EP0089: Luke Cage Masterworks, Volume 1, Hobgoblin Lives, and Marvels

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Take a look at the origins of Luke Cage in Luke Cage, Heroes for Hire Masterworks, Volume 1.

Then Roger Stern reveals the true identity of the Hobgoblin in Hobgoblin Lives.

Finally, see the origin of the Marvel Universe through the eye of a photographer in Marvels.

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Transcript below:

We take a look at Luke Cage’s first appearance. Find out how the mystery of the Hobgoblin’s identity was solved in Hobgoblin Lives. Then we take a look at the beginning of the Marvel Universe from someone else’s eye as we take a look at Marvel’s on this all-Marvel edition, straight ahead.

Well, we start out with Luke Cage, Hero for Hire Masterworks Volume One, and we get the first sixteen Issues of this series from 1972 and ’73. We get Luke Cage’s origin story in the first couple Issues which are written by Archie Goodwin, and you can definitely see from reading these how Marvel was trying to tap into the Blacksploitation films that were so popular at the time.

Luke is a man who has been locked away for a crime he didn’t commit and he is hated by Rackham, a senior guard who has become Acting Warden while a new warden waits to arrive; and he’s continually being sent to solitary and such. Luke has protested his innocence and he really does carry a big chip on his shoulder, however, Dr. Noah first has come to the prison and he wants to do some experiments on Luke to test the liquid that will regenerate cells, and it involves immersing Lucas in that liquid. However, while the doctor goes away to adjust something Lucas begins to notice that this is very uncomfortable, and it turns out Rackham had followed the doctor down there and he was turning up the temperature to its maximum level.

However, the effect of this is actually to give Lucas superpowers, most notably a skin that is resistant to bullets. Bullets will not kill him, they will hurt a little, but probably more like how paintballs would hurt the average person, if that. But, at any rate, Lucas breaks out of prison and is shot at and is assumed dead. However, he actually escaped and got some clothes and just stumbles into a robbery and foils it, and the grateful owner who he helped gives him some money which he uses to rent a motel room for month, pick up some business cards, as well as build his 1970sarific costume. And he sets out to establish himself as a hero for hire.

In order to promote the Hero for Hire business Lucas takes on the organization of his old friend Jimmy Striker who has become a criminal and who Lucas believes killed the woman he loved, the crime for which Lucas was sent to prison. And he also adopts the name Luke Cage, combining his old first name with something he associated with prison. And the second issue, he has the confrontation with Jimmy Striker and Striker accidentally kills himself.

At the same time, a complication comes into Luke’s life when Dr. Burstein moves into the city to start a clinic, kind of shaken up by what had happened while out at the prison, and of course he recognizes Luke Cage as Lucas, the criminal convict who had supposedly died, but in Issue Three decides to keep silent as long as Lucas stays on the up and up – although he doesn’t approve of the hero for hire status, and thinks he ought to give out his services for the good of all mankind. And Lucas is like, “I have to eat and get off my back!” And so from there you really see the story take on a different tone as Lucas goes and battles all comers, and in the rest of Goodwin’s Issues he…in Issue Three he takes on Gabriel Mace, a military officer who replaced his hand with a mace. And that does make for some awesome fight scenes.

Issue Four is Phantom on Forty-Second Street which has him solving a pretty basic mystery. Luke Cage is a Private Detective of sorts, and so the writers often followed the same template and feel as the hardboiled detective stories of the 1940s when writing about him which I’m totally cool with. Issue Five saw Steve Englehart become a writer which led to an interesting, though somewhat atypical run on the book because you had some ideas that were really interesting and some that were really weird. The book really does have a Silver Age feel in this era despite it being started in the 1970s.

