power man & iron fist

The larger body of work in comics is written by whites, and the larger body of African-American characters bear not much resemblance to any real black culture. It seems to be what white people think black people are like. An almost invented culture, an RPG universe subset called Black People, with a list of rules and hair styles and speech patterns invented for the game but bearing little resemblance to any actual culture.

Power Man & Iron Fist was the first ongoing series I was assigned to. Marvel EIC Jim Shooter had been working with me on a few things, and Jim may have felt a regular series would be good training. In one of the more awkward moments of a long history of awkward moments, Jim took me down the hall to Editor Denny O'Neil, rapped on the door frame and said, "Meet your new Power/Fist writer." That was, pretty much, how things were done in those days.

POWER/FIST had had its ups and downs since its heyday, the critically acclaimed run by Jo Duffy and Kerry Gammill. I had no idea whether Denny was looking for a new writer (I believe Kurt Busiek and, occasionally, Tony Isabella, were writing the book at the time). I had no idea what Denny's plans were or what his vision for the book was. Denny did not ask me to come aboard, so I likely began P/F with a George Dubya-sized cloud over my head as the writer imposed on the editor, and I doubtless threw Kurt or Tony out of work.

Early on, I worked with artist Greg LaRocque, who was also the artist on MARVEL TEAM-UP and another book I can't remember. Yes, Greg was drawing three monthly titles and, I believe, his work was suffering from it. Greg and I were not gelling into a good team, so the decision was made early on to replace Greg (cutting him to two monthly books!) with artist MD "Doc" Bright. Doc and I had collaborated successfully on THE FALCON Limited Series, and I was eager to work with him again. Once Doc came on board, the book really came together.

POWER/FIST is, likely, the most popular work of my career, The run is remembered fondly for the bickering salt and pepper buddy team of Luke Cage, a hardened, streetwise hustler, and millionaire Daniel Rand, a highly educated, refined, philosophical type raised in the fantasy realm of K'un L'un. The chemistry between them made for great opportunities in dialog and plot, and reenergized the book in the fan community.

There was some moaning up at the office about my handling of Luke Cage. Doc and I toned Cage down a bit from the very loud, histrionic hair-trigger Hulk Smash guy, and gave him a wider vocabulary. As a result, I was told, by several Marvel staffers at the time, that I write, "lousy black dialogue," and some even joked that I wasn't "really black" because none of my black characters "sounded black."



I can't speak to the motives of the white writers who've handled Cage in the heady blaxploitation days of the early 1970's, but, as a reader, most of that work seemed disingenuous, having not much in the way of anything that was true to my experience as a black youth in America. The larger body of work in mainstream super-hero comics is written by whites, and the larger body of African or African-American characters bear not much resemblance to any real black culture. A great deal of it is an appropriation of black culture and voice; it seems to be what white people think black people are. It's more amusing than offensive, but, taken at face value, black society in comic books seems an almost invented culture, as made up as Smallville or the Legion of Super-Heroes' headquarters, sewn together by glimpses of television shows or movies. Black culture as represented by Sherman Helmsley or Jimmy Walker or Richard Roundtree. It's an RPG universe subset Black People, with a list of rules and hair styles and speech patterns, invented for the game, but bearing little resemblance to any actual culture.

I think what truly annoys me is that this still goes on. Before I write Ultron, I ask half a dozen people for as much info as I can get on the character, so I can be as accurate as I can about it. But, when many white writers attempt to write black culture, something I would imagine carries a bit more social risk than, say, Ultron, it seems as if few inquiries are made, and the research may begin and end with glimpses of BET.

I certainly believe white writers can write black characters. I think it works much better when they stop writing black characters, and just write characters, imbuing them with as much energy and verve as they do white characters, and don't worry about appropriating a "black voice" or the RPG universe subset of attributes. Just relax and have fun and don't worry about that other stuff.

Conversely, I've had to learn to write white characters, like Iron Fist or Batman, from the very beginning. Learning to articulate the English language, to speak "properly" and, as I've been accused, to "sound white," to be an astute social observer, is a job skill for African Americans. Blacks who cling to the idea that improper English is somehow a cultural icon are deluding themselves. The only way I'd ever get a job beyond the local 7-Eleven is to learn to relate to whites and learn to speak to them articulately and calmly, eschewing the hair-trigger histrionics that are a staple of our race in this country; the undercurrent of violence, anger and resentment that informs most every conversation, debate, or artistic expression. The Sherman Helmsley/Luke Cage vision of Black America.

