Friday, 21 January 2011

Review - Essential Luke Cage, Power Man Vol.2 TPB

This second Essential Luke Cage volume collects Luke Cage, Power Man issues 28-49 (not including #36, which was a reprint issue) and Luke Cage, Power Man Annual #1 in black and white. These comics were produced by a variety of creators of varying talent, including writers Don McGregor, Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont and artists Lee Elias, Frank Robbins, George Tuska and John Byrne.

In the previous volume, Luke escaped from Seagate Prison, where he was serving time for a crime he didn’t commit, after a dodgy experiment gave him super strength and skin like steel. He then headed to New York, changed his name to Luke Cage (we never found out his real name) and set himself up as a ‘Hero For Hire’. He fought a variety of villains it would actually be quite generous of me to call second rate – Mace, Chemistro, Lionfang, Cottonmouth, Black Mariah, etc. – and befriended personality-free hippy kid D.W., whose uncle owns the building Cage rents an office in, and Harlem doctors Claire Temple (Cage’s love interest) and Noah Burstein (the very same doctor who conducted that fateful experiment on Cage in Seagate Prison). At no point during that volume did Cage manage to clear his name, so this book continues in much the same vein as the first one, with Cage fighting even more crappy villains – Mr Fish, Cockroach Hamilton, Piranha Jones, Spear, the Mangler, Big Brother, the Cheshire Cat (actually, I quite liked the Cheshire Cat), Goldbug, Bushmaster, etc. – and worrying that he might get found out by the cops (and also the IRS, because, as he didn’t officially exist, he wasn’t paying any tax on his meagre earnings). Actually, nothing much of interest really happens in this volume until the last couple of issues and anyone reading the rest of the book would quickly realise that this was not one of Marvel’s best Bronze Age titles, even though Luke Cage was one of its best Bronze Age characters.

Most of the stories towards the beginning of the book were written by Don McGregor, who attempted to inject some social realism into his stories – even referencing the ‘70s oil crisis and complaining about fuel prices at one point, which couldn’t have been of much interest to young readers – but these issues just seemed really over-written and got boring quickly. The social stuff took a backseat once Marv Wolfman – who wrote most of the stories in this volume – took over as writer but his stories were very simplistic and often dragged over several issues for no reason at all. Wolfman was probably writing a lot of other stuff at the time – this work probably coincided with his more famous run on Tomb of Dracula – and I got the overall impression that Power Man was a title where various writers went to hack out stories to earn a bit of extra cash and great artists who had fallen from favour went because they couldn’t get any other work.

Several issues here were drawn by the great Frank Robbins, and these were the artistic high point of the book for me, but Lee Elias, another Golden Age veteran but one I was hitherto unaware of, drew the majority of the issues reprinted here and his pleasing style was actually very similar to Robbins’, if slightly less kinetic. Really, though, it wasn’t until the last two issues reprinted in this volume, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, that this series started to seem like an exciting prospect. In this two-part story, Claremont and Byrne introduced Luke to Danny Rand / Iron Fist, who would soon share the title with Cage, and with the help of Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, they finally managed to clear his name. This story was still quite weak and full of needless confrontation but compared to the stories that preceded it, it was pretty good and at least the series finally moved forward after 40+ issues. Thanks mainly to Byrne’s art, these issues looked so much more modern that the issues that preceded them and it’s easy to see why Claremont and Byrne took comics by storm in the ‘70s.

I couldn’t honestly recommend this book to anyone else but I kind of enjoyed reading it, mainly because I started reading comics in the ‘70s and have a lot of affection for stuff like this, even though I had never read most of these particular comics before. This book is probably most notable for containing the first meeting of Power Man and Iron Fist but it also contains Luke’s first utterance of his famous catchphrase ‘Sweet Christmas!’ in an issue written by Bill Mantlo (actually, he says ‘sweet jumping Christmas’ in that issue, but it’s near enough for me). ‘Holy creepin’ crud!’ made me laugh more, though.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £12.99 / $16.99 but you can usually get it a bit cheaper online. I bought my copy from my local comic shop – The Grinning Demon in Maidstone – where it was reduced to £5.00.


