Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Power Man and Iron Fist

(or "No, You Got Your Martial Artist In My Blaxploitation Comic!")

As we've looked at a variety of different storytelling engines over the last several weeks in this series, we've come to be a bit familiar with some of them. (Or, at least, I hope you have. I have no doubt that I care about this stuff more than many of the members of my audience.) Thus, when I bring up the two storytelling engines that comprised the 'Power Man' and 'Iron Fist' stati quo, I feel reasonably confident that regular readers of this column will recognize them. But I bring them up because I think that they both received a treatment that is virtually unprecedented in comics--they got mooshed together.

'Power Man' was, of course, another Marvel pop-culture comic, cashing in on the 70s "blaxploitation" trend with the story of a hard-luck black hero who gained super-powers while in prison for a crime he didn't commit, escaped, and set himself up as a private detective/bodyguard for people who needed a little more help than the law could give. It's a solid set-up that gave the comic legs long after the blaxploitation trend faded, and various writers like Archie Goodwin, Marv Wolfman, Steve Englehart, and Bill Mantlo gave him a fun supporting cast (although his rogue's gallery was never anything to write home about. "Senor Muerte" was the best of the lot, and he died his first time out.)

'Iron Fist', meanwhile, was another one of Roy Thomas' pulp-inspired heroes, this one a martial artist who seeks vengeance for the death of his father after spending ten years training in a Shangri-La-esque kingdom called K'Un L'Un. It probably also qualifies as a pop-culture comic, coming as it did right around the middle of the big 70s kung-fu craze, but despite featuring some excellent writing by Chris Claremont and art by John Byrne, the series never caught on and was cancelled after only fifteen issues.

But as we (again, may or may not) all remember from our discussion of Ms. Marvel, Chris Claremont had a habit (sometimes good, sometimes bad) of bringing back characters and plotlines from cancelled series. So when he was assigned the job of writing 'Power Man', immediately after the cancellation of 'Iron Fist', well...he decided to fold the character of Iron Fist right into the 'Power Man' series. The two of them simply met, and after the traditional super-hero fight, teamed up to battle with their common enemy...and just kept hanging out together. (Which, on thinking about it, more super-heroes should do. "We make a great team!" "Yeah! Now let's go our separate ways forever!")

What's surprising is that the two storytelling engines needed so little modification to fit together. Iron Fist was already at a loose end after the defeat of the man who killed his father (and the organization that employed that man, and the ninja demon they were looking for, and...revenge quests in comics are never simple), so he simply joined Luke Cage's "Heroes For Hire" agency. Cage, apart from adjusting to a partner, needed no changes at all. Despite the immense disparity in their characters and origins, the storytelling engines meshed perfectly. In fact, the series lasted another 100 issues as 'Power Man and Iron Fist' (sadly awaiting collection by Marvel), and even today, both characters continue to operate as members of the New Avengers, a series written by Brian Michael Bendis, who continues Claremont's tradition of looking to the past for characters that still have life in them.

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