Friday, 30 August 2013

Sidesteps: Power Pack Classic volume 3

Power Pack Classic volume 3 contains issues #18 to #26, plus Thor #363. Almost all the Power Pack issues are written by Louise Simonson, with the exception of issue #21 which is by Terry Austin. They are drawn by a mix of Brent Anderson, Jon Bogdanove, Bob McLeod and Scott Williams. The Thor issue is written and drawn by Walter Simonson.

There's still a strong element of the rest of the Marvel universe at the start of this volume, but after issue #20 the guest appearances drop away to cameos except for issue #26. But in the first three issues we get in succession a Secret Wars II crossover that is also half of a crossover with Thor (although Thor himself doesn't appear until his own series), then a double-sized Thanksgiving special that sees return appearances for Cloak and Dagger, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde (billed on the cover as such - did she ever get a consistent identity?), Beta Ray Bill, and Annalee and Leech from the Morlocks. Then issue #20 sees a team-up with the New Mutants Cannonball, Mirage and Wolfsbane. After that the guest appearances drop away to cameos, even though some are highlighted on the cover such as Spider-Man (#21) and the Fantastic Four (#23), but the final issue in the volume sees Cloak and Dagger appear once more. Some of the intervening issues take the children away from Earth, but even those set on it are focused on the regular characters rather than endless guest stars. As a further step towards giving all the Power children plenty of space there's a somewhat rotated reduced usage of Franklin, Kofi and Friday. What's also nice about the Secret Wars II crossover is that it actually has repercussions on the series as a whole, with the Powers' mother badly injured by the rampage of Kurse, and subsequent issues explore how the family react to this.

A common theme throughout these issues is of the development of powers and self-confidences. Kofi steadily learns how to refine his ability to teleport and take others with him, as well as finally learning why his father Yrik is hostile towards him. Franklin's powers steadily develop to the point where he has occasional precognition even while awake and is successful at preventing the foreseen disasters. He also proves able to use control his dream powers to the point where he direct himself, see the present and even interact with others via astral projection. At the same time he continues to feel abandoned by his parents (though in part because they go off searching for him) but comes to be ever more part of the Power Pack family. But Alex and Katie get some of the strongest material. Their mother was injured whilst buying materials for Alex's school project, and he blames himself, getting angrier and angrier with himself and with others. To add to the tensions is his poor handling of his relationship with fellow school pupil Allison, and the rivalry from Johnny Rival. It climaxes when sledding in the park when Alex saves Allison from going under ice, but then uses his gravity powers in a fight with Johnny. Alex's attitude to the others is poor at times, especially Katie who feels pushed around at often used as little more than a gun, making her hate her energy powers. Things climax on the Snark homeworld in issue #25.

Before then we see the Power family coping with the shock of Margaret's hospitalisation with Professor James Power particularly hard hit and the children left over more to their own devices. This contributes to a number of stories such as a hospital vigil when they encounter monsters from the realm of Limbo and Mirage of the New Mutants fights off the arrival of death for Margaret. Issue #19 is a double-sized special for Thanksgiving, in which Katie organises a party for the team's friends, to the annoyance of Alex and Julie who think it inappropriate, and Katie also successfully diverts a parade balloon to the hospital in the hope that it will cheer up her mother. Meanwhile Leech has annoyed Annalee, who has the power to project her emotions onto others. Cue much chaos all round. Another tale sees the author of Katie's favourite books kidnapped and it falls to Jack and Katie to rescue her.

However there is one major storyline steadily built up to and it pays off well. The Snark Empire is consumed by a power struggle as the Emperor's health fades, and one of the Queen Mothers (a title that here indicates the mothers of the princes who struggle to become Emperor, rather than the widow of the previous one) is seeking weapons to ensure her son will win the conflict to succeed him. Issues in the earlier volumes have already touched upon the struggle, including the origin story, but now we get a strong struggle on Snarkworld itself as the four Power children are kidnapped with the intention of stealing their powers to transfer to Prince Jakal. In the ensuing conflict everyone, including Franklin, Kofi and Friday, have to face the ultimate challenge but they eventually win through. However in the process they lose their powers and gain different ones.

This was the first of several power transfers throughout the history of the team and offers a degree of diversity. Although new codenames aren't used in these issues, Alex now has the energy powers, Julie the density powers, Jack the gravity powers and Katie the lightspeed powers. This resolves the problem of Katie hating what she can do with her energy powers and Alex feeling he has to bully her to use them, but also offers new possibilities for the issues to come. However the storyline also sees the destruction of Friday, and it's uncertain if he or she can be repaired, whilst Kofi reconciles with his father in the epilogue and returns to the Kymellian homeworld. Meanwhile the Power children return to their parents, with their mother now out of hospital, for a warm welcome home - and a meal of James's much hated lentil soup! It's a good moment on which the volume ends.

I previously wrote that I had no information about the series' sales and in particular any indication as to whether it was especially popular in channels most traditionally associated with children. So it's surprising to see at the end of issue #25 a note announcing the series will be "in a new bi-monthly format available only in comics specialty [sic] shops and through subscription!" Dropping in frequency is usually a sign of weak sales all round, whilst abandoning the newsstands would suggest that the title didn't have a particular reach amongst younger readers. I stress "suggest" because I still have no information about subscriptions and this was a general period when the overall American comics market was shifting so that comic shops rather than newsstands were the primary source of sales (for a whole load of reasons beyond this post's scope, this didn't really happen with British comics although many specialist shops existed here for imports of American comics) so a book going direct market only meant less then than in earlier years. And a common criticism is that comic shops were, and some still are, inaccessible to younger children, often being located away from the main shopping centres where they're unlikely to be seen and frequently doing little to encourage children, or some parents, to go inside.

