Thursday, 31 October 2013

Essential Marvel Horror volume 1

It's Halloween so it's time for a look at some of Marvel's horror output...

Essential Marvel Horror volume 1 is a rare example of the anthology Essential, collecting the adventures of particular characters from multiple titles in order, rather than the more conventional approach of collecting individual series in order. Here the focus is upon Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, and his sister Satana. In theory this volume could have been called Essential Children of Satan but it's much harder to use that name in this day and age than in the 1970s. (It was originally solicited as "Essential Son of Satan", forgetting about the daughter, but several big sellers refused to carry a book with that title.) The stories collected are from a mixture of preview series, black and white magazines, the Son of Satan's own series and guest titles. Included is material from Ghost Rider #1-2, Marvel Spotlight #12-24, Son of Satan #1-8, Marvel Two-in-One #14, Marvel Team-Up #32 & #80-81, Vampire Tales #2-3, Haunt of Horror #2 & #4-5, Marvel Premiere #27 and Marvel Preview #7. Bonus material includes an original page from Son of Satan #8 that was rejected by the Comics Code Authority; a replacement was written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by John Romita.

With a lot of issues there's a lot of creators. So here goes... Gary Friedrich writes the Ghost Rider and early Marvel Spotlight issues, being succeeded on the latter by Steve Gerber who co-writes one with Mike Friedrich, then the final one is by Chris Claremont. Most of the Son of Satan series is by John Warner bar the final issue by Bill Mantlo who also writes the Marvel Two-in-One issue. The first Marvel Team-Up is by Gerry Conway who also writes the second Vampire Tales and first Haunt of Horror issues. The second Vampire Tales is by Roy Thomas and the rest of Haunt of Horror are by Claremont and Tony Isabella. Claremont then writes the Marvel Premiere and Marvel Preview issues and the last two Marvel Team-Ups. The art is by Tom Sutton and Jim Mooney on Ghost Rider, Mooney, Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema on Marvel Spotlight, then Mooney, Sonny Trinidad, P. Craig Russell, Ed Hannigan and Russ Heath on Son of Satan. Trimpe draws the Marvel Two-in-One issue and Buscema and Mike Vosburg draw the Marvel Team-Ups. The Vampire Tales stories are drawn by John Romita and Esteban Maroto. The Haunt of Horror material is drawn by Pablo Marcos, Enrique Romero, Pat Broderick and George Evans. The Marvel Premiere issue is drawn by "The Tribe", presumably a group emergency effort, and the Marvel Preview is drawn by Vincente Alcazar. Whew. It will come as no surprise that two separate posts are needed to carry some of the creator labels, one for writers, one for artists.

The contents were originally published in two rather different formats - comics, and thus subject to the regulation of the Comics Code Authority, and larger black and white magazines aimed at an older marker and without such regulation. The magazines also contained some text stories and features and included here are a couple of contemporary behind the scenes pieces which explore the process of Satana's creation and development, hampered by deadlines not being met and publications getting cancelled. It's clear that many in the Marvel Bullpen had high hopes for her but ultimately found themselves unable to develop her much, and it's unsurprising that her last solo writer, Chris Claremont, opted to give her story closure and save her from a long run of mediocre and inconsistent guest appearances by killing her off when he later got the chance.

The contrast between the tone of the two publication formats is pretty stark with Satana, although the Marvel Team-Up issues were published a few years later and it seems either the Code had been relaxed or was less rigorously enforced. Satana's regular costume is very daring, ranging from her open chest and exposed cleavage to her fur boots with distinctive toes that from the right angle make it look as though she has cloven hooves. When she appears in both Marvel Premiere and in the flesh in Marvel Spotlight (though not when she pops up in her brother's dreams) the costume is different, with no exposed cleavage or hooves. Satana's actions also vary a bit - in the magazines there's no holding back from calling her a succubus or showing her stealing the souls, although even then she's shown taking them only with a kiss rather than the full on sexual intercourse traditionally associated with succubuses, but once again under the Code this racier side of things is overlooked. Her introduction doesn't pull punches as it shows her disguised on city streets and being chased by a rapist whose soul she steals and later she's shown street walking and seducing a passing man.

Unfortunately this volume suffers from some problems of order. Marvel Team-Up #32 was published the same month as Marvel Spotlight #21 and matches the status quo around then. However it's placed right at the end of the Son of Satan part of the volume, coming after Marvel Two-in-One #14 even though that issue references Team-Up #32. Both issues are set around the New Year, just adding to the discrepancy. Even more confusion stems from the basic decision to place all the son's stories before the daughter's, despite the two having first appeared almost at the same time and despite Satana appearing a few times in her brother's stories at a point towards the end of her own.

Despite this the volume presents two sagas of siblings tortured by their half-human, half-demonic natures. Separated early in life when their mother discovered the truth about her husband, there's a strong contrast between the would-be priest turned exorcist who struggles to control his demonic side as he seeks to oppose his father, and the woman who has embraced her demonic nature and spends most of her early appearances seeking to break the spells that prevent her from being reunited with her father. The actual struggles don't get the strongest of portrayals and over time both move beyond their initial portrayals in different ways, but by the time of Marvel Spotlight #24 the two siblings have been separately established to the point that the clash between them feels like a real conflict of philosophies.

The changes themselves are mixed. In his initial appearances in Ghost Rider, Daimon Hellstrom appears to be another in a line of two entities sharing a single body, a mild mannered exorcist and a demon in human form. Even the transformations come at dawn and dusk, much like the original changes for both Ghost Rider and the Hulk. However there isn't a great deal of distinction between the two forms of Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan with clear continuity of identity and memory, so it's of little surprise that as early as Marvel Spotlight #15 the arrangement is altered by Satan and from then on the two natures are merged into a single being. There's a few points after this when the two identities are shown separately though the most notable case here is in Marvel Team-Up #32, which suggests updated information on the character did not reach Gerry Conway in time. (Another one comes in a later appearance in Howard the Duck where Steve Gerber had less of an excuse.) Satana's struggle is more drawn out, with the character starting as an out and out succubus but steadily finds her human side affecting her more and more, especially when she meets a defrocked Catholic priest who saves her life from a group of paramilitary religious fanatics. Later she discovers her father was behind sealing her off from Hell as a way of testing her (yet another Marvel ruler with an inability to simply tell their offspring the basics) but at a crucial point she refuses to take the ex-priest's soul and is banished forever. Her soul has been bonded with a spirit called the Basilisk and she continues to struggle against this whilst seeking redemption. The final story in the volume is a two-parter from Marvel Team-Up in which she gives her life to save Doctor Strange, achieving victory over the Basilisk and redemption in the process.

