When Words Collide: Revisiting Marvel's Heroes for Hire, Part 2: Busiek, Priest & Death

Mon, November 11th, 2013 at 12:58pm PST | Updated: November 11th, 2013 at 12:58pm

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Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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POWER MAN AND IRON FIST PART TWO: BUSIEK AND PRIEST AND DEATH

Check it out, just as I begin to recount the comic book history of everyone's favorite Heroes for Hire, Marvel and Netflix announce that the characters are the cornerstones of a new streaming initiative meant to…I don't know what, except that I'll watch Iron Fist and Luke Cage television shows all day long. I can only assume Marvel and Netflix read my column last week and immediately sped into pre-production.

So…back to reality. With Part Two of my history lesson on the "Power Man and Iron Fist" comic books. When we left off last week, the series was floundering a bit after the departure of Jo Duffy and a new, regular writer had yet to be brought in. That's where we pick up the tale, with a new writer, plucked from almost-total obscurity. A new writer who would bring balance to the world of Power Man and Iron Fist. A new writer by the name of Kurt Busiek.

Busiek was, at the time, a fresh face at Marvel, and a rookie comic book writer when he stepped into the writer's seat with "Power Man and Iron Fist" #90 (cover-dated February 1983): "It was my first ongoing series, and my first sale to Marvel," says Busiek. "The first issue came out the same day as the first thing I sold to DC. I sold a 'Green Lantern' backup to DC in May of 1982, and I sold the first 'Power Man and Iron Fist' script in June or July. So I count the GL as my first sale, but they both came out in the very last week of December in that same year, so they were my professional my debut."

At the time he landed the gig with 'Power Man and Iron Fist,' Busiek was working as the New York correspondent for upscale fanzine "Comics Feature." He explains his role at the time, and how it helped to give him an opportunity at Marvel: "Marvel had a weekly press release for the trade press back then, and they'd announce, you know, 'the next issue of 'Spider-Man' won't be inked by Mike Exposito, it'll be inked by Bob McLeod. Or Whirlwind is returning Avengers. I'd take it all and type it up and send it down to the editorial office in Florida. There were guys there from 'The Comic Reader,' and the outlets that used that kind of thing."

"Every month they kept telling us that there would be a new writer on 'Power Man and Iron Fist,' taking over for Jo Duffy, and that new writer was going to be Bob Layton," says Busiek. "But I'd already noticed that several issues had come out that weren't by Bob, and they were single issue fill-ins by Denny O'Neil. And the news that we were getting through the press conference was "and here's another story by Denny. And here's another story by Denny." And I knew the stories that were coming up, and I was thinking, "maybe Bob's not getting his plots in. Or maybe there's a problem with it, or whatever. But it's pretty clear that every month Denny has to write an issue in a hurry. Maybe he could use some help."

Busiek explains that he wasn't doing this out of some feeling of benevolent generosity: "I was doing this because I saw an opportunity there. I'd actually written a review of 'Power Man and Iron Fist' for -- I think it was 'Comics Feature' -- that was one of the last reviews I had published. I wrapped it up in the last paragraph saying, 'If Jo Duffy ever leaves this book, I don't know who they're going to get to write it, but they won't be able to get anyone who would write it as well. I certainly wouldn't know what to do with it.' So there I am in print saying I wouldn't know what to do with it, but it looked like there was an opportunity there, so I came up with a 'Power Man and Iron Fist' story, and I typed it up as a page and a half."

"I sent it in to Denny with a note saying that I'd like to pitch it for the 'Power Man' book," continues Busiek, "and that I was already selling professional scripts to DC comics. I didn't mention that what I'd sold to DC was 7 pages. But I figured that if Denny knew that somebody up at DC liked my stuff enough to hire me to write something and pay me, maybe he'd give it a read over other stuff that he wouldn't."

O'Neil called Busiek a few days later and asked him to flesh it out into a full script, but on spec. "He wasn't giving me the assignment," says Busiek. "He was saying, 'give it a try.' So I typed it up into a full script and I sent that to him, and he bought it. So I pitched him another one, and he bought it. And I got brave, and I thought, well, I'll pitch him a two-parter, so I pitched him a two-parter and he bought that."

Busiek, after writing four issues of the series, still hadn't been confirmed as the new writer of "Power Man and Iron Fist." And when he was officially announced, he was among the last to find out. "I was at the weekly press conference," says Busiek, "and they announced that there was going to be a new regular writer on "Power Man and Iron Fist," and I thought, 'well, it was fun while it lasted.' And then they announced that it was me, and they pronounced my name wrong. So Denny never told me I was the regular writer. I found that out because I was at the press conference where they announced it."