To be fair, we're surrounded by white culture, the majority culture in this country. It's much easier for an African-American to learn about and mimic a white voice and a "mainstream" culture than it is for whites to learn ours. But the comic industry has traditionally been staffed by people used to seeing life through an RPG universe rules subset; people who see heroes and villains and absolute notions of right and wrong. They tend to approach most everything in their lives this way, which explains the high divorce rate in the industry, and the high turnover rate at the offices. And many may perhaps feel it's sufficient to simply bear in mind The Black People Rules rather than to possibly offend someone or embarrass themselves by picking up the phone and calling someone like me and simply asking me questions relevant to the work they're doing. In 22 years in this business, I've received less than a dozen of those calls, but I certainly respect those callers, those writers who cared enough to risk embarrassing themselves with me rather than embarrassing themselves with the thousands of black readers they disenfranchise and strip of their dignity by reducing their culture to an index card list of rules.

I was pretty happy with the entire run of POWER FIST. Doc and I had a lot of fun, without deliberately trying to make any "statements" about race. About the biggest "statement" we made was getting rid of Misty Knight's afro, which annoyed some at Marvel so much they inexplicably returned her to the afro after we left— ignoring the fact black people, by and large, do not wear afros anymore.

In issue #118, we got away with titling a story, "What's Eating Colleen...?" dealing with Knight's detective agency partner, Colleen Wing, and beginning my long fascination with dysfunctional, imperfect women. Comics have traditionally portrayed women as generic extensions of the male characters in the book.  Industry legend Chris Claremont started breaking those rules early on, and created a fascinating, multi-faceted string of female characters in the early 80's that showed women could have more dynamic range in this genre. I actually don't remember what was eating Colleen, although whatever it was led to our big epic, "Daughter of the Dragon King," where we trashed K'un L'un and turned Iron Fist evil (blatantly ripping off Claremont's own Dark Phoenix).

Months later, we dealt with super-hero infidelity as Danny's longtime girlfriend Misty Knight became involved with the enigmatic Tyrone King. King, who seemed impervious to harm, favored the night, cast no reflection and had no shadow, was not a vampire.  Doc wanted to make everyone think King was a vampire, but he wasn't. 13 years later, I don't remember who King was, but he wasn't Master Khan, Iron Fist's nemesis, as revealed in the pages of NAMOR (with my blessing, BTW; John Byrne called and discussed this with me beforehand). Incidentally, we spent many a cheery afternoon whiting out shadows and reflections our eager an headstrong inker put in, arrogantly "fixing" Bright's obviously shabby work. If Tyrone ever cast a shadow or a reflection, it was because the inker put it in.

In #122's "What's Eating Misty...?" Doc revisualized Misty Knight, doing a terrific likeness of one of Shooter's secretaries, but the work was continually butchered by an over-eager and arrogant inker who loathed creative direction, whined incessantly about not being offered other work, and continually experimented on Doc's gorgeous work. In fact, I think the biggest weight on the run was the inker. Not his work so much as his attitude and his seeming disregard for Doc's pencils, which were routinely obliterated by his heavy-handed experimentation.

Issue #122 is also ground-breaking in that, here Cage admits his "loud angry Negro" routine is a put-on something many whites do not realize. Many whites are shocked to see Queen Latifa or Usher or the late Tupac Shakur in film or on television shows speaking in complete sentences with a calm, even voice. It seems many whites don't realize the gregarious street voice is something we can turn on and off.