By and large these stories are somewhat isolated from the wider Marvel universe with appearances by other heroes confined to the various team-up comics and Hellstrom's initial appearance in the pages of Ghost Rider. Instead the two siblings face new situations and foes. Appearing from the outset is "Satan", who, unsurprisingly given where the story starts, is initially presented here as the same being with whom Johnny Blaze made his deal with the Devil. It would be several years before Marvel would cause no end of confusion in its attempts to row away from presenting the actual Devil as a character and instead turn the various (and often inconsistent) portrayals by various names into separate entities such as Mephisto or Lucifer. But as far as the stories in this volume are concerned, there is only one entity and he is the actual thing. Most of the other foes Hellstrom encounters are other lesser demons, some of whom are pawns of Satan but others are independent operatives. Reading through I thought many of the names seemed familiar, but the only one lifted directly from writings on Satanism is Baphomet. Curiously the lead foe in the later issues also has a pre-existing name but comes instead from Egyptian mythology - Anubis, the god of funerals who empowers an estate agent into becoming his pawn Mindstar. The rest of the demons seen are all Marvel creations including Ikthalon, Kometes, Spyros, Allatou, Kthara and Proffet, also known as the Celestial Fool. Closer to the more mortal level are foes such as the cult known as the Legion of Nihilists and their powerful leader, Father Darklyte, or Madame Swabada, a Tarot reader and fortune teller embittered by negative press which gave her a heart attack. Despite having died her spirit is still seeking revenge until she is exorcised. The Possessor is an illusionist whom two demons tried to use as a host but instead wound up under his control, along with Nightfire, a Native American transformed by his master. The two team-up issues bring their own foes - Marvel Two-in-One features 19th century criminal Jedadiah Ravenstorm possessed by Kthara and Marvel Team-Up brings conflict with Dryminextes, another demon.

Satana's small number of adventures see her face off against a few foes, the most prominent of whom are the mysterious group called "the Four", demons who seem to be the ones who erect a barrier preventing her from returning to hell, but ultimately it's revealed to be Satan behind it. There are a mixture of other demons, mystics and mortal crusaders, but virtually all die in the process. So too do Satana's few friends and allies such as Exiter, her black cat familiar, Zennarth, an incubus, and Michael Heron, the defrocked priest turned medic. Daimon's supporting cast have a better survival rate but it is also limited and comes in two distinct phases of Hellstrom's career. The most prominent character is Kathy Reynolds, a lecturer in parapsychology at Gateway University who calls in Hellstrom to investigate reported haunting at the university and who steadily falls for him but it never really gets anywhere. Also caught up in some of Hellstrom's adventures around Gateway University is Byron Hyatt, a divinity student training for the ministry. Both characters disappear at the end of the Marvel Spotlight run when Hellstrom leaves to return to the house he grew up in. Later Hellstrom takes a position at the University of the District of Columbia, where he meets Saripha Thames, who tuns out to be a Wiccan witch. By the end of the series the two are an item but there's no time left to explore their relationship further.

It was very daring of Marvel just to feature the Devil as a character in their comics, even if they were tapping into a wider trend of interest in the occult. But to go a step further and introduce characters who were unambiguously (at least until later retcons came along) the children of Satan and named as such in the titles of their features was an incredible move and from today's perspective it's amazing that it didn't provoke any outcry or boycotts. Maybe the 1970s distributors and retailers had thicker skins than the 21st century book sellers who forced a title change on this volume, or maybe there just weren't well organised groups back then who could kick up enough fuss to cause either publishers, distributors or retailers to back away from titles with "Satan" in them. But the result is an interesting set of stories. The tales of Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan are pretty good, if a little repetitive, and still hold up well. However it's the lesser known tales of Satana that really stand out, probably because most of them were published outside the Comics Code Authority and were thus able to take really bold steps. The precise order of the issues in this volume could do with a little rethink, but overall this is a very solid collection.

Essential Marvel Horror volume 1 - writer creator labels

We have a volume with a huge number of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for the writers.

Essential Marvel Horror volume 1 - artist creator labels

We have a volume with a huge number of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for most of the artists.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 1

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 1 collects issues #1-25 of Tomb of Dracula plus Werewolf by Night #15 and a story from Giant-Size Chillers #1. The latter comic was a contemporary of Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 and Giant-Size Super-Stars #1, an early, anthology approach to the Giant-Sizes before a switch to individual named series. (Confusingly less than a year later the title and numbering were reused for a brief anthology series of short stories.) The early Tomb of Dracula issues are written by Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin and Gardner Fox before Marv Wolfman begins a long run, and he also writes the Werewolf by Night and Giant-Size Chillers issues. Gene Colan draws all the Tomb of Dracula and Giant-Size Chillers issues whilst Mike Ploog handles Werewolf by Night.

I read the original Bram Stoker novel Dracula when I was about eleven or twelve but on reflection this was almost certainly an abridged version - not only was it stocked in a school library with pupils as young as ten but it came in a double edition flip-book with The Phantom of the Opera and I don't remember the resulting edition being enormous. So I suspect some of the themes of the novel were either stripped out or sufficiently subtle that I didn't recognise them, leaving something of a traditional adventure story. But of course Dracula's fame also stems from endless movies where the public domain status of the novel has meant complete freedom for studios to do whatever they like with the character without having to have regard for Stoker's original vision. Here we get something close to the Stoker novel but toned down with the overt sexual themes absent.

At the surface level Dracula's main focus is upon a supply of blood and hatred of the human race. However it can't be denied that many of his victims are female and there's a strong element of the predatory male in the approach as shown by the cover to issue #1 which is used for the volume as a whole. However Dracula also at times acts to help women, taking steps to tackle the ghost haunting one, and at other times pouncing on attackers or even empowering a dying woman so she can take her revenge upon her killer. Dracula himself is a rare example of a villainous title character; normally it's rare for such series to last because of the difficulty in having the villain win or escape all the time, but here the main character has a strong presence, intelligence and charisma that lures the reader back for more. As the series progresses it's established that the struggle against vampires in general and Dracula in particular has lasted a long time, so it can be seen as part of a great epic.

The series is primarily set in Europe with occasional shifts to the east. Oddly there's hardly any reference as to which country Transylvania is located in or the difficulty in travelling across the Iron Curtain to Romania. It is supposedly the present day, even if London is full of the fog, cobbled streets and widespread use of Cockney and "bloody" that bears more resemblance to an ignorant Hollywood executive's conception than reality. As a latter day sequel to a late Victorian gothic horror novel there's something vaguely appropriate about that, but as a Londoner all too often it feels as though American writers are succumbing to cliché. The series is set in the regular Marvel universe but doesn't actually overlap on it much. The only characters to appear from elsewhere are Jack Russell the Werewolf and Topaz, his mysterious magical friend, thanks to a crossover between the two titles. Otherwise Dracula did pop up in the first issue of Giant-Size Spider-Man which came out towards the end of the run contained in this volume, but that isn't included here. Since the series is primarily set outside the States it's not too surprising that there aren't many guest stars piling in from the superhero titles. Instead the focus is upon the title character and those who seek to stop him.

