Despite how often readers are told by the “powers that be” that they prefer dynamics which are “edgy” or “shocking”, few things seem to being a sense of joy or nostalgia to comic book readers than the reunion of a well known “buddy team”. Different from the relationship between “partners” (which is the nicer term for “hero and sidekick”), superhero buddy teams tended to involve two independent characters who became virtually inseparable due to a combined wit and charm the pair had when written together. The best examples include Booster Gold and Blue Beetle from DC Comics along with Wonder Man and Beast from Marvel Comics. Many of these “buddy teams” don’t seem to exist anymore, as both companies have confused violent angst for mature storytelling over the years. Yet there is one buddy team which Marvel Comics have striven to retain throughout the years, and that is of Luke Cage and Daniel Rand, otherwise known as “Power Man and Iron Fist”. As a part of Marvel’s “all new, all different” editorial push, the pair are appearing together in an ongoing series named after each of them for the first time in nearly twenty years.
The origin of their “bromance” involves two classic comic book elements; low sales and random editorial action. Both Luke Cage (who debuted under the tagline, “hero for hire” before adopting the mantle of “Power Man”) and Iron Fist were creations of the early to mid 1970’s intended to capitalize on two then-popular trends in cinema: “blaxploitation” and martial arts (respectively). However, by 1978 both “Power Man” and “Iron Fist” were selling too poorly to continue as individual ongoing series, so the decision was made to combine them for pure economical reasons. On the surface, the pair seemed to have little in common; Luke Cage was a product of an experiment gone wrong trying to earn a living as a professional superhero while also clearing his name (and record) for a crime he didn’t commit, while Daniel Rand was a martial artist trained in another dimension to avenge his father, and then battled other mystical martial arts figures. In additional, a comic book starring both a black man and a white man in the title (where the former got top billing, no less) was an incredibly rare thing in the late 1970’s. Yet writer Chris Claremont (best known for his legendary run on “Uncanny X-Men”) took their contrasting details and managed to forge between them a bond of friendship and mutual understanding which would last for decades. Added to “Power Man” with issue 48, the series was officially retitled to reflect both of its stars with its 50th issue. It would run until 1986, when it was canceled with its 125th issue. The writers who worked on the series included Luke Cage’s co-creator Archie Goodwin, Dennis O’Neil, Mary Jo Duffy, and Kurt Busiek, for whom this was his first major assignment in comics. After that, the characters would reappear in a variety of other comics (“New Avengers” in particular), but never in one named after the two of them. 1996’s “Heroes for Hire” (which ran for 19 issues) was a team book led by Iron Fist but featured other heroes on the roster (such as Black Knight, Ant-Man, and Hercules) in which Luke Cage took several issues to join. In 2011, Marvel released a “Power Man and Iron Fist” mini series as part of their “Shadowland” crossover among urban heroes, but the Power Fist in that was a new character, Victor Alvarez, whom Iron Fist was mentoring (who is now in a team of “New Avengers” himself). Now, just a few months ahead of the 20th anniversary of the finale of their first volume, writer David Walker (“Cyborg”, “Shaft”), artist Sanford Greene (“Battleworld: Runaways”) and colorist Lee Loughridge unite to usher in a new era in this classic buddy team’s existence.
The series naturally picks up with both characters as they are now, after years of crazy adventures either solo or with the Avengers. Luke Cage is married to Jessica Jones and the father of an adorable baby girl, Danielle (who he named for his best friend). Daniel Rand is still technically the head of the corporation his father ran, coming off a twelve issue series by Kaare Andrews where he got a new costume, a new lease on life, and the continued inability to commit to any one woman for long. Cage is seeking to scale back his superhero exploits for the sake of his family (aside for emergencies or favors), while Rand seems to thrive on being Iron Fist for the moment. Walker wisely mines the long history of both characters to dig up former enemies and supporting cast members for ore for his new series, instead of starting over from scratch (dismissing all else) which too many other creators tend to do with relaunches. Insisting that he’s not trying to reunite their band, Cage turns up to welcome their former secretary Jennie Royce home from a stint in prison alongside the always overeager Danny. When she tells them of a lost heirloom, the pair quickly team up to reclaim it for the sake of their friend. Unfortunately, this means a tense meeting with underworld boss Tombstone as well as being caught up in the scheme of another of their old enemies. Luke continues to insist that he’s not going to make this a regular thing, but who is he trying to convince – his wife, or himself?
On the whole, this is an almost textbook example of how to do the first issue of a relaunch which simultaneously utilizes continuity from decades prior while presenting a quick story intended to welcome newer readers. Walker does a masterful job of refreshing the audience as to who many of these supporting cast members are in a quick and efficient fashion, as well as offering a satisfying story within this first issue which has a complete beginning, middle, and end. The issue isn’t bogged down in exposition for long and readers don’t have to wait long to see the titular heroes teamed up; in fact the pair spend nearly every page together. Walker displays a long memory within his script, which picks up subplots and abandoned characters from the original 1980’s series without skipping a beat. In terms of art, Greene and Loughridge deliver on crafting a unique urban world with great redesigns for many of the characters (specifically, Jennie and Luke). Iron Fist is wearing his outfit which was recently designed by Kaare Andrews, and Green seems to make it look even better. Despite plot details which involve prison and gangsters, the tone is light with plenty of humor to go along with the butt kicking. The banter between Luke and Danny is naturally what sells the issue; not even a room full of mobsters can slow it down! One bit involving Cage trying to clean up his potty mouth for the sake of his daughter is among the issue’s highlights.
