The Inside Story of How Marvel Created 'Iron Fist'

'Iron Fist' creator Roy Thomas was inspired by 1970s kung fu movies.

Netflix/Marvel Entertainment

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 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.

Iron Fist gets his name from the legendary, ancient Iron Fist, the greatest source of Chi energy on Earth. Harnessing the power of the heart of the mystic serpent Shou-Lao, Danny can uncork a superhuman punch to eviscerate his enemies. 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 his inspiration for creating the Iron Fist comic series, the process of getting his ideas onto the page, and passing the torch. He also spoke to Inverse about the TV show, and that conversation can be found here.

Marvel Comics

So how did you come up with Danny Rand and Iron Fist?

What I remember is: I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the kung fu-type stuff, but one of the first couple of movies that was released in kung fu — this is before anything by Bruce Lee, I think — had some sort of iron first … The Ceremony of the Iron Fist or something in some movie that I went to see with my first wife, Jean, one night on the Upper East Side in New York. This would have been in the early ‘70s. I think, by that time, I’d already approved and gotten Stan to approve the Master of Kung Fu thing that Steve Engleheart and Jim Starlin had created.

lI contributed to that by having them add Fu Manchu, and a couple of other little things. When I saw this movie, there was a ceremony of the Iron Fist in there and I thought, gee. We did have Iron Man as a character and, ordinarily, Stan and I both agreed that it’s good not to have too many characters with similar names if you can avoid it, so I don’t know why I didn’t suggest Steel Fist or something else. But I remember telling my wife as we walked a couple of blocks back to our apartment: “I think maybe there’s a character in there. I’d like to see a little more of a superhero approach to Kung fu in our comics, as opposed to just Master of Kung Fu.” Nice as that was.

I went in to Stan the next day. It was like a two-second sell. I mentioned the name and that it would be more of a superhero approach. He said great, and that was it.

*Note: Inverse asked Thomas to clarify exactly what movie from the early 1970s inspired him to create Iron Fist*. Thomas said, in an email: “I don’t recall the name of the movie my first wife and I saw that night, only that it was the first kung fu movie I saw (though not QUITE, I suspect, the first one released in the U.S.) and that it had a “ceremony of the Iron Fist” in it. Whether those words were in the title or not, I don’t know, but I believe it was a period piece, not a film set in the more or less-than-present.”

Sounds simple enough.

That was his creative contribution, and it’s a good one because I knew that he was the publisher. I was the editor-in-chief at that stage. Anyway, I immediately called my friend and one of my favorite artists, Gil Kane, who was always fond of saying he was never anybody’s first choice for something. But on certain things — and Iron Fist was one of them — he was the first person I thought of. More than, say, John Buscema or one of the other artists, I felt Gil would have just the right feel for a kung fu-type of hero, which is different from the kind of weightlifter characters that so many of the Marvel heroes are.

This guy was not to be a muscle man, strong as he might be. At least by comic book standards, he was not Thor or the Hulk, so I got permission. All I had was the name and the fact that I wanted him to be a costumed hero as opposed to just being an action hero the way the others were. It’d make him different. That was more of my interest anyway, so I got together with Gil with very little in mind in the way of an actual story except that he’d be a superhero.

What did you guys do from there?

We got together after I got off work one day. We talked it over, and the first thing he said was how much he liked an old character from 1939 that was created by a mutual friend of ours back then, Bill Everett. Everett is primarily known as the full creator of the Sub-Mariner, one of the great early Marvel characters. He was also the co-creator of Daredevil in ‘64. He had also, about the same time as Sub-Mariner, created this character called Amazing-Man for a small company. I think it switched companies, but it was basically usually referred to as the Centaur Group. He had his own comic book right away: Amazing-Man comics.

Gil had always loved the origin of that character, which was basically a take-off on [James] Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, and Shangri-La, which, of course, he’d seen. I don’t know if he’d read [Lost Horizon] but everybody had heard of Shangri-La. These rogue characters existing in this Shangri-La type of city up in the Himalayas. They gave a test to this character so he could go out in the world. People just loved this story. It was public domain, hadn’t been used in a while. Bill died in February of ‘73 so I don’t know if he was still around, but if he had been he would have approved. He never really got possessive about it. Forget about legal rights, he wouldn’t have cared.

