The biggest part of the appeal of the “heroes for hire”, besides the fact that both they and their supporting cast better reflected the genuine diversity of New York City than other comics of the 70’s and 80’s did, was the clash between cultures and ideals. In the classic series, this often manifested in the “street wise” Luke Cage often having a different perspective, and experience, than Daniel “Iron Fist” Rand, who often spouted magical philosophy he’d learned from another dimension (with its roots in Asian culture). Yet this also manifests in both Cage and Rand living in different worlds due to both race and neighborhood, and experiencing differences in how they’re perceived and the sorts of things they know about. Writer David Walker establishes this in this latest issue of his opening arc, using a magical MacGuffin which none of the well off “white” superheroes seem to know about but “everyone in Harlem” knows is fact as his centerpiece. Yet this is hardly an after school special, as it is full of action and comedy skillfully rendered by artist Sanford Greene and colorist Lee Loughridge.
As established in the previous issue, both title heroes have a problem. Despite not wanting to reunite with his longtime friend, Luke Cage wound up helping Iron Fist do a “favor” for their longtime associate (and former employee) Jennie Royce, who had just come out of prison. They wound up being manipulated into stealing a magical item called “the Supersoul stone” from gangland boss Tombstone for her. This led to Tombstone putting a price on their heads and rumors of their “reunion” spreading throughout the streets (much to the chagrin of Luke’s potty mouthed wife Jessica Jones or his wardrobe of yellow shirts). Meanwhile, Jennie is working alongside their old enemy “Black Mariah” Dillard and is slowly (and steadily) becoming corrupted by both the stone and her zeal for revenge. Pursued by Tombstone’s bumbling henchmen the Manigo brothers, Luke Cage and Iron Fist consult two magic experts for a lead on their quarry – the famous sorcerer supreme Doctor Strange and the far less famous pawn shop owner “Senior Magico” – and come to realize just how wicked their friend has become when it may be too late for any of them.
Walker has managed to find the right balance between drama and comedy with this duo, which is crucial to keep things flowing between them properly. He is more than willing to make hay out of the dynamic of both of them coming from different worlds (both due to their powers and ethnicity) without being preachy or allowing characters to simply become mouthpieces for an agenda. Despite having a life full of violence and vengeance, Daniel Rand came from wealth and had more options than Luke Cage did. He choose to dedicate his life to martial arts, and had far more options and lived in different areas than Cage did. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that there would be an element of “street magic” which neither he or Doctor Strange (another upper class white man with many options afforded to him) have heard of because they didn’t live in the area. Every neighborhood has its own “rep” and urban legends, and in a universe like Marvel where both magic and mythology is very real, it makes sense that “underground” magic would form which was different from more establishes disciplines of magic much as it has with music (or anything else). Walker also excels at handling dialogue among all of the characters within this series, and making hay out of those interactions. Naturally, the dynamic between Luke Cage and Iron Fist is the main draw, but Walker also contrasts it with the often hilarious banter of the Manigo brothers and the disturbing plummet into madness between Jennie and Black Mariah.
Sanford Greene and Lee Loughridge once again deliver an amazing issue in terms of art. It juggles the action and comedy amazingly well, and Greene does a terrific job of managing to find a balance between stereotype and being true to the core of a character. Luke Cage was born in “blaxploitation” era and therefore both his and his enemies’ designs can seem dated if handled too bluntly. Thankfully, his Cage is the perfect mix of being a huge guy in a yellow shirt while still reflecting how far he’s come as a hero and a man with his wardrobe. Black Mariah also reflects how many people on the streets today dress without being too extreme. When the action happens, it is fast and kinetic seeming, with Jennie becoming more demonic with every appearance. Kaare Andrews’ new Iron Fist costume has never looked better, and neither has Spider-Man’s old enemy Tombstone. Visually, it is a feast for the eyes that looks like no other Marvel comic out there.
This issue was the first to have a letter column and at least two fans seemed to note the shift in Danny Rand’s personality since the start of the series. Considering how Walker has skillfully utilized all of the history between the two characters in regards to their enemies as well as Luke Cage’s current situation, it was jarring to see Danny all but act like a teenage sidekick at times. A part of it does come from the fact that despite what cliche would suggest, Luke Cage the “street wise” guy from a poor area was the one who moved up, got married, and became a devoted father, while the born-into-wealth Rand has remained a bachelor who seems to live every day as if it were the same and often doesn’t see what is in front of him. Rand clearly didn’t see how far their friend Jennie had fallen, which Luke understood (having been in prison himself). In the letter column, however, David Walker acknowledged that this was no accident but something he was deliberately doing with the character which would evolve in future stories. His explanation sounds akin to how Mark Waid handled “Daredevil” – in that an often stoically grim character was turning to humor and an almost forced optimism to cope. It worked well for Daredevil, if only because that character often waxed and waned between depressing brooding and devil-may-care eagerness. It will remain to be seen how well it will work for Iron Fist, but Walker has certainly earned himself some benefit of the doubt with these opening issues in this regard. After all, he certainly has captured the dynamic between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones well, and thanks to recent reality warping efforts involving Peter Parker and Mary Jane as well as Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman, they’re arguably the biggest married couple in Marvel Comics right now.
