'Iron Fist' Creator: Whitewashing Controversy "Righteous Indignation"
'Iron Fist' creator Roy Thomas doesn't have time for cultural appropriation complaints.
Danny Rand first graced Marvel comics in the May 1974 issue of Marvel Premiere #15. The Iron Fist, clad in a gold and green suit with a popped collar and gold slippers, was created by then-Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane. Over 40 years later, Danny is making the leap from Marvel’s comic pages, where he has dwelled as a little-known character, to the focus of its latest Netflix series. Premiering March 17, Iron Fist follows the story of Danny’s return to New York City from K’un-Lun to reclaim his family’s business empire from those who wish to use it for dishonorable personal gain. With inspiration from 1970s kung fu movies, Thomas created a new kind of American superhero.
Thomas, an alumnus of both Marvel and its biggest rival, DC Comics, was editor-in-chief of Marvel from 1972 to 1974. He was first hired on to Marvel Comics as a staff writer and worked on such titles as Doctor Strange, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, X-Men, and The Avengers, the latter from 1966 until 1972. In 1981, Thomas left Marvel and joined up with DC Comics, taking on big names such as The Justice Society of America and the creation of the All-Star Squadron series.
Inverse spoke to Thomas about the upcoming Iron Fist series on Netflix, Marvel’s long-standing fight with original creators, and his thoughts on the whitewashing controversy swirling around the character online.
How involved have you been with the creation and execution of the upcoming Netflix show?
Not at all. Marvel doesn’t really ask me or most other writers, unless they’re also producing the show or something like that, for any input. I just find out about it after the fact and eventually collect some money for it. And that wouldn’t have happened until the last few years because Marvel didn’t do that. Of course, they didn’t have that much going in movies and especially TV until the last few years, but they changed their policies. I kept pushing them whenever I would talk to them because there would always be these depositions and these lawsuits with regard to people like my old friend Gary Friedrich on Ghost Rider, and Steve Gerber on Howard the Duck and Mark Walton on Blade and the [Jack] Kirby thing.
All I know about Iron Fist really is what I read in press releases and what I see on the one-or-so bits of tape or film footage or whatever that have been released. There’s somebody who always sends me this kind of thing when he sees it. I didn’t see the costume in there. Otherwise, it looked like a pretty good adaptation. Although, then, of course, people began making me aware of the fact that some people are complaining — as I think they have over the years — about cultural appropriation and crap like that, which just makes me furious.
Sounds like you’ve been involved with a lot of the creators’ rights discussions with Marvel.
I wouldn’t talk about Iron Fist if I weren’t going to get any money out of it, because I’d be annoyed, even if I did just write the first story.
Instead of spending all this money [fighting lawsuits], they should just give a little money to the people who did it, and give them a little credit on the screen. I don’t know what settlement [Gary Friedrich] finally made with Marvel over Ghost Rider; that’s kind of confidential. He hasn’t even told me, and I haven’t pushed. He always said that if they’d offered him something like credit on the movie, there’d never have been a lawsuit. It cost him a lot of time and trouble and probably cost Marvel up to six figures.
This is just guessing — nobody’s told me this — but I think the Kirby family thing was always uppermost in [Marvel’s] minds and now that’s sort of been settled. So they’ve been a little more relaxed about other stuff with people like me and the other writers and artists who created stuff after Stan and Jack Kirby, giving us a little money so that we instead become what I always said we would be: people who will do interviews, who will push things, and so forth. Instead of being bad publicity, we’ll be good publicity. It finally caught on.
Luckily, wiser heads have prevailed in the last few years. As a matter of fact, I’m meeting the person who handled that at Big Apple Con. It’s kind of nice to be able to do that instead of feeling like: “Why don’t you pay me money for this and that?” The problem is that they only pay living people, and I would like to see them pay heirs and things. Perhaps they’ll get around to that soon, but they’re making progress anyway.
You mentioned before all of the whitewashing controversy that’s been swirling around Iron Fist. Could you expand on that a bit?
Yeah, someone made me vaguely aware of that. I try not to think about it too much. I have so little patience for some of the feelings that some people have. I mean, I understand where it’s coming from. You know, cultural appropriation, my god. It’s just an adventure story. Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either.
He was a character for a comic book at a different time. It’s very easy to second-guess anything. You can argue about Tarzan, you can argue about almost any character who came up then is bound to be not quite PC by some later standard or other. Okay, so you can make some adjustments. If they wanted to kill off white Iron Fist and come up with one who wasn’t Caucasian, that wouldn’t have bothered me, but neither am I ashamed for having made up one who was. He wasn’t intended to stand for any race. He was just a man who was indoctrinated into a certain thing.
I just think some people have too much time on their hands, I guess. They have an infinite capacity for righteous indignation. By and large, that tends to be misplaced quite often because if you’re becoming all upset over things that are just stories, and if you don’t like it, instead of trying to change somebody else’s story, go out and make up your own character and do a good job of it. That’s just fine, but why waste time trying to run down other people’s characters simply because they weren’t created with your standards in mind?