  1. There's Franks Robbins art in there?! Now I'm pining for a copy.

  2. He only drew three issues in this book so I wouldn't buy it just for the Frank Robbins art if I were you.

  3. I was never much of a Frank Robbins fan - always seemed too heavily inked for me - but I really enjoyed Lee Elias's work in this volume. As you say, it gets most interesting towards the end, and as Powerman & Iron Fist was one of the first US Marvel titles I bought regularly as a kid, I have great affection for the next two volumes (which I've already read). I'm looking forward to the final one as it collects many stories I've never read as for some reason they stopped distributing the book in the UK after issue #100.

  4. Power Man and Iron Fist was one of my favourite comics as a kid (just behind Marvel Team-Up, the X-Men and Daredevil) so I will definitely be getting those Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volumes at some point. I mainly just bought this second Power Man collection because I saw it cheap and because I am a bit of a completist and wanted to be able to say that I had read every issue of Power Man (I understand that sort of thing impresses girls).

    My affection for Frank Robbins' work is mainly due to his work on the Invaders, which is another Marvel comic I have fond memories of.

  5. The thing that bothers me most about the entire Essential series is simply the lack of colour. Classic Marvel comics depended so much on colour that it's difficult to see them reprinted without it. In fact, I would argue that the classic Marvel artists were dependent on colour in general. Most of Steve Ditko's black and white alternative comics, for example, simply don't work for me. On the other hand, the coloured suspense and horror stories he drew in the '70s made Charlton Comics worth the purchasing ('The Walking Snowman' from Ghostly Haunts #54 is a particular favourite of mine). Ditto for his work on '70s Atlas Comics (e.g., Morlock 2001 #3). Scott McCloud touches on such 'form-masterly' artists and their affinity with colour in the 'Word About Colour' chapter from Understanding Comics.

  6. I agree that these books contain comics that were originally meant to be published in colour and that most of them would look better in colour. For many years, I avoided buying these books myself and instead went down the Marvel Masterworks route. However, these comics weren't meant to be printed on glossy paper either and the Marvel Masterworks are really expensive and I have eventually warmed to Marvel's Essentials (and DC's Showcase) books. They are not perfect but you get to read a lot of old comics (sometimes too many old comics) for a pretty good price.

    By the way, Ditko did some great black and white strips for Eerie and Creepy in the '60s, shortly after leaving Marvel. They are well worth checking out.

  7. I can't speak for this volume but it is also worth mentioning that for people of mine and Rob's age in the UK, we encountered Ditko, Kirby etc artwork for the first time in B&W during the 70s. In fact, they can often look a little wrong in colour to us. Having said all of this, I prefer seeing the artwork in colour (Omnibus Editions being my format of choice... if I had the money).

  8. I found a torrent for those old Creepy and Eerie stories a few months back. Some of them are pretty good, but I think Archie Goodwin's over-the-top stories often subtract from Ditko's artwork. Also, I think Ditko's more simplistic, geometric style is better-suited to the horror and suspense stories; his more sophisticated and detailed pencilling works best in the phantasy/sorcery and superhero magazines (e.g., Dr Strange, Amazing Spider-Man). Furthermore, Ditko tends to turn out better and better-suited artwork when he believes in the subject matter and philosophical or sociopolitical message (if any). The less vampires and werewolves, and the better the performance from Ditko. (Indeed, unless I'm mistaken, he would eventually refuse to draw any mythological creatures whatsoever.) That's why stories like the aforementioned 'Walking Snowman', 'Dead and Gone' (Ghostly Tales #125) and the reprint of the 1950s 'Von Daniken vs. the Ants' (Scary Tales #20) turned out so well in Charlton--they kept the spirits and monsters to a minimum, and depended primarily on suspense and retribution of the Hitchcock / Nicholas Blake / film noir tradition.

    Item. It's interesting that I should post an essay on my Comics Decoder site that points out the striking similarities between David Lynch's Blue Velvet and the early Amazing Spider-Man ('Webs in Lynch's Closet'), for when I witnessed television shows like Northern Exposure and Lynch's Twin Peaks for the first time (around two decades ago, during my uni years), I was immediately reminded of some of Ditko's old stories for Charlton! The shapes, the colours, the angles--they were all so Ditkoesque in so many scenes.