Issue Five finds a Mr. Jinx being murdered, and when Cage goes to call the police he comes back to find an ambulance has taken the body already, and it turns out the ambulance is not an actual ambulance, it belongs to Black Mariah. Now Black Mariah is a really old term that describes like the police wagons that they take criminals in, also known as a Paddy Wagon. And, so, it was decided by Mr. Englehart that it’d be fun to have a super villain named Black Mariah and her entire hook was that she had counterfeit ambulances and hearse so that she could carry away bodies and roll them for their money. And I think the character has had some refinement over the years but is introduced. It’s a really silly concept for a supervillain.

Then there is another story which is really more of a detective story where he’s hired to guard a dying man who someone’s trying to kill, and he has to figure out who the killer is. And then there’s this Christmas Issue which is actually really interesting though a bit odd, because it begins with a man in Victorian garb beating up a little boy, and Cage stepping in and ends with Cage trying to save the world from nuclear annihilation. But it’s really a good story in its own way though, a bit…it has some goofy moments admittedly.

Then we get a two-parter with Dr. Doom and essentially Doom hires Cage anonymously, and eventually though Cage figures out that he’s been hired by Doom. And Doom explains after Cage had punched out someone he’d been going after and found out that he was a robot that the robots of his kingdom are revolting, and they had stolen from him; and, essentially, Cage continued on his mission to go after the robots, and the robots were disguised as black men which is why Dr. Doom hired Cage because he was the only one who could observe them discreetly and cautiously who could be trusted. And after Cage deals with this he comes to collect his payment and finds Dr. Doom has as a general habit he avoids paying whenever he can. How this jives with everything in comics about Dr. Doom’s sense of honor that’s a bit unclear. But Cage pops into Fantastic Four Headquarters and they loan him a rocket ship to go to Latvaria to confront Doom, and he confronts Doom over the $200 and Doom reacts to this and says, “You mean the money I owed you for tracking down my robots, you came all the way here for that? A paltry $200. You are crazy!” And I can’t help but see some agreement, but then again Doom intentionally cheating a guy out of $200 seems petty for the leader of a nation. But anyway, the story does have some interesting terms and the idea of Luke Cage meeting Dr. Doom is really a lot better executed than I would have expected.

Then we do have a couple of Issues where he at lasts gets back to the case of The Murder of Mr. Jinx and it turns out that the person behind the killings is none other than Señor Muerte, aka Mr. Death, and he is a casino owner who also dresses in a brightly coloured super villain costume, with some gambling accents. And that’s a two-part story. Then we get a battle with Chemistro and then with Lion Fang who is based out of a circus. All of these stories have some terrific battle scenes but the super villains design and setup is generally not all that impressive, and most would be retooled before they would be used again.

The book concludes, though, quite brilliantly with Retribution. In this story there are a couple things that are happening: first of all we’re transitioning away from Steve Englehart. In Issue Fourteen Englehart’s listed as co-plotter with artist Billy Graham. Issue Fifteen he’s listed as something humorous like ‘baby sitter’ for Graham and new writer Tony Isabela, and he’s not on the credits at all for Issue Sixteen. But still, Englehart had laid the groundwork for many aspects of this – particularly with Phil Fox, a reporter who was constantly coming around Cage, looking for the inside story. Fox actually discovered a diary of Dr. Burstein that revealed the truth about Cage, and wanted to blackmail him and teamed up with the prison guard, Rackham, who’d been retired and who is being pursued by two prison buddies of Cage who had escaped prison for the purpose of giving vengeance on Rackham.

At the same time, Mrs. Jinx is mistakenly kidnapped by Rackham and Ford, and Cage’s girlfriend Claire is framed for murder. And there is a lot going on in this story and it’s really a very clever, exciting, well-paced story that really does shine. There are some great moments and some introduction of some realism such as one police officer points out to Cage that he’s heard that Cage’s been practicing as a private detective without a licence, and that’s something he’s going to have to get fixed. So, it’ll be interesting to see future volumes as this is addressed.