This is a concept I explored briefly in THE FALCON limited series, but it was too subtle. No one seemed to notice The Falcon spoke to whites in a fairly straight-ahead speech pattern, but turned on the "street talk" when he needed to communicate to the gang leaders. During that project, I was accused by Marvel staffers of writing, "bad black dialogue" and of being "too white" to write black people in comics because I didn't write The Falcon hip enough. The Falcon, in his civilian identity, was a social worker, which meant, at minimum, he had a masters in social work, a degree he could hardly attain without having taken at least remedial English. It seemed unlikely this person would or could ever have been "Snap" Wilson, an ill-advised re-direct of the character's previous history that changed him into a pimp ("racketeer" in the comics, but he was clearly a pimp), a career path no man with a masters in social work is likely to take. I'm assuming someone thought Falcon needed a grittier and more street-wise backstory, one that would have forged a more direct connection between him and the Harlem gangsters— of ever more gregarious and insane campy font— he batted in the pages of CAPTAIN AMERICA.

I rush to add I doubt any of that was done with any other agenda in mind than to make the comics interesting and fun, and possibly an honest attempt at "hip" black culture.

Issue #123 was the only issue of our run that dealt with racial issues. It was pretty much the shot not heard around the world as nobody seemed to notice the examination of racial issues and the implied indictment of the comics industry.

My run on POWER/FIST is likely most notorious for the series finale, in which Iron Fist was shockingly and inexplicably killed. This is one of those moments I find alternately flattering and annoying at once. Fist's death was senseless and shocking and completely unforeseen. It took the readers' heads clean off. And, to this day, people are mad about it. Forgetting, it seems, that (a) you were supposed to be mad, that death is senseless and Fist's death was supposed to be senseless, or that (b) this is a comic book. I already had a way to bring Fist back, and Fist creator John Byrne would certainly bring him back if I didn't get to it first.

Like my trials with the DC Comics character TRIUMPH, the readers missed the point and villainized the writer to some degree. They loathed and hated Triumph, completely missing the point that that was exactly what they were supposed to do; he was designed specifically to be annoying, like Dr. Smith from Lost In Space. Fist's death was supposed to be shocking and senseless. It wasn't bad writing. The fact that, thirteen years after the fact, people are still annoyed about it speaks to the quality of the work, the impact of which has apparently not diminished over time.

I trepidatiously add that Marvel has, of course, resurrected Iron Fist, and done not much with him. He is, once again, a reasonably generic member of the Marvel stable, the occasional guest star. Marvel revived the Power/Fist team with HEROES FOR HIRE, but the formula called for a larger group of heroes and bigger adventures and antagonists, with mixed results. The simplicity of the Cage/Fist chemistry was certainly a component of HFH, but it seemed, subjectively to me, to be lost amid the sprawling cast and plotlines.

The expedient thing to say is, Iron Fist's death wasn't my idea. It was my idea in the sense of that is how I chose for him to die— brutally and senselessly. I was ordered to kill IF because the editor was deeply resentful of Marvel's decision to cancel the book, a book the editor (comics legend Denny O'Neil) invested himself in and worked _very_ hard with myself and artist MD "Doc" Bright. We were all pretty upset, but Denny was outraged. POWER MAN & IRON FIST was a critical success and was selling in excess of 100,000 copies; not a major hit in those days but the book was certainly profitable. Then the company, for no apparent reason, decided to change the publishing schedule from a monthly release to bi-monthly, which automatically depresses sales, and, once the sales projections skewed downward, that became justification enough to cancel the book to make room on the schedule for a new line of books that became the infamous and notorious "New Universe."

Angered by the slight to our work on the book, in an editorial meeting Denny's assistant suggested we kill Iron Fist and cast the blame on Power Man. Doc and I really did not like the idea, but the editors were adamant, insisting if we didn't write the story he'd assign it out to someone else. I agreed to write the story on the condition that IF's death be senseless and, actually, extant to the story itself. The story and plotlines had resolved themselves by the time Iron Fist fell asleep in the hospital and was subsequently killed. It was shocking and unexpected and completely meaningless— which is how we all felt the company had treated us.

Neither Doc nor I have ever been offered work on those characters since. In Marvel's subsequent attempts to revive Power Man and Iron Fist, either singly or collectively, as far as I know, neither Doc nor I were considered for the job. In one specific instance, I was told by a Marvel staffer to, "don't even bother" submitting proposals for the character, as the then-Editor In Chief would not even consider a POWER/FIST project done by us.

Christopher J. Priest
December 2000
around Christmas

Text Copyright © 2008 Grace Phonogram eMedia. All Rights Reserved.