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

09 March 2012

Power Man and Iron Fist: The Comedy of Death

Collects: Power Man and Iron Fist (v. 2) #1-5 (2011)
Released: November 2011 (Marvel)
Format: 120 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785152477
What is this?: Iron Fist tries to clear the name of his former secretary, Jennie Royce, with the help of his student, the new Power Man.
The culprits: Writer Fred Van Lente and artist Wellinton Alves (with help from Pere Perez)

A few reviews ago I mentioned zombie comics titles — the ones that go on forever without direction or life animating them, published simply because they were always published.

That species is almost extinct. What is still common is the unkillable concept. I’m using the word “concept” in a loose sense; usually it’s a team or character name or a comic title that has been used over and over again for decades without ever being popular enough to graduate to the ranks of the A-list titles or become a zombie. Copyright renewal, I’ve heard, is the reason for the recycling of these names, and publishers do seem keen to hold on to those copyrights.

At its worst, these unkillable concepts result in eternal retreads of “getting the band back together” setups in which the title character(s) pop up in the shipping schedule and expect to be taken seriously again. Punisher gets away with this, for some reason, but no one cuts Defenders that same slack. Or maybe the worst are the new titles in which only the names are the same, such as Scott Lobdell‘s widely panned Alpha Flight relaunch in 2004. Most split the difference, making slight changes and having fans ask, “Where’s the hook?” (Sometimes in a literal sense, in the case of Aquaman.)

Power Man and Iron Fist: The Comedy of Death coverPower Man and Iron Fist: The Comedy of Death is actually only the second go-round for the Power Man & Iron Fist name, but the concept has been around for 35 years, and the duo headlined Heroes for Hire in the ‘90s. In Comedy, however, writer Fred Van Lente seeds the story with elements from the classic ‘80s run of the title while integrating a new Power Man, teenager Victor Alvarez, into the story. Victor has powers similar to those of the original Power Man, Luke Cage (superstrength, resistance to physical injury), and he’s the son of one of Cage’s old villains, Specs. Iron Fist decided to take him on as a student, teaching him how to focus his powers more effectively. Why did he do this? I don’t know. Are his connections to Cage significant? They don’t seem to be, although I don’t know for sure. I suppose it’s my fault for not having read whatever storyline Victor was introduced in — Shadowland, I believe — but screw that noise. I can’t read everything.

Van Lente has a lot of fun with the new Power Man. Victor gets all the best lines in the book, and his natural teenage impetuousness and sense of morality allows him to move the plot along in ways the reserved Iron Fist cannot. When Iron Fist hesitates to help his former secretary, Jennie Royce, prove she did not kill Crimebuster, a competing hero for hire and her lover, Victor forces the issue. He has a strong sense of wrong and right and a modern sensibility that clashes with Iron Fist and his training in a way that Luke Cage no longer can.

PokerfaceVictor’s most memorable quips are reactions to Comedy‘s bizarre villains and supporting cast. Van Lente’s weird ideas should be the envy of his contemporaries; they manage to be memorable and enjoyable without being so stupid they break believability. The most outlandish is the Commedia dell’Morte, a Renaissance commedia dell’arte / burglary troupe who had the misfortune to rob Baron Mordo; the master of dark arts bound their souls to their masks and forced them to murder once a day, so they became international assassins. Pokerface has a less complex backstory but a more compelling visual; he is a gambler who literally has a poker driven through his skull, with the point emerging from his face. Tiowa Bryant, one of Victor’s classmates at Alison Blaire School for the Performing Arts (go Dazzlers!), constantly speaks in ‘20s slang and dresses like a flapper.

After that, Noir, a vigilante out of for revenge for the death of a Muslim cleric, seems normal, despite her use of darkforce bullets. This also has the unfortunate side effect of making the Divine Right, a white supremacist prison gang, seem mundane, even if they are an excellent choice for Power Man & Iron Fist villains.

There are some odd choices, though. Allow me to list the ones that stand out so much they make the plot stop dead, as if it were looking at Van Lente and saying, “Even I think that’s a bit too much”:

  • The Don of the Dead — a Mexican Day of the Dead-themed organized crime boss — has a great name, but every speech bubble out of his mouth reads like an ethnic stereotype.

  • El Aguila pops up for one scene. Why? He was a supporting character, both as an ally and a rival, during the original Power Man & Iron Fist run, but he seems to have no purpose in this book but to remind readers that he existed and still exists.

  • I find it hard to believe that a high school named after Dazzler would succeed in the Marvel Universe, given its virulent anti-mutant prejudice.