But this one has just some great character moments, some good plot twists, and really does give this a feeling of being a great stopping point. Oftentimes these Masterworks books will stop just because, OK, we’ve run out of the number of Issues we’ve put in the book. But this one is such a nice place to stop because it wraps up so much, but it does leave some stuff open for future volumes. This one is a tough one to judge. I really enjoyed every Issue to one degree or another, though there were some that I enjoyed less than others. This is not among the best Marvel comics that were put out there, and certainly there were stories that were more efficient, had some better characters, but I still like Luke as a character. There were some really exciting moments in the story and a lot of fun, and I think that last three-Issue arc really clinches it for me, so I’ll give this one a rating of Classy.

Next up we have Spiderman: Hobgoblin Lives. The backstory of this particular book is that when writing Spiderman, Roger Stern created the character of the Hobgoblin but never revealed his identity even though he discovered who he was. Subsequent writers of Spiderman took the book in a different direction, particularly when it came to Hobgoblin. They didn’t heed all of the little clues that Stern had put out there, and Stern says that when he looked at it later on he realized that some things didn’t make sense because the comics decided that Ned Leeds was the Hobgoblin. But the Hobgoblin was subdued rather easily and not in a way that someone with goblin powers would be. Solution: someone had imitated the Hobgoblin and so Stern finally got someone at Marvel to green-light this project where he’s able to correct the record once and for all.

This book contains six Issues in it. The first is the three-Issue Hobgoblin Lives mini-series, and then we have three Issues of Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spiderman, Issues 259 to 261. At any rate, the story is about the effort to clear Ned Leeds, and it’s led by Betty Bran with Peter Parker and Spiderman becoming involved because she’s so insistent. The art is really good. There is one random decision in here which is to have George Perez assist with the art duties on Issue One but none of the other Issues in the story. Perez is, of course, famous for being the artist of many great comics including Crisis on Infinite Earths. This isn’t a story that calls for his particular talent, so it’s weird for him just to be thrown on for that one Issue.

There’s also a really good, proper mystery that’s going on with a lot of suspense built around the Goblin’s true identity, and some good bit of misdirection; and a solid conclusion, even though there was one thing – I won’t give it away – but there was one thing that they did do in here that was a bit silly, in order to make their solution fit. But, I think it worked better than some of the other attempts that we’ve had to make something fit. Issues 259 to 261 of Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spiderman actually collects a story involving both the Hobgoblin and Green Goblin. The Hobgoblin claims to his lawyer to have information that would damage Norman Osborne. Osborne has returned from the dead and been exonerated for all of the stuff he did as the Green Goblin, even though he actually did it. And so he’s got to get the Hobgoblin out and Spidey’s got to stop them. It’s a good story involving both of these goblins going head to head. Both are pretending things but really have their own secret agenda. It’s a good, solid story. If I had a complaint it’s that Spidey can almost get a little lost in it, but overall it’s a very solid and enjoyable read, and I’ll give an overall rating for the book, Spiderman: Hobgoblin Lives of Classy.

Now we turn our attention to Marvels. It’s written by Kurt Busiek and with art by Alex Ross. It was released back in 1994 and it had an interesting premise: it takes the reader through the early years of the Marvel Universe, but from a different perspective – we follow along with photographer Phil Sheldon. From 1939 when the Human Torch and Namor first emerged, all the way through 1974 when he retires from his position as a photojournalist, what’s interesting about this book is that it doesn’t really recast or redo the canon of established stories in the Marvel Universe. Rather, it shows us people’s reactions, which is particularly interesting during the Golden Age when writer were just writing for kids and trying to create these fantasies, it never occurs to them, what would it be like if suddenly, out of nowhere, you have this Android who can flame on appear and you have this mighty prince of the deep with super powers who can fly. How does that impact your world and worldview? And that’s the type of thing that this explores, and it’s about getting that more ground-level reaction that was either absent or only there in part. And we also see the protagonist, Phil Sheldon, grow through the course of the book. He labels the heroes, both the Golden and Silver Age as The Marvels, and his first reaction is really a lot of fear and insecurity. In fact, he decides to postpone his engagement, leading to his fiancée calling it off because of the power of these Marvels. There’s something that he could not protect her, could not protect any children they might have; and if he cannot protect his family what good is he?

