Friday, 1 August 2014

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1 contains issues #50 to 72 & 74 to 75, comprising the first third of the merged series. Issue #73 is absent, due to it featuring a guest appearance by Rom whom Marvel no longer holds the rights for. Bonus material consists of a couple of in-house adverts for the series but it's clear from the advertised prices that these come from later on. The writing sees the end of Chris Claremont's run on the characters, a brief stint by Ed Hannigan and then an extended run by Mary Jo Duffy with the odd plot contribution by Bob Layton or Steven Grant. The art takes a while to settle down with a brief run by Trevor Von Eeden before an extended one by Kerry Gammil; other issues are drawn by a mixture of John Byrne, Sal Buscema, Mike Zeck, Lee Elias, Marie Severin and Alan Weiss.

The idea of merging one weak selling title into another series has been common place throughout the history of publications, not just comics. However, often "absorption" would be a better term because one title would make little contribution beyond a small addition to the cover logo and maybe the odd feature that wouldn't last long. But occasionally the fusion would be on equal terms, with both halves at the forefront throughout the rest of the series's life. Power Man and Iron Fist was one such series.

Taking a streetwise product of the blaxploitation genre and pairing him with the rich but other worldly product of the martial arts craze was not the most obvious of moves. Indeed I'm not certain who came up with it, though as the merger coincided with a run on Power Man by the Iron Fist creative team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne there's an obvious place to start looking. But whoever had the idea, there was little to lose as both characters were slumping in sales as their respective crazes were dying and the alternative was most likely cancellation. Instead an odd couple teaming up permanently was tried. It wasn't without precedent at Marvel - there were some similar themes and half of the locations in the teaming of Captain America and the Falcon, whilst Iron Fist's solo title had already teamed up a practitioner of oriental fighting methods with a streetwise black in the form of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, the Daughters of the Dragon. But it was still an awkward pairing. What makes it credible is that it takes a number of issues before the two are in permanent partnership and even then the differences between them are brought up from time to time. But wisely the series isn't played for laughs even though odd couples from very different backgrounds with all the problems and conflicts that arise from them are staple fare for sitcoms. We get the odd lighter moment, such as Power Man having to crash at Iron Fist's place whilst his own home is rebuilt, only to find his partner's place just makes him uncomfortable. Or when we see how Iron Fist's upbringing as first a pampered rich child and then a member of a hidden civilisation have left him lacking some basic knowledge about and skills for life such as the value of money or how to control a vehicle. But these are individual aside moments and instead the focus is invariably serious. Indeed this is a book that doesn't shy away from pain, with some especially brutal maimings and deaths shown with all their consequences. The Heroes for Hire have noble motives but they inhabit an increasingly gritty world.

The early issues in the volume are surprising in that it takes a while, and several writers, before a permanent partnership is established between the two. I'm informed that the legally registered name of the series did not switch from Power Man to Power Man and Iron Fist until issue #56 (although the legal info on the inside front cover of this collected edition draws no such distinction; either I'm misinformed or whoever prepared the Essential's information made a mistake), which almost matches the fictional solidification of the partnership. Were Marvel's editors nervous about the combination even after the launch and so hedged their bets so that they could quickly return to a solo Power Man series if needs be? That's more plausible than it being a deliberately planned story arc running over seven bimonthly issues and a variety of creative teams. But once Mary Jo Duffy arrives the series quickly finds a firm footing for the rest of the volume, cementing the series as her defining title.

If there's one particularly awkward aspect to the series, it's the whole "Heroes for Hire" concept. It made sense for Power Man on his own to be working as a mercenary as he was a man of limited means and whose criminal status meant it was impossible for him to find a sufficient paying day job that would supply the funds needed to be a hero - in particular to keep up a constant supply of shirts. But Iron Fist is independently wealthy and the co-owner of a business even if he hands over the day to day running to his co-owner Joy Meachum once they've resolved some personal matters. He has so much money he never wants for anything and indeed at times just doesn't know the meaning of it. So why does he need to earn money through super heroics, a vocation traditionally provided for free, and where the jobs can wind up as being little more than glorified security guards? It's an aspect to the series not really cleared up - perhaps this is why Power Man is initially placed working instead for Colleen and Misty's agency, Nightwing Restorations - but as the series progresses there's a steady diminution of focus on big corporate hiring, although as Power Man maintains his old office above the cinema there is still an outreach to the ordinary person on the street. They also make a point of going off duty at 5pm each day to maintain their principles.

