A big black ex-con with unbreakable skin. A rich white kung-fu master who can punch things really hard. 30 years ago, they starred in Power Man and Iron Fist, one of the unlikeliest creative successes Marvel ever published. Today, they’re back. Thank God.
A few months ago, Marvel announced a new Power Man and Iron Fist series, written by David Walker and Sandford Greene. Cool, I thought; I’ll use this opportunity as a chance to revisit the Jim Owsley/Mark Bright run of the book, which are some of my favourite comics ever. That chunk of the original PM/IF hasn’t been reprinted and isn’t available digitally, so I went scouring comic shops in New York City and Austin to try to get as many back issues as I could from that specific run.
They were harder to come by than I expected, so I wound up getting just about every old issue of PM/IF I could lay hands on. Going wider and surveying the collective work of writers like Jo Duffy, Kurt Busiek and Archie Goodwin changed my focus and gave me a better idea of why I love this tandem so much.
The key thing about Power Man and Iron Fist as a concept is that it shouldn’t work. The joint billing only came about as a desperate last ditch measure to save two solo series that weren’t selling well. The pairing turned two C-list characters into an off-kilter B-list team made up of partners who have almost nothing in common.
Luke Cage was a coarse, belligerent street dude who got his powers after being experimented on in prison. He charged for his superhero services, and, in both fandom and actual stories, he was often treated like a joke whose punchline hinged on annoying stereotypes about black people. You can read a little bit of political subtext into the fact that the Marvel editorial of the 1970s made their new black hero bulletproof, but that’s probably coincidence rather than intentional. What’s obvious is that Luke Cage was one note to a fault.
Danny Rand was a little better, benefitting from a ‘stranger in a strange land’ backstory that had him learning super-kung-fu in the alternate mystical dimension of K’un Lun. But the martial arts mythology that was part of Iron Fist’s mythos was either all-consuming or totally absent depending on the storyline. Both characters were created to capitalise off of cinematic fads — blaxploitation movies and kung-fu flicks, respectively — and they felt like they didn’t really fit into the more mainstream parts of the Marvel Universe. When writers had them partner together and start fighting crime for money as Heroes for Hire, the hardest task facing the creators of the original Power Man and Iron Fist was making the duo actually seem like friends. Over time, the buddy dramedy hijinx of the series started to carve out their own special niche and grew into a bond that became the best bromance in superhero comics.
Looking back at old issues now, decades later, one of the best things about Power Man and Iron Fist was how self-aware it was. It was an artefact of the late ’70s and ’80s generated by the creators’ efforts to capture the energy of the moment. This is a Reagan-era comic, set in a New York City that was seen as a dangerous stew of crime, poverty and failed aspiration. Much of the action happened in or around the pre-Giuliani Times Square, which was then home to pimps, hustlers and petty criminals. Power Man was a product of that world, and his private investigator office sat above a movie theatre like the rundown cinema houses that screened grindhouse and XXX movies. Cage’s attempts to better his life and the lives of others were often met with derision, as in this scene from Power Man and Iron Fist #90:
The idea that Cage was stepping beyond the bounds of his socioeconomic place showed up frequently. It’s a trope that’s a staple of hardboiled detective fiction but gains added weight in PM/IF in light of the class divide separating the main characters and the backdrop of superhero altruism. Even the cops, who get paid to uphold the law, think the Heroes for Hire are a lower class of superhero in a scene from #107.
Though they needed each other, Luke and Danny’s relationship was never portrayed as unhealthily codependent. Power Man’s strength and durability complimented Iron Fist’s speed and finesse, and this dynamic manifested psychologically, too. When Luke was hallucinating in a story that saw the pair stranded in a remote Arctic location…
Danny feigned helplessness against an enemy to help Luke get his mind right:
The beat is a little too facile, but there’s emotion that feels genuine at the heart of moments like this. PM/IF recapitulated many of the easy, resolved-in-an-episode tropes of 1980s detective shows like Simon & Simon or Hart to Hart.
But, as the series went on, there was the unshakeable sense that these characters made each other better. Danny was the Zen cool to Luke’s cranky combustibility, and Luke often used his grandiose swagger to shake Danny out of his moody doldrums. The crappy economy of the 1980s heightened already extant racial and class tensions, and the zeitgeist of conspicuous consumption created a me-first attitude throughout society. Nevertheless, in its charmingly heavy-handed way, Power Man and Iron Fist showed that people from different social strata could help each other out.
The original run of Power Man and Iron Fist was cancelled in 1986, and different writers have had the characters fall out dramatically over the years. But that’s all behind them in this week’s new Power Man and Iron Fist #1.
The most striking thing about the first issue by Walker and Greene is how the lead characters’ personalities have seemingly flipped. Back in the day, Luke Cage was the hothead; here, he’s the one telling Danny to stay cool when they talk to Harlem crimelord Tombstone.
Life’s moved on for this duo. Luke’s married now and has a daughter with Jessica Jones while Danny’s running his corporation. With the way that he constantly says they’re not getting back together, you get the sense that Luke sees his old-school adventures with Danny as episodes from younger, wilder times. He’s settled down, but Danny hasn’t. Greene’s energetic linework communicates this extremely well: Danny feels twitchy and excited to be reunited with his best friend, fidgeting and practising strikes in the background next to Luke’s calm, massive form. Luke may keep saying that they’re not doing the whole Heroes for Hire thing again, but Power Man and Iron Fist need each other. They’re fine as solo characters, but when they’re together? It’s sweet Christmas magic.