Immortal Iron Fist volume 3: Book of the Iron Fist


By Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Travel Foreman, David Aja, Gil Kane, Larry Hama & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2536-5

To save you looking up old graphic novel reviews (but please don’t let me stop you if you feel so inclined) Iron Fist was an early entry from Marvel during the 1970s Kung Fu boom, although the character also owed a hefty debt to Bill Everett’s Golden Age super-hero Amazing Man who graced various Centaur Comics publications between 1939 and 1945.

The tribute was paid by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane although a veritable host of successors (writers and artists included Len Wein, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Pat Broderick and Al McWilliams) followed them in what was a relatively short run on the adventures of the “Living Weapon”.

Little Danny Rand travelled with his parents and uncle to the Himalayas, searching for the “lost city of K’un Lun” which only appears once every ten years. The boy’s father Wendell was murdered by the uncle and Danny’s mother sacrificed herself to save her child. Alone in the wilderness, the city found him and he spent the next decade mastering all forms of martial arts.

As soon he was able, he returned to the outer world intent on vengeance and armed with a mystic punch gained by killing the city’s guardian dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. When Iron Fist eventually achieved his goal the lad was at a loose end and – by default – a billionaire, as his murderous uncle had turned the family business into a multi-national megalith.

The series ran in Marvel Premier (#15-25; May 1974 to October 1975), before Chris Claremont & John Byrne steadied the ship and produced a superb run of issues in his own title (Iron Fist #1-15, November 1975 – September 1977). After cancellation, the character drifted until inspirationally paired with street tough hero Luke Cage.

Power Man & Iron Fist ran from #51 until the book ended in 1986 (#125). The K’un Lun Kid has died, come back and cropped up all over the Marvel universe as guest star, co-star, team-player and even in a few of his own series.

Revived and somewhat re-imagined as The Immortal Iron Fist in 2007, a new series revealed that there has been a steady progression of warriors (66) bearing the title for centuries – if not millennia – and in The Last Iron Fist Story Danny discovered that his predecessor Orson Randall went rogue, refusing to die for the Holy City, roaming the Earth ever since. He was also a partner and mentor to Danny’s dad…

This third compilation concentrates on some other Iron Fists by gathering issues #7 and 15-16 of the monthly comicbook, sidebar one-shot Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death (2008) as well as that introductory tale from Marvel Premier #15-16, released in 2008 as Immortal Iron Fist: The Origin of Danny Rand.

The reinvigorated series’ title stems from the hitherto unknown fact that there are in fact seven mystical martial arts-venerating cities in this universe and every 88 years their celestial orbits coincide to permit a grand combat tournament. Each city has a champion as puissant and dedicated as Iron Fist and they must fight with the climax deciding which hidden metropolis will intersect the Earth plane for the next nearly-nine decades …

The peeks at times past begin with ‘The Story of the Iron Fist Wu Ao-Shi: The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay’, written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction with art from Travel Foreman, Leandro Fernandez, Khari Evans, Derek Fridolfs and Francisco Paronzini, wherein a feisty little girl starving on the streets of K’un Lun is singled out by mighty Lei Kung the Thunderer to be trained as the first female Iron Fist.

After achieving this impossible goal, audacious Wu Ao-Shi finds that duty and even true love are insufficient to satisfy her. Exiling herself to Earth, she lives a short but triumphant existence as mercenary, warrior hero and leader of pirates. She dies before her thirty-third birthday…

That lyrical oriental fable neatly segues into the saga of another Iron Fist tied to Earth. ‘The Story of the Iron Fist Bei Bang-Wen (1827-1860)’ – by Fraction, Evans & Victor Olazaba – finds K’un Lun’s greatest battle strategist exiled to Earth and losing the Chi-reinforced power of Shou-Lau whilst battling the British Army during the Boxer Rebellion.

