When Words Collide: Revisiting Marvel's Heroes for Hire, Part 1

Mon, November 4th, 2013 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
7

POWER MAN AND IRON FIST: THE STORY OF THE STORY

Before there was "Power Man and Iron Fist," there was "Luke Cage: Hero for Hire"

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to research the history of Marvel's "Power Man and Iron Fist" for "Back Issue" magazine. At the time, I thought of my piece as the definitive article on the origin and development of that fondly-remembered series, and since the rights to the article have reverted back to me and since my retelling of the history has never been published online before, I'm running it this week and next for your reading enjoyment and all-around edification.

I mean, it's Power Man and Iron Fist and Chris Claremont and Jo Duffy and Trevor Von Eeden and kung-fu and pimps and Zorro and Doctor Who and more! What's not to like?

Here's where we begin…

A man accused of a crime he didn't commit undergoes an experimental procedure in prison, and emerges as a superhero of the streets. An orphan finds himself in a hidden mystical city and learns to become one of the world's greatest martial artists. Power Man. Iron Fist. Each a four-color offspring of the grindhouse cinema of the early 1970s, iconic characters from the Bronze Age of Marvel comics, and together they anchored a "Power Man and Iron Fist" series that ran for over eight knock-down, drag-out years.

Luke Cage, the man later to be known as Power Man, appeared before his metal-fisted partner, one year after the Blaxsploitation renaissance that was 1971. In the wake of Melvin Van Peeble's "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," and Richard Rountree's turn as detective John Shaft in the "Shaft" film, Archie Goodwin and George Tuska launched "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire" #1 (June 1972). The title character, co-created by Goodwin and John Romita, Sr., was a jive-talkin' action hero with a chip on his shoulder and a heart in the right place. He may have been a hero "for hire," but he was also a hero of the people -- and his people were the denizens of the grungy corners of New York City, where pimps and gangsters ruled the land, and a superhero with a mercenary mindset tried to clear his name while protecting those around him (and put a little money in his pocket when he could). Luke Cage was in the same universe as Spider-Man, even in the same city, but Cage's turf, in and around the Gem Theater, might as well have been in a different galaxy from than inhabited by Peter Parker. Cage's world was a rough and tumble one where switchblades were drawn quickly and a fall in the East River would ruin your chances of avoiding hepatitis.

Two years after the debut of Luke Cage, his soon-to-be erstwhile companion hit the comic book scene. Danny Rand, millionaire's son, raised in K'un L'un by the likes of the Thunderer, learned to master his chi and inherit the mantle of the Iron Fist. One year after the death of the legendary Bruce Lee in 1973, during the height of what used to be called the "Chopsocky" genre, Iron Fist premiered in, appropriately enough, "Marvel Premiere" #15 (May 1974), in a story written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gil Kane. Though born of trash -- though fondly-remembered -- cinema like Luke Cage, Iron Fist patrolled a different type of dangerous street. His back-alleys were loaded with kung-fu assassins and feral villains. His allies were just as dangerous, with their skill in edged weaponry and their penchant for sass. Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, sometimes known as the Daughters of the Dragon, were as intriguing as Iron Fist himself.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Iron Fist and Luke Cage -- by then known as Power Man -- would team-up for an extended run. Or maybe it was just that Power Man and Iron Fist were the last two Blaxploitation/Chopsocky characters left standing at Marvel by the late 1970s, long after the craze had died down in cinema. But no matter the reason, Iron Fist joined Luke Cage in "Power Man" #48 (Feb. 1978), and stayed on as the series changed its title to "Power Man and Iron Fist" with issue #50 (April 1978). From then on, Luke Cage and Danny Rand were inseparable. Until death did them part.

Former Marvel staff editor, and long-time writer of "Power Man and Iron Fist," Jo Duffy recalls the decision-making behind the team-up of the grindhouse dynamic duo: "Finally the day just came that neither one could quite support his own book, and that was the basis on which they were put together. And I think the reason that I wound up taking over the series when Chris Claremont couldn't do it was because I really wanted it. I was absolutely crazy nuts about both those characters individually and I was dying to get them to work together." Claremont, still a few years away from his X-Men heyday, shepherded Iron Fist through his solo "Iron Fist" stories, and Claremont wrote the three-part tale that brought the two heroes together to wrap-up Power Man's run and launch the pair in "Power Man and Iron Fist" #50 and beyond. But Claremont only lasted until issue #53, and after a couple of fill-in issues by writer Ed Hannigan and penciler Lee Elias, Jo Duffy and Trevor Von Eeden came in as the new creative team.