Busiek had been a long-time fan of Iron Fist, followed the character into his team-up with Luke Cage, and adored the Jo Duffy run on "Power Man and Iron Fist," particularly the playfulness of the approach, which would go on to inspire his own take on the series: "I read Claremont's brief run and I read Ed Hannigan's run, and then when Jo Duffy started, I felt like the book was really coming together, particularly when Kerry Gammill came in," says Busiek. "I felt that there was a real liveliness to the stories. Jo didn't mess around trying to be super-fancy or anything. She had fun with it. Once every issue, someone would mention that Luke Cage had steel hard skin and super-strength, and it might be a kid watching Luke Cage carrying a Coke machine over his head, and he'd go, 'Oh, man! There goes Luke Cage, he weighs like 300lbs and steel-hard skin.' And someone would mention, or Iron Fist would think, or a caption would tell you that Iron Fist was the finest warrior from a lost civilization."

"She didn't hide the fact that she was filling you in on the characters," Busiek adds. "She actually made kind of jokes out of it. 'Look, it's gonna come in here. Oh, look how she did it this time, ha ha, that's funny.' And the character emotions were great. The character drama was a lot of fun. She played it as a buddy book with them -- contrasting personalities -- in a way that was more successful than what Chris or Ed had done, and it just seemed like this was a real fun, energetic, upbeat, enjoyable comic book. It had a light touch that nobody else was doing anything like."

Busiek elaborates on the characters and situations he had to work with between the covers of "Power Man and Iron Fist." As he explains, even though the series had both characters in the title, it was overwhelmingly populated by Iron Fist's supporting cast. Busiek says, "The way that I described it back then was, 'It's Luke Cage's world and Iron Fist's cast.' You had Luke and you had D. W. Griffith, but D. W. didn't do a whole lot. You had Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon, and even the Daughters of the Dragon had supporting characters, because Bob Diamond was dating Colleen Wing. The book was set in and around the Gem theater, but a whole lot of the cast and the drama came out of Iron Fist's situation. And I think a lot of that was that he had more leftover, sprawling issues that was a hallmark of the way Chris writes comics. And 'Power Man' hadn't had a steady, consistent writer, so there wasn't any real strong sense of momentum, and the only major momentum he had, Chris had ended in issue #50 when he had him cleared of the crime. So the cops weren't chasing him, so that part of the plot was over. That's part of the reason that I was bringing back Chemistro and Shades and Comanche because I wanted to bring back more of that Luke Cage stuff."

Busiek did just that, devoting several issues, beginning with "Power Man and Iron Fist" #93 (May 1983) to resurrecting old "Power Man" villains and pitting them against the Rand/Cage team. And Busiek wanted to shift the emphasis toward Luke Cage even more, but it didn't work out that way. "Toward the end of my run," says Busiek, "it turned into this big, mystical K'un L'un story, mainly because I couldn't think of a better one." Busiek didn't know he was the regular writer until issue #95, and as he says, "when you're on issue #95, you see issue #100 coming like a freight train, and I knew I had to get something started and started fast. If I'd had the time to sit and think about it, and do the research I needed to do, I would have made issue #100 a Luke Cage story, because issue #75 had been an Iron Fist story, while issue #50 had been a Luke story. It was time to do another big anniversary Luke story. But I didn't have any time. I had to get the subplots going."

The fact was, says Busiek, "Iron Fist had a disproportionate amount of influence on the book." He adds, "I think that was because he came attached to a very colorful and dramatic cast. Jo had brought in Harmony Young, and she was great. I don't think anybody could write Harmony the way Jo wrote Harmony. She wrote this self-absorbed, ditsy character in a way that made her seem endearing. I couldn't find a way to write that character without making her seem grating and horrible. But Jo managed it. That's one of the things that makes me in awe of what Jo did."

Busiek doesn't hide how much the Duffy run inspired him: "For most of what I wrote, I was trying to imitate Jo. I didn't know what to do with the series, but I know that Jo had made it work. I was trying as hard as I could to do what Jo did: that mixture of humor and characterization and action. And if I used supervillains, I drew on the ones I knew. I always liked Unus the Untouchable so I thought, 'what if he was the villain they had to face,' and I came with a gimmick by which they could beat him, and I said, 'okay, let's backtrack and come up with a plot to justify why they're fighting him.' I used Hammerhead and the Eel because I came up with the idea, what would you hire superheroes to do, well you'd hire them to ride shotgun on a prisoner transport, and what prisoners do you use, well, some prisoners they can have a fight with."