Imprisoned, Bei befriends fellow mystic hero and freedom fighter Vivatma Visvajit whose personal connection to the Prana power of Brahma also vanished whilst fighting England’s Imperialism. Together they escape and recover their mystic gifts whilst battling demonic forces. Bei dies in his early thirties, free and proud…

Issue #16 then returns to the current Iron Fist as Danny Rand gives back to the community in New York City. ‘Happy Birthday Danny’ (Fraction, David Aja & Matt Hollingsworth) finds the young billionaire teaching and feeding poor kids at his Thunder Dojo whilst patiently attempting to divest himself of the immeasurable tainted wealth his family has ruthlessly accrued over the years.

The “day in the life” tale sees sleepless Danny reconnect with financier/mentor Jeryn Hogarth and fellow crusaders Luke Cage and Misty Knight and continue his studies of the recently-acquired Book of the Iron Fist with the other Immortal Weapons before enduring a brief break enforced by friends who want him to celebrate his thirty-third birthday…

Next-up is a rip-roaring pulp-style adventure as prodigal Iron Fist Orson Randall, his allies the Confederates of the Curious and side-kick Wendell Rand reunite in the face of relentless pursuit by Immortal Weapon John Aman, Prince of Orphans.

Orson is the only Iron Fist to live beyond 33 years and spent precarious decades on Earth fighting injustice, but his time is coming to an end. Aman believes he is justly acting on behalf of the Seven Cities in hunting a traitor but as the extended pursuit evolves comes to realise that something corrupt lies at the heart of his mission: a secret the august rulers have been keeping from their subjects…

Scripted by Fraction with individual chapters illustrated by Nick Dragotta, Mike and Laura Allred, Russ Heath, Lewis LaRosa, Stefano Gaudiano, Hollingsworth and Mitch Breitweiser, Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death is a rousing decades-spanning romp tracking the aging Iron Fist and the kid who will one day father Danny Rand as they encounter bandits, evil cowgirls and another maniac claiming to be the last Frankenstein, with the Prince of Orphans dogging their steps all the way…

Closing this volume is the contents of Immortal Iron Fist: The Origin of Danny Rand, a modified reprint of ‘The Fury of Iron Fist!’ by Thomas, Kane and inker Dick Giordano and its sequel from Marvel Premier #15 and 16 wherein a young masked warrior defeats the cream of a legendary combat elite in a fabled other-dimensional city before returning to Earth.

Ten years previously, little Daniel Rand had watched as his father and mother died at the hands of Harold Meachum whilst the party risked Himalayan snows to find the legendary city of K’un Lun.

Little Danny had travelled with his wealthy parents and their business partner in search of the fabled city – which only appeared on Earth for one day every ten years. Wendell had some unsuspected connection to the fabled Shangri La but was killed before they found it, and Danny’s mother sacrificed herself to save the child from wolves and her murderous pursuer.

As he wandered alone in the wilderness, the city found Danny. The boy spent the next decade training: mastering all forms of martial arts in the militaristic, oriental, feudal paradise and enduring arcane ordeals, living only for the day he would return to Earth and avenge his parents…

After conquering all comers and refusing immortality, Iron Fist returned to Earth a Living Weapon able to turn his force of will into a devastating super-punch…

Reaching Manhattan, #16‘Heart of the Dragon!’ (Len Wein, Larry Hama & Giordano) found Iron Fist reliving the years of toil which had culminated in a trial by combat with a mystic dragon: earning the power to concentrate his fist “like unto a thing of Iron” and other unspecified abilities. The epic clash permanently branded his chest with the seared silhouette of the fearsome wyrm.

His recollections are shattered when martial arts bounty hunter Scythe attacks, revealing that Meachum knew the boy was back and had put a price on his head…

Danny had sacrificed not only immortality for vengeance but also prestige and privilege. As he left K’un Lun, supreme ruler of the city Yü Ti, the August Personage in Jade, had revealed that murdered Wendell Rand had been his brother…

Bracketed by a new framing sequence by Fraction and Kano the classic yarn serves to set the scene for further revelations to come…

Swift and compellingly exotic, this mesmerising tome offers twin highpoints of Marvel’s long history of Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy and should certainly prove a timely read as Iron Fist makes his live action small screen debut…
© 2007, 2008, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Fist Epic Collection: The Fury of Iron Fist – volume 1 1994-1997


By Roy Thomas, Chris Claremont, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, Gil Kane, Larry Hama, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9164-3

Comicbooks have always operated within the larger bounds of popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and health-&-fitness discipline of Kung Fu made its unstoppable mark on domestic entertainment it wasn’t long before the Chop Sockey kicks and punches found their way en masse onto the four-colour pages of America’s periodicals.