(Although the note at the end of issue #25 suggests the series was in trouble, it would last until issue #62 and some of the changes were at least partially reversed. From issue #33 onwards the frequency was increased to nine issues a year. The cover design from issue #40 onwards indicates that the series had returned to newstands.)

The art for the most part in these issues holds up well and manages to remember that the stars are children, not tiny adults. However at times John Bogdanove draws Franklin a little too young for my liking, and in some long shots he is rather cartoony. Otherwise the art brings everything to life vividly. There is one standout error in page order when two pages in issue #24 (pages 209 & 210) are printed in reverse order but I don't know if that was an error in the original issue or created by the tradepaperback. Otherwise the reproduction is excellent.

Overall this is a petty solid volume that shows the series at what should have been its height, but sales had other ideas. Nevertheless this is a good set of adventures featuring a highly likeable set of characters in a diverse set of situations - what should be a natural combination but which takes real talent to pull off. Never once does the series forget that it stars children but there's no dumbing down - instead the world and universe they're in is shown to be a place of both joy and fear, of wonder and terror, of tragedy and triumph. The series is very underrated.

(Unfortunately this may be it for Power Pack issues. A fourth volume was due to be released earlier this year, taking the series up to issue #36 and over the half-way point, but it was cancelled late in the day. This probably also means the series won't be Essentialised anytime soon even if Marvel didn't have a policy of trying to avoid overlaps between the Classics and Essentials. However a number of individual issues from later in the run have been included in various collected editions handling crossovers.)

Friday, 23 August 2013

Essential Hulk volume 1

Essential Hulk volume 1 contains, in the original edition, all six issues of the original Incredible Hulk series and then the Hulk strips from issues #60-91 of Tales to Astonish (the anthology series that also starred Ant-Man/Giant Man and which later featured Namor the Sub-Mariner). Everything in the volume is written by Stan Lee. Jack Kirby draws the first five issues before being succeeded by Steve Ditko who carries on into the early Tales to Astonish stories. Kirby then returns for a few issues before switching to do layouts which are finished by a mix of "Mickey Demeo" (Mike Esposito moonlighting whilst at DC), Bob Powell, Scott Edward, John Romita and Bill Everett, then issue #84 is credited to "Almost the whole blamed Bullpen". After this (and probably not coincidentally) we get full pencils from John Buscema and Gil Kane. Later editions have added the Hulk's guest appearance in the Giant-Man strip in Tales to Astonish #59 (written by Stan Lee and drawn by Dick Ayers) which served as a trailer for the Hulk's own strip. (This strip can also be found in Essential Ant-Man volume 1.)

This is literally a volume of two halves albeit unequal ones. The first consists of the original Incredible Hulk series that lasted just six issues back in 1962-1963. Reports are divided as to whether it actually a poor seller or if it was just a victim of Marvel's limited number of titles due to its distribution deal and displaced by Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos. But either way the result was that the Hulk soon lost his own title and was relegated to wandering through the pages of other books such as the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and even the Amazing Spider-Man. Then after about a year and a half without his own feature, he was given a slot in Tales to Astonish.

This disjoint in the early years has often affected how they've been viewed. The original six issues have been reprinted many times - a pocketbook reprint lent to me by a friend many yeas ago was the first time I read any Silver Age Marvel stories (but I honestly can't remember what colour the Hulk was in the first issue) - but there's been much less attention given to the Tales to Astonish strips. Indeed a note at the start of the original edition of this volume specifically states that many of them hadn't been reprinted "since... well, even Stan Lee can't remember when!" (The Masterworks didn't start on them until a few years later.) It's apologising for the variation in reprint quality due to the nature of the archival material, but it's also a reminder that the Hulk entered his first forgotten era earlier than almost any of his contemporaries.

(The reprint quality is more than passable though. Indeed the worst looking page in my edition is actually one with 1990s artwork! It's a divider page between the two series with the front and back cover art on either side. Unfortunately one side seems to have the images overlaid on each other, like a double exposure. Later editions have better reproduction and lack the note.)

The Hulk's origin story is mostly timeless but there's one element that has bcome dated. Scientist Bruce Banner develops a powerful bomb emitting a special kind of radiation but gets caught in the blast of an undelayed test whilst saving a teenager who has wandered onto the site for a bet, and the resulting energy causes him to change into a monster - that's pretty easy to map to any era. Yes there's a bit of silly science about the effect of the rays. The arms race may have been a more prominent factor of the Cold War but even today nuclear weapons are a live and argued issue and it doesn't matter if it fits current US weapons testing policies. It's the presence of a Communist agent amongst the test staff and the interest of the Soviets that makes the first issue a little dated, though one could reasonably airbrush Igor into being a generic foreign spy of an unnamed or fictitious country. (Making him an alien infiltrator in disguise might be simultaneously timeless and also true to the spirit of some of the era's science fiction but... well... "Yeeesh!") The origin is retold in issue #3, for no real purpose (unless it was to fill up the page count), but with all the spy elements removed.