Now if something is really racist or degrading to a sex or race, an ethnic group or something like that, that’s something else, but Iron Fist isn’t that and never has been. It’s all about a fictitious race, a fictitious place like a Shangri-La, and one person who happens to be its emissary. There’s no reason why he can’t be Caucasian.
Because I did want to reach out to all races. Marvel has always pioneered — for years — in having people of other races in the comics, from Black Panther through Luke Cage and a few others. I made up the concept for another group a little later, I think it was in one of the kung fu magazines we had, “magazines” being the black and white comics, as we called them. I made up a concept — I forget if I made up the name — called the Sons of the Tiger. It was three people: one white, one black, one Asian. I turned that over to other people and let them handle it. I figured if that doesn’t hold, people are just too damn particular, they’re just too damn sensitive for their own good or anybody else’s. But then I really don’t have much sympathy at all to trigger warnings or any of that crap. I think it’s overdone and nobody but a baby needs it, an intellectual baby.
On the other hand, if they had decided to make Iron Fist an Asian, that would have been fine with me, too. I wouldn’t have cared. I didn’t consider myself the safeguard of some kind of Caucasian literary standard or anything like that. But I would have found it easier to write about a Caucasian, so that’s one reason I probably did it. If somebody had suggested, “You want to make it so he’s Asian?” Well, we could have done that too.
He could have a buddy who was Asian. It could have been a trio, like that group I just mentioned. You know, just make up a new character. Don’t worry about trashing another one. Just make up a new one. There’s always room for one, and it’s always better to be creative than to be a critic. I’ve been both. It’s better to be creative. There’s nothing wrong with being a critic, but after a while, you’re basically talking about other people’s work. That’s perfectly okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a perfectly respectable thing, but I think you should try to put yourself in their shoes instead of constantly complaining because they didn’t do exactly what you think they should have done. Rather than having that, you should go out and do it yourself.
Is there anything that you’re hoping to see in the Netflix show?
I hope they keep the dragon on his chest.
I think they do, yeah. He has the dragon on his chest.
That’s really the only thing I care about because it’s the only thing I really added by myself to his visual look. The rest of it was mostly Gil with my guidance and kibitzing. The dragon on the chest is the main thing I have a feeling about, but if they decided not to, fine. They have their reasons. I like the fact that, as Gil did, they sometimes have this kind of fiery aura trailing up from his hand. I like that. After all, he’s Iron Fist, so it’s good to do that.
The main thing is just the feel of it, but I really don’t care. Things have to be adapted for different media. When you get heroes like Superman or Batman or even Spider-Man sometimes, they’re so adapted in so many people’s minds that you need to keep them very faithful. Iron Fist, like Luke Cage, is more of an open book you can do almost anything with because there are not that many people who know the character that well. Even Daredevil had a lot of play, but they’ve been reasonably faithful. They’ve still got Karen Page, and they’ve got Foggy. They’ve got the legal situation, a few things here and there. There are a lot of changes made, but you can still see the roots of the comic book in it.
And a lot of little in-jokes, like having to say his name is Mike once, when that was that twin brother of Matt Murdock’s that he pretended to be for a little while.
I love little in-jokes. They’re just things that people do to have fun. I think the people [working with] Marvel [movies] like to do things like that too. I remember when I saw Ultron, the second Avengers movie, there’s something in there. I forget exactly what the verb is. It wasn’t what I wrote. It was like “invaders become Avengers” or something like that. That was kind of funny because it took that word, Avengers, and it played it back to the group I had made, the Invaders, which was Captain America and a bunch of heroes back in World War II.
But it didn’t make any sense to have that line in the movie, so I never asked [Joss Whedon] about it, but I assume the director, with whom I was in touch briefly, just put that in as a little joke. Otherwise, it made no sense to use the word “invaders” in that movie. I figured that was just an in-joke, you know.
However he comes out, I’m happy to see the character on TV. I’ll be happy to cash my little check when it comes. I’m such a fan of superhero groups and have been ever since I was four or five years old, starting with the Justice Society of America. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they handle that group, just like I loved The Avengers movies even more than the ones about the individual heroes. Some people like the heroes individually and don’t like the group thing. I’m a big fan of superhero groups and have been since I was 4 years old.
The Marvel people finally took pity on me and gave me the first three or four series and everything. I just finished watching them recently. The first two series of Daredevil and the first one of the other two. Now I’m looking forward to seeing the second Luke Cage. I’m sorry they didn’t do another Jessica Jones. In many ways, Jessica Jones, although I’m not that familiar with that character in comics, was my favorite because I love what they did with the old Daredevil villain Kilgrave in it. I thought he was the best of the villains in the thing. I hope they do equally well by Iron Fist and The Defenders.
Iron Fist is now available on Netflix.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.