  • Tiowa draws Victor’s attention to a black-market auction Web site named “Twilight Idol.” It’s an awful name, as if somebody wanted a name freshmen girls in high school would react positively to.

  • The main villain of the piece — Joseph Duffy, a.k.a. Gerry Kammill — is named after Jo Duffy and Kerry Gammill, a writer / artist team on Power Man & Iron Fist in the early ‘80s. Van Lente likes to link Comedy to that era, but naming two creators after a racist, murdering thug seems an odd tribute.
Still, Van Lente gets away with these digressions. Referring to Power Man & Iron Fist‘s and Marvel’s history is a nice nod to long-time readers, and other than El Aguila’s appearance, none of them take up much space. No one takes the Greeked name of comic-book products and services very seriously, and Van Lente tells the entire story with his tongue placed so firmly in cheek it’s impossible to believe that anything about the Don of the Dead is meant seriously. A good sense of humor goes a long way, and anyone who reads this (or Van Lente’s other work, such as Incredible Hercules) knows he’s got quite a sense of humor.

However, less forgivable is the resolution of the story. By the time the final issue rolls around, Van Lente is scrambling to wrap things up. Victor’s personal issues are dropped; nothing about Victor’s family — his dead supervillain father and his pacifist, hardworking mother — is mentioned outside of issue #2. In fact, his mother’s only appearance is in two pages of #2, despite Victor still living at home. The identity of Noir, a major plot thread in Comedy, is revealed in an “oh, by the way” narrative box after the rest of the plot is wrapped up, and it turns out that Noir is a character who hadn’t previously appeared in the series. The main goal of Pagliacci, the leader of the Commedia, was to get his beloved Columbina back, but when Iron Fist frees the latest Columbina from the mask, he doesn’t resist. (Pagliacci does get the mask, though, so I suppose she shouldn’t be hard to replace.) But Iron Fist’s romantic relationship with Joy, the woman he freed from possession, is stopped there, despite it not being developed enough for us to unequivocally believe it will survive the trauma. Power Man and Iron Fist seem to let the Commedia dell’Morte — a band of international assassins, mind you — escape rather than imprison them or free the people whom the masks have possessed. Jennie is still in prison at the end of Comedy, waiting for her new trial. And then, in the middle of issue #5, there’s a panel with a sniper putting Iron Fist in his crosshairs, and it’s never mentioned again. I suppose we should assume Iron Fist is too good to be taken out with a bullet, but if that’s the case, what opposition can the Divine Right, a bunch of normal humans, give Iron Fist?

The series really needed a sixth issue. Did Van Lente run out of space, or did a planned sixth issue get axed? I don’t know.

Wellinton Alves is given the task of making the absurd visuals, such as the Commedia and Pokerface, look weird but not laughable, and he succeeds. Pokerface’s gruesome wound and his faceless, playing-card themed servitors are a particular triumph. He also does a good job shifting between action and talky scenes. I’ve never seen Alves’s art before, but I’m looking forward to more of it. His grittier work clashes with Pere Perez’s assisting pencils on issues #2 and 3; Perez’s style is more manga-influnced and could work on its own — an Iron Fist series, perhaps. But his Iron Fist is too youthful and fresh faced compared to Alves’s, and his light, clean artwork clashes with panels like the ones that show Pokerface’s disfigurement or Power Man’s big fight scene.

I want to like Comedy a lot. I like Van Lente, I like Alves. I like the weirdness and the light-hearted vibe. I like Iron Fist having a new role in the Power Man / Iron Fist partnership, and I really like the new Power Man. But I don’t think the story holds together well enough or has enough room to do with it sets out to do; rather than being very good, it has to be content with “good, but flawed.”

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (2.5 of 5)

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Blogger dschonbe said...

Have you read the Claremont/Byrne Iron Fist run? I find myself intrigued and tempted by these stories solely due their run...

1:51 PM  
Blogger Raoul said...

I have read the Essential Iron Fist, v. 1. The stories are mediocre to slightly above -- better than generic kung-fu comics, but Claremont was still finding a direction when the run ended. The art's '70s Byrne, and it's hard to go wrong with that. (Although there are a lot of other Byrne work that's worth reading before Iron Fist.)

It has the first appearance of Sabretooth, a strong female supporting cast, and Misty Knight rooming with Jean Grey of the X-Men, but it also has Claremont brainwashing, Halwan (the fictional Middle Eastern country), Irish politics (as in IRA), and Iron Fist vs. the Wrecking Crew.

3:01 AM  

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