There are some other aspects to the series that show the silliness of the time, most obviously the way that Bruce is able to obtain a lot of scientific equipment on the sly and easily assemble everything from a gamma machine to the door to the Hulk's underground prison, with a ten foot thick concrete slab held in place by a steel rod. Later on Rick Jones is able to obtain and install a replacement rod with no-one noticing. And there's one issue where Rick is able to charter a private plane at only a few minutes' notice to fly him and the Hulk to confront the latest villain.

One thing rapidly becomes clear that there didn't seem to be a strong sense of direction for the series. At first we get the tale of a man who transforms into a brutish monster at night - a latter day take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or at least the popular impression of it. But this doesn't last and soon we shift towards the scenario of the Hulk being a mistrusted hero and Bruce controlling the transformation through a gamma ray machine. However issue #6 shows signs that the control is beginning to break down with delayed and incomplete transformations and then signs that the change can be brought on by extreme aggression. Issue #6 also sees the Hulk granted a Presidential pardon, suggesting a further shift in direction but the run ends before we can see where it goes. The Hulk's personality is initially that of a simple giant but midway through Bruce gains control of the monstrous form. However there are signs that either Bruce is losing control to the Hulk's personality or else he is changing with the power, as the Hulk becomes ever more brutish.

We also see the debut of the most prominent of the Hulk's supporting cast, with all of them introduced on the first few pages of the original issue. Rick Jones is a carefree orphaned teenager who sneaked onto the test site for a bet, but he rapidly becomes loyal to Bruce for saving his life. Rick is about the only teen sidekick in the early Silver Age Marvels - teenagers are otherwise the stars, full members of teams or absent altogether. But unlike many DC sidekicks, Rick largely helps away from fights, looking after Banner/the Hulk, obtaining equipment for him and so forth. At one stage a second accident temporarily results in the Hulk being under Rick's control, a very different arrangement from the norm. At the end of the series Rick and friends form the "Teen Brigade" (well it was 1963) of amateur radio operators across the country to help when needed. The slang was probably dated even at the time but it's good to see some independent organisational initiative. However the main romantic interest is a bit of a washout. Betty Ross at this stage is a rather weak Daddy's Girl who has fallen for Bruce and will defend him against her father's criticisms but otherwise seems to spend most of her time pining for Bruce, being scared by the Hulk or serving as a damsel in distress to be rescued. It's only in the very last few panels that she and Bruce step out together.

Betty's father becomes the Hulk's main foe. General "Thunderbolt" Ross rapidly decides the Hulk is a menace, in part because of Betty's fear of him. Most issues see him trying to capture or destroy the Hulk and sometimes the former is achieved but not for long. Although other military officers are shown with a sceptical view of the Hulk's attempts to do good, Ross believes the worst at all times and thinks others are tricked. The result is a tense backdrop as the Hulk is often on the run and in hiding.

The Hulk battles several other foes in these tales but it's surprising how obscure most of them have remained. The first issue features the Gargoyle, a man deformed by bomb tests who is now a genius working for the Soviets but wishing only to be normal again. He gets his wish in the issue and dies at the end. Death isn't normally an obstacle for a Marvel villain but as far as I'm aware he's never returned outside flashbacks. Issue #2 has that traditional type of enemy, an alien race seeking to invade Earth, though with the Toad Men we actually get an entire invasion armada, rather than just an advanced scoutship as is more normally the case. Issue #3 sees the first big name villains in the form of the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. And at this stage it's amazing they can get away with their trick - they turn up in a small town, hold a circus performance where they hypnotise the audience and make them hand over all their valuables before going round the rest of the town to do the same to the handful of inhabitants who didn't come. Then they leave for another. It's little surprise that the FBI soon spot the connection. Issue #4 sees an attack by Mongu "the Gladiator from Outer Space!" but he's just a Soviet agent in a giant suit trying to catch the Hulk and I don't think he's been seen since. The following issue introduces General Fang, a Chinese warlord, and Tyrannus, another underground ruler. Finally issue #6 sees the debut of the Metal Master, an alien with the power to control and change the atoms of all metal. Oddly, despite the tendency of Marvel to leave few ideas unmined, very few of these foes have made many return appearances. The Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime and Tyrannus are about the only ones who've popped up a lot but the rest have made few to none.

These early issues show a series in flux, not really sure whether it wants to be a monster saga or a superhero series. Elements of both genres are present but without a firm sense of direction and at some points such as issue #3 it feels as though the intention is to start again, retelling the origin and transforming the Hulk. Whereas later eras of the Hulk would make a virtue out of constant change, here it feels more like uncertainty. The result is a weak series that deserved a break and a chance to try again later.

Tales to Astonish #59 has been added to later editions and at the time it would have served as a mini recap of the Hulk's status quo. Giant-Man and the Wasp head to New Mexico in the hope of convincing the Hulk to rejoin the Avengers but interference by the Human Top results in Giant-Man and the Hulk battling it out. It's interesting to see some minor changes in the Hulk from his portrayal in his original series - now Bruce Banner changes when he gets stressed and the Hulk doesn't seem to have any of Bruce's mind in control (although he retains the memory that Giant-Man is after him). We're on the Hulk's initial stomping ground and both Betty and Thunderbolt Ross are reintroduced (Rick, however, is now hanging out with the Avengers and Captain America). It's a fairly straightforward tale that could be forgotten.