Amongst his opponents are a group of vampire hunters drawn together. Some other characters are either taken directly from the novel or are descended from people in it. Introduced at the start is Frank Drake, a modern day member of the Dracula family - whether he's directly descended from the vampiric Count is a precise detail that changes with the writers - and the heir to Castle Dracula. His immediate family have altered their surname to escape the associations with the novel - here treated as an account of actual events - and the resurrection of the Count has quite a chilling effect upon him. When exploring the castle he's inherited, his friend Clifton Graves stumbles across a coffin containing a skeleton with a stake in it; removing the stake revives Count Dracula who hypnotises Graves into being his servant. Drake's girlfriend Jeanie is bitten by Dracula and becomes a vampire herself; subsequently Drake is forced to destroy her with a stake and sunlight and the horror of having had to "kill" her remains with him for a long time.

A similar horror of having to destroy a woman close to him comes to Quincy Harker. He is the baby born at the end of the book, son of Jonathan Harker and his wife Mina and named after Quincy Morris, who died in what appeared to be the final confrontation with Dracula. Trained by Abraham van Helsing to carry on the fight, Quincy Harker has spent nearly his entire life fighting vampires, including Dracula (when a retcon has him active for much of the intervening years), and though now elderly and confined to a wheelchair he continues to guide the younger vampire hunters. In another dark moment Harker's daughter Edith is captured by Dracula and although freed she has in the meantime been turned into a vampire, her greatest fear. Rather than face an undead existence as one, she throws herself from a great height to disable her body and Quincy is forced to perform the brutal process to destroy her.

Rachel van Helsing is spared from having to perform such a horrific action on one she cares for, but her life has been no less tragic. The granddaughter of Dracula's greatest foe, she has experienced tragedy throughout her life as Dracula has killed many of her family. Despite this she never gives in and even at her worst moment when she and Dracula are trapped in snowswept mountains and each has to keep the other alive in order to survive, she is still determined to destroy him even if it comes at the cost of her own life. A heavily serious person, she does nevertheless find comfort with Drake. She is usually accompanied by her servant Taj Nitall who is a super strong mute Indian, a stereotype more acceptable forty years ago than now. Taj is loyal and incredible durable, surviving some pretty violent encounters with Dracula and/or his hypnotised henchmen, but there isn't a great deal revealed about him. At the end he receives a message from India and rushes there, to see his hated estranged wife and be told their son is dying but the subplot isn't resolved within this volume.

By far the best known of the vampire hunters introduced here is Blade the Vampire-Slayer, debuting about a quarter of a century before Buffy. Although he's a little underused there's a strong background given for him and one that is actually quite detached from Dracula, making it easy to spin him off into adventures elsewhere. His mother was attacked by a vampire whilst pregnant and died; he now seeks revenge but has yet to find the specific vampire. At one point he is bitten by Dracula but Harker discovers that Blade has an immunity due to his heritage. The character adds a degree of dynamism but doesn't last too long, eventually leaving the group to focus on find his own mother's killer.

As well as the nasty moments that have affected almost all of the vampire hunters the series contains some other quite dark moments, such as when Jason Faust, an embittered businessmen now paralysed and trapped in an iron lung, is bitten and turned into a vampire. Unable to move to sate his thirst, he can only lie in pain and await the sunlight which will destroy him. Later Dracula comes across a scheming man pushing his wife off a cliff so he and his mistress can inherit her money; Dracula reaches the wife as she lies dying and turns her into a vampire so that she can seek her revenge. On another occasion he feigns a road accident to get close to a housewife who three days later heads home and bites both her husband and their two young children. Not all of this is shown on panel but it's pretty heavy stuff and I'm amazed to see a series as old as this was published under the auspices of the Comics Code Authority. Dracula is also fairly brutal at times, including setting and detonating explosives on a ship, leaving his hypnotised henchman Clifton Graves behind to die.

But Graves survives and resurfaces as part of a new plot, though he seemingly dies again in it. One of the longest running subplots involves Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who has had his brain removed from his body and attached to computers, making for an extremely intelligent and powerful foe. Requiring and constant supply of blood to sustain him, he searches hard for the perfect vampire agent who can obtain the blood without suspicion of ulterior motives. A succession of cutaways show his agents, mainly based on the coast of Northern Ireland, searching and testing potential recruits before eventually locating Dracula. It's nice to see Northern Ireland for once being presented in fiction as an ordinary place and a reasonable location for an out of the way testing facility rather than fiction just focusing on the Troubles - given these issues were published in the period 1972 through 1974 this use is oddly a particularly encouraging example of hope. The Doctor Sun storyline also allows the series to briefly present Dracula as the victim and underdog, making his escape and survival less awkward.

It didn't take too long before a potential spin-off character appears. Lilith, Dracula's Daughter, is introduced in Giant-Size Chillers #1 but there is no familial bond between father and daughter owing to his treatment of her mother even before he became a vampire all those centuries ago. Lilith's own powers and abilities are slightly different, thanks to the gypsies who raised her, and she has no fear of sunlight or crucifixes but she also has the power to be reborn in the body of an innocent woman who hates her father. She proposes an alliance with her own father but he rejects it and leaves her to seek her own spin-off appearances elsewhere are part of Marvel's then thriving horror line.

The crossover with Werewolf by Night is hard to assess. In fiction in many mediums it's not uncommon to have Dracula mixing with other gothic monsters and the most common two are a werewolf and the monster of Frankenstein. So it's hard to deny that the Werewolf is a very appropriate first guest star (and this crossover predates even the encounter with Spider-Man over in Giant-Size Spider-Man). However the main focus of the crossover is upon fleshing out the backstory of the Werewolf, revealing the family curse, and it's tied into an encounter at Castle Dracula. Whilst this doesn't (at this stage at least) have much impact on the rest of Dracula's series, it does feel rather awkward to be tying the origin of one of the characters to another. There's no particular reason that I can see for the Werewolf to need such a connection and it if anything undermines the character's effectiveness. The crossover is also weakened by the failure to adequately introduce both the Werewolf/Jack Russell and Topaz to Dracula readers - the latter character may be deliberately mysterious but as presented here she could just as easily be the victim of poor explanations. I wonder if Werewolf by Night readers found the presence of Frank Drake and Rachel van Helsing equally confusing.

