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

14 October 2016

Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 1: The Boys Are Back in Town

Collects: Power Man & Iron Fist v. 3 #1-5 (2016)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9781302901141

What is this?: Luke Cage and Iron Fist help an old friend by “recovering” a necklace, but the necklace is enchanted, and the old friend uses it for a crime spree. Plus: Are Danny and Luke back together? Like, for good?

The culprits: Writer David Walker and artists Sanford Greene and Flaviano

In Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 1: The Boys Are Back in Town, everyone is obsessed with whether Luke Cage and Iron Fist (Danny Rand) are back together. Have they reunited? They’ve been working together; obviously they’re back together. Why don’t they just admit it? The story is as relentless with questions about their relationship status as a ’shippers’ message board.

Back in Town is obviously attempting to cement Power Man and Iron Fist as a big deal in the Marvel Universe, even though it’s uncertain whether Luke Cage is Power Man any more. (The presence of a new Power Man, even one who has worked with Danny before, is not a barrier to Luke reusing the name, a fact pointed out by two Spider-Women as they watch the duo fight second-rate villains.) The book is pushing the importance of Power Man and Iron Fist as heroes, as everyone — fans, villains, other heroes, and Luke’s wife — are speculating on the two reuniting with differing levels of enthusiasm.

I’m not saying Power Man and Iron Fist aren’t cool. I’m saying the duo have never seemed that popular within the Marvel Universe.

Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 1: The Boys Are Back in Town coverBut on the other hand, writer David Walker and artist Sanford Greene, who draws #1-4, undercut that idea. Everyone acts as if Luke and Danny are a big deal, but the magical item that fuels the first arc is specifically one that only works with powerless wielders. The villains the pair fight are low-rent at best; as much as I enjoy Gorilla Man (Arthur Nagan version), he’s not someone you throw at a hero you’re trying to show is important.

Rather than representing the book Walker’s trying to sell to readers, Greene’s art does a decent job representing the book as it is. Greene’s art does not depict a world of front-line superheroes. I admit Green’s Cage dresses sharply; he’s certainly a cut above everything else in the book, although he’s not dressed like a hero. On the other hand, I have no idea why Iron Fist is wearing a high-collared track suit. Overall, the art has a loose, non-mainstream look to it, one that exaggerates violence by making recipients of punches rubber-faced. This is the look of a book that’s on the fringes of the Marvel superhero universe. It’s not low quality, but it’s not a look that says, “This is a book featuring two very popular heroes in it.”

Even colorist Lee Loughridge contributes to this diminution of the leads. The world of Cage and Iron Fist isn’t decorated with the bright colors of superheroes or even strong, clear colors. The pages are muddy and grimy: mustard yellows and browns, muted purples. Even Danny is not in his usual colors; instead of his usual green costume or the white one from the previous volume of PM&IF, he’s wearing a reddish-brown tracksuit. It’s not even the bright red of that his costume turns when he turns evil. Its color is too boring to say anything about Danny — except, perhaps, that he’s boring, and that’s not what anyone wants.

The actual story has Luke and Danny helping their former office assistant, Jennie Royce, after she is released from prison. After being thrown in prison for murdering her abusive boyfriend, Royce asked for Iron Fist’s help in the previous Power Man and Iron Fist series, one that featured Victor Alvarez, the second Power Man. The duo discovered Royce was possessed at the time; the story ends with Danny saying She-Hulk, who is a lawyer, “almost guaranteeing an acquittal.” Back in Town glosses over this, mentioning the possession and murder a few times but never mentioning what book the story appeared in.

Oops! Looks like She-Hulk spoke too soon (although it also looks like everyone’s forgotten what she said). Jennie’s out on probation, not acquitted, and she wants Luke and Danny to get her grandmother’s necklace back from Tombstone. They take it back easily, but instead of being a family heirloom, the necklace is a magic device that gives power to the powerless. Luke and Danny have to deal with the consequences of that, with Danny willing to rob a gangster on her say-so and not believing Royce lied to them. (In the previous volume, he’s willing to believe Royce killed her boyfriend; he investigates before giving his opinion on Royce’s innocence. Perhaps that’s why the previous volume isn’t footnoted.)

This book has a glimpse into the secret world of supervillains that I’ve wanted for quite some time now. The world in Back in Town is a lovely slice of New York inhabited by villains who communicate with each other, spread rumors, and generally complain about each other and heroes. I want to read more of this world in which people know the villainess Nekra by her first and last names (Nekra Sinclair), where Tombstone has two incompetent henchmen who can’t understand his whispering speech, where a strip-mall wizard named Señor Magico calls Dr. Strange a “pendejo” and claims he knows much more than the Sorcerer Supreme. The book also brings back Black Mariah as Royce’s partner-in-crime, and it’s a good choice; her previous (rare) appearances indicate she’s exactly the right person to help Royce: underestimated, familiar with New York’s gangs, and on the lookout for quick grabs for cash.

On the other hand, it’s not that Luke and Danny are dull, but when they are the only two characters on the page, the book gets a little less interesting. The villains get all the best lines, naturally. Luke’s minced oaths, like substituting “fiddle-faddle” for curse words out of his wife’s concern for their daughter’s vocabulary, are funny, but they aren’t enough to cover the pair’s squabbling about whether they are a couple again. A team! Not a couple. A team.

Luke’s wife, Jessica Jones, is a problem in Back in Town. For the first three issues, she’s a shrew, complaining about her husband destroying his shirts while accompanying Danny. It’s sitcom characterization; she’s the nagging wife of every screw-up husband in every sitcom ever. Matters improve somewhat in the two issues, but she’s in a total of two panels in those issues, so it’s hard to say definitively that she’s turned a corner.

Royce is a problem as well. Her powerlessness is a major part of the story; the necklace won’t work for someone who has power. We’re supposed to feel some sort of connection to Royce’s plight, but we’re not given enough time and information to build that relationship with the character, especially given how little we’re informed about the story in which she was incarcerated. (The book seemed to have enough room for this line of development.) What little characterization we get about Royce suggests not that she’s a figure who should be pitied for how she’s been pushed around but someone who has willingly decided to pull a caper after her release, inspired and abetted by better criminals she met in prison. The book tries so little to tie her to Danny and Luke’s past that we never see her in the same flashbacks as the Heroes for Hire. Danny feels guilty about her time in prison; that’s clear. But what Royce feels is more ambiguous, and not the good kind of ambiguous.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Back in Town, I enjoyed the book overall. I’m looking forward to the second volume, where hopefully the will-they / won’t-they nonsense and the bad Jessica will be gone and the ground-level villainy and heroism will be front and center. (Also: stop trying to convince me about how important the characters are.) With all the shortcomings the book has, though, I’m not sure I can recommend it until the second volume shows which way the series is going to go.

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

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