Demand for this series has been solid so far; the debut issue sold just under 80,000 copies according to Diamond’s estimates (outselling “Amazing Spider-Man” that month and earning it a spot in the top 10), with the second seeing over 41,000 copies sold for March. While that may seem like a hefty drop, it isn’t nearly as dramatic as plenty of other “all new all different” Marvel Comics launches (such as for “Black Knight” or “Red Wolf”) and suggests there may be legs for this long awaited reunion of the “house of ideas”‘ greatest tag team. Walker and Greene are certainly crafting a well put together comic which deserves to scrap it out on the comic shop shelves for a long time to come.
Look below to find more marvelous Marvel mentions. They’re other comics published by Marvel last week which are good, but don’t deliver the one-two punch of the above duo!
Howard the Duck #6: This is the second part of the “Animal House” crossover with “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” from the end of last month. While both books share the same editorial team and (arguably) similar comedic style, their sales are similar so it is unlikely this brief tag match between feathers and fur will boost sales much. However, it has been fun for a lark as the writers for both series (Chip Zdarsky and Ryan North) have their heroes unite in a story about surviving being hunted by a rich crazy woman with troves of knock-off superhero gear (dubbed “the Cosplay Billionaire”). Yet neither Howard or Doreen are alone among the hunted, which include Beast, Rocket Raccoon, Biggs the cybernetic cat, a squirrel version of Wolverine (called “Weapon II”) and Kraven the Hunter (who is attempting to reform by picking different targets to hunt). The angle of an insane cosplaying stalker being the villain could have come off quite awkwardly (considering that hardcore fans still make up the lions share of comic book purchasers), but thankfully Zdarsky and North get the tone light enough that she comes off as a kooky villain and not an opportunity for two Marvel writers to insult paying customers. Believe it or not, that happens more often than one would think in the comic book industry – especially on social media. The art by Joe Quinones, Jordan Gibson, Joe Rivera and Marc Deering is incredible, perfectly matching the madcap action/comedy which the script provides. Yet the real draw is on that banter, especially between Howard and Squirrel Girl (even if Kraven and Biggs get many of the best lines. Only readers with strong senses of humor need apply, as Beast and Kraven are hardly at their best here for full comedic effect. Originally the mouthpiece for satire from the late Steve Gerber (which is very much of its time) during the 70’s and 80’s, Howard has bounced around for some time and currently seems to be waddling closer to the times. The story is too silly to last longer than two issues, which is exactly the right length for it. Overall, fun for a lark.
New Avengers #10: The crossover with “Avengers: Standoff” has led Al Ewing’s superhero team book about a “reformed” AIM to double ship this month, once again drawn by Marcus To. Hardly as strict a crossover as “All New All Different Avengers” was, it has been for the better as it has essentially given Ewing the perfect opportunity to have his team go underground. Deciding to shelter Rick Jones (who is charged with leaking government secrets) from SHIELD, the team find themselves under attack by the “American Kaiju” (who is literally Godzilla with the mind of a xenophobic “jar head”). This has split the team as members not willing to fight against the government were left elsewhere, with the rest of the team staging an evacuation of their island headquarters by piloting a giant “mecha” robot, “Avenger Five”. While Hawkeye was willing to abandon SHIELD for Rick’s sake, Songbird wasn’t, and the pair quickly turn on each other. With Rick once again in the wind and now reduced to half his team, Roberto Da Costa has to turn to his oldest comrade – Cannonball! Considering how hard Jonathan Hickman was pushing the former “New Mutants” as Avengers during his years on the franchise, it was surprising that Sam wasn’t a part of Sunspot’s team from the start. Marcus To’s artwork is utterly amazing, with the “giant monster” battle being as awesome as it sounds reading it. The shift of Roberto from borderline arrogant superhero to super squad commander has been awkward, but has so far been effective. Ewing uses the mind-sharing gimmick of the giant robot to push some subplots forward, and the dialogue is always spot on. If any series may have been kicked up a notch by this first major crossover of the year, it’s been New Avengers.
Totally Awesome Hulk #5: Greg Pak is joined by incoming artist Mike Choi (and colorist Frank Martin) for this second arc covering teenage genius Amadeus Cho’s tenure as the “green Goliath”. Capitalizing on a crisis to seemingly help out Bruce Banner by taking his “curse” from him, Amadeus is adjusting to seeking to use the power of the Hulk to be a general superhero under the watchful eye of his sister, Madame Curry “Maddie” Cho. Yet while he may be skilled at fighting monster without, his true enemy may be the monster within. Amora the Enchantress arrives to tempt this new Hulk to her side by haunting Amadeus’ own dreams of tragedy and loss regarding his own parents. A refresher on Amadeus’ origin was likely needed for newer readers, and the story gets to the heart of the inner pathos which always drove the best Hulk stories. The end result (a misunderstanding with the new Thor) is a bit predictable, but there’s nothing wrong with knowing where a story is going if such things are executed well. And that’s what this book is in an nutshell; a simple action series with younger characters written and drawn effectively.