People talk about how bad the comics of the '90s were. But, after actually revisiting some of the storylines from two decades ago, they're even worse than I remembered. Exhibit A: a crossover between Luke Cage, mercenary Silver Sable and an antihero who used other people's body parts against a hellbeast with the power to make people super-randy. A new collection of Luke Cage comics came out last week. Bundling and re-releasing back-catalogue series like this is something that Marvel and other publishers do a lot when there's a big film or TV adaptation coming down the pike. The only problem with the Luke Cage: Second Chances collection is that it's not very good.
As a big fan of the character, I read the 1992 Cage series when it was coming out. My excitement then came from seeing the character return after the shocking end of his previous series. Cage set up the super-strong hero with a new status quo: having relocated to Chicago, his crimefighting operations would be sponsored by a newspaper that would get exclusive stories based on Cage's exploits. While I liked the basic premise, Cage felt like it was trying too hard to feel like a hip-hop superhero book, and it lacked the banter and cross-cultural energy that made Power Man & Iron Fist so enjoyable. But I kept reading Cage out of devotion to the character, even if I wasn't that jazzed by the series.
A big chunk of the new Cage collection features a storyline so terrible that I'm only now realising that I must have buried it deep in my subconscious. For Love Nor Money was a crossover between three mid-tier Marvel titles starring Cage, Silver Sable and Terror.
Silver Sable is a character who was hot for about 120 seconds in the 1990s, a sexy paramilitary operative who moved through her adventures with a blend of sexed-up tough gal grit and warmed-over James Bond tropes. Her status as leader of a global mercenary conglomerate and the ethical tension that separated her from other non-paid superheroes was occasionally interesting. Nowadays, her series feels like a relic of an oversaturated market. Terror, Inc. feels the same, premised on a lead character who dismembered random strangers in cold blood to use their body parts and inherent skills to complete missions for clients. His snobby affect came from the popularity of conspicuous consumption TV shows like Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous and used as a counterpoint for a superpower gimmick that had its roots in gross-out horror.
The plot of For Love Nor Money put the lead characters of Cage, Silver Sable and the Wild Pack and Terror, Inc. on the hunt for three rare artefacts. None of the heroes knew that they'd been hired by the same entity, a minor demon named Priapus who has some vague plan to wake up an ages-old demon called the Carnal Serpent.
Terror steals the other two pieces from Cage and Sable and the adventure becomes a rolling brawl with the characters fighting, double-crossing and teaming up for a bad-guy showdown over its six parts. With personalities ripe for dynamic clashing and three leads who all did superhero stuff for money, you can see where a crossover might have strong thematic potential. But the dialogue and art on display here is pretty bad. I remember liking Terror, Inc. when it was coming out and re-reading the series in this collection reminds me why, as writer D.G. Chichester had occasional standout moments of sardonic dark humour with his freakshow hero. But all of this material is way too overwritten, with pages choked with flabby dialogue and boring exposition over art that never rises above being merely competent and workman-like.
The worst of it, though, is in the softcore porn entendres that pop up in the crossover, which feels like an excuse for Marvel editorial to attempt to titillate desperate readers.
Priapus' powers basically seem like he can make people irresistibly horny and overwhelm them with desire. When he double-crosses Cage and Sable, he pretty much takes them out of action with super-orgasms.
Later, he torments all three heroes with murderous phantoms drawn from their hidden feelings. Cage fights off a version of an ex-girlfriend while Sable gets Sandman, because the Spidey villain had gone straight. Terror gets the most fetishy creeps to fend off, culled from the body parts he ripped off people: a leather-boy construction worker and a woman who got off on being Little Bo Peep.
At one point, Priapus makes a group of monks stop being celibate for under-explained reasons. Overall his plot never makes any sense and he get foiled in an awful demon ex machina finale that makes the whole crossover feel extra worthless. The clumsy use of sexual subtext, shallow character development and outlandish scriptwork in For Love Nor Money puts so much of the worst characteristics of 1990s superhero content on display. It may be hard to believe that things have gotten better in mainstream comics, but they have.