Steel-Hard Skin

Steel-Hard Skin

By the time that Power Man and Iron Fist #125 came out in the late summer/early fall of 1986, I'd already learned not to trust comic-book covers.

(This essay was originally written in 2011 and appeared in Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales from the Spinner Rack, an anthology that collected personal essays from lifelong comics fans. I'm re-publishing it here with slight changes to commemorate the start of the new Power Man and Iron Fist series.)

Overheated clauses like "Because You Demanded It!" always barked out at me from the colour-saturated covers of long-running superhero serials, only to hold stories and developments that I'd never requested. So, when I read the words "Final Issue" above the logo of Marvel's odd-couple buddy book, I smirked. The gimmick continued inside, too as Power Man angrily intoned "It's over, man — Heroes for Hire is finished!!!" OK, sure thing, dude. See you and Iron Fist next month.

But I didn't. Instead, I wound up with a comic I read over and over, trying to figure out why it made me feel the way it did.

See, Power Man and Iron Fist #125 marked the first time a comic book brought me to tears. Not huge body-wracking sobs, mind you. More like quiet streams of anger running down my face. It wasn't just the plot of the issue, clearly designed to be a tear-jerker. A child superhero dies after a long illness, Iron Fist finds his life force is corrupt and Power Man gets accused of murder. Any one of those things would be an earth-shattering development. But, three in one issue?! What great karmic wrong had my fourteen-year-old self done to visit this horror upon me?

Despite all of that, it actually was the farewell letter that got me welling up. I've long since lost my actual copy of the issue but seem to remember the letter being written by the editor. (Side note: PM/IF #125's never been reprinted and I had to download a pirate digital version to revisit my memories. So, yeah, insult to injury.) The signoff announced that #125 would be the last issue of PM/IF and lauded the talents of writer Jim Owsley, artist Mark Bright and all those who had come before them. No explanation was given for the sudden end. It seemed sudden to me, anyway. All I had left was a void, a broken ritual that I was hard-pressed to repair. Things were different in 1986. Comics fans had no Internet culture to deliver shipping changes, sales charts and industry gossip to them. You had no metrics to figure out how your favourite comic was doing. You couldn't prepare yourself for a favourite book's slow demise. You just made your pilgrimage to the local comic shop and hoped it was there.

Steel-Hard Skin

For me, that pilgrimage meant a lot. I'd had a long relationship with the two title characters. As one of a very few black superheroes, it was Power Man who drew me in. The loud-talking strongman's real name was Luke Cage and he got his powers in a prison science experiment, after being locked up after being accused of a crime he didn't commit.

Steel-Hard Skin

He was a character churned out to cash in on the 1970s blaxploitation craze and starred in a long-running series often populated with a wince-inducing parade of jive-talking stereotypes. Some years into his series' run, market forces threw him together with Iron Fist, a masked martial artist also known as Danny Rand. He was created to mine another 1970s fascination, that of the kung-fu movie. When both characters' books were flagging in sales, Marvel editorial saw fit to throw them together in a strange-bedfellows experiment that resulted in Power Man and Iron Fist.

All throughout the years that I was reading and buying the superhero buddy comic, something nagged at me. Some inscrutable change happened somewhere in the 100s. The adventures of the super-strong badass and the philosophical martial arts master moved along in a funkier, slightly satirical rhythm. The wonders of New York City pizza slices were extolled. Luke and Danny weren't in their costumes all the time. They wore street clothes with some style to them, clothes that I could look out of my window and see. Hell, clothes that I wanted. The Harlem Luke lived in didn't feel like someone was working off of a third-generation carbon copy of imagery from C-list blaxploitation movies. Somehow, a believable naturalism wove in echoes of the real world into Power Man and Iron Fist.

And the there was something more. It was the issue where, after a confrontation where he tries to cow someone, Luke thinks to himself "my loud angry Negro bit didn't phase him."

Steel-Hard Skin

That scene set off a chime in my head, accompanied by a series of aftershocks, like when microwave popcorn keeps popping in the bag after the heating cycle is done. That 'loud angry Negro" line had to be written by someone moved through the world like me, who had to modulate identity according to environment, circumstance and companions. Growing up in the suburbs of Long Island in the 1980 and being raised by a single mother, I continually had to prove and disprove my "blackness" to people. Could I breakdance? Drain a 3m jump shot? Did I own a microscope AND a chemistry set? Did I ever have a jheri curl? (Answers: No. Maybe 5% of the time. Yes and yes. Hellz to the no.)

The thought bubble sprang from my head, with such force that it must've been visible, like the ones Spider-Man had on The Electric Company: "If Luke Cage is saying stuff like that, then, then…there's gotta be black people working on this book."

Sure enough, there were. I found out later — the time and means are, again, long lost to me — Jim Owsley and M.D. Bright were both black men. And somehow, they managed to communicate the idea that identity is a construct. One that can be pragmatic, can be played with and can be collaborative.

The cross-class interracial friendship in PM/IF was important to me in my adolescence, growing up in the suburbs of Long Island and going to a Catholic, all-boys private school. I wasn't a street hustler like Luke Cage, but I was constantly reminded — by way of cruel stereotype-centered jokes and clique-driven exclusion — that I was different. An abnormal Other.

