After learning I wouldn't feel comfortable reviewing comics and collections featuring my stories, Tony Isabella Message Board moderator DON HILLIARD offered to critique Marvel's ESSENTIAL LUKE CAGE for me. Here's his review.
"He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks -- that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness." - Raymond Chandler
I never saw LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE/POWER MAN on the spinners when I was a kid, though I was reading comics at least midway through the book's original run. Simply put, I grew up in a county where the African-American population was probably 1% or less; the various stores in town which stocked comics didn't bother stocking more than one copy of POWER MAN, if that.
So, wanting to see what I'd missed, I picked up THE ESSENTIAL LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN (Marvel, $16.99) last week. Slightly fatter and $2.00 more than the usual Essentials volume, the book collects the first 27 issues of the title (which ran up to #49 before merging with IRON FIST).
The basic concept, obviously, was a black superhero in the style of the then-popular SHAFT (and his less-mainstream but still profitable imitators), and Cage's creators started him off in a well-developed book. Where Marvel's other black superhero, the Black Panther, was royalty (and generally treated as such), Cage was a reformed thug who frequently won his physical battles but simultaneously lost more of his scanty store of peace and security, a rough and somewhat mercenary man who would nonetheless do the right thing when it came to a crunch.
This is well-established in the two-issue origin and its follow up, but the series' editorial compass starts drifting almost immediately after these two stories. Rather than keeping the stories "on the street," initial writer Archie Goodwin and his successor Steve Englehart all too frequently wander off into boilerplate plots in which bargain-basement costumed villains are introduced and promptly dispatched - often fatally - within one issue; these are broken up by the occasional "mystery" story better suited to four teens and a talking Great Dane. Characterization is generally confined strictly to the subplots, which provide the most interesting parts of the series by far, making the pedestrian primary stories that much more frustrating.
There are excellent exceptions, though. One high point of the earlier issues is a two-parter in which Cage is hired - initially unknowingly - by Doctor Doom. Though with serious misgivings once he discovers his employer's identity, Cage completes the job...and ultimately dogs the dictator all the way back to Latveria when Doom stiffs him for his $200 fee. It's the best Englehart story in the collection, and mostly makes up for his cringe-worthy debut tale, "Don't Mess With Black Mariah!". (The titular villain - a grossly fat, buck-toothed momma with a minstrel-show accent - is easily the most embarrassing thing in the series.)
Englehart's run is capped off by a three-parter that brings almost all the subplots to a head at once, and a new guy named Tony Isabella handles the final two parts of the three. It comes off pretty well, although I got the impression that one or more plot changes were made midstream. Len Wein takes over for three issues and the title change to POWER MAN - again with Z-grade villains and predictable plots - and then that Isabella guy's back again. Tony goes far more for character-driven stories and injects a bit more social commentary into the series, with "The Broadway Mayhem of 1974" (pitting Cage against a pair of arrogant and self-righteous vigilantes) and the very Kirbyesque "Welcome To Security City" (taking a body shot at suburban paranoia). The best of his run, though, has to be "The Killer With My Name!", in which the original (villainous) Power Man invades Cage's 'hood to get back his name and his rep. I don't normally go for stories that are one long fight scene - and this one mostly is - but it's the first story in the series to address a subtext that had been present all along: that Cage is a violent man with a lot of gentle people around him, and his violence is not an end unto itself, but a means for their protection. The same emphasis on character continues for the rest of Tony's run on the book, but when he departs for DC the stories go back to largely plot-driven stuff from Englehart and Bill Mantlo.
The majority of the art is by George Tuska, initially inked by Billy Graham (with several solo pieces by Graham which give an intriguing record of his progression as an artist: his initial work has a rough, half-finished look to it, but his later issues are clean and beautifully detailed); the first team gradually moves on, with Vince Colletta replacing Graham as primary inker and Ron Wilson taking over for Tuska during most of Tony's run. (Wilson's first issue - the aforementioned Power-Man-vs.-Power-Man story - looks to have been done over Gil Kane layouts for both cover and interior art, though Kane isn't credited anywhere on that issue.) The final story is notable as a very early solo piece by George Perez.
If I'm authorized to hand out floating Tony heads here, I'll give ESSENTIAL POWER MAN three of 'em. Had the individual issues ever made it to that spinner at the Fair Oaks Pharmacy thirty years ago, I might have been a regular reader...but it would really have depended on which issue I picked up first, and a second ESSENTIALS volume (if Marvel releases one) will get a close look in the comics shop before I buy it. The book had great potential, but I don't think it lived up to it nearly often enough.
Let's start with a big "thanks" to Don for writing my column for me today. I also have this fence that needs to be painted if he wants to spend some time in Medina.
Don has a pretty sharp eye when it comes to the Ron Wilson art for "The Killer With My Name," but he misses the mark identifying the influence as Gil Kane. Back then, John Romita Sr. was working with Ron to develop the guy's obvious talents. Kind of like Yoda but with better grammar and fewer wrinkles. I don't believe John did any of the interior layouts - he might have done a quick layout for the cover - but it would not surprise me to learn Ron went over his layouts with John before turning in his pencilled pages. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a Romita influence the ever-observant Hilliard spotted.
Speaking of Ron Wilson...does anyone reading this have contact information for him? He was a terrific artist to work with - clear layouts and a sense of power like nobody's business - and he should still be drawing comic books. I wish I had could hand him a script today, but I'll settle for catching up with him.
Speaking of guest reviews...if anyone out there wants to take a shot at reviewing other recent Marvel collections which have Tony Isabella stories in them, the door is definitely open. Just e-mail me first to make sure no other guest reviewer has dibs on the book you want to review.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I have three more columns until my April 21-25 vacation and I hope to pack them with news and views, reviews and recommendations. In other words, I'll be back soon with more stuff.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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