Duffy, who was credited as "Mary Jo Duffy" in the comic, explains how she ended up taking over for Claremont, even though she hadn't written much more than a few single fill-in issues for "The Incredible Hulk," "Daredevil," and "The Defenders" at Marvel up to that point: "At the time there were not multiple editors, really," says Duffy. "Marvel was still a small operation, and an editorial meeting consisted of about five people, and what had happened was that I was the only editor on staff who wanted to write that hadn't been given an assignment." Chris Claremont was working on several books at the time, including "Ms. Marvel," "Power Man and Iron Fist," and "Uncanny X-Men," and, according to Duffy, what then Editor-and-Chief Jim Shooter expected "was that Chris would want to give up "Ms. Marvel" and give it to me because, 'oh, this would be so fitting, the girl would get the girl book.' But I had no interest in 'Ms. Marvel' and Chris loved her."

Claremont, with his tight schedule, was put in the position of choosing between his favorite characters. He couldn't continue to write all of them. "I think he would have hung onto Iron Fist if he could," says Duffy, "but what he wanted was to hang onto the X-Men first and foremost and then Ms. Marvel. And if he was going to give up anything it would be the one I wanted the most. But I think Chris really, really loved Iron Fist and the characters, and I don't think he was ever quite as crazy about Power Man as I was."

Duffy was joined by artist Trevor Von Eeden for the as-advertised-in-the-previous-issue "new direction" of "Power Man and Iron Fist" with issue #56, but while Duffy stayed on the title all the way until issue #84, Von Eeden bowed out after only four issues. Duffy recalls Von Eeden's work with fondness, describing how she "loved working with Trevor," but she suspects that he didn't have the same fannish love of the characters that she did. "I just don't think that he was as into the series as I was," she says. "He did wonderful work while he did it," Duffy adds, "but artistically I think we would have gone down different paths."

Von Eeden's recollections of the events provide a bit more detail, as he recalls how he'd been working with Neal Adams at Continuity Associates at the time, and he "was curious to see what was up at Marvel." "I was introduced to Al Milgrom, who was a very, very nice person," says Von Eeden, "and he made me feel quite at ease. I liked Luke Cage well enough -- although he became too much of a cartoon character sometimes, with 'Sweet Christmas!' -- but it was Iron Fist that really appealed to me, since I was a big martial arts fan. Unfortunately, I didn't get as many opportunities to draw him in action as I'd liked."

Right at the start of Duffy and Von Eeden's run, they told a two-part story that catapulted Power Man and Iron Fist into the superhero big-time, giving them an epic story with the Living Monolith (and this was only one issue after the Ed Hannigan-penned issue that had Luke Cage working as an auto show pitchman). It was a tale that also featured the X-Men, though Cyclops and company didn't end up doing a whole heck of a lot. But the two-parter wasn't an attempt to cash in on the X-Men's popularity, and it wasn't editorially mandated. It was just a story Duffy wanted to tell, about characters she wanted to write stories about.

Duffy explains, "The thinking was that Chris [Claremont] had tangled Power Man and Iron Fist into the continuity of the X-Men and vice versa." Duffy refers to the fact that Iron Fist's supporting cast, and, by default, the supporting cast of "Power Man and Iron Fist" were roommates and friends with some of the X-Men, namely Jean Grey. It was something Claremont did to weave together the comics he had been writing at the time. "And I didn't want to be somebody who came on and suddenly plotlines were just dropped," says Duffy. "Besides which, I loved the X-Men too. A chance to do these characters Chris wrote and that Dave Cockrum and John Byrne did such great artwork on -- it was pretty irresistible to me." She says that it was her attempt at putting some closure on the previous run, and setting her "continuity on its own path without forcibly ripping away what Chris had been doing in terms of tying things together."