As part of the first Martial Arts bonanza, Marvel converted a forthcoming license to use venerable fictional villain Fu Manchu into a series about his son. The series launched in Special Marvel Edition #15, December 1973 as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by April 1974 (#17) it became his exclusively.

A month later the House of Ideas launched a second oriental-tinged hero in Iron Fist; a character combining the Eastern combat philosophy with high fantasy, magic powers and a proper superhero mask and costume…

The character also owed a hefty debt to Bill Everett’s pioneering golden Age super-hero Amazing Man who graced various Centaur Comics publications between 1939 and 1942. The tribute was paid by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane who adopted and translated the fictive John Aman’s Tibetan origins into something that gibed better with the 1970’s twin zeitgeists of Supernatural Fantasy and Martial Arts Mayhem…

This collection gathers the far-ranging appearances of the Living Weapon from Marvel Premier #15-25, Iron Fist #1-15 and Marvel Team-Up #63-64 (spanning May 1974 to December 1977), which saw the high-kicking wonder uncover his past and rediscover his heritage and humanity before inevitably settling into the inescapable role of costumed crusader as half of superhero and detective bromance Power Man and Iron Fist.

The saga began on a spectacular high in Marvel Premier #15 with ‘The Fury of Iron Fist!’ by Thomas, Kane and inker Dick Giordano as a young masked warrior defeats the cream of a legendary combat elite in a fabled other-dimensional city before returning to Earth.

Ten years previously little Daniel Rand had watched as his father and mother died at the hands of Harold Meachum whilst the party risked Himalayan snows to find the legendary city of K’un Lun.

Little Danny had travelled with his wealthy parents and business partner Meachum in search of the fabled city – which only appeared on Earth for one day every ten years. Wendell Rand had some unsuspected connection to the fabled Shangri La but was killed before they found it, and Danny’s mother had sacrificed herself to save the child from wolves and her murderous pursuer.

As he wandered alone in the wilderness, the city found Danny. The boy spent the next decade training: mastering all forms of martial arts in the militaristic, oriental, feudal paradise and enduring arcane ordeals, living only for the day he would return to Earth and avenge his parents…

After conquering all comers and refusing immortality, Iron Fist returned to Earth a Living Weapon able to turn his force of will into a devastating super-punch…

From the outset the feature was plagued by an inability to keep a stable creative team, although, to be fair, story quality never suffered, only plot and direction. Reaching New York City in #16, ‘Heart of the Dragon!’ by Len Wein, Larry Hama & Giordano found Iron Fist reliving the years of toil which had culminated in a trial by combat with mystic dragon Shou-Lao the Undying, winning him the power to concentrate his fist “like unto a thing of Iron” and other unspecified abilities. The epic clash permanently branded his chest with the seared silhouette of the fearsome wyrm.

His recollections are shattered when martial arts bounty hunter Scythe attacks, revealing that Meachum knew the boy was back and had put a price on his head…

Danny had not only sacrificed immortality for vengeance but also prestige and privilege. As he left K’un Lun, supreme ruler of the city Yü Ti, the August Personage in Jade, had revealed that murdered Wendell Rand had been his brother…

Marvel Premier #17 saw Doug Moench take over scripting as Iron Fist stormed Meachum’s skyscraper headquarters; a ‘Citadel on the Edge of Vengeance’ converted into a colossal 30-storey death trap, leading to a duel with a cybernetically-augmented giant dubbed Triple-Iron and a climactic confrontation with his parents’ killer in #18’s ‘Lair of Shattered Vengeance!’

