Luke Cage, Power Man Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Len Wein, Tony Isabella, Don McGregor, Bill Mantlo, Georges Pérez, Steve Englehart, George Tuska, Ron Wilson, Rich Buckler, Arvell Jones, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0343-5

As is so often the case, it takes a few a bold creative types and radically changing economics to really promote lasting change. In America, with declining comics sales at a time of enhanced social awareness and rising Black Consciousness, cash – if not cashing in – was probably the trigger for “the Next Step” in the evolution of superheroes.

In the opening years of the 1970s, contemporary “Blacksploitation” cinema and novels had fired up commercial interests throughout the USA and in that atmosphere of outlandish dialogue, daft outfits and barely concealed – but completely justified – outrage, an angry black man with a shady past and apparently dubious morals debuted as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire 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.

Cage’s origin was typically bombastic: Lucas, a hard-case inmate at brutal Seagate Prison always claimed to have been framed and his inflexible, uncompromising attitude made mortal enemies of the racist guards Rackham and Quirt whilst not exactly endearing him to the rest of the prison population – such as out-&-out bad-guys Shades and Comanche

The premiere issue was written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by George Tuska & Billy Graham (with some initial assistance from Roy Thomas and John Romita) detailing how a new warden promised to reform the hell-hole into a proper, legal penal institution.

New prison doctor Noah Burstein then convinced 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’d managed to stay honest even when his best friend Willis Stryker had not. They remained friends even though they walked different paths – at least until a woman came between them. To get 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 the way of bullets meant for Stryker…

With nothing left to lose Lucas underwent Burstein’s process – an experiment in cell-regeneration – but Rackham sabotaged it, hoping to kill the con before he could expose the guard’s illegal treatment of convicts. It all went haywire and something incredible happened. Lucas, now incredibly strong and pain-resistant, punched his way out of the lab and the through the prison walls, only to be killed in hail of gunfire. His body plunged over a cliff and was never recovered…

Months later, a vagrant prowling the streets of New York City stumbled into a robbery. Almost casually downing the felon, he accepted a cash reward from the grateful victim, prompting a bright idea…

Super-strong, bullet-proof, street-wise and honest, Lucas would hide in plain sight while planning his revenge on Stryker. Since his only skill was fighting, he became a private paladin – A Hero For Hire

This second sturdy hardback (or eBook) volume collects #17-31 of Cage’s adventures – Luke Cage, Power Man – spanning February 1974-May 1976 of the breakthrough series and begins with fond and informative Introduction ‘Always Forward’ from series scripter Tony Isabella.

Whilst making allowances for the colourful, often ludicrous dialogue necessitated by the Comics Code’s sanitising of “street-talking Jive” this was probably the edgiest series of Marvel’s early years, but even so, after a few years the tense action and peripheral interactions with the greater Marvel Universe led to a minor rethink and the title was altered, if not the basic premise…

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

Cage had set up an office over a movie house on 42nd Street and met a young man who would become his greatest friend: D.W. Griffith – nerd, film freak and plucky white sidekick. Noah Burstein resurfaced, running a rehab clinic on the dirty, deadly streets around Times Square, aided by a beautiful woman Dr. Claire Temple. Soon she too was an integral part of Luke’s new life…

Following a calamitous clash with many of his oldest enemies, most old business was settled and a partial re-branding of America’s premier black crusader began in issue #17. The mercenary aspect was downplayed (at least on covers) as Luke Cage, Power Man – by Len Wein, George Tuska & Billy Graham – got another new start during a tumultuous team-up in ‘Rich Man: Iron Man… Power Man: Thief!’

Here the still “For Hire” hero is commissioned to test Tony Stark’s security by stealing his latest invention. Sadly, neither Stark nor his alter ego Iron Man know anything about it and the result is another classic hero-on-hero duel

Vince Colletta joined the team as inker for #18’s ‘Havoc on the High Iron!’ as Cage takes on a murderous high-tech Steeplejack before the next two issues offered the still-wanted fugitive hero a tantalising chance to clear his name.

