Friday, 2 August 2013

Essential Luke Cage, Power Man volume 1

This one is sometimes also listed as "Essential Power Man", in part because of where the series's ever changing title eventually went (but we'll wait until issue #50 for that) and in part because "Luke Cage" was never actually part of the original series's registered title (but that's all in the legal information). Anyhow whatever it's called, it contains the first twenty-seven issues of the character's series, which was entitled on the cover "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire" until issue #16 then "Luke Cage, Power Man" until issue #49. The only missing material is a back-up reprint in issue #15 of a story from the 1950s Sub-Mariner Comics #35.

The first issue is written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by George Tuska with "Creative contributions" by Roy Thomas and John Romita. After that the writing is by variously Goodwin, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Tony Isabella, Len Wein and a fill-in by Bill Mantlo, with some co-scripting by Billy Graham. The art is mainly by Tuska, Graham and Ron Wilson with the last issue here drawn by George Pérez.

The lead character's origin is relatively straightforward but with enough elements that allow for several stories to be spun out of it. Framed for a crime he didn't commit by his partner who steals his girlfriend, who is later killed in a car crash, and jailed, Carl Lucas agrees to undergo a scientific experiment in the hope of a parole. A maverick prison officer interferes in the experiment and he winds up with super strength and skin as strong as steel. Thinking he's killed the officer, Lucas flees and escapes but finds difficulty in getting a job without a past. Then after being given a reward he decides to go into business as a hero for hire under the alias "Luke Cage". It's a surprisingly natural approach to origins. Cage doesn't have huge resources he can draw upon or even a supportive relative and altruism is all well and true but it doesn't put food on the table. He's in a down to earth situation dealing with ground level problems and is all the stronger for it.

It's no secret that Marvel hasn't had many successful black characters over the years. There have been a number on various teams, most obviously Storm of the X-Men, but it's often difficult to transfer a team member to an ongoing solo title. The Falcon became a co-star with Captain America for an extended period but buddy books aren't quite the same thing as solo titles (again something to come back to when considering issue #50). Of the solo title characters, only two have so far been collected in the Essentials - Luke Cage and Black Panther, but they're by far the most successful. The only others whose titles lasted two years or more that I can think of are War Machine and Deathlok (but give the current Ultimate Spider-Man a few more months). But note that most of those names have used by more than one character, sometimes without any actual connection between them, and the most prominent versions have used other identities. Both problems have afflicted other prominent black Avengers, such as the second Captain Marvel/the first Photon/Pulsar or Triathlon/the second 3-D Man, and the same is true of Black Goliath/the second Giant-Man. I've probably got the numbering wrong on some of those. But the general point stands that multiple identities for a character and multiple characters for an identity can often drown their profile in confusion and limit their opportunity to grow in popularity. Perhaps that's why the moniker "Luke Cage" has been the primary usage in recent years (although even during the 1997 title Heroes for Hire the term "Power Man" could be found on covers), as it's much harder for that name to get taken by a different character.

And the names themselves can be a mess. A lot of black superheroes of this era wound up with "Black" in their name - e.g. Black Goliath, the Black Panther or (over at DC) Black Lightning. As late as 1981, the cartoon character Blackstar was going to be black until somebody decided such an approach was cliched and made him white. (Changing the name might have been better, even if he was someone who had gone through a black hole.) Luke Cage was lucky to avoid this but could have come close - in issue #17 when he's looking for a new name he says "Just chalk it up to black power, man" and thinks "Black power, man? Power Man?" and decides on the latter as his codename. Luckily he didn't go down the road of "Black Power Man" which sounds as silly as "Black Goliath" - neither of the earlier heroes were "White Goliath", nor for that matter was the villain who later took the "Goliath" name but at this stage was still called "Power Man".

