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...

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