One last thing I need to talk about. Tomorrow's going to be a wrap-up, but there's one topic which I haven't raised yet, but which I mentioned back on Day One. I've talked a lot about my favourite comics, inasmuch as I've banged on a bit about Runaways and New Warriors and Sergeant Fury etc. I've not talked about my all-time number one comics fanboy fave, though, although if you know me at all you've probably got a good idea of what it is.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Marvel loved to just grab onto passing fads and turn them into comic books. Disco hitting big? Why not create a disco superheroine, in the form of Dazzler? Evel Knievel and stunt-biking getting kids excited? Maybe you should make a biker superhero, Marvel! Then thirty years later, Nicolas Cage can star in a really dreadful film about him. Star Wars hit big? Maybe you'd better come up with Star Lord, guys! Two of the big cinema crazes of the '70s were by no means exempt from this magpie appropriation, and Marvel was quick to cotton on to them.
Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Melvin Van Peebles, Ron O'Neal and others were leading lights in the world of blaxploitation movies, which had a definite cool cachet. Marvel's answer to characters like Shaft was the tiara-wearing muscleman Luke Cage, who had been framed for a drug crime he didn't commit and sent to prison. There he volunteered for an experimental procedure which granted him super-strength and bulletproof skin, and he subsequently escaped from jail and set up shop above a cinema in New York's Times Square, offering his services as a 'Hero for Hire'. Cage was almost a parody of the heroes of the movies he was designed to cash in on, and his euphemistic battlecry of "Sweet Christmas!" and his open-to-the-navel yellow shirt placed him squarely between traditional superheroes and the truer tropes of blaxploitation. He was the first black hero to star in an eponymous solo series (first known as Hero for Hire and then Luke Cage, Power Man), and although his rogues' gallery may have been pimptastic and some issues may have struggled under the purple prose of Don McGregor, on the whole it's a distinctly funky book.
At around the same time, the other big cinematic cult following belonged to kung fu and martial arts movies, particularly those starring Bruce Lee. Marvel already had Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu as their approximation of Lee, but the TV show Kung Fu had given the world the pyjama-wearing Kwai Chang Caine, and Marvel were quite happy to double-dip. Thus Marvel Premiere #15 saw the first appearance of Daniel Rand, the Iron Fist. Danny was an orphan whose parents had been murdered before his eyes while on a trip to Tibet. Danny found his way into the legendary city of K'un-L'un (a sort of Brigadoon full of kung fu religious order sensei types). Honing his skills over the years, the adult Danny eventually fought and defeated a dragon by the name of Shou-Lau the Undying, and gained both a funky tattoo on his chest and the ability to channel his mental and spiritual energy into a thunderously powerful punch from which he took his superheroic moniker - the Iron Fist.
Alas, no fad lasts forever, and the Power Man series and the Iron Fist series were both scheduled to be cancelled. Marvel instead took the opportunity to merge the two titles (retitling Cage's book), and team the characters up. It shouldn't have worked, but it did.
Power Man and Iron Fist have since become one of the B-list keystones of the Marvel Universe. It's the classic buddy movie scenario - Cage is a black guy who came from a disadvantaged background, and who has a criminal record. Rand is a blond, white fella with an inherited fortune who's appropriated aspects of an Asian culture. Their natural antagonism made for great stories - it should go without saying that the first time they met, they fought before they teamed up. They weren't always in synch agenda-wise after that, either, but their mismatched fighting styles and personalities meant that Marvel had, quite by accident, created a classic pairing.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, Power Man and Iron Fist remained a mainstay of Marvel's publishing schedule, with a dedicated fanbase for what was, to be honest, a very strange concept. The creative teams read like a who's who of great classic creators of the period - writers on the title included Chris Claremont, Denny O'Neil, Archie Goodwin, Christopher Priest and a very young Kurt Busiek, and the roster of artists is equally impressive, with such greats as Dave Cockrum, Frank Miller and Denys Cowan taking their turns to lay down some pencils. Alas, everything good has to end, and in 1986 the book was cancelled in order to free up space and talent to work on the incoming New Universe books. The final issue was #125, and in a shock ending, Iron Fist was apparently killed, with Cage being framed for the murder.
You can't keep a good team down, though. The characters lay fallow for a few years, but in the early 1990s Cage was granted his own series again. Ditching both the Power Man name and the vest/tiara/chain belt combo, the book saw Cage relocating to Chicago to start over. It wasn't terribly good (and that's being charitable), and was cancelled after 20 issues. Crucially, though, at around this time John Byrne was the writer of the then-current Namor book, and as he had been one of the first people ever to work on Iron Fist, he felt some understandable attachment to him. He wrote a series of Namor stories which brought Rand back, and crafted a needlessly complicated story involving alien doppelgangers to explain why ol' Danny wasn't really dead. Even though it was a bit of a round the houses, left at the traffic lights kind of solution, it did mean that for the first time in six years both Iron Fist and Luke Cage were alive and active in the Marvel Universe.
It took until 1997 to get them back together in their own ongoing series, the self-explanatorily titled Heroes for Hire, by John Ostrander and Pascual Ferry. This was, quite honestly, a cracking little book, and the fact that it only lasted for 19 issues was criminal. Unfortunately, at the time of publication Marvel were in severe financial dire straits, and although Heroes for Hire was making a profit, it evidently wasn't making enough of a profit to justify its existence. Since then, Cage has starred in his own (pretty racist) miniseries, which turned him into a severely stereotypical gangsta thug, and Iron Fist had a couple of late-1990s miniseres himself, followed by an abortive six-issue (theoretically) ongoing in 2004. It was all looking a bit poor for our heroes, with nobody really fond enough of the pair to want to do anything significant with them.
Enter Brian Michael Bendis. At this point, Bendis was the biggest writer at Marvel, and was able to throw his weight around in whatever direction he wished. Fortuitously, it seems that Bendis is a bit of a Cage/Rand fanboy, and inserted either or both characters wherever he could - Alias, Daredevil, Secret War, you name it, they were there. They've just hit the zenith of their personal success, both currently being members of Marvel's biggest-name superteam, the New Avengers, of which Cage is currently the leader. At the same time, Danny's been given his own ongoing book again, by hot-property writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction and artist David Aja (with guest pages by the legendary Russ Heath), and there have been rumblings about a new ongoing starring Luke.
So why is it that they're so great, then? Specifically, why do I love them so much? I think it's because they're so completely chalk and cheese that their bizarre pairing leads to great banter between them, and the fact that they've always been shown as being real friends, bickering just as often as bonding, falling out and falling in, getting each other's backs up and getting each other's backs. Add the fact that they've got a pair of pretty funky costumes (even though Cage hasn't worn the yellow in years) and their demented collection of villains, and you've got a rare thing: a cash-in that outlived the fad that birthed it.
Tomorrow: one hundred days. What have we learned?