The Unus story appeared in Busiek's first published issue, and Hammerhead and the Eel appeared in "Power Man and Iron Fist" #92 (April 1983). But what Busiek didn't realize at the time was that his approach to the comic wasn't in line with Marvel editorial's way of thinking. He didn't last very long on the series.

"Denny O'Neil wasn't really happy with the book being funny," says Busiek. "So I was throwing in these gags thinking that's what Jo would have done, but apparently Denny didn't think that's what Jo was doing right. And I was trying to duplicate what Jo was doing. By the time I started to figure out what I wanted to do with the book, I was in this buildup to issue #100 so I couldn't start doing it until after issue #100, and I was fired with issue #100."

Though Busiek's tenure as writer of "Power Man and Iron Fist" came to an end with issue #100 (December 1983), he ended up having another two scripts published in the series, after he was fired.

Busiek explains: "issue #102 was an inventory story I'd been working on, and it turned out they needed it because the new writer who was supposed to start after issue #100 was Archie Goodwin. Because Archie was having such difficulty getting stuff done, they slotted the fill-in that artist Richard Howell was working on." They also asked Busiek if he had any leftover story ideas from his run, and he did, so he was commissioned to write one more fill-in, again with art by Richard Howell, which ended up published in "Power Man and Iron Fist" #105 (May 1984). "I got on the book because somebody couldn't meet their deadlines," says Busiek, "and then after I got fired I got two more issues because somebody else couldn't meet their deadlines."

Because his run was so brief, Busiek didn't have detailed plans for the long-term, but once he did his research for the series, he found that his appreciation for the characters changed: "The first four issues I wrote as fill-ins, and the last two issues I wrote as fill-ins," says Busiek, "so I wrote six issues that could be considered my regular run. For most of it I didn't have any idea for a long term direction, it was just, 'hey maybe I can bring back Shades and Comanche and give them super powers.' One of the things I did when I got the assignment was I went out and bought an entire run of 'Power Man,' and I bought the 'Marvel Premier' Iron Fist issues that I had been missing, and what I discovered was that I actually liked Power Man more than I liked Iron Fist."

"Power Man is a really solid character set up," says Busiek. "Here was a guy who was framed for a crime he didn't commit, he goes to jail, he ends up getting super powers, he breaks out of jail, and he's a hero on the run, and it's a really good strong focus. Iron Fist, though he's probably a more popular character, is a kung-fu guy from Shangri-La which is surrounded by alien beings and plant people, and he can use his iron fist to cure himself from radiation sickness, and it's just this mish-mash of fantasy and science fiction elements. Power Man has this really strong, clean central concept, and Iron Fist has all these elements stuck together, and what you end up with is a pleasant mess. Power Man is a better idea. Iron Fist is proof that you can make a mess like this work."

Busiek may not have had detailed plans, but he did have an idea for a direction that the series would have taken, had he stuck around a while longer: "As I was getting toward issue #100, what I wanted to do was have both characters leave the company," Busiek explains, though he admits that he probably never actually pitched it to Denny O'Neil because he was removed from the series before he had a chance. "Iron Fist would be missing for a while because he had to go do something about K'un L'un and Power Man had some sort of quest to go on. So the series would have ended, according to my plan, and split into two miniseries: an Iron Fist miniseries where he had his plotline and a Power Man series we he had his plotline and both of them would get back to New York at the same time to find out that, in his absence, Jeryn Hogarth had hired a whole new bunch of heroes at Heroes for Hire, and Power Man and Iron Fist are part owners of the company, but Jeryn is part owner as well. So now here's this new team that they would have to manage and also be a part of, and the new series would be called 'Heroes for Hire.' That was my plan, but I didn't get to it. What I was told when I turned in the plot to issue #100 was, 'Jim Shooter had said sales were flat on this book, replace the creative team.' It wasn't personal. The message that came down was, 'this isn't working, change everything.'"

In retrospect, Busiek takes pride in his short tenure on "Power Man and Iron Fist." "Jo was clearly the most successful writer on the series," says Busiek. "Jo picked up the series when it was bi-monthly, and under her tenure it went monthly, and so sales went up, and it prospered. Then when she left, sales started dropping. It was no surprise they were dropping because when she left Denny was writing a fill in every month. There wasn't any strong series direction. I picked up the book, and the sales stopped dropping. They didn't go up, but they stopped dropping. My claim to fame is, maybe I didn't make the sales go up, but I didn't make them go down either."

After Busiek's official departure, the series didn't have any consistency -- with two inventory stories by Busiek, a handful of scripts by Archie Goodwin, and a few fill-ins by writers Alan Rowlands and Tony Isabella -- until Power Man and Iron Fist #111 (Nov. 1984).