Overall this volumes shows a distinctly different type of series to Marvel's superhero fare and it works well without running for the traditional guest stars, villains or locations. Gene Colan's artwork always had a distinct style of its own but here is some his best ever work. Most of the issues are inked by Tom Palmer who complements Colan's pencils well but even the handful of issues handled by Vince Colletta hold up well - perhaps Colletta's effectiveness depended very much upon both the penciller and genre and here his style worked well. Marv Wolfman's scripts are also strong and compelling but there are some continuity errors noticeable when the issues are read altogether; it seems Wolfman was either implicitly or explicitly changing details only briefly established by the trio of writers on the handful of issues before him. As well as making Drake a direct descendent of Dracula we also get a regenerating castle that is burnt down by the local villagers in the first issue but later on appears as intact as ever. Initially it seems Dracula has lain in his coffin since the 1890s and the events of the Stoker novel but later on it's established he was last killed just three years earlier. Wolfman was hardly the first or last writer to seek to impose their own continuity upon a series but it's normally rare for Marvel series to make such changes without explicitly addressing what had come before. A rather odder change comes in the crossover when Drake and van Helsing take off in a helicopter in the Werewolf by Night issue but in the follow-up Tomb of Dracula issue Drake has been replaced by a pilot with no obvious time to change over.

A number of issues reference another series called Dracula Lives! This was a magazine format series outside the Comics Code Authority which was a predominantly standalone series that told tales of Dracula throughout his long history, including an adaptation of the novel. Although the occasional reference to events shown there can leave the reader wanting to see more, it doesn't detract from the readability of this volume. It takes a little time but once the team of Wolfman and Colan is in place the result is a spectacular gripping and biting series that remains true to both the source material and many of the popular conceptions of vampires but which also manages to stay engaging for the modern age.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Essential Black Panther volume 1

Essential Black Panther volume 1 contains Jungle Action #6-22 & #24 (plus the covers of the reprint issues #5 & #23 which reprinted Avengers #62 and Daredevil #69 respectively) and Black Panther #1-10. The Jungle Action stories are written by Don McGregor and drawn mainly by Rich Buckler and Billy Graham, with Gil Kane and Keith Pollard each contributing one issue. The Black Panther issues are all written and drawn by Jack Kirby. Bonus material includes some original layouts, pencils and full art from the series plus some of McGregor's note covered envelopes that held his papers on the series and even a letter from him to a young fan by the name of Ralph Macchio.

Jungle Action was the second series by that name. The original had been a mid 1950s title about white adventurers in the jungle. The 1970s series began life reprinting some of those adventures and stories from Lorna, the Jungle Girl, another 1950s series, before opting to give the Black Panther a headline series. Such was McGregor's dismay with the nature of the reprinted material that he created extra features to keep them out, such as a map of Wakanda or even Jack Kirby's original sketch for T'Challa when he was to be the "Coal Tiger". There were also some reprints of previous artwork featuring the Black Panther, though they're not included here, with the result that the title was fully focused on T'Challa, the Black Panther and King of the African country of Wakanda.

And what a series was launched. The first thirteen issues carry an epic saga entitled "Panther's Rage" that could almost have been written for a collected edition. Some of the other attempts at sagas from this era tended to get bogged down by the need for each part to also be an issue of an ongoing series, and early cancellation frequently led to unsatisfactory resolutions in other places, but here we get a complete story now collected together and it holds up remarkably well in this format. It's even more impressive to see the story made it out completely when one considers it took over two years to tell the story in a mostly bimonthly series that skipped a release between issues #8 & #9. But I am surprised to see it doesn't seem to have had any reprints before the Masterworks in 2010 and then this volume from a couple of years later, and none standing alone.

"Panther's Rage" is a tale about a young king facing a concerted revolution led by an ambitious and embittered rival. Hero kings have been the stars of stories since The Epic of Gilgamesh and it's surprising just how many possibilities there are - far more than just tales of threats to the kingdom from either invasion or an attempted take-over. But even those themes can work anew when handled in the right way. The 1970s was a turbulent time in Africa with the euphoria of decolonisation having passed and many countries found themselves struggling with major social and economic problems with resulting political turbulence. And here we have a partial reflection of that.

T'Challa has returned home to a kingdom which, going by the map that appears twice, seems to be about as small as Liechtenstein. We don't learn too much about the country's history or location, though the map gives it an Atlantic coast thus placing it in west Africa. It doesn't appear to be a recently decolonised country and so it has presumably maintained its independence. However it now experiences a culture clash as the Wakandians' traditional way of life meets the technology and western customs that have come along with its new young king. The result is described as "a super-scientific Disneyland in the African jungle" but it isn't all paradise. Bizarrely the kingdom also contains some very rare wildlife including surviving dinosaurs. But despite the multiple influences upon it, Wakanda is portrayed well and its people are treated with a strong degree of respect, with no primitive savages, just different cultural experiences. This is shown most vividly in a brief scene when the village Karota steps inside a hospital and has no understanding of injections, thinking she has been stabbed, and finds the language of the doctor incomprehensible when he talks about nutrition and vitamins. Ignorance is not stupidity, just a lack of knowledge and experience, and new things don't always mean progress.

At the heart of the story is the villain Erik Killmonger, born N'Jadaka by which moniker a village has been named after him. Yet Killmonger is used rather sparingly, fighting directly with the Black Panther in the first couple of chapters but then taking a slight backseat and working through his agents before the direct confrontation in the climax. It's a bold move but the result is that the key villain isn't overused. Killmonger comes with a backstory that is primarily focused upon his personal objections to T'Challa. There isn't a great exploration of the ideological underpinning of Killmonger's revolt, with a large part of his anger stemming from having been exiled after a previous invasion by Klaw. However there is a sense of the culture clash behind some of the opposition to T'Challa, with even his own supporters and courtiers expressing some reservations about and hostility towards symbols of this influence, most obviously his American born girlfriend Monica Lynne. Killmonger focuses upon these, and at one point arranges for Monica to be framed with murder charges, though T'Challa gets her cleared.

Killmonger has a wide variety of henchmen, with several chapters devoted to their individual struggles with the Black Panther. They include the likes of Venomm, a master of snakes, Malice, a court handmaiden and assassin who seeks to frame Monica, Baron Macabre, who can raise the dead as zombies, King Cadaver, a mutated being who fights by distorting perceptions, Lord Karnaj, a more technological foe who fights with sonic disrupters, Sombre, a mystical being who dwells in the mountains and who can control fierce animals, and Salamander K'Ruel, an archer whose blistered body can generate thorns. There are also more general foot soldiers, with commentary by Tayete and Kazibe. T'Challa also clashes with a variety of wild animals such as Preyy, Killmonger's leopard, the White Gorilla, giant crocodiles, giant serpents, pterodactyls, and tyrannosaurus rexes. In the epilogue to the saga, the Black Panther encounters Madame Slay, who lives among and commands leopards, and her silent henchman, imaginatively named Mute. All in all it's quite a diverse set of foes that enhance and enliven the saga.

So too do the various supporting cast members. By far the most prominent is Monica Lynne, the woman T'Challa met in the United States and brought home. She is the source of much tension in the court but the Black Panther remains devoted to her, including clearing her of framed murder charges, and there are some particularly tender scenes between them. T'Challa's court is also present, with the most prominent being W'Kabi, the Security Chief, and Taku, T'Challa's Chief Advisor. W'Kabi is developed somewhat over the stories as we see his marital troubles, and he also badly wounded with the result that his right arm is replaced with a bionic limb, one of the few points where the series shows its age.

