Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

24 April 2009

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 2

Collects: Power Man & Iron Fist #76-100 and Daredevil #178 (1981-3)

Released: March 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 624 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785130727

What is this?: A two-year slice of early ‘80s street-level Marvel superheroing, featuring the Heroes for Hire: Power Man and Iron Fist.

The culprits: Writers Mary Jo Duffy, Denny O’Neil, and Kurt Busiek and pencilers Denys Cowan, Ernie Chan, and Kerry Gammill, with many other writers and artists

When people get nostalgic for the early ‘80s, Jim Shooter-era Marvel, they don’t often wax nostalgic about Power Man & Iron Fist. (Not in my experience, anyway. I’m sure there are corners of the Internet where that is exactly what happens.) But in many ways, Essential Power Man & Iron Fist, v. 2, is part of the bedrock of that time.

Power Man & Iron Fist has its flaws, but it was a second-tier book that kept chugging along, month after month. Once past Cage’s “Sweet Christmas!” (not much in evidence here) and jive, there’s not much laughable about the title, unlike Dazzler or U.S. 1. Every month is a solid story — well short of unforgettable, usually, but rarely disappointing. There was a consistent supporting cast, well used. The villains … OK, these were mostly second-tier, and even with Sabretooth, you know no one had figured out quite what to do with him yet, other than use him as an Iron Fist villain. But these villains were appropriate to the heroes, they had a score to settle, and they frequently had an interesting hook or visual.

Essential Power Man & Iron Fist, v. 2 cover The writers all have solid credentials in similar low-powered superheroes, although Kurt Busiek found his success a little later than Denny O’Neil and Mary Jo Duffy’s best-known writing is probably Power Man & Iron Fist. The artists are nothing to sneer at either, although Ernie Chan is better known as the inker for Conan than a penciler and neither Kerry Gammill nor Denys Cowan are current superstars or objects of nostalgic veneration.

There is no overarching plot for the volume, of course; there never is in an Essential. So let’s talk about the writers. Duffy uses humor well, rarely letting it get in the way of the plot (except for #79, which is essentially a Doctor Who story, with a cut-rate non-licensed Doctor Who). Unsurprisingly, she’s also the most deft with the largely female supporting cast. O’Neil, who takes over with #85, does away with Duffy’s last shocking change — the scarring of Harmony, a fashion model and Cage’s girlfriend, as soon as it is safe — and … well, I’m not sure what to say about his run, which lasted until #89, except that it’s mainly forgettable: a couple of adventures outside New York, a rescue of Moon Knight, an anti-drugs story. Very ‘80s, in its way, I suppose.

Busiek takes it the rest of the way (except for #91, written by Steven Grant), but this isn’t the Busiek we know from Marvels or Astro City. He’s unpolished here, indulging in legacy characters by bringing back the ID and gimmick of Chemistro and picking up on hints from the O’Neil run that Luke might not be looked upon kindly by his Times Square neighbors. That’s an interesting idea, but he conflates the scum of Times Square, who might want to kick a hero out of their midst, with the African-Americans who think Cage is too white. (The word “Oreo” is used a lot.) Both those groups are wrapped up in the newest Chemistro, who is black and promises to keep the area safe for criminals — not like that Cage, who works with the po-lice. There’s a good story about the heroes escorting Hammerhead to a different prison (although why do they have to ride on the top of a truck to do it?), and Busiek does manage to keep a group of subplots moving forward quite ably, wrapping them up in the double-sized #100.

Gammill supplies the best art in the volume. His pencils are sharp, vivid, and kinetic, and for readers, it’s a shame he only stays on for only for only three issues, #77-9. In many ways, this style of art is underappreciated: without enough tics or exaggerations to be memorable, it has to settle for an understated excellence. Cowan’s style suffers from the black-and-white reproduction and a series of inkers; I remember his work being much better in color in the original issues. The inking of Carl Potts, who finished almost half Cowan’s work on the title (#80-4, 86-90, and 92-3), does him no favors, and that and the lack of color sometimes makes it difficult to make out details with his scratchy style. Chan works #94-100; his art starts off stiff, but it improves greatly when he stops inking his own pencils.

Some call it mediocrity, others consistency. But most of us who enjoy comics from that era can’t quite put our fingers on what to call it; we only recognize it has a familiar feel, comforting without being exciting. This isn’t probably the best way to spend your $20 — and don’t think I haven’t noticed that price increase, Marvel; you’re on notice — but most readers won’t regret the time or money spent with this volume.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (3 of 5)

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