With that issue, Captain Hero made his auspicious debut, and so did writer Jim Owsley. Owsley, who is now better known by the name Christopher Priest, took the self-proclaimed heroes for hire in an inventive new direction, and wrote the series until it reached its conclusion in issue #125 (Sept. 1986). His run remains controversial for its irreverent tone, and for the shocking way in which he killed off one of the main characters: Iron Fist.

Priest describes his experiences on "Power Man and Iron Fist" at length, in an insightful post at his "Digital-Priest" website: "'Power Man and Iron Fist' was the first ongoing series I was assigned to. Marvel EIC Jim Shooter had been working with me on a few things, and Jim may have felt a regular series would be good training. In one of the more awkward moments of a long history of awkward moments, Jim took me down the hall to Editor Denny O'Neil, rapped on the door frame and said, 'Meet your new Power/Fist writer.' That was, pretty much, how things were done in those days."

Priest says that he had no idea about any preconceived editorial direction for the book, but, as Priest adds in the essay, "Once Doc [Mark Bright] came on board, the book really came together." Bright and Priest (as Owsley) established an ironic, absurdist, tragic tone for the series, perhaps best encapsulated by issue #115 (March 1985), a one-shot tale entitled "Stanley's War," which begins with a sounding alarm and ends with a mushroom cloud amidst a bleak, frozen landscape. More than any other writer on the series, Priest took Danny Rand and Luke Cage out of their comfort zones.

But his take on the characters, like Busiek and Duffy before him, was not popular within the halls of Marvel, though for different reasons than the previous writers. Priest, an African-American writer working in a decidedly non-diverse comic book industry, faced a different kind of criticism: "There was some moaning up at the office about my handling of Luke Cage," explains Priest, at his website. "Doc and I toned Cage down a bit from the very loud, histrionic hair-trigger Hulk Smash guy, and gave him a wider vocabulary. As a result, I was told, by several Marvel staffers at the time, that I write, 'lousy black dialogue,' and some even joked that I wasn't 'really black' because none of my black characters 'sounded black.'"

Priest goes on to say, "the larger body of work in mainstream super-hero comics is written by whites, and the larger body of African or African-American characters bear not much resemblance to any real black culture. A great deal of it is an appropriation of black culture and voice; it seems to be what white people think black people are. It's more amusing than offensive, but, taken at face value, black society in comic books seems an almost invented culture, as made up as Smallville or the Legion of Super-Heroes' headquarters, sewn together by glimpses of television shows or movies. Black culture as represented by Sherman Helmsley or Jimmy Walker or Richard Roundtree." For Priest, the Blaxsploitation/Chopsocky genesis of "Power Man and Iron Fist" was a truth best left in the past, and he moved the characters away from their more stereotypical roots. The "Sweet Christmas" exclamations from Luke Cage certainly appeared with much less frequency under Priest's watch.

"I was pretty happy with the entire run of 'Power Man and Iron Fist,'" writes Priest. "Doc and I had a lot of fun, without deliberately trying to make any 'statements' about race. About the biggest 'statement' we made was getting rid of Misty Knight's afro, which annoyed some at Marvel so much they inexplicably returned her to the afro after we left -- ignoring the fact black people, by and large, do not wear afros anymore."

Priest gets into more specific stories within his run as he goes on: "In issue #118, we got away with titling a story, 'what's Eating Colleen...?' dealing with Knight's detective agency partner, Colleen Wing, and beginning my long fascination with dysfunctional, imperfect women," writes Priest. "Comics have traditionally portrayed women as generic extensions of the male characters in the book. Industry legend Chris Claremont started breaking those rules early on, and created a fascinating, multi-faceted string of female characters in the early '80s that showed women could have more dynamic range in this genre. I actually don't remember what was eating Colleen, although whatever it was led to our big epic, "Daughter of the Dragon King," where we trashed K'un L'un and turned Iron Fist evil (blatantly ripping off Claremont's own Dark Phoenix)."

The evil Iron Fist, with all the grin bits of his costume replaced by red -- shades of Jean Grey's transformation, as Priest alludes to -- soon turns back into a hero, though he keeps the altered costume for a few more issues. But it's really the series finale with "Power Man and Iron Fist" #125 that sticks in most fans' memories as the signature moment of Priest's run, for good or bad. In issue #125, a story called "Hardball," Danny Rand uses his own power -- drains part of his own life force -- to save Bobby Wright, the boy who assumed the mantle of Captain Hero. Captain Hero, who premiered with Priest's fist issue on the series, was a kind of Marvelized Billy Batson character. He was an orphan who could transform into a strapping hero, but he had a dark side within him, and an impetuous rage that cost Danny Rand his life.