Steel-Hard Skin

Truth be told, I didn't understand my own blackness all that well. I didn't even understand why I should be offended by those watermelon-and-fried-chicken jokes. (Who didn't eat and enjoy those foods?!) My single mum grew up in poverty in Haiti but the Jewel of the Antilles wasn't exactly a place where white supremacy worked like it did in the U.S. She lacked the context to prepare me for operating in a world where I'd be a fly in the buttermilk.

Steel-Hard Skin

I remember one special assembly where a CEO-type alumni came back to my high school to instill some values into the hundreds of students there. The speech touched on the responsibilities held by gifted young men from blessed backgrounds such as ourselves, to be leaders in the world beyond high school. Not everyone gets such a chance. After all, the speaker noted gravely, three out of every four black men of college age wind up in prison. The school auditorium — where Mass was held for important Catholic feast days like Good Friday — erupted in laughter. Taken aback, the speaker (or was it one of the school administrators) chided my classmates and asked if that statistic was something to laugh about. I grimaced in agreement. Bad enough that these kids didn't know how good they had it, but worse still that they'd laugh at those less lucky than them. For the rest of the day, I sat as teacher gave identical scoldings to the kids who laughed without ever being asked about my own experience. A few teachers apologised to me while others reminded my peers how lucky I was to be this institution of learning, and that paternalistic attitude made bristle even more.

I didn't ask for the context being placed on me. Just because I was the only black person some of these students had seen outside of a TV screen, I was being made to embody every meme ever pinned onto an African-American. I should be able to dance, dunk a basketball or crack a joke just as easy as I could breathe.

Granted, I didn't have much of a sense of myself, but I knew for damn sure I wasn't going to be a stand-in for whatever distorted idea of black culture other people had.

Steel-Hard Skin

Then, I remembered Power Man. In issue #125, he was going to go down for the murder of his friend and partner Iron Fist. Cage may've been innocent of murder twice over but he'd been in jail. That technically made him an ex-con and claims of innocence weren't going to go over to well for him. The cops were going to railroad him and his resume as a hero and tenure as a staunch friend weren't going to help him. The cops, the D.A. and the district attorney had made up their minds who and what he was, and they were going to make him stick to the script.

No. Cage took another way. He punched out a wall and ran for his life, disappearing for an indiscriminate amount of time.

I wasn't going to explain the circumstances of my blackness to the other students at school. (Not that I could have, anyway.)

Cage taught me to build up the only strength a skinny beanpole kid like me could ever have. A strength of identity. A strength to stand resolute when others decided that I was something other than what I knew myself to be. I was still figuring out my voice but Cage's moments in issue #125 taught me not to let people dictate how authentic my truth was or wasn't.

"Sweet Christmas" was the jive-talk catchphrase pegged to Power Man ever since his early days as a sort of super-powered Shaft. It was meant to stand in for any number of saltier, real-world cusswords. But, in issue #125, Cage uttered it sadly, quietly, as testament to the strictures of the world he lived in. The issue changes up his status quo, with him being accused of his best friend's murder and back on the run. It's a plot twist that works as a metaphor, too, with Luke's sense of belonging cruelly revealed to have been only temporary. It's another thing I could relate to, on that day when casual insensitivity reminded me again how different I was from my classmates.

Years later, after I'd had my heart broken by women, jobs and the whims of the electoral college, PM/IF #125 still stayed with me. I'd bought it and lost a few times over, stung on each re-reading by how Cage's self-constructed persona mattered little to people who chose not to believe him. That final issue served as my first glimpse of the professional realities of comic-book publishing. There had to be a reason this comic was just being dissipated. When Christopher Priest (Jim Owsley. after a name change) started his own website, he offered up what the experience was like on his end.

There was some moaning up at the office about my handling of Luke Cage. 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."

On the cancellation of the book, he recalls:

The expedient thing to say is, Iron Fist's death wasn't my idea. 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 IF 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 MD "Doc" Bright. We were all pretty upset, but Denny was outraged. POWER MAN & 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. 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 IF'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.

Priest went on to do other work after Power Man and Iron Fist. I never did develop a "loud angry Negro bit," but I grew up anyway. Grew into myself and learned to observe, distill and write in a way that would become a career. Priest and other black comics writers who followed certainly sparked that idea in my head. They gave me my superpowers and showed me how I could use them for good.

You know, Marvel held true to the bombast of that cover text. There wasn't another issue of a comic called Power Man and Iron Fist for 25 years. But, Luke Cage got past that moment where it didn't know what his future looked like. He's got a wife and a little girl now. Funnily enough, so do I. There's a new Power Man and Iron Fist comic, too, with a young kid taking up the name once used by Cage. Victor Alvarez is an altogether different type of urban character, both in powers and perspective.

He can control life energy around him and use it to be a super-combatant. The new Power Man's more savvy about the world around him and more sarcastic, too. Iron Fist plays the role of mentor and Power Man 2.0 has a lot to learn. He quite doesn't have steel-hard skin but, then again, he probably doesn't need to. It's a different time now and he can be a different kind of Power Man.


    Fantastic article!

    It's refreshing to find something written with actual structure and intent on the internet.

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