The revived series in Tales to Astonish picks up largely where things were left off, although Rick is initially away with the Avengers. Early on, we're introduced to the military base's new security chief Major Glenn Talbot, a further antagonist for both the Hulk and Bruce, and a rival for Betty's affections. Talbot is rather unlikeable for much of the run but towards the end he has temptation dropped in his lap when he takes a call clearing the Hulk and could delay relaying the news until it's too late, thus giving him a chance with Betty, but instead realises his duty is to pass on the message immediately.

Once the strip is restored, it rapidly establishes that Bruce transforms into the Hulk at moments of extreme stress and anger, the best known cause of change between the characters. Curiously it's also used to change him back to Bruce until issue #67 when calmness and rest now achieve this. Up until issue #66 the Hulk talks fluently, albeit in a slightly "gangster" manner, but then he starts speaking in the more primitive "Hulk smash!" speech pattern best associated with the character. Issue #70 sees Bruce's mind once more controlling the Hulk but steadily the latter's brutish nature takes over.

Issue #64 sees Rick confessing Bruce's secret to the President (not shown, either because the issue came out near election time or nobody wanted to repeat a notorious mistake Action Comics made when an issue went on sale featuring John F. Kennedy just after his assassination), feeling he will never betray it and can give help. From a modern perspective it's odd to see such reverence given to a mere elected politician. From at least Richard Nixon onwards the phrase "If you can't trust the President of the United States, who can you trust?" has had a very different meaning. The President makes a few further appearances with less reluctance to show him as Lyndon Johnson, but an executive order giving Ross the power to grant the Hulk an amnesty comes too late. Later on when the Hulk is believed to have been destroyed, Rick confesses the secret to Talbot in the hope of clearing Bruce of charges of being a traitor to his country. This has the effect of changing the long term dynamics of the series as Bruce will be ever more a fugitive, though at this stage he's able to hold off the army and prove his worth.

One reason why many of the stories appear to have had few reprints is the continuous serial nature of them. With only ten pages an issue the strip opted to tell an ongoing epic with each issue flowing into the next from issues #60 through to #79. This suits a continuous reprint format series perfectly, but isn't so good for pick 'n mix collections which is probably half the reason why so few had had recent reprints when this volume first came out. The early issues focus on an epic story involving the Leader, another human exposed to gamma rays but on this occasion his brain has been enhanced instead of his strength. The Leader has developed much technology, including his "Humanoid" minions, an artificial lifeform especially grown, and he is seeking to steal various forms of further technology to advance his goals and spots the potential for using the Hulk. This ultimately leads to his sending the Hulk to the home of the Watcher to obtain the "Ultimate Machine" - something that looks like a goldfish bowl but contains all the knowledge of the universe. Here the Leader's intelligence is his own downfall as the machine overloads his mind and kills him.

The Leader is by far the biggest foe introduced in these issues, though in the last few issues we also see the debut of the Abomination. Otherwise the new foes introduced are comparatively minor players for the Hulk, though some have played bigger parts elsewhere - the Amphibian, the Secret Empire and the Boomerang. We also get a handful of foes from other series including the Chameleon, the Executioner, the Mole Man and the Stranger. It's interesting to see a number of themes that would appear again during Peter David's epic run on the character. As well as a Hulk who seemingly fuses both his and Bruce's personalities, there's a trip to a dystopian future, and conflict between different sub-surface rulers (also a step towards tidying up some of the duplication in the early Marvel universe). In a way it suggests the Hulk was taken back to his roots, even if those roots were pretty obscure.

Towards the end of the volume there appear to be signs of the series meandering with some abrupt changes of direction. Issue #81 introduces the Secret Empire, a shadowy criminal organisation, and over the next few issues there's considerable build-up as we see the start of a power struggle. But then the Secret Empire abruptly disappears from the strip and the only acknowledgement comes a few issues later when Boomerang comments on how they've now been "smashed". Possibly this is a consequence of the art chaos as the crucial issue would have presumably been #84 which is drawn by "Almost the whole blamed Bullpen", suggesting a rush job to get the issue to the presses in which key plot points were lost. (Actually the Secret Empire was picked up in the other half of Tales to Astonish in the Sub-Mariner strip but there's nothing here to actually tell the reader of this.) Later on there's a report of an attempt on Betty's life but we never see it. The art situation also results in the last four issues here being some of the worst art in the entire volume. Gil Kane drew many great comics in his career but all artists can have their off moments and this is one of his. The art is far too cartoony, with both the Hulk and the Abomination looking especially silly, and it detracts from a crucial moment as for the first time the Hulk battles a super strong foe that is the product of gamma rays. Often the best foes for a hero are those who offer a dark reflection of them and the Abomination is the obvious candidate to serve that role with the Hulk. Unfortunately we get a rather limited clash here before the Stranger takes the Abomination away, and the art just lets it down completely.

In general the Tales to Astonish strips aren't really anything spectacular. When read together they flow quite quickly, but readers at the time must have found the ongoing stories took forever to complete. Although we get a couple of new foes with strong potential, one is killed off in his first storyline and the other taken away from Earth. Neither of these necessarily restrict a villain's use in the future but they can leave the series in a weakened state in the meantime. The chaos surrounding the Secret Empire is a real let down, especially as all the issues have the same scripter. Add in the repeated pursuit and conflict with the military, which can eventually tire, and it's all a bit of a letdown. Consequently this era of the Hulk somewhat deserves its obscurity.

