Friday, 14 November 2014

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2 contains issues #76 to #100 plus the crossover Daredevil #178. Bonus material consists of Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both Power Man and Iron Fist. The writing on the regular series consists of the end of Mary Jo Duffy's run, the start of Kurt Busiek's, a brief interlude by Denny O'Neil and individual issues by Mike W. Barr, with Chris Claremont co-plotting, and Steven Grant. The main artists are Kerry Gammill, Denys Cowan and Ernie Chan with individual issues by Rudy Nebres, Frank Miller, Mark Bright, Keith Pollard and Greg LaRocque. The Daredevil issue is both written and drawn by Frank Miller. And with so many creators a separate post for creator labels is needed.

The back cover of the volume goes so far as to trumpet a "Special guest appearance by Elektra: Assassin!" but it's something of a false colour as she only appears in a subplot in the Daredevil issue and doesn't interact with Power Man or Iron Fist. Was this simply a copywriter picking from a list of characters without actually reading the issues or was it someone deciding they had a tough sell on their hands and so threw in any sales hook no matter how remote? Because this volume is relatively tame. There aren't any spectacular developments for either of the main characters and few long running subplots. Instead this volume covers a period of largely run of the mill adventures.

The main exceptions come towards the end of the volume. There's a recurring theme of Power Man encountering ever more hostility in the Times Square area near his own office and apartment above the cinema. (When this series was originally published, Times Square had a very different reputation from today.) More and more people accuse him of being a sell out or an "Oreo" - brown on the outside but white on the inside - to the point that when the latest criminal to take on the mantel of Chemistro seeks to set himself up as a hero protecting the criminals, many locals side with him, especially in crowds watching his fights with Power Man. This leads to Power Man deciding to leave the area altogether, going so far as to move all his possessions out and saying his goodbyes. However on his final look around the area he comes across a gang of thugs mugging an old woman, believing the area to be safe for crime now that Power Man has gone. This causes him to reassess his plans and stay put to protect the ordinary folk on the street. The subplot also contrasts the different outlooks between his former girlfriend Claire Temple, now appearing on a regular basis as the hospital doctor who seems to handle every medical requirement going, and current girlfriend Harmony Young, a model. Claire's outlook is down to earth and focused on the needs of the ordinary people whilst Harmony seeks glamour and is obsessed with her appearance. Harmony starts flat-sharing with Misty Knight, and generating tension over everything from being in the communal areas at the wrong moments to criticising and rearranging Misty's wardrobe. This latter theme is soon forgotten amidst the turnover of writers. At one point Harmony is mistaken for Misty by Sabretooth, seeking revenge for a defeat earlier in the volume, and left with a badly slashed face, opening up the possibility that she will have to face a changed life and struggle with the loss of her career. However all is rapidly restored to normal by plastic surgeons just as we get to a change of writers. More durable across writers is the underlying tension about whether Luke and Claire will get back together, with Dr Burnstein even trying to matchmake them, and Harmony getting jealous of how often Luke is meeting Claire seemingly in the course of work.

Of the three regular writers on this volume we have one in the latter stages of their most prominent series, another starting out before they were famous and one of the biggest name writers of the Bronze Age of Comics. Unfortunately this volume is another example of how even some of the most acclaimed writers can fail to set a series on fire with Denny O'Neil's run seeing the series veer away from the gritty yet light hearted mainly New York based fun under Mary Jo Duffy and instead become much more generic, taking the Heroes for Hire out of the city on assignments such as stopping supply lorries being stolen by the Mole Man or attempts on the life of a musician. The series soon comes back to New York for a forgettable team-up with Moon Knight's supporting crew, while the hero himself spends almost the entire issue trapped in an overheated empty water tank, or an unsubtle tale about the drug acid, or an encounter with military mercenaries. It just feels run of the mill and it's a relief that this run is over so soon. The replacement shows more promise quickly. It's a surprise to discover Kurt Busiek's name on this volume, from over a decade before his breakout with series such as Marvels and Thunderbolts. His work here lacks the perspective of looking at how people react to living in a world of heroes and there isn't much sign of the deep level continuity that makes use of many an obscure back issue, though he does get a strong grasp on the series's own continuity and brings together a number of disparate characters. The last few issues of the volume see a multi-part storyline that brings back old foes of both heroes such as Master Khan, Ward Meachum, Shades and Comanche, adds in a new foe in the form of the wolf woman Fera, and makes Iron Fist face the loss of his soul. It's a strong tale that serves to wrap up some of the outstanding threads though it's disappointing to again have the anniversary issue taken up with a K'un-Lun derived storyline. Still it shows a good handling of the mythology that has been built up by both characters' solo series and then this combined one.

