Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Many Foes of Luke Cage, Power Man (Part 1)

That is a really sweet-ass snakeskin onesie.
He’s no Batman or Barry Allen, but Luke Cage – the former Power Man – has as weird and varied a rogues gallery as either hero on his best (and weirdest) day. Enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the mainstream Marvel universe – along with no small number of his fellow Bronze Age graduates from Moon Knight to Misty Knight, Paladin to Iron Fist and Ms.Marvel to Spider-Woman, to name a very few – Luke Cage is in the readers spotlight in a way he’s never been before.

As a kid, Power Man and Iron Fist was one of my favorite books, largely for its incongruous action heroes and breezy, chummy supporting cast. In retrospect, the stories weren’t exactly the best comics had to offer, but they did send me scrabbling back to find the individual issues of its predecessor titles.

Even having had an opportunity to gather under the banner of The Flashmob, most of Luke Cage’s really insane and pretty offensive villains are nonetheless relegated to the wastebin of history. With that in mind, let me take you on a meet-and-greet of the grittiest street-level cats the 1970s had to offer.

One'a these days, bang-zoom!
#1 The Great Entertainer Jackie Gleason as Rackham, the Racist Prison Guard.
Cage’s rise from framed jailbird to super-blaxploitation poster child came by way of Rackham, the former captain of the guards at the penitentiary where Cage was interred and where a secret experiment gifted him with the super-strength and bullet-proof skin he utilized as a crime fighter. You can recognize Rackham from a distance by the pervading smell of pork chops and a speech defect which requires every sentence he speaks to end with the word “boy”.

Although starting off as a fairly by-the-book racist prison guard – you can pick up a half-dozen of them for ten bucks at any prison movie stock character shop – and having lost his position of corrupt power thanks to Cage, Rackham returned to plague Power Man again. Rackham’s even responsible for a storyline featuring two of Cage’s former cellmates donning cheap costume shop leftovers and turning to something resembling super-crime. So. He’s got staying power, just like the Silly Putty he so resembled.

If you had to compare Rackham to any other classic Rogues Gallery villain from one of the mainstream heroes, he’s probably most like Clayface, if just because he’s such a big, doughy load of chicken fat. Actually, let me write that one down for a Yiddish Batman parody – the villains known as SCHMALTZMANN aw you know what I’m already bored with that.

That expression conveys all the emotion of
suddenly reconsidering one's decision to load
the handles of one's knives up with napalm.
#2 Your 2001 World Series Champ – DIAMONDBACK!
Willis Stryker was a former running buddy of Luke Cage’s – back before Power Man picked up the sobriquet, sweet threads and Hero for Hire gimmick – and, in fact, was the guy who framed Cage and sent him to jail. Motive! Someone’s got it!

Stryker goes on to build a seriously fuckin’ pennyante criminal empire using the awesome super-villain name Diamondback, and maybe one of the most hilarious gimmicks any weapon-based super-character has thought to have: Knives, but with GAS CARTRIDGES IN THE HANDLES. So he can throw a knife at you – and to be fair, he’s quite good at that – and then when the knife is sticking in the wall behind you, poison gas or knockout gas or fart spray or PAM can spray out all over you, messing you up. As an aside, sticking someone with a knife will also mess them up, gas cartridge or no.

Back when I was younger: I never read Captain America, but was always dimly aware that there was a character named Diamondback (and Cottonmouth, more on that later) over in Cap’s book, and I sort of blithely assumed it was the same character. And then I heard that Cap was fuckin’ Diamondback, and HO HO, boy, superhero comics sure got daring when I wasn’t looking.

Anyway, Diamondback made for an appropriate foe for Luke Cage, and cut a pretty sweet figure in his snakeskin onesie, but his story is cut fairly short on accounta he threw some of his knives right straight up in the air over his head and … well, they came down. GAS CARTRIDGE BOOM and goodbye Diamondback. To that end, the classic mainstream Rogue he most resembles is … I dunno, Kraven by way of Kingpin and an inner ear disorder, or Captain Cold if Captain Cold’s main gimmick was to shot himself in the face with his cold gun and get killed doing that.

Vietnam vet and asymmetrical muscle development aficionado Gideon (are you fuckin’ serious?) Mace made up Cage’s third-ever villain as an attention-hungry paramilitary psychopath with a spiky iron basketball for a shifting hand.
Look out Ba-Low!

Mace’s gimmick involved organizing a militia to violently take over Manhattan island, as a wake-up call to a ‘soft’ nation who’d disrespected their soldiers and were growing complacent in the face of corruption. So. He’s a Tea Partier, with a metal hedgehog where his tiny American flag is supposed to sit.