‘Call Him… Cottonmouth!’ introduced a crimelord with inside information of the frame-up perpetrated by Willis Stryker in issue #1. Tragically, that hope of a new clean life is snatched away after all Cage’s explosive, two-fisted efforts in the Isabella scripted follow-up ‘How Like a Serpent’s Tooth…’

Isabella, Wein, Ron Wilson & Colletta collaborated on ‘The Killer with My Name!’ which sees Cage attacked by old Avengers villain Power Man who understandably wanted his nom de guerre back, but who changed his mind after waking up from the resultant bombastic battle that ensued…

Psychotic archenemy Stiletto returned with his equally high-tech balmy brother Discus in ‘The Broadway Mayhem of 1974’ (Isabella, Wilson & Colletta), subsequently revealing a startling connection to Cage’s origins…

All this constant carnage and non-stop tension had sent sometime romantic interest Claire Temple scurrying for points distant, and finally in LCPM #23 Cage and D.W. went looking for her, promptly fetching up in a fascistic planned-community run by old foe and deranged military terrorist Gideon Mace.

‘Welcome to Security City’ (inked by Dave Hunt) fed directly into a two-part premier for another African American superhero as Cage and D.W. tracked Claire to the Ringmaster’s Circus of Crime in #24’s ‘Among Us Walks… a Black Goliath! (Isabella, Tuska & Hunt)…

Bill Foster was a highly educated black supporting character; a biochemist working with Henry Pym (the scientist-superhero known as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and/or Yellowjacket over the decades of his costumed career). Foster first appeared in Avengers #32 (September 1966), before fading from view when Pym eventually regained his size-changing abilities…

Carrying on his own researches in size-shifting, Foster was now trapped as a giant, unable to shrink to normal size, and Cage discovered he was also Claire’s former husband. When the experiments trapped him at fifteen feet tall, she had rushed back to Bill’s colossal side to help find a cure.

After Luke turned up, passions were stoked, resulting in another classic heroes-clash moment until the mesmeric Ringmaster hypnotised all the combatants, intent on using their strength to feather his own three-ring nest. ‘Crime and Circuses’ (by Isabella, Bill Mantlo, Wilson & Fred Kida) saw the heroes helpless until Claire came to the rescue, before making her choice and returning to New York with Luke.

Foster soon thereafter gravitated to his own short-run series, becoming Marvel’s fourth African American costumed hero under the heavy-handed and rather obvious sobriquet Black Goliath

The timely spoofing of a popular ‘70’s TV show provided the theme for ‘Night Shocker!’ (by Steve Englehart, Tuska & Colletta) when Cage stalked an apparent vampire attacking 42nd Street patrons, after which a touching human drama finds Cage forced to subdue a tragically simple-minded but super-powered wrestler in ‘Just a Guy Named “X”!’ (by Mantlo, George Pérez & Al McWilliams, all paying tribute to the Steve Ditko classic from Amazing Spider-Man #38).

A new level of sophistication, social commentary and bizarre villainy began in issue 28 after Don McGregor came aboard to craft a run of macabre crime sagas, opening when Cage meets The Man Who Killed Jiminy Cricket! (illustrated by George Tuska & Vince Colletta).

Hired by a chemical company to stop industrial espionage, Luke fails to prevent the murder of his prime suspect and is somehow defeated by deadly weirdo Cockroach Hamilton (and his beloved shotgun “Josh”) Left for dead in one of the most outré cliffhanger situations ever seen, Cage took two issues to escape as the next issue featured a “deadline-doom” busting fill-in tale…

Produced by Mantlo, Tuska & Colletta Luke Cage, Power Man #29 claimed No One Laughs at Mr. Fish (although the temptation is rather overwhelming) as Cage fights a fin-faced mutated mobster robbing shipping trucks for organised crime analogue The Maggia after which the story already in progress resumes in issue #30 with Look What They’ve Done to Our Lives, Ma! (by McGregor, Rich Buckler, Arvell Jones & Keith Pollard).

Escaping at last from a deadly deathtrap, Cage hunts down Hamilton, and confronts his erudite, sardonic, steel-fanged boss Piranha Jones just after they succeed in stealing a leaking canister of deadly nerve gas…

The dread drama then concludes in Over the Years They Murdered the Stars!’ (Sal Buscema & the legion of deadline busting Crusty Bunkers) as Cage saves his city at the risk of his life before serving just deserts to the eerie evildoers…

Adding extra value to this sterling selection are the cover of reprint one-shot Giant-Size Power Man from 1976; a House ad from 1974 and Dave Cockrum & John Romita’s Cage entry from the 1975 Mighty Marvel Calendar (March, in case you were wondering). Also on view are original cover art by Gil Kane & Mike Esposito (#20 and #24).

Arguably a little dated now (me, Genndy Tartakovsky and others in the know prefer the term “retro”), these tales were nonetheless instrumental in breaking down one more barrier in the complacent, intolerant, WASP-flavoured American comics landscape and their power if not their initial impact remains undiminished to this day. These are tales well worth your time and money.
© 1974, 1975, 1976, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.