Overall this volume shows that the Hulk is a great idea on paper but very difficult to realise in practice. The original series shows a complete uncertainty about what to do with the character and when revived later on he's let down by very long storylines, repetition with the military and some artistic confusion. Perhaps the original series had a mercy killing and there's not a great deal in the rest of the volume to suggest the best direction for the Hulk had yet been found.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

New releases: Essential Fantastic Four volume 9

Just a quick update post to note the release this week of Essential Fantastic Four volume 9, which contains issues #184-188 & #190-207 of the series plus Annual #12-13. Issue #207 contains a substantial guest appearance by Spider-Man. I've now added my thoughts on the issue (and the volume's cover) to the post More non-essential Spider-Man Essentials but for those who follow this blog by subscribing, here they are as well.

Fantastic Four #207, written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four volume 9

This issue sees Peter on his first photo assignment for the Daily Globe and might have made a reasonable addition to Essential Spider-Man volume 9 because it shows him being hired by the Daily Globe, a precise point jumped over a bit in Amazing #194. In the space of less than one page Peter enters the Globe office, gets put on the salaried staff with an understanding about his time commitments and sent on his first assignment! Said assignment involves obtaining photographs of the students at Security College, a specialist institution for the offspring of the rich and famous who might otherwise be subject to kidnap attempts, including one Johnny Storm. The debate on journalism ethics has come a long way in the last three decades so it may just be the passage of time, but I was surprised Peter so readily accepted an assignment that effectively involves intrusion of privacy, even if he is photographing students out and about on the campus rather than in their private rooms. During the course of his attempts he discovers that the students are being hypnotised and used for nocturnal stealing by the Fantastic Four's old foe the Monocle. He convinces the Human Torch this is happening and they bring down the operation. The Monocle himself escapes the two heroes, but he'd tried to break away from the Enclave who blow up his rocket. All in all this issue feels rather awkward. The rest of the Fantastic Four don't appear at all as they're off on the planet Xander dealing with the left-over events from Nova and although Johnny's attendance at Security College was built up in previous issues, the whole thing feels as though it was scripted as a potential (fill-in?) issue of Marvel Team-Up. This is probably the reason why we get such a rushed introduction to Peter's career at the Globe and in the wrong series to boot – the script probably originally had him receiving a standard assignment but then the issue went out at a very awkward point in his own titles for this. However that doesn't excuse running part of a major development in Peter's life in another series.

Also in the volume are the issues which carry on the plotlines that were left outstanding at the end of Essential Nova volume 1.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos volume 1

Today is VJ Day so it's time for a look at Marvel's most prominent war comic.

One of the few other Essential volumes to step outside the superhero genre (though, as we'll see, it keeps quite near) is Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos volume 1, Marvel's first and main Silver Age war comic. This volume carries issues #1-23 and the first annual. All the stories are written by ex-Sergeant Stan Lee with the early issues drawn by ex-Infantryman Jack Kirby who is then succeeded by ex-Corporal Dick Ayers, though Kirby returns for one issue. In several of the issues the creators' former ranks are given. Sergeant Lee and Corporal Ayers even make a cameo in issue #22, working at an airstrip where the Howlers depart on a mission. The appearance keeps up the conceits from similar moments in other series that Marvel is retelling the adventures of actual people as told to the writers and artists, and that artists do not find Lee the easiest writer to work with.

At the core of the team are the First Attack Squad of commandos, or the "Howlers". This small unit is rough and ready, finding regimented discipline and formal parades a chore, but giving their all in action. The Howlers are loyal men who look out for each other and there are no egos or prejudices amongst them that could damage the squad's cohesiveness. This is briefly shaken when it appears that one of them has turned traitor, but the revelation that he was doing so under orders soon restores relations to normal. But the squad are also sufficiently open to accept new members who've proven themselves. This is shown vividly when Percival Pinkerton arrives and his handling of two tormentors quickly persuades the Howlers of his abilities.

Each of the Howlers is distinctive both visually and audibly, as well as in their skills. Heading the team is Sergeant Nick Fury, an all-American roughneck and what he lacks in grace more than makes up for with his bravery and skill. After many years of seeing an older Fury as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. it's a surprise to see his young days as a field sergeant. His faithful number two is Corporal "Dum-Dum" Dugan, an ex-circus strong man who seems to prefer war to his wife and mother-in-law, and who provides the Howlers with much of the physical brute strength. The team's resident mechanic is Private Izzy Cohen, a Jew from Brooklyn. In the role of bugler is Private Gabriel Jones, a black musician from New York. Providing a touch of glamour and also translation in the field is Private Dino Manelli, an Italian-American serving under a fake name to disguise his movie career. Private "Rebel" Ralston is a hard edged Southern ex-jockey. The team's youngest member is Private "Junior" Juniper, fresh out of university but as brave as any man. Junior is killed in issue #4, being hit in a firefight as the Howlers escape. The death scene itself is surprisingly limited compared to the deaths of major characters in later years but it's a reminder of just how dangerous war is and how any one of the squad could suddenly be shot down. In the earlier issues Junior does not feel like a deliberately created piece of canon fodder just waiting to be killed off, but as rounded a character as any other. His replacement is Private Percival Pinkerton, an upper class British soldier who always carries an umbrella that proves a surprisingly effective multi-purpose tool and weapon. Why he calls his umbrella a "bumbershoot" - a piece of old fashioned American slang - is beyond me. The squad's commanding officer is Captain Sam Sawyer who has a good if tough relationship with Fury, defending him when needs be in the knowledge that the Howlers get the results needed.