He actually proves to be one of Cage’s most ardent foes, and even gets upgraded to a fight with Spider-Man. He eventually gets his funding and organization together enough to create “Security City”, a seemingly idyllic throwback to 1950s Americana which was effectively a repressive prison where nonconformists were brutally punished. Like they were in 1950, actually. So, bravo for his superb vision.

Mace eventually upgrades his mace-hand to fire from his arm like a cannonball, an inspired bit of engineering in a world where Newton never got around to writing a third law. Firing a gigantic iron weight from your arm stump seems like a good way to guarantee ending up with a mace attached to one’s shattered shoulder-stump. Also, how lucky was Gideon Mace that, when he needed to replace his hand, he could draw on his own surname for inspiration? Imagine if his name were Evergreen? Cotton? What about Hogg? Oh, how I wish it had been Hogg.

The classic mainstream Rogue he most resembles? Brainiac, if Brainiac had been more concerned with building life-size cities instead of stealing miniature ones and also if Brainiac had been named Maceiac and also if he was kind of an idiot.

I got nothing.
#4 How do you get to The Phantom of 42nd Street ? Practice.
Possibly one of my favorite throwaway villains ever, because the Phantom of 42nd Street was two guys. “How do you mean, Humble Editor?” I can hear you asking. “Did they take turns disguising themselves as a single villain in order to provide alibis for their criminal activities? Were they competitors trying to lay claim to a single gimmick, or to take mutual advantage of a rumored menace?” Well, no, try this on: It was one guy sitting on another guy’s shoulders wearing a robe.

That’s right, the same gimmick the Little Rascals would use to try to sneak into a fancy restaurant or the way the Peanuts gang might try sneaking into a Triple-X movie theater – sitting on each other’s shoulders and wearing their dad’s coat and hat.

I don’t even know how that counts as – what, a power? A weapon? Being tall isn’t a super-power, unless you’re, say, twenty-five feet tall. A dwarf on a normal guy’s shoulders is just a guy who can see how dusty the top of the refrigerator is and has to duck when going from room to room. What in the world is their strategy in case of a fist-fight? “When he hits what he thinks is our solar plexus, he’ll just be punching you in the face, and then your head will snap back and crack me in the nuts! BRILLIANT!”

Mainstream Rogue he most resembles: Batman’s foes Scarface and The Ventriloquist, if they could take a moment to come up with an even dumber gimmick that leaves them open for more face-punching.

If this WERE a Martin Lawrence film, then this
moment would be accompanied by a fart sound.
#5 Diary of a Mad Black Fat Woman
Rounding out – literally, ho ho ho – the first installment of this feature is the incredibly embarrassing and … and just so Steve Engleharty villainess, Black Mariah! Talking like a slightly brain-damaged Moms Mabley and looking like King Kong Bundy standing in for Martin Lawrence, Black Mariah runs a scam ambulance service which collects wealthy dead people (when they happen to drop dead in public – no joke, that’s part of their strategy) and then strips them of their cash money and house keys, so they can break in and steal they shit. And this is a PROFITABLE BUSINESS SOMEHOW.

And just in case you didn’t think this character had legs – well, obviously she does, they’re the girth of tree trunks and have their own double-chins. If you didn’t think she had staying power, though, think again – she came back! At one point, she had knitting needles with poison tips, which must have been a downer for her nephews when their Christmas sweaters arrived with curare smeared all over them. She should have stuck gas cartridges in the handles.

Rogue she most resembles: Catwoman, after swallowing a Golden Corral buffet line whole.

Stay tuned for The Many Foes of Luke Cage Parts 2 through however many there are, I haven't counted yet...

Sometimes comics in the Seventies got really
Inside Baseball ...


Kazekage said...

I'm gonna take a guess and say that Chemistro (so evil he alchemy'd his own foot off!) and that Cockroach Hamilton will stand up and be counted for Part 2.

Calamity Jon said...

You're gonna have to wait and see! I will tell you that Mr.Fish is on his way, whether or not anyone laughs at him.

-Your Humble Editor

Casanova Frankenstein said...

Brilliant as usual, Jon. I never read much Luke Cage myself. In the 70's I avoided the black characters. Too much shuck-and-jive and too much of a rushed pop-commodity. In my old-age however I can look back and not take it personally.

Unknown said...

I'm doing a series of liveblogs about the Marvel Noir books, and thanks to this I finally know who currupt cop Officer Rachman from Luke Cage Noir is supposed to be. So, like thanks I guess.

Flossin said...

Great post! Some good laughs here for sure. Can't wait for the next installment, this is a great blog.

Diabolu Frank said...

I was laughing out loud with tears in my eyes. This is rare. You are good.

Unknown said...

Awesome article! I'm like Jesus some of those 70's comic book villains were beyond lame. A fat chick that steals dead rich folks bodies? Two guys that walk around on each others shoulders? -ctfu

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