The series maintains many elements from both characters' solo titles, starting with the supporting casts. Because Power Man maintains his office above the cinema, we still get to see D.W. Griffith and Toby, and even the occasional appearance by the notorious soft drinks machine or its replacement. Iron Fist is still seeing Misty Knight and in turn her partner Colleen Wing is also around a lot. Misty was a police officer before losing her arm to a bomb and the impact of having a cybernetic arm is explored several times, including when she chillingly relives the moment. Her former police partner Rafael Scarfe is the series's most regular cop, and he often works in conjunction with Assistant District Attorney Bill Hao under DA Blake Tower. Elsewhere Iron Fist often works out with Bob Diamond, formerly of the Sons of the Tiger. He and Colleen eventually become an item but they seem to rapidly going from tensions hiding attraction to dating that I wonder if the missing issue #73 has a key scene that resolves this. Colleen also gets a memorable reunion with her father as he recovers his memory. Meanwhile the Heroes for Hire business is managed by lawyer Jeryn Hogarth, creating tensions over some of the contracts he accepts, with the office itself managed by executive secretary Jennie Royce. The most notable character to disappear is Power Man's girlfriend Dr Claire Temple who has been kidnapped one time too many and decides that she can no longer handle Luke Cage's life and he cannot give it up so they go their separate ways. Luke subsequently settles with fashion model Harmony Young. Also dropping away is Dr Noah Burstein who no longer has to give Luke support but he returns when his honeymoon is interrupted by an old foe. Then there's the return of Power Man's lawyer Big Ben Donovan, but now trying to steal drugs for himself. Another Power Man ally to reappear is Thunderbolt, only to die from accelerated growth. Also dying is Tony, the projectionist at the cinema. This is a much darker world than that inhabited by the average Marvel series from this time.

The enemies are drawn from a mix of each characters' solo titles, other Marvel universe books and some new creations. Old Power Man foes who reappear include Stiletto and Discus, plus some new incarnations of foes such as Senor Suerte. Coming from Iron Fist's side are Princess Azir, caught up in intrigues related to her home country of Halwan, Sabretooth, now allied with the Constrictor from the Incredible Hulk and many other titles, the Golden Tigers under the leadership of a new Chaka, and then a variety of longstanding foes in the return to K'un-Lun storyline. And the two jointly contribute Bushmaster, who seeks a cure for his condition only to turn to metal and crumble away in a chilling sequence. Meanwhile from other titles we see Boss Morgan, Nightshade, the mobster Bull, all from Captain America and the Falcon or the earlier Tales of Suspense stories, the Living Monolith from the pages of X-Men, complete with much of the team as well, or Maggia boss Caesar Cicero and his henchman Man Mountain Marko, both from Amazing Spider-Man. New foes include the Incinerator, a bank robber in a flame suit, Senor Suerte, the vengeance seeking younger brother of Power Man's old foe, El Aguila, a vigilante who later allies with the Heroes for Hire, Colonel Eschat, a mercenary wiping out his old colleagues, Supremo, a would be military dictator of a Latin American country who actually hires the heroes to locate the existing regime's money supply via the drugs trade, and Montenegro, a mountain climbing crime boss pursuing a piece of technology hidden on a coin.

The final couple of issues feature probably the most obvious Iron Fist storyline not yet done - a return to the lost civilisation of K'un-Lun with a number of old foes returning. Rather than waiting ten years in real time, he and Power Man get there when transported in battle with the wizard Master Khan, who is also the deity of K'un-Lun. In the mystical city Iron Fist discovers and relearns a number of key points about his life and family, clarifying for certainty that his father was originally from outside the city but found his way there, and that Miranda was his half-sister. In conflict with variously the plant race the H'ylthri, the mysterious Ninja, Iron Fist's uncle Nu-An and Master Khan, Iron Fist proves himself worthy of his legacy, and Power Man as a worthy ally. But it also leads to Iron Fist standing up to all the strange customs and practices of K'un-Lun and taking the opportunity to return to the outside world. It's a journey of self-discovery that reinforces the character and the partnership, boding well for the future.

On paper this is a series that shouldn't work. Taking two heroes who had been created to jump on the bandwagon of passing fads and sticking them together should have resulted in a mess that either got demerged or cancelled within a handful of issues. But instead something happens to make it work. The two characters with their very different resources and background prove to be a highly effective odd couple, with the partnership being one of true equals and both heroes getting their fair share of focus. The differences between the two make for some fun asides and occasional disagreements but don't prove insurmountable and so the pairing is fully dynamic, helped by a gradual build-up before the two formalise their partnership. Add in a strong supporting cast that makes use of the best of both books and the series is rapidly firing on all pistons. But what's also a surprise is just how gritty and dark the series is, with some quite brutal deaths and dark psychological moments. It is a much more gritty and down to earth series than many of its contemporaries and a surprisingly strong read even today.

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