Most war comics are first and foremost about telling exciting stories set against the backdrop of a recognisable war. They are rarely intended to be completely historically accurate, especially when it comes to particular fronts and famous officers. This is especially noticeable here with the Commandos' missions at first appearing to be set in 1944 when they ensure the security of plans for D-Day, but a subsequent issue takes them to North Africa where references to Tobruk, a general sense of pessimism and the presence of Rommel suggest it is 1942 before El Alamein - except that Rommel is known by Allied intelligence to be part of a plot to kill Hitler, which in reality Rommel was a late recruit to in mid 1944, after he had left Africa. Not long afterwards the Commandos are briefly redeployed to the Pacific in advance of the Battle of Okinawa which began in April 1945. Issue #22 explicitly dates itself to August 1st 1943 and Operation Tidal Wave. It's probably best to just overlook the disregard for chronology. Equally it's best not to ask if Commando units stationed near the English Channel and usually sent to France and Germany really were often deployed on one-off missions as far apart as Norway, Romania, North Africa, Okinawa or Burma (now Myanmar).

Sticking out rather more are the presentation of a number of historical and cultural factors. The Commandos themselves are an anachronism, being a mixed race unit at a time when the US Army was still segregated (a source of tension in some host countries like the United Kingdom). In issue #6 the squad has a temporary replacement member, George Stonewell, who turns out to be a bigot who is reluctant to share and serve alongside Jews and blacks. It would have been a bold move to address the subject of more general racism in the US Army during the war, but the story side-steps it by making the bigot a one-off. However whilst the squad may be a racially progressive portrayal the same cannot be said of some of the other races presented. Many of the Germans and Japanese seen conform to easy clichés, whilst issue #17 sees the squad encounter an African tribe, whose presentation could have stepped out of the Victorian era.

The series is also a little ambiguous when it comes to Italy. Issue #3 sees the squad deployed there but a reader could be mistaken for thinking that the country was conquered by the Germans and liberated, as opposed to being an ally until the pro-German regime collapsed and the Germans stepped in to control things directly. This also avoids questions about the loyalty of American soldiers of Italian descent, such as Dino, or for that matter it may have made it easier to sell to Italian American readers. Later on issue #12 touches on the issue more with radio calls for Allied soldiers of German and Italian descent to defect but Dino only fakes this under orders from Fury.

The series is also a little off in its portrayal of the United Kingdom. Stan Lee was neither the first nor last American writer to struggle with understanding British titles so it would be wrong to blame him alone, but there's something about the way Lord Hawley is introduced, and even more with his son being "Sir Percy" that feels off-key. The geography is surprising as well - the squad seem to be based near the Straits of Dover, the nearest point to the continent, yet in one issue they get a few hours leave and go to spend the evening Shakespeare's home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Not even high speed rail would allow that! However in one regard the series is spot on by not succumbing to the lazy myth that the United States was solely responsible for victory in the Second World War, with the British presented as equal allies to the Americans.

Some of the dialogue also sounds a little strange, particularly Percival Pinkerton's which makes him sound a little too much the stereotypical upper-class buffoon. And contrary to the impression some movies may give, the Cockney accent is not widely heard outside the East End of London and is certainly not standard fare in pubs across the country. The Germans who can speak English tend to speak an Americanised English which is understandable given where the comic was created but still surprising given geography - for example "railroad flat cars" when the more natural translation for a German would be "flat railway trucks".

British Nurse Lady Pamela Hawley becomes Nick Fury's romantic interest from issue #4 onwards but, as a caption at the end of issue #10 states, the series is a war comic not a romance comic and so after her introduction she usually appears only briefly at the start and/or end of some adventures. She is killed off in issue #18, another reminder of the sudden personal cost of war and it comes suddenly - Fury has decided to propose to her upon his return from a mission and is so caught up in it he won't let anyone tell him critical news. Then he arrives at the Hawley home only to be told by her father that Pamela died helping the wounded in an air raid. Deaths don't always have to be shown on panel to have an impact and this one perhaps works the best this way, highlighting Fury's grief that he wasn't by her side when she died. Such an off-panel approach can work when handled well. It's also another case of the series being one of the first Silver Age Marvel titles to break new ground before the bigger named titles got there. So here is the start of the route that led to the deaths of the likes of Gwen Stacey, Karen Page and many other romantic interests.

Continuity is generally tight but there are occasional lapses. Issue #15 sees the Howlers sent to the Netherlands to disrupt the dikes and there's a mystery about the identity of Agent X with the hint that he could be Mayor Rooten, seemingly a collaborator. Wisely the thread is left dangling - in real life many a mission ends with not every thread resolves - but four issues later Fury is again in the Netherlands and goes straight to Rooten as though his identity was clear all along.

It would be natural to expect the series to take place in its own world, isolated from the rest of the Marvel universe. Instead links to that wider universe are established fairly early on. A young Reed Richards makes a brief guest appearance in issue #3 and in return Nick Fury made an appearance in the present day in Fantastic Four #21. Issue #8 ties in with the Avengers by making the villain a young Baron Zemo, albeit before his hood was fixed to his face. And Captain America and Bucky have a major guest appearance in issue #13.