The years had not been kind to Meachum. He’d lost his legs to frostbite returning from the high peaks, and, hearing from Sherpas that a boy had been taken into K’un Lun, the murderer had spent the intervening decade awaiting in dread his victims’ avenger…

Filled with loathing, frustration and pity, Iron Fist turns away from his intended retribution, but Meachum dies anyway, slain by a mysterious Ninja as the deranged multi-millionaire attempts to shoot Danny in the back…

In #19 Joy Meachum and her ruthless uncle Ward – convinced Iron Fist had killed the crippled Harold – steps up the hunt for Iron Fist via legal and illegal means, whilst the shell-shocked Living Weapon aimlessly wanders the strange streets of Manhattan. Adopted by the enigmatic Colleen Wing Danny meets her father, an aging professor of Oriental Studies who has fallen foul of a ‘Death Cult!’

In his travels the aged savant had acquired ancient text The Book of Many Things, which, amongst other things, held the secret of K’un Lun’s destruction. The deadly disciples of Kara-Kai are determined to possess it. After thwarting another murder attempt Iron Fist tries to make peace with Joy, but instead walks into an ambush with the bloodthirsty ninja again intervening and slaughtering the ambushers…

A period of often painful inconsistency began as Tony Isabella, Arvell Jones & Dan Green took over with #20. The Kara-Kai cultists renew their attacks on the Wings whilst Ward Meachum hires a veritable army of killers to destroy the Living Weapon in ‘Batroc and other Assassins’ – with the identity of the ninja apparently revealed here as the elderly scholar…

Marvel Premier #21 introduced the ‘Daughters of the Death Goddess’ (inked by Vince Colletta) as the Wings are abducted by the cultists and bionic ex-cop Misty Knight debuts, first as foe but soon as an ally. When Danny tracks down the cult he discovers some shocking truths – as does the ninja, who had been imprisoned within the ancient book by the August Personage in Jade in ages past and recently possessed Professor Wing in search of escape and vengeance…

All was revealed and the hero exonerated in #22’s ‘Death is a Ninja’ (inked by “A. Bradford”) with the ninja disclosing how, as disciple to sublime wizard Master Khan, he had attempted to conquer K’un Lun and been imprisoned within the crumbling tome for his pains.

Over the years he had discovered a temporary escape and subsequently manipulated the Wing and Iron Fist to secure his permanent release and the doom of his jailers. Now exposed, he faces the Living Weapon in a final cataclysmic clash…

A measure of stability began with #23 as Chris Claremont, Pat Broderick & Bob McLeod took the series in a new direction. With his life’s work over and nearly nine years until he could go “home”, Danny was now a man without purpose… until whilst strolling with Colleen he stumbles into a spree shooting in ‘The Name is… Warhawk.’

When the cyborg-assassin has a Vietnam flashback and begins heedlessly sniping in Central Park, the Pride of K’un Lun instantly responds to the threat… and thus began his career as a hero…

In ‘Summerkill’ (inked by Colletta) the itinerant exile battles alien robot the Monstroid and opens a long and complicated association with Princess Azir of Halwan, with the mysterious Master Khan resurfacing, apparently intent on killing her and seizing her country…

Marvel Premier #25 was the last of the hero’s run and the start of his short but sweet Golden Age as John Byrne became regular penciller for ‘Morning of the Mindstorm!’ (inked by Al McWilliams). Whilst Colleen is driven to unconsciousness and abducted – and her father driven to the edge of insanity – by mind-bending terrorist Angar the Screamer, Danny, made of far sterner stuff, overcomes the psychic assaults and tracks the attackers to Stark Industries and into his own series…

Iron Fist #1 (November 1975) featured ‘A Duel of Iron!’ as he is tricked into battling Iron Man, even as Colleen escapes and runs into Danny’s future nemesis Steel Serpent before being recaptured and renditioned to Halwan…

After a spectacular, inconclusive and ultimately pointless battle, Danny and Misty Knight also head for Halwan in ‘Valley of the Damned!’ (#2, inked by Frank Chiaramonte) with our hero recalling a painful episode from his youth wherein his best friends Conal and Miranda chose certain death beyond the walls of regimented K’un Lun rather than remain in the lost city where they could not love each other…

As Master Khan begins to break Colleen, Danny and Misty stopover in England where a nuclear horror named The Ravager slaughters innocents by blowing up London Airport and the Post Office Tower (we rebuilt it as the BT Tower, so don’t panic), compelling Iron Fist to punch way above his weight in ‘The City’s Not For Burning!’