We worked right away, probably that same day we worked on the design for the costume. The one thing that I wanted was some symbol, and that became this dragon to be branded into his chest. This was because I had always loved a Simon and Kirby character from the ‘50s, a Western character called Bullseye who had a target branded on his chest. For some reason, I just liked that idea. Everything else, Gil and I just talked over. He came up with this costume and so forth. I wasn’t too wild about the sort of half-bare legs with the little slippers, but I said, “Well, I guess that’s kung fu.”

[Danny] had the right look. He had this nice, simple, straight mask and so forth. It just flowed. I said, “This is good. It’s totally different from Master of Kung Fu, from Shang-Chi, and it’ll be a good character.” We immediately went in and did the first issue. We were planning on continuing but then, I don’t know, we were just both very busy. Gil was always coming in and out of this and that because he had so many irons in the fire and was always so desperate to make a few bucks here and there. He had big alimony payments to make. In my case, I was very busy because I either had just become — or was in the process of becoming — the editor-in-chief of the company. That gave me additional responsibilities. I discovered I just didn’t really have the time to devote to this thing. I’d have to be doing a lot of research on kung fu, on all sorts of different things. I really didn’t care that much about doing it.

So you handed it over to someone else, then?

I gave a few ideas to another writer and artist and had them take over the second [issue]. The funny thing is, except for the little bit that I contributed indirectly to the second issue, I never worked on it again, as far as I can recall. Of course, Gil and I did the first story, and while other things have been added and subtracted in the meantime, everything kind of flows from the original story that we did, which I was really proud of.

Why was it, specifically, that you chose a dragon rather than anything else?

I don’t know if I specifically chose the dragon; that was just a good symbol. The main thing was I wanted it to be a chest symbol. We could have made it a fist, but I think somehow a fist looked kind of silly. There was a wonderful take-off of Superman called the Flying Fist, which is just an image of a fist flying around. It’s been done, I think, a time or two, but I didn’t like it. The dragon just seemed like kind of a nice thing. Maybe that was Gil’s idea. Just because he’s called Iron Fist doesn’t mean we have to have an iron fist on his chest.

I’ve always been a big believer in chest symbols. I’ve always been disappointed that I didn’t put crossbones on Ghost Rider, for example, below that skull. It’s a good visual thing to draw the eye. It worked pretty well for Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and a few other characters. In this case, I just wanted something there, not just a bare chest. I wanted a brand of some kind. It became a dragon, which made a lot of sense.

What was added later on that you particularly enjoyed or felt strongly about?

I was just so busy. I never had a chance to read that many of the stories, or if I did, I don’t really recall them. The only thing that I remember that was interesting was: After my time, Iron Fist and another book, Luke Cage or Power Man, neither one was selling too great. Maybe Luke Cage was a little stronger. They combined them into that comic book that some people call “Power Fist.” That wasn’t the official name, of course. I thought that was a nice idea. It’s sort of interesting that now those two characters are two of the four characters that Marvel has put onto the TV thing — [The Defenders]. I don’t know if it’s by coincidence or what, but now you’ve got Power Man and Iron Fist together again on TV as they were for a while in comics.

Other than that, I never paid a lot of attention to the comic book. I would look over the covers and make sure it looked like good action stuff during my remaining time as editor-in-chief, and when I left that I never paid attention. It was just nice to see it was going along. It wasn’t a super popular book but it was going along, and if he died in one book he’d come back in something else. It had kind of a nice life. I’m glad to see that.

Is there anyone beside yourself and Gil Kane who was involved with creating Iron Fist?

It was all Gil and me. Stan wasn’t involved except to say “okay.” Now by the second story, of course, there were people helping develop the character. But as far as the creation, some characters have a lot of creators. Luke Cage would have four or five, depending on how you want to count it. I mean, Stan got it going, myself, writer Archie Goodwin, designer John Armeda. The first artist was George Tuska. Even the inker, Billy Graham, we put him in because we wanted the black characters to look right and so forth. We had five or six people who had creative input into that one, but the only two in Iron Fist were Gil and myself. Nobody else had any creative input in that at all, until at least the second issue, after the character was totally created and his origin was already worked out.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Iron Fist is now available on Netflix.

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