The series develops only a few recurring antagonists, reflecting the nature of war and the squad's operations. Adolf Hitler shows up in person quite a bit but the primary antagonist is Baron von Strucker. Midway through the series he assembles the Blitzkrieg Squad to rival the Howlers, with the members consisting of various soldiers and thugs aiming to counter the Howlers. The names show a limited imagination when it comes to Germans - Ludwig, Fritz, Otto, Siegfried, Ernst and Manfred. The Blitzkrieg Squad appear a few times and it's surprising that they don't suffer much attrition either. Back home the squad's other main rival is Sergeant Bull McGiveney, head of the Second Attack Squad who frequently clash and fight with the Howlers but the two squads work effectively together when in the same combat zone in issue #22. A bit part is "the Skipper" who commands a submarine and often gets the Howlers in and out of enemy territory. He would later be given a name - Captain Savage - and his own series. The only other recurring character of note is Hans Rooten, a Dutch boy who believes his father has turned collaborator and so he leaves with the Howlers, becoming their mascot but doesn't go on any missions with them.

The annual sees the squad reunited in the Korean War. The story is even more propagandistic than the Second World War adventures, with few opportunities missed to paint the Communists in a bad light. This originally saw print in 1965 and it's hard to miss the obvious parallel with Vietnam in the year the American ground involvement began. At this stage US public opinion was largely in favour of the intervention and it was easy to show American forces in east Asia without risking a sales backlash. It would be interesting to see if this was sustained in later issues. The annual also serves to bridge some of the gap between the series and Fury's present day adventures - Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. which had just launched in Strange Tales (and which are the most prominent Silver Age absentee from the Essentials) - by showing how Fury was finally commissioned as an officer. But both the annual and the S.H.I.E.L.D. tales break a convention of fiction by showing us the heroes will live in the long run. A feature in the annual shows the current members of the squad and raises the prospect the membership will change in future issues, yet the annual cuts off the possibility of further deaths.

The earliest issues contain one page guides to aspects of the war. Most are "Weapons of War", showing the various different guns used by different countries in the war, but issue #3 has "America's World War II Shopping List!" showing various vehicles and equipment and how much each item cost, though I don't know if the prices are from the war itself or instead are the costs of such equipment in 1963. The "Weapons of War" feature briefly returns in issue #14 with a guide to the B-26 Martin Marauder bomber. The annual also adds a piece on Combat Arm and Hand Signals plus a guide to the base, now explicitly placed at Dover.

The series may offer a degree of realism by such information and by killing off regular characters, but a lot of the time it's a high octane adventure that skims over the gorier details like bodies and blood. The Howlers routinely survive against ridiculous odds and the German and Japanese armies seem to both be composed almost entirely of graduates of the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy. And some of the enemy plans seem to be a little fantastical - the idea that the Germans could devote huge resources during the war to building a tunnel under the Channel is a little hard to swallow but ultimately this series is meant to be more of an enjoyable romp rather than a gritty historical exploration of the war. As a result it bends chronology and location to allow its characters to go through a wide variety of scenarios. There's a strong sense that Lee, Kirby and Ayers were proud of the series. I don't know much about where they were deployed during the war so I'm not sure if these are fantastical embellishments of some of their own experiences or a substitute by ex-soldiers who found themselves deployed away from the front line, but there's a real sense of authenticity about the characters, even if the actual composition of the squad owes more to 1960s sensibilities than 1940s realities.

On top of everything else, this volume and Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1 both show the potential for releasing some of Marvel's non-superhero titles, something that DC's Showcase Presents volumes have been rather better at exploiting. So is anybody up for trying the ultimate step - Essential Millie the Model?

Friday, 9 August 2013

Sidesteps: Power Pack Classic volume 2

Power Pack Classic volume 2 has within it issues #11 to #17, plus Uncanny X-Men #195 and the graphic novel Power Pack and Cloak & Dagger: Shelter from the Storm. All the Power Pack issues are written by Louise Simonson, with the Uncanny X-Men issue by Chris Claremont and the graphic novel by Bill Mantlo. All but one of the Power Pack issues are drawn by June Brigman with a fill-in by Brent Anderson. The Uncanny X-Men issue is drawn by John Romita Jr and the graphic novel by Sal Valluto. The graphic novel was actually published in 1989 whereas the regular issues in this volume are from 1985, but the status quo it presents can only fit into the early years of the series, as we'll see when looking at a future volume.

In my review of volume 1, I criticised the excessive number of guest appearances by the rest of the Marvel universe, at least one in every issue once the family moved to New York. The situation is slightly improved here as, discounting Franklin Richards and Jarvis (the Avengers' butler - at this point the Baxter Building had been destroyed, forcing the Fantastic Four to temporarily stay with the Avengers) since one is a new member and the other part of his existing status quo, there are only appearances by other heroes in issues #12 & #15, albeit with some slack picked up by the Uncanny X-Men issue and the graphic novel. The only villains from outside the series are the Morlocks in the first two issues and the X-Men crossover. Otherwise the series spends some time developing its own recurring villains in the forms of both the Snarks and the Bogey-Man, their father's ex-boss embittered by his downfall and now donning battle armour in a one-man war against the children.

Whilst issue #12 leads into a crossover with Uncanny X-Men, with the latter included here, issue #15 follows up on an issue of Thor that isn't in the collection. It's easy to work out the necessary details without out, but it's another sign of how the series can be over integrated with the rest of the Marvel universe. Issue #15 also has one of the most misleading covers, with Beta Ray Bill prominently shown yet he's only on one page and doesn't interact with the children. Another omission is Fantastic Four #282, the first half of which began the process of introducing a new member (although where possible it would probably best be truncated as the second half of the issue is both a Secret Wars II crossover and the middle part of a major Psycho-Man storyline). However once again the issues here move at a pace that means it possible to not even realise the dreams Franklin refers to had actually been shown.