Inevitably it ends in ‘Holocaust!’ as Ravager is unmasked as old villain Radion the Atomic Man. He fatally irradiates Danny until the wounded warrior fortuitously discovers the cleansing and curative power of the Iron Fist and storms to his greatest triumph yet…

With Misty recuperating, Danny gets involved with a guilt-ridden IRA bomber named Alan Cavenaugh before tackling another of Khan’s assassins in ‘When Slays the Scimitar!’ after which Iron Fist and Misty finally infiltrate Halwan in #6, courtesy of crusading lawyer Jeryn Hogarth who also promises to secure Danny’s inheritance and interests from the Rand-Meachum Corporation.

The Pride of K’un Lun doesn’t much care since the successfully brainwashed Colleen had been unleashed by Khan, determined to kill her rescuers in ‘Death Match!’

None of the earthly participants are aware that, from a hidden dimension, Yü Ti is observing the proceedings with cold calculation…

By using his mystic Iron Fist to psychically link with Colleen, Danny breaks Khan’s conditioning and at last the malignant mage personally enters the fray in #7’s ‘Iron Fist Must Die!’: a blistering battle which breaches the dimensions and exposes the August Personage in Jade’s involvement in Wendell Rand’s death.

Given the choice between abandoning his friends on Earth or returning to K’un Lun for answers and justice, the Living Weapon made a true hero’s choice…

With Iron Fist #8 Danny returns to New York and attempts to pick up the pieces of a life interrupted for more than a decade. Unaware that Steel Serpent now works for Joy Meachum, Danny joins the company until merciless mob boss Chaka and his Chinatown gangs attack the business ‘Like Tigers in the Night!’ (inked by Dan Adkins), and Iron Fist is fatally poisoned.

Sportingly offered an antidote if he survives a gauntlet of Chaka’s warriors, Danny triumphs in his own manner when ‘The Dragon Dies at Dawn!’ (Chiaramonte inks) but when a hidden killer bludgeons Chaka, Danny is once again a fugitive from the cops and dubbed the ‘Kung Fu Killer!’ (Adkins) until he, Colleen and Misty expose the entire plot as a fabrication of the gangster.

In #11 ‘A Fine Day’s Dawn!’ the Living Weapon squares off against the Asgardian-empowered Wrecking Crew and, with Misty a hostage, is compelled to fight Captain America in #12’s ‘Assault on Avengers’ Mansion!’ until the Pride of K’un Lun and the Sentinel of Liberty unite and turn the tables on the grotesque god-powered gangsters…

In the intervening time Cavenaugh arrives in New York, but has not escaped the reach of his former Republican comrades. They hire hitman Boomerang to kill the defector and ‘Target: Iron Fist!’ with little success, whereas the villain introduced in issue #14 comes a lot closer: even eventually eclipsing Iron Fist in popularity…

‘Snowfire’ – inked by Dan Green – finds Danny and Colleen running for their lives in arctic conditions when a retreat at Hogarth’s palatial Canadian Rockies estate is invaded by deadly mercenary Sabre-tooth. It just wasn’t their week as, only days before, a mystery assailant had ambushed Iron Fist and impossibly drained off a significant portion of the lad’s Shou-Lao fuelled life-force…

Despite being rendered temporarily blind, the K’un Lun Kid ultimately defeats Sabre-tooth, but the fiercely feral mutant would return again and again…

With Claremont & Byrne increasingly absorbed by their stellar collaboration on the revived and resurgent adventures of Marvel’s mutant horde, Iron Fist #15 (September 1977) was their last Martial Arts mash-up for a while. The series ended in spectacular fashion as – through a comedy of errors – Danny stumbles into battling Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Storm and Phoenix in ‘Enter, the X-Men’.