"Panther's Rage" is a well-constructed story but it's also surprisingly violent for its era. T'Challa regularly staggers from fights with his costume torn and his body bleeding, rather than the spotless look superheroes had often had up until now. There’s a high body count in many of the fights and the artwork isn't afraid to show it, including some of the covers such as issue #10's which is reused as the volume's cover. Very often the biggest developments in comics are made in obscure series starring less well-known characters, and here is almost the definitive example of a hidden classic.

The saga is followed by "The Panther vs. the Klan!" (a title that seems to run through just about every combination of abbreviation and punctuation in its short run) in which T'Challa and Monica are in Georgia in the States, investigating the death of Monica's sister Angela with the help of local reporter Kevin Trublood. It appears that the Ku Klux Klan are responsible but the revelation that one of the hooded attackers is black shows the involvement of another sinister organisation, the Dragon's Circle. Whilst meeting with Monica's parents Lloyde and Jessica, T'Challa has several encounters with what appear to be the Klan, including a fight with the mysterious Wind Eagle, and is badly burnt on a cross. However the saga doesn't get very far with signs of artistic problems including a fill-in reprint in issue #23 and issue #22 being slightly diverted as Jessica recounts the story of what happened to her grandfather's cousin Caleb in the early years after the Civil War when the Klan was establishing itself and support facilities for ex-slaves were really concerned about securing their votes. As the tale is told Monica starts to imagine a version in which T'Challa was present and saved the day; a sign of how much mythology is generated from true stories.

It's surprising to see a head of state seemingly abandon his kingdom, even if he is investigating his girlfriend's family, so soon after the recent revolution in Wakanda. And T'Challa moves about Georgia like a private person, even if he is wearing his costume, rather than as a head of state with all the resultant security. The story as a whole seems to have some good ideas behind it but it's very slow to get going and when pace does pick up it's suddenly abandoned as Jungle Action was cancelled in favour of an ongoing Black Panther title written and drawn by Jack Kirby.

This was the start of the second year of Kirby's 1970s return to Marvel after just over five years over at DC. On both occasions his arrival was trumpeted by the companies, even putting his name on the cover, recognising he was one of the earliest star creators with an acknowledged fan following that transcended individual titles. Kirby was now doing his own writing, a practice he'd followed on many of his 1940s & 1950s strips but then stopped for virtually all his Silver Age Marvel work before doing it almost exclusively since just before his 1970 move to DC. Marvel in this period also had a practice of the "Writer/Editor" with a single individual filling both key roles on a series. Although Archie Goodwin is credited on all ten issues as "Consulting Editor", "Overseen by", "Glimpsed by" and various more exotic credits, this was a time when his position was evolving into the "Editor-in-Chief" role that would be fully formalised around Jim Shooter in the next few years, and many individual books were left to the own devices of established writers. This could restrict the amount of overview such a creator might otherwise have been subjected to. And there's a long history of star name creators who move back and forth between companies such that they often have a latter day return. And it's a sad truth that many have been unable to reclaim their past glory years. Either their best work was in a collaboration that at last one member won't return to, or their style is no longer in tune with modern tastes, or modern editorial conditions make it impossible for them to work under the same conditions or for the same goals as before, or they may just not be able to recapture their past glories. The list of once great names producing lesser work in later years is sadly quite long and the reaction to the recall of a past star can be quite harsh. Sadly what we get here is very much a change for the worst.

Often when a series changes writer the new one rapidly phases out elements of what has come before and wraps up ongoing storylines in a way not intended by their initiator. But here Kirby just ignores everything completely and starts afresh. Even the Black Panther's status appears to have altered before someone seems to have pointed it out. T'Challa has suddenly become the "son of the king" and the "Prince of Wakanda". In story terms it probably makes more sense for the hero to be a crown prince who can go out into the wider world rather than a ruler who should be looking after the kingdom (although later in the series he's stated to be the ruler albeit through a regent), but in continuity terms it feels like Kirby hadn't even being paying attention to what had come before. The concept of an explicit continuity reboot was extremely rare at the time but in other ways the approach feels rather like something that came decades later in comics. A previous big name artist had left the company to go and create, both writing and drawing, a new world of characters at another company, and now returns to the first company taking over an existing series but in the process it's restarted from #1 and existing continuity is ignored with even some of the basic details of the characters changed, and the reaction is muted with the once all conquering artist coming in for huge levels of criticism? Yes it feels rather like the Heroes Reborn of its day.

No one can deny the greatness of Kirby's contribution to the foundations of the Marvel universe. But his latter-day work presented here feels awkward and stilted, and very much out of line with the prevailing trends of the day. Even the artwork feels off - particularly the Black Panther himself whose appearance in black and white is let down by the heavy use of ink blobs on his costume to stimulate its dark appearance (although this may be the fault of Mike Royer's inks rather than Kirby's pencils). And when compared to what they replace, the storylines just don't feel spectacular. T'Challa is caught up in the quests of a group called the Collectors who seek rare artefacts. Allied with one of them called Mister Little, T'Challa gets caught in conflict with another Princess Zanda in the search for brass frogs that work as time machines, or immortality granting water, with the searches taking in King Solomon's tomb and a group of immortal Samurai in a hidden mountain lair and struggles with various strange beings such as a man from the far future or a Yeti. Meanwhile back in Wakanda (which, in another alteration to what had come before, now appears to be about three hundred miles due south of somewhere in Sudan - then including what is now South Sudan) T'Challa's half-brother Jakarra leads a brief military coup before exposing himself to the country's mound of Vibranium and mutates into a monster that spreads disease and nearly explodes the Vibranium. Whilst T'Challa seeks to make his way home, with a Mafia boss and the filming of a science fiction movie in the desert both delaying his journey, several of his cousins are summoned and despite having all taken non-fighting lifestyles as members of the Panther Clan they do what they can to delay the monster until T'Challa makes it home to defend his kingdom. It may sound an exciting chain of events but there's no convincing reason for T'Challa to have left in the first place to get tied up with the Collectors and the execution feels rather flat.

It's a curse of the Essential format that the bad is regularly automatically caught alongside the fantastic. Here that's especially true. Jack Kirby may have co-created the Black Panther and was on of the greatest giants of Marvel but this piece of his later 1970s work shows that even the biggest names produce less than stellar work and that when they replace spectacular other creators the result isn't always an improvement. However Kirby's dialogue, whilst not spectacular, doesn't feel as awkward and stilted as critics often claim. But overall the end of the volume is a sheer disappointment. Don McGregor may have had a slow start on "The Panther vs. the Klan!" but it could have gone somewhere and it was real insult to simply ignore both the storyline and all of the characters he had built up. Kirby's Black Panther work might as well be from an alternate reality, such is the difference between the two.