Power Pack issues #16-17 see the addition to the team of Franklin Richards, the son of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, who takes the codename of "Tattletale". Being even younger than Katie it would be tempting to see this as a "Cousin Oliver" move (and he's a cute blond kid to boot), but in his two issues collected here he holds his own well, even when fighting with Katie over silly stuff, and is endearing rather than annoying. But despite the feud, and her jealousy at no longer being the youngest one and thus special, she suggests letting him join them. (Franklin's somewhat limited ageing has been a source of much fan comment over the years so it would be interesting to look at latter day adventures involving both him and other Power siblings see at what different rates they've aged relative to each other.) His available powers are primarily the ability to see the future in his dreams but this proves critical in allowing the team (as we must now call them since he isn't related to the others) to quickly locate the other new arrival, Kofi Whitemane, a young Kymellian from the same family as Aelfyre "Whitey" Whitemane, who gave the Power siblings their abilities in the first place. Kofi is an interesting addition, reinforcing the alien connection of the children's powers but as a youngster himself he is still on a learning curve, and is sometimes surprised at how the Power siblings have managed to adapt their powers. Including Friday, seven is probably the maximum size for a team book before it becomes unwieldy, but fortunately the smartship only appears from time to time. As Franklin only gets his costume and codename at the end of the last regular issue in this volume, it's not yet possible to see how the series can handle such an expanded cast.

The series deals with some surprisingly mature themes and demonstrates that regardless of the characters' ages this is not a kiddie title. We see the siblings facing the horrors of kidnapping, the shock of waking up to find no-one recognises them and the horror of having both bodies and minds twisted so that they will no longer remember who they truly are. There's exploration of how loss can leave people twisted and angry with the world, whether the Morlock Annalee mourning her children, Batman Bates mourning a baseball career cut short by war, or Carmody the Bogey-Man, Professor Power's ex boss, mourning his life before the children destroyed the anti-matter converter. The kids face more down to earth problems as well such as school rivalries that see bullies manipulate situations to get others into trouble and unjustly punished, or the horrors that lurk in the sewers such as alligators. Throughout it all they retain a spirit of adventure but never drift into naivety. However there is one point where it would be nice if the series did go out of its way to explain something. Issue #13 sees the children go to a baseball match where Jack's hero's record is under threat, but heroes can often turn out to not be all one expects. It's a sombre tale of hope, failure and expectations, but it's a little hard to follow at times if one knows nothing about the rules of baseball and just what is happening in the game at any given moment.

The volume concludes with a graphic novel from 1989. Now I'm generally rather biased against graphic novels. Often they seem to be excessively priced - this one had a cover price of US $7.95 at a time when the regular series went for about $1.00 - and never have anything like as much story as the price indicates. Sometimes the art and more sophisticated colour can make up for this a bit (and in a colour reprint such as here the reproduction works, whereas the black & white Essentials haven't been kind at all to graphic novels) but nowhere enough to justify all the extra expense. Fortunately many of them are inconsequential and can be ignored if one wishes, but occasionally they're a core part of the continuity so have to be read if one is to get the complete story (and in the days of collecting back issues mainly via comic shops, past graphic novels were particularly difficult to locate). They're also often a pain to store, especially the Marvel ones from the 1980s which used an unusual page size. Of course when they come in collected editions the only real question is whether they consume space unnecessarily but here they take up the space that would otherwise have been given to only a couple of issues. Still it's hard to set aside one's dislikes of the format completely. Despite the order of billing, this is really a Cloak and Dagger story at heart, written by their co-creator, with Power Pack not even appearing until nearly halfway through. It focuses on the plight of runaways, showing two teenagers, one escaping a violent and abusive parent, the other an overprotective one. They find themselves in the darkness of the city where even supportive shelters contain their own dangers due to competition for numbers for funding and where life isn't the great escape they expected. At the heart of one shelter is a twisted man with the power to absorb others' life-force, a side effect of drugs that failed to cure his disease. There are clear parallels with the lives of Cloak and Dagger, with a look at the ethics of the former as he struggles to control his hunger for light. Amidst all this the Power siblings are very much sidelined, primarily only serving to locate where Dagger has been taken, and the story could easily have been told without them. It's not a bad Cloak and Dagger tale but it's a utterly unnecessary Power Pack one and could easily have been left out in favour of a few more issues from the regular series. It's also unusual in being set some years earlier than when it was published - was this either a conscious reaction against later developments, a delay in production or a writer returning after a break from regular Marvel work who was out of touch with recent developments? (The last one is unlikely as Mantlo's regular comic writing had ended only a year earlier when his run on Alpha Flight concluded, and he instead focused on his legal career. I think this graphic novel was the last comic he wrote, though until 1993 occasional other stories saw print in the various inventory series Marvel Fanfare and Marvel Super-Heroes.)

The graphic novel aside, this collection shows the series coming along well and developing its own mythology. The guest appearances have also been cut down, removing distractions and allowing the series' own characters to grow and develop. Whilst no individual issue or storyline leaps out as especially spectacular, overall it's a pretty solid volume that continues to put the children through a diverse set of situations that make them more than meet their potential.

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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