The cancellation was clearly not planned however as two major subplots went unresolved: Misty had disappeared on an undercover assignment to investigate European gang-boss John Bushmaster and Danny again had his chi siphoned off by Steel Serpent…

Fans didn’t have to wait long: Claremont & Byrne had already begun a stint on Marvel Team-Up and turned the Spider-Man vehicle into their own personal clearing house for unresolved plot-lines.

MTU #63-64 (November & December 1977 and inked by Dave Hunt) revealed the secret of K’un Lun exile Davos in ‘Night of the Dragon’ as Steel Serpent sucked the power of the Iron Fist from Danny, leaving him near death. Risking all she had gained, Misty broke cover and rushed to his aid…

With the Wall-crawler and Colleen (the girls using the team name “Daughters of the Dragon”) to bolster him, Iron Fist defeated Davos and reclaimed his heritage in ‘If Death be my Destiny…’ before shuffling off into a quiet retirement and anonymity.

…But not for long – and certainly the subject of further mammoth full-colour paperback Epic Collections to come…

Although suffering a few grim patches, the greater bulk of the Iron Fist saga ranks amongst the most exciting and enjoyable Costumed Dramas of Marvel’s second generation. If you want a good, clean fight comic this is probably one of your better bets, especially if you’re a fan of original artwork as this titanic tome closes with a fabulous selection, shot from Byrne’s inked pages and original pencil character sketches…
© 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire volume 1


By Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Billy Graham, Tony Isabella, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9180-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Ideal Item for new Marvel Movie-verse addicts… 8/10

In 1968 the consciousness-raising sporting demonstration of Black Power at the Olympic Games politicised a generation of youngsters. By this time a few comics companies had already made tentative efforts to address what were national and socio-political iniquities, but issues of race and ethnicity took a long time to filter through to still-impressionable young minds avidly absorbing knowledge and attitudes via four colour pages that couldn’t even approximate the skin tones of African-Americans.

As with television, breakthroughs were small, incremental and too often reduced to a cold-war of daringly liberal “firsts.” Excluding a few characters in Jungle comic-books of the 1940s and 1950, Marvel clearly led the field with a black soldier in Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos team (the historically impossible Gabe Jones who debuted in #1, May 1963, and was accidentally re-coloured Caucasian at the printers, who clearly didn’t realise his ethnicity). He was followed by first negro superheroes Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), and the Falcon in Captain America #117 (September 1969).

America’s first Black hero to star in his own title had come (and gone largely unnoticed) in a little remembered or regarded title from Dell Comics. Created by artist Tony Tallarico and scripter D.J. Arneson, Lobo was a gunslinger in the old west, battling injustice just like any cowboy hero would, first appearing in December 1965.

Arguably a greater breakthrough was Joe Robertson, City Editor of the Daily Bugle; an erudite, brave and proudly ordinary mortal distinguished by his sterling character, not a costume or skin tone. He first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man # 51 (August 1967), proving in every panel that the world wouldn’t end if black folk and white folk occupied the same spaces…

This big change slowly grew out of raised social awareness during a terrible time in American history; yes, even worse than today’s festering social wound, as typified by cops under pressure providing no answer to the seemingly constant Black Lives Matter events. Although far rarer, those tragedies occur here in the UK too, so we have nothing to be smug about either. We’ve had race riots since the Sixties here which left simmering scars that only comedians and openly racist politicians dared to talk about. Things today in post-Brexit Britain don’t seem all that different, except the bile and growing taste for violence is turned towards European accents as well as brown skins…

As the 1960s became a new decade, more positive and inclusive incidences of ethnic characters appeared in the USA, with DC finally getting an African-America hero in John Stewart (Green Lantern #87 December 1971/January 1972), although his designation as a replacement Green Lantern might be construed as more conciliatory and insulting than revolutionary.