Speaking of the previous Power Man, he shows up in issue #21, seeking to stop Cage from using his name but instead loses and gets told to find another. It's a rare appearance from the wider Marvel universe and amazingly for an early 1970s Marvel series it instead largely focuses on creating its own characters and villains instead of drowning the hero in guest appearances. The first significant foe from outside doesn't appear until issue #8 but you can't get much bigger than Doctor Doom. Bizarrely he hires Cage to take down some renegade androids who look like people, and chooses the Hero for Hire because the androids are black and none of Doom's Latverian subjects are. Then Doom chooses to shut down the Latverian Embassy in New York rather than honour his subordinate's promise of a fee of US $200 and this leads Cage to visit the Fantastic Four to borrow a rocket to pursue Doom for the debt where he briefly gets involved with a rebellion led by the mysterious Faceless One. However this story has no full on team-up with the Four, whilst a Spider-Man appearance promised on the back cover is largely just a glimpse of an encounter that took place over in the Amazing Spider-Man (covered in Essential Spider-Man volume 6). Otherwise issues #24 & #25 see Cage visit California where he clashes with the Circus of Crime and also introduces a new hero. The dialogue isn't always clear if he's "Goliath" or "Black Goliath" but the cover puts it beyond doubt. The most significant team-up with an existing hero comes in issue #17 when Cage somewhat gullibly falls for the story told by Orville Smythe that he's being hired to steal a new deep-space exploration suit to test Stark Industries. This leads to a battle with Iron Man but the two eventually deduce the real culprit.

Apart from these issues, plus the odd reference to his appearance in early issues of The Defenders, Cage largely operates aside from all that. This allows the series to develop on its own terms rather than feeding off an endless string of guest appearances. The signs are that the series initially took off well, starting bimonthly but going monthly with issue #4. However it soon ran into sales problems. Issue #17 brought not only a new name but also a reversion to bimonthly publication. Was it initially riding the wave of the blaxploitation bubble and then declining when that bubble burst? Or is my chronology off? But even with the slip in frequency Cage was blessed with a hard, edgy series that does things a little differently. As well as a hero who solicits money for his services, there's also a dark edge with a number of supporting characters dying. Villains also die easily with many falling to their deaths. And the fantasy element present in many series is downplayed here, with first a ghost and later a vampire revealed to be multiple men in masks.

The main supporting cast are well drawn. Dr Noah Burnstein is the scientist whose experiments empowered Cage in the first place; he now runs a clinic in New York and although he recognises Cage he opts against turning him in, instead encouraging him to find a way to clear his name. Working alongside Burnstein is Dr Claire Temple. Cage helps and protects the clinic and he and Claire soon fall for each other, but there's the brief complication of her former marriage to Bill Foster, now Black Goliath. Once that is resolved Claire and Cage admit their feelings and seem set for further developments. D. W. Griffith is a film student who works at his uncle's cinema which contains Cage's office; he rapidly becomes Cage's strongest friend.

Less lucky characters include Mrs. Jenks, the widow of an indebted accountant who had turned to Cage for help. A less likeable character comes in the form of Daily Bugle journalist Phil Fox who is pursuing Cage for stories. At one stage he discovers Cage's past but then gets involved with Rackham, the prison officer who caused the accident that gave Cage his full powers. In the process Fox and Rackham kidnap Mrs. Jenks, but Fox is killed by Rackham and when Claire discovers the scene she is arrested for the murder. However in the showdown Rackham is killed and Mrs. Jenks is fatally shot; before dying she claims responsibility for Fox's death, freeing Claire. Death also eventually strikes Flea, a street informant who eventually gets poisoned. Luckier are Comanche and Shades, two fellow inmates of Cage's who hunt Rackham; when Cage saves their lives they repay him by not turning him in. A odd character is "Big Ben" Donovan, a lawyer who drunkenly tries to attack Cage when he assumes something is going on with Mrs. Jenks but subsequently becomes a friend and provides his services when needs be.