After the defeat of the Living Monolith at the hands of her protagonists, Duffy began telling stories that were more character-based, and less involved in large-scale exploits. Not that her stories lacked strong plots, but instead of larger-than-life supervillains, Duffy populated her next few stories with street-level threats like El Aguila and urban terrorists. And Von Eeden soon left the title, doing his last work on "Power Man and Iron Fist" #59 (Oct. 1979), though Von Eeden claims that his departure wasn't his choice: "My leaving Marvel," says Von Eeden, "was due to my being fired by Jim Shooter, who'd told me specifically, when I'd first started there, to try and draw like Jack Kirby -- and apparently wasn't happy that I didn't."

Marie Severin and Steve Leialoha filled in for an issue before artist Kerry Gammill came onboard with issue #61 (Feb. 1980). Presumably, Gammill had enough Kirby flair to keep him employed at Marvel for a long time, because he stayed with the series all the way through "Power Man and Iron Fist" #79 (March 1982).

During that time, Duffy put her own distinctive mark on the tone of the series, as she balanced the humor of the oddball team-up nature of the two male leads with stories that explored deep thematic concerns. She avoided stories that were simple superhero slugfests, and part of that was due to the nature of Power Man and Iron Fist's distinctive abilities, but part of it was her awareness of how to contrast various personalities off her lead characters, how to provide foils against which they could react.

She describes the conception of El Aguila -- the street vigilante of the people with the bolero hat and the sword that can shoot blasts of electricity -- and sheds light on the way she conceived threats for her heroes to face: "El Aguila was designed by Dave Cockrum and he had this big Zorro thing, and Zorro was another one of these characters that I was just crazy about and 'Power Man and Iron Fist' was tricky," Duffy explains. "These were not guys who could fly. Their super powers were defensive and if they were offensive, it was going to be hands on, and it's remarkably tricky inventing a villain for somebody like that, because it can't just be a regular guy, because then it's just two big bullies beating up a regular guy -- or a regular woman -- and if it's somebody that's a big huge supervillain then all the villains has to do is fire a raygun and fly away and the story's over."

Duffy goes on to say, "It seemed to me that someone like Zorro but with one or two powers would be about the right level and since Iron Fist was a little bit easygoing and unworldly, and Power Man was just so cranky and completely grounded in the here and now, giving him somebody with this playful panache would be frustrating. Iron Fist wouldn't even get it, Power Man would be infuriated by it, and it would give El Aguila a certain amount of charm. So I wasn't just thinking of the power problem, though it was a problem, but in terms of the characters -- it had to interest me. And Power Man and Iron Fist were so well-realized as characters that if a villain wasn't as equally well-realized, then what was the point in doing it? That was why I tried to give the villains big, colorful personalities whether it was for evil or good or fun or greed or what have you, as well as just superpowers. You had to care about them as characters."

El Aguila returned several times during Duffy's run, always giving Power Man and Iron Fist a run for their money, and always providing the fodder for strong dramatic situations between the heroes. But the Marvel Universe Zorro wasn't the only interesting character Duffy added to the mix. She also created the mountain climber and international criminal mastermind known as Montenegro, a villain who would turn out to be the force behind many of the ongoing problems faced by Power Man and Iron Fist during Duffy's run. Montenegro was an unusual character, to say the least, and Duffy had a very concrete idea of what the villain should be like.

"I like manipulators," says Duffy. "I wanted my own Moriarty for Power Man and Iron Fist. Mountaineers and acrobats absolutely fascinated me. You tend to think of superheroes as special effects or stunt men. But then you see a documentary on guys who climb mountains or you go to the circus, and you think, 'there are actually people who can do this stuff.' Montenegro was my combination of my wanting a mastermind -- a really rotten evil mastermind -- with my fascination that there really are people who can do superhero stuff without needing to be in a comic book to do it." From Montenegro's first appearance in "Power Man and Iron Fist" #71 (June 1981), through Duffy's final issue over a year later, the character was a memorable addition to the Marvel Universe, scaling New York skyscrapers like they were ridges in the Alps, and plotting nefarious schemes that the heroes could never quite get their hands around.