The first DC hero with his own title was Black Lightning, who didn’t debut until April 1977, although Jack Kirby had introduced Shilo Norman as Scott Free’s apprentice (and eventual successor) in Mister Miracle ##15 (August (1973).

As usual, it took a bold man and changing economics to really promote change. With declining comics sales at a time of rising Black Consciousness, cash – if not cashing in -was probably the trigger for “the Next Step.”

Contemporary “Blaxsploitation” cinema and novels had fired up commercial interests throughout America, and in that atmosphere of outlandish dialogue, daft outfits and barely concealed – if justified – outrage, an angry black man with a shady past and apparently dubious morals must have felt like a sure-fire hit to Marvel’s bosses.

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire launched in the summer of 1972. A year later the Black Panther finally got his own series in Jungle Action #5 and Blade: Vampire Hunter debuted in Tomb of Dracula #10.

This stunning full-colour hardback compendium collects the first 16 issues of the breakthrough series: the entire run before the series was thematically adjusted to become Luke Cage Power Man.

The saga begins with Lucas, a hard-case inmate at brutal Seagate Prison. Like all convicts he claims to have been framed and his uncompromising attitude makes mortal enemies of the savage, racist guards Rackham and Quirt whilst not endearing him to the rest of the prison population such as genuinely bad guys Shades and Comanche either…

‘Out of Hell… A Hero!’ was written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by George Tuska & Billy Graham – with some initial assistance from Roy Thomas and John Romita senior – and sees a new warden arrive promising to change the hell-hole into a proper, correctly administered correctional facility.

Prison Doctor Noah Burstein then convinces Lucas to participate in a radical experiment in exchange for a parole hearing, having heard the desperate con’s tale of woe…

Lucas had grown up in Harlem, a tough kid who had managed to stay honest even when his best friend Willis Stryker had not. They remained friends even though they walked different paths – until a woman came between them. To be rid of his romantic rival Stryker planted drugs and had Lucas shipped off to jail. While he was there his girl Reva, who had never given up on him, was killed when she got in way of bullets meant for up-and-coming gangster Stryker…

With nothing to lose Lucas undergoes Burstein’s process – an experiment in cell-regeneration – but Rackham sabotages it, hoping to kill the con before he can expose the illegal treatment of convicts. The equipment goes haywire and something incredible occurs. Lucas, panicked and somehow super-strong, punches his way out of the lab and the through the prison walls, only to be killed in hail of gunfire. His body plunges over a cliff and is never recovered…

Months later a vagrant prowls the streets of New York City and stumbles into a robbery. Almost casually he downs the felon and accepts a reward from the grateful victim. He also has a bright idea. Strong, bullet-proof, street-wise and honest, Lucas will hide in plain sight while planning his revenge on Stryker. Since his only skill is fighting, he became a private paladin… A Hero For Hire…

Making allowances for the colourful, often ludicrous dialogue necessitated by the Comics Code’s sanitising of “street-talking Jive” this is probably the grittiest origin tale of the classic Marvel years, and the tense action continued in ‘Vengeance is Mine!’ as the man now calling himself Luke Cage stalks his target.

Stryker has risen quickly, now controlling a vast portion of the drug trade as the deadly Diamondback, and Cage has a big surprise in store when beautiful Doctor Claire Temple came to his aid after a calamitous struggle.

Thinking him fatally shot her surprise is dwarfed by his own when Cage meets her boss. Seeking to expiate his sins, Noah Burstein has opened a rehab clinic on the sordid streets of Times Square, but his efforts have drawn the attention of Diamondback who doesn’t like someone trying to fix his paying customers…

Burstein apparently does not recognise Cage, and even though faced with eventual exposure and return to prison, the Hero for Hire offers to help the hard-pressed medics. Setting up an office above a movie house on 42nd Street Cage meets a lad who will be his greatest friend: D.W. Griffith: nerd, film freak and plucky white sidekick.