The new villains are largely low key, and rarely survive their first appearance, often falling to their doom. Diamondback is Cage's former partner who set him up over a woman; now a local crime boss who fights with trick switchblades it seems his capture will clear Cage's real name, but he falls through a skylight and an explosive knife of his detonates, killing him. Gideon Mace is an ex-army colonel discharged in disgrace whose right hand was lost in an explosion and has been replaced by a prosthetic mace. In his fist appearance it seems he has drown because of the mace, but he late resurfaces. A radical extremist who has come to hate what his country has become, he first assembles a militia and later sets up a seal community in the west to keep a community pure. Others include Phantom of 45th Street, a "ghost" who is actually the son of a former business partner of the owner of businesses on the street, Black Mariah, who runs a fake ambulance scam with bodies stolen and looted, or Raymond Fosythe, the seemingly lost grandson of a rich man who is trying to ensure he inherits his grandfather's riches. A particularly odd foe is Marley, who is planning to destroy New York with a nuclear device but decides to see if there are any good people left by disguising himself as a succession of victims and attackers one Christmas Eve. Señor Muerte is a casino operator who adopts a costume with a built in roulette wheel that decides which is his hands contains a lethal electric shock, but when Cage's chains get wrapped around him the shock backfires. Another foe whose weapon accidentally turns on him is Chemistro, who invented a gun that could change material into another form of matter but only temporarily before it disintegrates. He seeks revenge on his former employers who stole the patent, but in a struggle with Cage he turns his own foot to steel and it disintegrates. Also seeking revenge on his employer is Steeplejack, a construction worker whose brothers had an accident and fell to their deaths, but his own blow torch melts the girder and he plummets to his death. Then there's Lionfang, a scientist who transferred intelligence into animals until his funding was cut off; he is yet another foe to fall to his death. Or there are Stiletto and Discus, two would-be mercenaries who try to take Cage in; they turn out to be the sons of his former prison warden. Crimelord Cotton Mouth and his aide, Mr. Slick, had been involved in the crime that Cage was framed for. Realising their records may potentially clear his name, Cage pretends to join them but is soon discovered. Unfortunately he only learns that the sole source of records is Slick after the latter has fallen to his death. The tale also brings Cage into conflict with rival drug dealer Morgan. At the more bizarre end is the Night Shocker, seemingly a vampire but actually a fake set-up to try to get Cage to kill a man for money. And finally there's the Man Called X, a washed up wrestler who temporarily gains extra powers and gets into fights until his manager restrains him - there's a touch of the Spider-Man character "Just A Guy Named Joe" about him and the story is even entitled "Just a Guy Named X", though the manager has a different fate.

Overall this series is reasonably well drawn, though there's something odd looking about issue #18. It's by George Tuska but is more off than other issues - then I spotted it was inked by Vince Colletta. Maybe it's the reproduction but compared to subsequent issues inked by him some of the art looks particularly crude, suggesting Colletta's critics may well have a case. As for the writing it generally holds up well except in one area. Cage's slang has long been a source of dislike and ridicule. I don't honestly know what was standard on the streets on New York in the early to mid 1970s but I'd very surprised if people really did use such classics as "motherless" (and that's often a generic adjective rather than a noun referring to people), "sweet sister" and "Christmas". Cage's most famous expression, "Sweet Christmas", doesn't appear until issue #27, and under his sixth writer, and for much of the volume I wondered if this was a misquotation (or if used later on then a latter day confusion). Would it have been viable to actually do a bit of research to find out just what was actually in use on the street and safe to print? It doesn't sound like it would have required much effort.

But dubious slang aside, this is quite a good start to the series and character. It was a bold move of Marvel's to launch a new character straight off in his own title - most of his contemporaries were given some issues of try-out series to establish a newsstand presence first. Luke Cage was luckier and the series rewarded that faith. We get a self-confident hero who holds his own in spite of his troubled past and who doesn't need endless guest appearances by the rest of the Marvel universe to prop his series up. A few covers proudly highlight Cage as the America's first black superhero - presumably because he was the first to get his own title because otherwise the Black Panther and the Falcon might want words - but there isn't a great overt push of race in the series. At least not one I can spot but I'm a white man in another country reading this forty years later. Cage wears a big chain around his waist "as a kind of reminder", but is that of his time in prison or of his ancestors? I have no idea just how accurate or stereotypical the environment Cage occupies is - but then the same could be said of Iron Man, Daredevil or any number of other series. What I can say is the series broadly works and gives Cage a strong starting point.

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