However this volume as a whole is more than worth it for the McGregor issues which are amazing and deserved to be more widely seen.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Essential Iron Fist volume 1

Essential Iron Fist volume 1 contains the character's initial strip in the tryout series Marvel Premiere #15-25, then the complete run of his original solo title, Iron Fist #1-15. Following the ending of the series the storylines were wrapped up in Marvel Team-Up #63-64, and then the character was next seen in Power Man #48-49 before issue #50 saw the two fused together as Power Man and Iron Fist. In addition it includes Iron Fist's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The first Marvel Premiere issue is written by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. Subsequent writers include Len Wein, Doug Moench and Tony Isabella, whilst other artists include Larry Hama, Neal Adams, Arvell Jones and Pat Broderick. The final issue of the Marvel Premiere run is the first ever work by the team of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, even before their run on Marvel Team-Up let alone their work together on the X-Men, and they produce every subsequent issue in the volume.

Marvel Premiere was one of the many try-out series; other issues would carry variously a revived Doctor Strange, Warlock and a whole variety of other characters. (In its last issues the series brought Doctor Who to Marvel US, and there was even one issue starring Alice Cooper.) Marvel have long created series to ride the latest bandwagon and in the mid-1970s the big thing was martial arts, especially kung fu, and the exotic cultures surrounding them. So it's unsurprising to see Marvel made multiple attempts to cash in on the wave. Shang-Chi the Master of Kung Fu was perhaps the most obvious, though his series was somewhat surprisingly combined with elements of the Fu Manchu novels (which means that copyright problems now make it difficult to produce an Essential Master of Kung Fu) but Iron Fist proved to have lasting power. His own strip only lasted three years, including an extended run in a try-out title, but as the end of this volume shows it's always possible to keep a good character going beyond a fad if some effort and imagination are applied.

The strip kicks off with the origin upfront and it's pretty dark but also leaves open multiple possibilities for future stories. We see Wendell Rand searching in the Himalayas for a lost civilisation called K'un-Lun, accompanied by his wife Heather, their son Daniel and Wendell's business partner Harold Meachum. Suddenly there's an accident and Meachum takes advantage to send Wendell to his death. Heather spurns the offer of help and flees with Daniel. They flee and find K'un-Lun but are attacked by wolves as they reach the bridge; Heather sacrifices herself to allow Daniel to get across. He is brought up within K'un-Lun, learning martial arts. Eventually he is skilled enough to receive the power to channel his concentration and make his fist as strong as iron.

K'un-Lun is another of a well-worn type - the lost advanced civilisation located in the Himalayas. It comes with a twist that it can only be accessed from the outside world at certain fixed intervals, like Brigadoon, coming into phase once every ten years. With this in mind I note that the series seems to take place over a much longer scale than most short-lived Marvels, with references to many months passing during or between incidents. Was this perhaps an attempt to get to the next ten year point soon and so allow for a return to K'un-Lun? It would have been incredible advance planning - and yes the writer is Chris Claremont who went on to do a long of this long haul stuff in his decade and a half run on the X-Men but this is contemporary to his earliest years and I'd be very surprised if he had such long term plans lined up at this stage. In any case the series ended about seven years too early to bring back K'un-Lun on the regular schedule in publication time. Iron Fist leaves K'un-Lun in search of vengeance but there are various flashbacks to his time there which establish additional features and conflicts, such as Wendell being originally from the civilisation and indeed the next ruler by heredity, but his brother Yü-Ti now rules and is silent when accused of knowing that Wendell's family was coming that day but acted slowly with the result that Heather died needlessly. However there's no return to K'un-Lun within these pages.

The first eight issues see Iron Fist head out into the real world to seek vengeance on Harold Meachum. Meachum has bee waiting in fear and puts out a bounty that is followed up on by Scythe, a mercenary armed with his namesake tool, and then when Iron Fist reaches the Meachum building he encounters Triple-Iron, a fighter in an exo-suit who has been trapped in a room for many years by Meachum. Iron Fist eventually realises how meaningless it would be to kill a fearful, broken and disabled man and leaves, but then Meachum is slain by a mysterious ninja. The saga then gets drawn out as it takes in a struggle to secure a magical book with disputed contents, the Cult of Kara-Kai and their leaders, the living Goddesses, Meachum's vengeance seeking brother Ward, Batroc the Leaper, Professor Lee Wing, his daughter Colleen and her detective partner Misty Knight. It's a rollercoaster of a saga, made even more convoluted by having no less than four different writers, but the result is easy to follow, if a little overcomplicated.

Once Claremont takes over the writing the villains become more mixed. First off Iron Fist clashes with Warhawk, a superpowered Vietnam veteran who thinks he's still fighting the war on the streets of New York. Later on there's Scimitar, another mercenary named after the weapon he uses. In another realm and flashback are the H'ylthri, a race of moving plant people who were driven from their original home when K'un-Lun was originally settled, whilst one of the longer running storylines involves the sorcerer Master Khan and the various henchmen he deploys in the process such as the swordsman Khumbala Bey. Back on the streets of New York there's yet another attempt by a crimelord to seize control of the underworld, this one is Chaka Khan, head of the Golden Tigers. Elsewhere there's a clash with elements of the IRA, seeking to punish ex-bomber Alan Cavenaugh for deserting the cause. And the penultimate issue introduces by far the best known foe, Sabretooth. Yes, Wolverine's archenemy debuted in the pages of Iron Fist. Meanwhile the series makes use of some foes from other series as well. From an old Marvel Team-Up comes the Monstroid, whilst from Marvel Two-in-One comes Radion the Atomic Man, initially posing under the identity of "Ravager". Out of the pages of Daredevil steps Angar the Screamer. Amongst the more familiar are the Wrecking Crew - the Wrecker, Thunderball, Piledriver and Bulldozer - who I discover actually mostly debuted in the Defenders rather than Thor. From the Hulk's strip in Tales to Astonish comes the Boomerang, now hired by the IRA.

The last few issues also set up a couple of plotlines with villains that would ultimately have to be resolved in other series; fortunately those issues are included here. One of them involves Davos the Steel Serpent, son of Lei-Kung the Thunderer who trained Daniel and others in K'un-Lun. Davos expected to one day secure the power of the iron fist himself but was beaten by Wendell Rand and then expelled from the city after a partially successful attempt to obtain the dragon's power anyway. He now seeks to take the iron fist from Daniel. This storyline is mostly covered in the pages of Marvel Team-Up. Meanwhile the Bushmaster, a crimelord Misty Knight has been working undercover to bring down, is seeking to be transformed the same way as Luke Cage, Power Man and he turns up in the latter's title where he forces Power Man into a kidnap attempt on Misty. However the tables are turned. The story also features two of Power Man's old foes Shades and Comanche; the final issue in the volume is the first of Power Man and Iron Fist and sees a party attacked by two more, Stiletto and Discus.