However, before Cage can settle in, Diamondback strikes and the age-old game of blood and honour plays out the way it always does…

Issue #3 introduced Cage’s first returning villain in ‘Mark of the Mace!’ as Burstein – for his own undisclosed reasons – decides to keep Cage’s secret, and disgraced soldier Gideon Mace launches a terror attack on Manhattan. With his dying breath one of the mad Colonel’s troops hires Cage to stop the attack, which he does in explosive fashion.

Inker Billy Graham graduated to full art chores for ‘Cry Fear… Cry Phantom!’ in #4 as a deranged and deformed maniac carried out random assaults in Times Square. Or was there perhaps another motive behind the crazed attacks?

Steve Englehart took over as scripter and Tuska returned to pencil ‘Don’t Mess with Black Mariah!’ in the next issue: a sordid tale of organised scavengers which introduced unscrupulous reporter Phil Fox, an unsavoury sneak with greedy pockets and a nose for scandal…

The private detective motif proved a brilliant stratagem in generating stories for a character perceived as a reluctant champion at best and outright antihero by nature. It allowed Cage to maintain an outsider’s edginess but also meant that danger and adventure literally walked through his shabby door every issue.

Such was the case with ‘Knights and White Satin’ (by Englehart, Gerry Conway, Graham and Paul Reinman) as the swanky, ultra-rich Forsythe sisters hire him to bodyguard their dying father from a would-be murderer too impatient to wait the week it will take for the old man to die from a terminal illness.

This more-or less straight mystery yarn (not counting a madman and killer-robots) is followed by ‘Jingle Bombs’, a strikingly different Christmas tale by from Englehart Tuska & Graham, before Cage properly entered the Marvel Universe in ‘Crescendo!’ when he is hired by Doctor Doom to retrieve rogue androids which had absconded from Latveria.

They were hiding as black men among the shifting masses of Harlem and the Iron Dictator needed someone who could work in the unfamiliar environment. Naturally Cage accomplishes his mission, only to have Doom stiff him for the fee. Big mistake…

‘Where Angels Fear to Tread!’ in issue #9 finds the enraged Hero for Hire borrowing a vehicle from the Fantastic Four to play Repo Man in Doom’s own castle just in time to get caught in the middle of a grudge match between the tyrant and an alien invader called the Faceless One.

It was back to street-level basics in ‘The Lucky… and the Dead!’ as Cage takes on a gambling syndicate led by the schizophrenic Señor Suerte who could double his luck by becoming murderous Señor Muerte (that’s Mr. Luck and Mr. Death to you): a two-part thriller complete with rigged games and death traps that climaxes in the startling ‘Where There’s Life…!’ as relentless Phil Fox finally uncovers Cage’s secret…

Issue #12 featured the first of many battles against alchemical villain ‘Chemistro!’, after which Graham assumed full art duties with ‘The Claws of Lionfang’ – a killer using big cats to destroy his enemies – before Cage tackles hyperthyroid lawyer Big Ben Donovan in ‘Retribution!’ as the tangled threads of his murky past slowly become a noose around his neck…

‘Retribution: Part II!’ finds Graham and Tony Isabella sharing the writer’s role as so many disparate elements converge to expose Cage. The crisis is exacerbated by Quirt kidnapping Luke’s girlfriend, and fellow Seagate escapees Comanche and Shades stalking him whilst the New York cops hunt him.

The last thing the Hero For Hire needs is a new super-foe, but that’s just what he get in #16’s ‘Shake Hands With Stiletto!’ (Isabella, Graham & inker Frank McLaughlin): a dramatic finale which literally brings the house down and clears up most of the old business. This would lead to a re-branding of the nation’s premier black crusader, but that’s meat for a different collection.

Bracketed by an Introduction from Steve Englehart – offering an informative issue-by-issue breakdown on how the series was created and bonus material including a cover gallery, promotional material from the times, unused artwork and pre-corrected/toned down pages (LCHFH was one of the most potentially controversial and thus most scrupulously edited books in Marvel’s stable at the time) and full creator Biographies, this is a fabulous and unmissable glimpse at one of the edgiest series of the era, and a fine way to back up the live-action Netflix iteration.
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