By Steve Morris
The second storyline of the Fraction/Brubaker/Aja/Hollingsworth run on The Immortal Iron Fist brought Danny Rand back to K’un Lun so he could participate in a tournament which would pit him against the immortal weapons of every other heavenly state. The “Tournament of the Heavenly Cities” is only held once every 88 years, so it’s quite the honour for Danny to be invited to take part. It’s also important, because if he doesn’t win then K’un Lun will be forced apart from Earth for the next fifty years. However, the way the tournament itself plays out across the storyline is not what you might have expected for a series called, y’know, The Immortal Iron Fist.
Danny is already distracted when he arrives for the tournament, and his New Yorker attitude doesn’t match up to the more formal setting he had to re-acclimatise himself to. The heavenly cities come across as more than a little bit regressive, with women in serving roles and men given the power. When he meets the rest of the players in the tournament, each one gets a panel with description of who they are and what they can do. The women are both sexualised almost immediately, in stark deference to all the men, who are completely clothed and typically described as being mysterious or honourable. The men in the tournament made it in due to their power and ability; by comparison, the women seem to be shown as being more devious and untrustworthy.
And then there’s Fat Cobra, who gets the least descriptive description imaginable:
His size and strength are only outclassed by his speed.
Not exactly the most inspiring way to introduce a character. But Fat Cobra was arguably the character with the most longevity out of all the characters brought in during this storyline, and it’s because once he gets to speak for himself and actually do stuff in the issue, it’s apparent that he’s actually Hercules.
Fat Cobra sits very comfortably into a particular type of male character who appears throughout comics: he’s a boisterous fat man who drinks and eats a lot, and sleeps with lots of women. See also: Hercules. See also: Armstrong from Archer & Armstrong. See also: Volstagg, although he’s monogamous. There’s a number of characters like this. It again shows some of the regression within comics even in this relatively modern era: women are constantly just a reward for Cobra whenever he wins a match, and at one point he gambles with one of the other competitors. The reward isn’t money, though: Cobra wants women. It’s, of course, pretty regrettable. But it’s also probably why he still shows up in comics to this day, whereas nobody can say what happened to Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter.
He’s at once a positive and negative fat character in comics – stylised after sumo wrestlers, he chooses to fight Danny in the first round of the competition, which is probably why he gets such a generic introductory caption. He’s also then shown to put on an exhibition match – which again counter-intuitively is designed to set him up as a failure in the minds of readers. By seeing this relatively generic character get an impressive victory in the first round of the contest, we’re taught that he’s going to lose the fight to Danny. The Immortal Iron Fist is our protagonist, after all, and it’d be strange if the tournament were thrown into the wind after just one fight. Right?
And yet that’s exactly what happens. Danny loses to Fat Cobra, beaten into submission. Cobra then calls for “victory wenches” because, again, this comic has some issues. The shock of Danny’s loss is later calmed down by a secondary storyline which opens up for him, which requires him to be away from the competition for the rest of its duration. And, in fact, the tournament itself slowly faded out of relevance: we don’t see Fat Cobra fight in the second round, and it’s suggested the second round doesn’t even complete. There’s certainly no winner at the end, which is just a curious choice, but one which keeps the comic fascinating to the last. The tournament is stripped out of the narrative once it’s been used to properly introduce each of the participants: it has no purpose after that point, and so we move away from it and onto other matters.
The weapons ultimately team up to take on an invading Hydra force, which results in the gates of the heavenly cities being left open so all the weapons can then head out into Earth for a bit, and have a look round. That means there’s no need for the tournament to decide who gets priority – they all head out as equals.
Fat Cobra’s storyline goes on to random other comics where people inevitably start making some incredibly poor storytelling choices: it turns out at one point in his past he was sexually abused whilst in a coma; he hung out with Elvis Presley and Nick Fury; he also performed bit-parts in Hollywood before coming back to appear in this tournament. Bad, bad ideas which it’s for the best we forget about. For this story, all that really matters is: he’s a stock type, but he’s able to defeat Danny Rand. His generic nature, which echoes other heroes in other comics, is part of the set-up to stop readers from realising that the tournament isn’t actually what matters.
He’s an entertaining distraction, and keeps the tournament storyline spinning in the background even as the writers slow it down and ultimately move on to other matters. Because we recognise in Cobra the sparks of other characters who have a fanbase: he’s barely introduced in the story, and yet we feel like we know him already. It’s that familiarity which helps “get the character over”, in wrestling terms. It’s also what creates such a shock when he punches Danny in the head and knocks him out. Generic characters aren’t meant to defeat our lead hero. It’s a canny trick in the way it sets up Cobra himself, but also gives us so much character for Danny Rand himself. He’s more interesting in defeat than in victory, and it’s only by losing that he can ultimately give everybody a happy ending.
The Immortal Iron Fist #9
Writers: Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker
Artists: David Aja with Roy Allan Martinez and Scott Koblish
Colourists: Matt Hollingsworth and June Chung
Letterer: Artmonkeys Studios
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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