In fact, the only quibble seems to be Walker’s voice for Daniel Rand himself. Normally, he contrasted with Luke by offering more Eastern philosophy or mystical knowledge in comparison with Cage’s street smarts and no-nonsense attitude. Here, Daniel seems to act a bit younger than he usually is, especially when compared to Cage, whose evolution from street hero to married father is never more apparent. It is hard to remember that Rand isn’t actually a teenager from how he sounds at times here, nor did he seem to sense the magical properties of the MacGuffin they were chasing. On the other hand, Iron Fist’s last ongoing series involved him literally using his “chi” to transform his corporate building into a giant robot version of himself, so perhaps scaling back some of his mystical feats is a step in the right direction. One of the two had to be the lighthearted one, and it obviously wasn’t going to be Cage. There also is one instance where the pair’s speech balloons are switched from the positions they should be, which is a minor editing and/or lettering gaffe.
Overall, this is a terrific relaunch to a much beloved series as well as one of the best additions to Marvel’s current line up so far. Through thick and thin, cancellations and reboots, aliens and wars among heroes, nothing has managed to destroy the bond of friendship and camaraderie between these two. Unlike plenty of other relaunches these two haven’t had a series together in so long that it genuinely does feel like something “all new and all different”, or at the very least the return of something long overdue. It is hard to imagine a better return for Power Man and Iron Fist than the one begun by Walker and Greene. While expecting another run of 125 issues may be expecting a bit much from the current marketplace, one hopes that their run with these two will be long enough that it is fondly remembered as a cherished era in “heroes for hire” history!
Below are honorable mentions. They’re plenty fine themselves, but they can’t punch above the weight class of the above comic!
Big Trouble in Little China #21: Fred Van Lente kicks off his third, and at least according to solicitations, final arc on this highly entertaining series from BOOM! Studios. It isn’t quite known why the series will be coming to an end; while it is hardly the best selling comic out there (at roughly 5,370 copies a month it barely outsells “Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose”), but aside for “Power Rangers”, most of BOOM’s titles sell around that range. It could be creative reasons or the publisher sensing that a 25 issue run is good place to leave good ol’ Jack Burton. After all, not even Spider-Man seems to have as many uninterrupted issues these days. He and regular colorist Gonzalo Duarte are joined by artist Victor Santos for a tale in which everyone’s favorite mullet topped trucker is stuck a hundred years in the past with Winona Chi, the sassy teenage daughter of his best pal, Wang. Having been accidentally zapped to 1916 by a spell cast by Egg Shen, the pair find themselves in the middle of California’s Chinatown back when immigrants were originally settling it! As usual, Jack’s big mouth and hapless luck manage to get them both into and then out of major trouble with a major Tong. Much of the issue is set up as the pair seek out a younger (and drug addicted) Egg Shen to try to go home, and wind up involving themselves with a much younger David Lo-Pan. This series’ original writers John Carpenter and Eric Powell used Lo-Pan almost exclusively; while he was often hilarious, they did run the risk of overusing him much like many animated villains of the mid 1980’s. Van Lente wisely gave him enough of a rest that it now seems like a momentous occasion to see him once more. Much like the previous artists, Santos has a highly simple and illustrative style which works best for the manic comedy and fast paced action sequences. As always, Van Lente crafts a gut busting comedic triumph which has at least one or two solid laughs per page. Yet the finale seems to tease that the conclusion of the series could be more somber than readers expect. In virtually every series Fred Van Lente has written, he has displayed an uncanny ability to shift in tone from comedy to serious pathos without it seeming abrupt. He’s done that rarely here, but that could be due to saving it for what it counts. An extra mention should be given to Jeffrey “Chamba” Cruz for an exceptional cover. If BOOM! Studios wanted to make some extra money, they would sell covers such as this as posters. This series has often been blessed with some wonderful covers for fans of the franchise, but this one may be its best.
Silver Surfer #2: Dan Slott, Michael Allred and Laura Allred continue on the second volume of what is arguably the best creative run that the title character has ever had (or at the least, had within the past twenty or thirty years). He may be best known for writing “Amazing Spider-Man” these days, but Slott may be scripting some of the best stuff of his career with this series. Norrin Radd finds himself once again “stuck” on earth, but this time for a more mundane reason – his current love Dawn Greenwood wants to stick around her hometown of Anchor Bay to welcome her twin sister’s first child. A fun whirlwind tour of the area convinces Norrin that isn’t so much where you are on Earth, but who you are with. Unfortunately, an even bigger crisis than that faced in the previous issue imperils the planet. Left with none of his familiar superhero allies to team up with, he turns to Alicia Masters – much to Dawn’s chagrin. However, if meeting Norrin’s old friend is awkward for her, things will get even worse when they meet the figure that’s managed to turn Ben Grimm against the Earth! As always, the artwork by the Allreds is incredible and worth the cover price alone. And also as always, Slott delivers a script which is full of plenty of nods to old continuity matched with a desire to expand upon it. It’s the dynamic between Norrin and Dawn which defines the series, though, and it remains one of the series’ central strengths. It seems that Silver Surfer will soon get a refresher course in the reality that one really can’t go home again. Readers have gotten a second chance to hop aboard this run, and hopefully this time they take it!