[SPOILERS!]

Xao as “the China Threat” is hammered in more during this second arc. His plan is to build a new railroad line into Tibet, which shows that the authors read the news, I guess. However, unlike the real Qingzang Railway, which involves issues that are thorny and difficult, Xao’s railroad is intended to drive directly into the heart of the secret kungfu city and blow it up with explosives, 9-11 style. Yeah.

Also, it’s clear that the authors intend Xao’s leadership of Hydra to represent China’s stereotypical reputation for throwing a ton of manpower at a problem and not caring about casualties or human suffering. At one point Xao even says, as some of the heroes are being swarmed by selfless, brainwashed Hydra operatives: “You can overcome anything if you throw big enough numbers at it. With a mind to sacrifice, you can overcome anything at all. Having the will to sacrifice enough time, enough money, enough manpower, you can accomplish whatever you wish.”

Finally, when confronted at the end, Xao refuses to give in to the imperialist white nations of the West… I mean the Iron Fist who, as he says, represents “the scion of the legacy that killed my great-grandfather, my grandmother, so many of my bloodline.” And, after that, the authors pull out the irrational actor approach to understanding China (or North Korea etc.), of all things. Iron Fist offers Xao the chance to surrender, but Xao says, “That assumes I’m a rational actor on this stage. That my objective is victory and that my survival is paramount above all. It is not. I will be avenged.”

All in all, blech. The new “Yellow Peril” / “Red Menace” talk is shrouded in pseudo-academic language that makes it sound less offensive than previous incarnations, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just wallowing in our own sterotypes and fears. I had hoped that, with the premise of Iron Fist being problematic enough, that the authors would be smart enough not to go there. I guess not.

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