The Daredevil crossover seems to have been to promote this series, with an advert reproduced that trumpets Ol' Hornhead visiting. The tale as a whole starts out serious in the pages of Daredevil but veers off into comedy as the Heroes for Hire get commissioned to protect Matt Murdock who finds them a nuisance and distraction. It leads into an oddball tale set around a theatre as all three heroes try to secure the career of a young dancer amidst a web of petty rivalries and international espionage, leading to a slapstick chase in the middle of a live performance. Another source of comedy comes in issue #79. Bob Diamond has been in a play performing "Professor Gamble", a time-travelling scientist who battles the robotic "Dredlox". Even the play is called "The Day of the Dredlox". The homage is all too clear to me but I wonder just how well Doctor Who and the Daleks were known about by the mainstream US comics audience in 1982. And then we discover that the characters in the play are more than fiction-within-fiction.

The humour sits alongside some more serious moments such as the return of Warhawk on a crusade against all people of Oriental origin, blaming them all for what happened to him in Vietnam, or a trip to the north African country of Halwan where tensions are building with its neighbours. Other foes are more down to Earth, such as an appearance by Unus the Untouchable who is focusing just on petty crime to raise funds, having realised that the authorities are ignoring such low scale matters (in another sign of the times as this was about a decade before Rudy Giuliani heralded a new approach to crime). Later they prevent a jailbreak by Hammerhead with help from the Maggia including Man Mountain Marko and a new Eel. The series continues its mix of big and small scale villains, with various spies thrown in for good measure, serving clients, helping those who can't afford their services for nothing or a nominal fee (one boy gets help for just 25c) and facing down a variety of old foes. Throughout the later stages Power Man's friend D.W. Griffith starts filming their exploits for a documentary, though when he captures on film Ward Meachum hiring Shades and Comanche it leads to Griffith's being kidnapped.

Overall this run manages to maintain a broad family feel to the title, with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing both regularly appearing in both action and personal roles. Many issues end with one or both of the Heroes for Hire going for pizza, predating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' obsession, and overall it's clear just how strong the bonds are between the various odd couples that it's credible they would put their lives on the line for one another. The artwork is generally quite good but one irritation is the way certain female character's hairstyles keep changing to the point that it can be difficult to recognise them on first sight. Misty Knight, Harmony Young and Claire Temple all exhibit this trait and the script doesn't always immediately identify them on first appearance. Still it's only a minor niggle.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries are a nice addition that often help fill out the end pages of a volume. However they have a tendency to give away details of major storylines that haven't appeared by the end of the particular volume. Whilst Power Man's entry is from the Deluxe Edition, contemporary to issue #125, Iron Fist was strangely absent from that edition altogether (he should have appeared in issue #5, contemporary to Power Man and Iron Fist #123) and so his entry is from the later Update '89.

This volume is steady but not spectacular. Most of it follows a formula of mixing an odd couple, street level grittiness and some tongue in cheek fun in a good blend but without producing any particular star-shining moments. Approximately the middle of the volume shows the series going off the rails under a new writer without a decent grasp on the title but fortunately this doesn't last long. The last part shows the earliest work by a future star writer and though it may lack many of his hallmarks it nonetheless holds up reasonably well. This series has dated in some surprising ways in its portrayal of New York but overall it remains solid stuff. There may not be any particular standouts but collectively the series still holds its own and broadly the volume is pretty good.

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