Besides populating Power Man and Iron Fist's New York with Zorro pastiches and criminals inspired by real-life exploits, Duffy also devoted an entire issue to a story in which her heroes meet Doctor Who and fight an army of Daleks. Of course, she couldn't actually use the good Doctor or his famous robot nemesis, since Marvel didn't own the rights to the characters, but that didn't stop her from telling the story using some thinly-veiled counterparts. In "Power Man and Iron Fist" #79 (March 1982), erstwhile supporting cast member Bob Diamond, one of the Sons of the Tiger, sparring partner of Iron Fist, and reasonably famous actor in Marvel continuity, lands a role in "Day of the Dredlox," a Broadway show where he plays the part of Professor J. A. Gamble. Gamble is basically Doctor Who, and the Dredlox are basically Daleks, and the similarities become more apparent as the story unfolds and the real J. A. Gamble, time-hopper, shows up to explain what's going on and talk about things like his "temporal polarization destabilizer."

t was Duffy's "love letter to Doctor Who," and she explains, "Professor Gamble and the Dredlox appeared for exactly the same reason the X-Men did and Daredevil eventually did. If I could get an opportunity to work my favorites in somehow, I would. Obviously with Doctor Who, I couldn't do the real thing. So this was a roman-a-clef. I had a recurring character who was an actor, and I knew Doctor Who had been onstage as well as on TV and movies and what have you, and there's a part of me that, whenever I see a play, if it's a really good one, wants to think that the characters have a life beyond what you're seeing on the stage. What if this isn't this isn't just special effects? What if these really are evil killer robots and they roll in at night, backstage, when nobody's looking. Doctor Who is this wonderfully brilliant quirky eccentric -- the idea of juxtaposing that character against Luke Cage was pretty irresistible. Iron Fist is such a fish out of water that he's never really a fish out of water. But Luke Cage is so grounded in his own skin, in his own mind, in his own personality that I found it irresistible to juxtapose him with characters who would bug the living daylights out of him, just by being."

Montenegro returned the following issue, and Duffy spent the next few after that giving Power Man and Iron Fist a few more traditional superhero challenges, like the militant Warhawk in issue #83 and the tag-team of the Constrictor and Sabretooth in issue #84 (August 1982), an issue which ended up being her last.

Like Von Eeden a few years earlier, Duffy didn't leave because she wanted to abandon the series. "I would never have left if I had a choice," says Duffy. "It was editorial pressure. There were people behind the scenes who were never behind the book. "Power Man and Iron Fist' was a light-hearted series. It had depths, but it was a light-hearted series." Duffy explains that not everyone at Marvel liked her distinctive approach to the characters: "There were people who thought Power Man wasn't angry enough. There were people who thought Iron Fist wasn't angry enough. There were people who thought Misty Knight should break up with Iron Fist and get together with Power Man. I was kind of replaced because they wanted somebody who was less like me and more like everybody else. I'm not opposed to dark, violent characters, I had a wonderful time when I was writing later 'Wolverine' and I had a wonderful time on 'Punisher,' but that tone just wasn't right for Power Man and Iron Fist."

There was constant pressure to make the lead characters more visibly like other popular superhero leads, to toughen them up in word and deed. Regarding Iron Fist, Duffy says, "we had one guy who was always like, 'let's kill him because I don't get him.' But I had studied the martial arts, and I had done a lot of academic study of the martial arts, and one thing had come out of it was that you get to a point where if you're any good at this, you don't sweat the small stuff. And if he was the best in the world, he didn't sweat anything. A lot of people would read that as weakness, but I read it as absolute strength. I don't think it was a perception problem so much with the audience, because if the audience is reading this stuff presumably they like the character, and presumably they get it." Duffy adds, "It's much easier to write somebody who goes in wanting to punch than it is to write someone who says, 'why should I punch him? Nobody needs me to.'" But Duffy's reasoned approach didn't keep her on the series.

Duffy's editor, Denny O'Neil, tackled the scripts for the next few issues, handing the editor title to Ralph Macchio while O'Neil emphasized the urban action a bit more, and cut back on anything approaching the whimsy of a faux Doctor Who cameo. A young Denys Cowan drew the final five Duffy issues, and he continued on through O'Neil's temporary run, with the exception of "Power Man and Iron Fist" #85, which featured Keith Pollard on artistic chores. O'Neil and Cowan's work on their brief run was a prelude to what they would later do together on DC's "The Question" in 1987. But in 1983, their work in "Power Man and Iron Fist" wasn't really a coherently structured run. It was more along the lines of one O'Neil/Cowan fill-in after another, and the search for a new, long-term writer was inevitable.

NEXT WEEK: Cue the entrance a new, long-term writer by the name of Kurt Busiek.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, marvel comics, luke cage, power man, iron fist, heroes for hire, jo duffy

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