Being a part of the Marvel universe it's inevitable that there are various guest appearances by other heroes, but amazingly they don't start until Iron Fist gets his own headlined title after eleven issues of Marvel Premiere. The visits start with Iron Man and later on Iron Fist fights then teams up with Captain America. Misty Knight is sharing an apartment with none other than Jean Grey and so this leads to a clash over a misunderstanding with the X-Men in the final issue. This X-Men appearance is the first time John Byrne drew them, three months before he joined Claremont over on their own title - was this a test piece to see how he handled them? Wolverine is wearing the costume he temporarily took off Fang of the Starjammers over in the X-Men, yet there it was just a temporary replacement after his regular costume was destroyed, not a permanent new appearance. Was the latter at on stage the plan? Once his own series was cancelled Iron Fist ended up on the guest appearance circuit but fortunately his storylines were wrapped up without too many extra characters; just Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up and Power Man in his own title.

In the meantime he also has a surprisingly well developed supporting cast. At its core is the detective agency Nightwing Restorations, Ltd, consisting of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight. Later in Marvel Team-Up #64 they are billed as the "Daughters of the Dragon" but in the meantime they provide a strong mixture of physical support, potential romantic interest and differences of opinion to round out Iron Fist's world. The two are an odd mix - Colleen is the daughter of a professor of Oriental Studies and has been trained in the arts of the samurai whilst Misty is an ex-police officer who lost her right arm when dealing with a terrorist's bomb and now has a superstrong bionic replacement - but they work well both together and with Iron Fist. The pair also have elements that suggest the later partnership between Iron Fist and Power Man - indeed it's here, rather than in the pages of Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, that one can find the natural build-up to that pairing. At first it seems Colleen will fall into the girlfriend role, especially as one storyline sees her captured and later engage in a mind meld with Iron Fist, but later on it seems clear that he and Misty have strong feelings for each other. It was a bold move for the era but it's an encouraging one. Their relationship isn't without its problems such as when they fall out over whether or not to help ex-IRA bomber Alan Cavenaugh when he's pursued by his old comrades seeking to punish his desertion. Further strain is added when Misty is absent for quite a while as she infiltrates the Bushmaster's world. However Iron Fist and Misty eventually realise what they mean to each other and reconcile. The other supporting cast members are less developed but still offer plenty of story potential; they include Joy Meachum, daughter of Harold and now Danny's co-owner of the business, Rafael Scarfe, Misty's former police partner still working for the force, and lawyer Jeryn Hogarth. With such a good mixture there is plenty of material that could allow the series to carry on even though the martial arts craze was dying down by the later 1970s.

The writing on the series is quite good, with the rotation of writers at the start failing to inflict lasting damage and instead the series manages to grow organically, with Claremont taking the elements and successfully building upon them. However one thing I did find irritating was the heavy use of the second person in narration as though the writer - and they are all guilty of this - is directly addressing Iron Fist. It's a technique that never really works for me. Otherwise there's a wise limited use of actual martial arts terms - a few individual scenes may namecheck the moves being used but it is used sparingly so the series doesn't turn into a manual of moves. The art is also quite good, especially when Byrne arrives and gives long-term visual continuity.

The last few issues in this volume see Iron Fist team up with Power Man to the point that they become joint stars in a single title. When reading Essential Luke Cage, Power Man volume 2 I didn't spot a clear sign of the direction things would take from issue #50 onwards. However here it's easier to see the teaming as more natural - it's foreshadowed by Misty and Colleen's pairing and also the adventure that brings them together is a continuation of plotlines begun in Iron Fist, even if it does also bring closure to Power Man's criminal status. Issue #50 sees the team take a step further as the two battle attackers at a party and then Power Man agrees to take up a job offer, bolding well for the future.

Overall this is a surprising gem. It may have been created just to capitalise on a culture trend at the time but then the same could be said of many other series. Here a strong multi-faceted character was created with a backstory containing multiple potentials for further tales and when combined with good talent the results are wonders. It's amazing to realise that this was the first ever collaboration between Chris Claremont and John Byrne but the two of them take to each other like a duck to water and produce a strong dynamic that sustains the series and carries it forward. It's a pity that it didn't last but as this volume shows the character could continue even if the series couldn't.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Essential Luke Cage, Power Man volume 2

Essential Luke Cage, Power Man volume 2 (sometimes listed as just "Essential Power Man" volume 2) contains Luke Cage, Power Man #28-49, although #36 is a reprint represented only by the cover, and annual #1. As a bonus it also contains the cover of Giant-Size Power Man #1, which came during the brief period when the Giant-Size format became all-reprint before being cancelled. The writing is mainly by Don McGregor, Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont, who also does the annual, with a few fill-ins by Bill Mantlo and individual scripts by Ed Hannigan and Roger Slifer. The art is more mixed with contributions by George Tuska, Rich Buckler, Arvell Jones, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins, Marie Severin, Ron Wilson, Bob Brown, Lee Elias (who also draws the annual) and John Byrne. That's slightly too many creators for the labels to be in a single post so a separate one has been created.

The series demonstrates one of the worst signs of chaos when issue #28 ends with a gripping cliffhanger but issue #29 opens with a confession of deadline problems before proceeding with a fill-in issue. It must have been maddening to readers at the time and even here it disrupts the flow. I suppose a fill-in was at least more welcome than a reprint (although oddly when now reading the series in a sequential collected edition then a reprint would now have been a better interruption as it would now mean just an extra cover between parts of the story rather than the narrative detour we get here). Issue #36 does have a reprint of the first appearance of Chemistro, chosen presumably to match a cover drawn to herald his return. With such scheduling problems it's amazing that the annual happened, and probably a good stroke of fortune that by the time Cage got a Giant-Size series the format had switched to all reprint before being cancelled shortly afterwards.

Despite its creative problems, in general the series works well in continuing to occupy a distinctive slot with its own villains. We get a down to earth gritty crime based series with only a few diversions and even then the foes are generally at the non-powered level of things. The new villains consist of various non-powered crimelords and thugs such as Cockroach Hamilton, Piranha Jones, Spear, the Mangler, the Cheshire Cat, Big Brother, the Baron and the Goldbug. Some of the names may be fanciful and few have their pet obsessions - for instance the Baron's mediaeval obsession or the Goldbug's focus on gold - but they're all fairly non-powered foes from the ordinary criminal level. It's telling that of the two main exceptions to this pattern one is introduced in a fill-in issue and the other is a new version of an existing foe. Mr. Fish is a criminal who got mixed up with a radioactive isotope and a fish, mutating him into a hideous form and now sets his ambitions higher, whilst later on Cage fights with a new Chemistro. The annual sees Cage clash with Moses Magnum, previously seen in Giant-Size Spider-Man and now having survived his apparent death there. The move to Chicago brings an epic conflict with Cage's old foe Gideon Mace, with the distraction midway through of a sniper called Charlie kicking out at his other half's lifestyle, and then a fight the Hulk's old foe, the living energy creature Zzzax. Finally at the end Cage encounters Bushmaster, previously seen in the pages of Iron Fist.