In one of the final scenes of issue #125, Bobby Wright wakes up in his hospital bed in extreme pain, as the sleeping Iron Fist sits next to the bed, exhausted after saving the boy's life. In his attempt to wake up Danny Rand, the boy transforms into Captain Hero and pummels Iron Fist, again and again, shouting "Wake Up!" Iron Fist doesn't survive the encounter. In the end it wasn't some cosmic force or radiation sickness or criminal mastermind that killed Iron Fist. It was a random, senseless act by a supposed hero with the mind of a child.

Priest writes about that final issue: "Fist's death was senseless and shocking and completely unforeseen. It took the readers' heads clean off. And, to this day, people are mad about it. Forgetting, it seems, that (a) you were supposed to be mad, that death is senseless and Fist's death was supposed to be senseless, or that (b) this is a comic book. I already had a way to bring Fist back, and Fist creator John Byrne would certainly bring him back if I didn't get to it first."

"Fist's death was supposed to be shocking and senseless," reiterates Priest, writing from the perspective of a decade ago. "It wasn't bad writing. The fact that, thirteen years after the fact, people are still annoyed about it speaks to the quality of the work, the impact of which has apparently not diminished over time." Iron Fist has long since been resurrected by Marvel, and has become a featured player in the Avengers franchise, but the series finale of "Power Man and Iron Fist" still evokes a great sense of tragedy, even twenty-four years later.

Priest explains the context of that final issue: "Iron Fist's death wasn't my idea," writes Priest. "It was my idea in the sense of that is how I chose for him to die -- brutally and senselessly. I was ordered to kill Iron Fist because the editor was deeply resentful of Marvel's decision to cancel the book, a book the editor (comics legend Denny O'Neil) invested himself in and worked very hard with myself and artist M. D. "Doc" Bright. We were all pretty upset, but Denny was outraged. 'Power Man and Iron Fist' was a critical success and was selling in excess of 100,000 copies; not a major hit in those days but the book was certainly profitable. Then the company, for no apparent reason, decided to change the publishing schedule from a monthly release to bi-monthly, which automatically depresses sales, and, once the sales projections skewed downward, that became justification enough to cancel the book to make room on the schedule for a new line of books that became the infamous and notorious 'New Universe.'"

"Angered by the slight to our work on the book, in an editorial meeting Denny's assistant suggested we kill Iron Fist and cast the blame on Power Man," Priest adds. "Doc and I really did not like the idea, but the editors were adamant, insisting if we didn't write the story he'd assign it out to someone else. I agreed to write the story on the condition that Iron Fist's death be senseless and, actually, extant to the story itself. The story and plotlines had resolved themselves by the time Iron Fist fell asleep in the hospital and was subsequently killed. It was shocking and unexpected and completely meaningless -- which is how we all felt the company had treated us."

Duffy, Busiek, and Priest, the three main writers on "Power Man and Iron Fist," all had their troubles in the end, and they weren't allowed to continue with the Danny Rand and Luke Cage stories they wanted to tell. And though both Power Man and Iron Fist have become central characters in the Marvel Universe during the Joe Quesada and Axel Alonso years, none of the three writers have had a chance to work on the characters again.

The appeal of Power Man and Iron Fist, in their Bronze Age glory, boils down to this, says Duffy, and though she's talking about the title characters, the words could be applied to the creative teams just as easily: "These guys do not have monster superpowers, so I was working with this theme of the book -- that what they're trying to do is a good job. And if you always win, it's not that interesting. But if you're trying to do something, and maybe you succeed according to the letter of what you're trying to do, but maybe not the spirit. Someone who succeeds at what they were trying to do but feels completely screwed over, that is a story I want to keep reading. I want them to get their happy endings, I want them to get their stories that end with a smile or a fist to the Coke machine, but if life gets too happy, it's not a story anymore."

Yet, for all the conflict behind the scenes, it's the conflict within the pages that's been fondly remembered for the past three decades. The struggle of Luke Cage and Danny Rand, an unlikely pair of heroes in a Marvel Universe that often had little use for them. Their current popularity among Marvel creators and fans is a testament to their strength individually, and as a duo. And a testament to the work of writers like Duffy, Busiek, and Priest, writers who made these characters, and the "Power Man and Iron Fist" series, something special. Even if they did it without a smile or a fist to the Coke machine in the end.

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.

TAGS:  when words collide, christopher priest, kurt busiek, power man, iron fist, heroes for hire

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