The volume also features the debut of one of Cage's most persistent and best remembered nemeses - the faulty soft drinks machine that never delivers what he presses for in the right order. Liquid then ice then cup, or a cup with a broken bottom or any other combination but the correct one, it just will not deliver Cage the drink he desires but gives few others such pain and grief. Anyone who has ever struggled to buy anything from a machine will share Cage's frustrations and short-lived sense of triumph when he briefly believes he's actually going to get to drink what he ordered. It makes for a good running gag throughout the series and doesn't detract from the more serious side of things.

One of the few stories to tackle race head on comes as a middle class family face persecution by an arsonist called Wildfire who seeks to drive them out of the suburb. And the neighbours may not be cheering him on but they aren't all rushing to call the fire brigade or getting their hoses out. During the fight the house catches fire and the young son plays hide-and-seek with fatal consequences. In a later issue Cage attends the boy's funeral to find the parents struggling on and the younger sister motionless in total shock. It's a reminder that often there is no happy ending. Wildfire may be sentenced to spend years in jail but the boy isn't going to get to live those years and there's little Cage can do short of donating some of his subsequent fees to helping the family.

Elsewhere the focus is heavily on crime struggles within New York bar a brief relocation discussed below and a trip to Japan in the annual. There are no great leaps into the fantastical and even the handful of foes with special powers aren't that powerful. This may seem excessively modest and there are few truly spectacular adventures that leap out but it does allow for a strong focus on the characters. This series is confident and competent and it works well. The final two issues are the most significant for the series overall but otherwise the best adventure is probably the repeat clash with Gideon Mace who is seeking a military take-over of the United States to end its perceived weakness. Like several of the other epics in this volume it's a rollercoaster of a tale as Cage smashes through the situations and faces severe dangers both to himself and to the city around him.

There's only one significant new supporting cast member - the appropriately named Detective Quentin Chase, who puts Cage under pressure both for the large number of bodies he leaves in his wake and for the limited background information on him, including his reluctance to supply his social security number. Later on Chase fades away but the Internal Revenue Service start paying attention to his activities and noting he hasn't paid his taxes. Worrying that this will lead to an investigation into his past and reveal he's an escaped convict who can't clear his name, Cage decides to leave New York, abandoning Claire Temple and Noah Burstein by rationalising they could get in trouble for having known about his background and yet not turned him in. In a classic sign of a series in trouble, issue #43 sees a relocation. Cage sets off for Chicago where he takes the name "Mark Lucas" and fights various foes in the Windy City, but this phase doesn't last long. Up until issue #48 the wider Marvel universe has been mostly absent bar a few obscure villains and a new hero in the form of the Thunderbolt, previously seen in non-costumed form in an issue of Daredevil. Mention is made of Cage's participation in the Defenders and brief stint as a member of the Fantastic Four but neither of those teams actually appears. Nor is it explained here why he's never asked either team for help in finding ways to either clear his name or secure a pardon. Instead this series carries on as its own thing until issue #48 sees a return to New York and the first appearance in the series of Iron Fist. The latter's arrival also brings with him the "Daughters of the Dragon" Colleen Wing and Misty Knight plus the villain Bushmaster.

The final two issues in this volume, and indeed of Cage's solo title, provide a sense of closure. Cage is rapidly returned to New York as Bushmaster takes Claire and Noah hostage and produces evidence of Cage's innocence in order to force him to kidnap Misty Knight. This brings him into conflict with Iron Fist but after nearly killing the martial artist Cage comes to his senses. Winning over Iron Fist, Misty and Colleen, Cage heads for the now disused Seagate Prison. In a final showdown Bushmaster, who has now acquired steel hard skin like Cage's, is defeated, Claire and Noah rescued and videotape that shows Cage was framed in the first place. The final panel shows Cage sail home with his old friends and new allies, now able to be fully free and no longer scared that the police will eventually realise who he is and return him to prison. But there is no clear hint here of what Cage will now do with his newly found freedom or the new direction the series will take from issue #50 onwards...

For that matter the series takes a step much closer to realism than most superhero comics when Misty takes Cage's coffee cup and scans it for fingerprints. Within moments her computer is able to access the National Crime Information Center database to cross check the prints and pull up Carl Lucas's crime record. In 1978 computers were slowly being established so it should have been possible to do this check in real life, although I'd be surprised if it was so easy to obtain the prints simply by placing the cup in front of a computer camera, but it's the sort of reality check that would make it impossible for any real life superhero to operate without having their identity rapidly discovered. Still this series is one that often did things a bit differently from the norm in a more down to earth way.

Overall this volume shows a series that should know its way but several times gets blown off course, whether by scheduling problems that result in fill-ins intruding upon key cliffhangers and reprints coming along when excitement is building, or by the unnecessary move to Chicago that is reversed within six issues and in any case only produces a couple of adventures. There are signs of the problem that curses many series whereby each writer only lasts a short time with the result that the direction and characters set down during one run rapidly get phased out or ignored by the next writer and overall the series begins to lose its coherency. The artist turnover is worse, though ironically the artist with the longest stint here, Lee Elias, is the one whose art I like the least. He just doesn't seem to get the right feel for Cage, even though many of his issues are part of the Chicago phase when Cage isn't wearing his traditional headband (or chain) and so there's greater freedom to handle his hair. In general I feel George Tuska does the best rendition of the character.

As well as the relocation of the series and sudden resort to guest stars after such a long stretch without them, both invariably signs of a series in trouble and in need of a sales boost, it's also notable that between issues #30 & #46 the series increased in frequency to monthly before dropping back to bimonthly. The Giant-Size and Annual, coming out the same month as #28 & #36 respectively, were further signs of the series experiencing a resurgence in popularity around this time. Yet come the #40s and the effects of this growth had faded away. It's hard to see the causes of this rise and fall within the issues themselves when they instead show a competent series rattling along without any drastic changes other than moving to Chicago - and that comes too late to be responsible on its own for the drop back to bimonthly publication. Perhaps the series was just an unfortunate hostage to wider trends in the market and society, whether the fading away of the blaxploitation genre of movies or the great blizzards that disrupted distribution and sales. (However I'm not sure if the chronology matches either explanation.) It's a pity because whilst not the most spectacular series ever produced, Luke Cage, Power Man has a strong, likeable lead, a good supporting cast and a distinctive niche that all combined to make it a good offering that deserved to do much better than it did.

However fortunately outright cancellation wasn't on the horizon. Instead issue #50 would see the book head off in a rather unexpected direction. But that all comes in another volume...

Essential Luke Cage, Power Man volume 2 - creator labels

Yet again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.
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