And he goes on a journey through this book where he comes to terms with The Marvels and then starts to really appreciate them. And it’s, of course, not always that smooth. When mutants begin to emerge and become a thing in the 1960s he is initially really, very panicked about it and concerned about the potential threat, and I think this book really does explain something with the X-Men and why the Marvel Universe has this idea that there’s this an especially strong hate for mutants as opposed to all the other meta-humans in the Marvel Universe. And the exclamation here is that the mutants are viewed as a threat to the future of normal human beings, and certainly when you take a look at the rhetoric of people like Magneto who particularly in the beginning early comics is really represented as not someone who is seeking equal rights for mutants, but kind of a mutant supremacist. And so you understand why Phil’s afraid, and…but you also get to see Phil change through this. So, it’s a fascinating character story and it’s an interesting look at how people react from the reactions we do have in the comic books, particularly during the Silver Age. And it’s some thoughts about what did the sort of reactions say about the people in the comics, and are they different from the way that people reacted in real life? I mean, it is really dealing with some fascinating stuff. And I think that the ideas are really interesting. It does plumb some deep depths. It’s not one of these superficially deep stories nor is it trying to be a deconstruction of its source material like Watchmen. It’s really a deep appreciation of the era and just really expanding and providing some really good insight into that Marvel Universe.

I also, I have to talk about the art and…we’ve talked so much about the story. The art in this book is just stunning. I’ve read a few books with art by Alex Ross – this may be the very best one I’ve read. I mean, this is a book where you could just take the pictures and just ignore the word balloons and…because it’s all painted and it’s done so beautifully, you could just sit there and focus on the pictures. The art is just really stunningly beautiful to look at, and I like the approach because Phil is a photographer, so in many ways we’re getting some familiar scenes or familiar moments if you’re familiar with the Gold and Silver Age material, but you’re getting it from a different angle. And it gives it a freshness but it’s also stills true to what was in the original work. And the art just really serves the story incredibly well. I mean, for the writing with decent art this would still be a good book, but when you throw in the art, it’s an outstanding read.

If I did have any quibble with it, it is the one thing that there was this sort of slight retcon which was with Phil meeting Gwen Stacy, and her just being someone who had utmost confidence in The Marvels. And this was meant, I think, to give an extra level of tragedy to the death of Gwen Stacy, which ultimately leads to Phil Sheldon’s retirement in the book. And I think there’s reasons for that from a writing perspective because essentially the death of Gwen Stacy is held by Marvel aficionados, and maybe many other comic fans as well, to be the kind when comics grew up a little bit and you moved out of the Silver Age into the Bronze Age of comics where things were more serious and there were more consequences. But I think tampering with Gwen Stacy was probably not the best idea in this book, but it’s a bit of a quibble because everything else in the book is really well done. It’s thoughtful and the art is beautiful. It’s a celebration of these characters, and a consideration of how they might impact real life. It’s beautifully written, wonderfully drawn, and I’ll give that one a rating of Very Classy.

So, to summarize this episode – we gave Luke Cage: Hero for Hire Masterworks Volume One a rating of Classy, even though some parts of it were a little silly it was still great fun throughout. We gave Spiderman: Hobgoblin Lives a rating of Classy. It’s a great mystery story that makes a very strong and well thought out change to the identity of one of Spiderman’s key villains. And, of course, we gave Marvels a rating of Very Classy. The art is gorgeous, the writing is exquisite and really gives a fresh insight into some key events from Marvel history, and it’s a definitely a must-read.

Alright, well that’s all for now. If you do have a comment email me classycomicsguy@gmail.com; follow us on Twitter @classycomicsguy; and be sure and rate and review the show on iTunes. From Boise, Idaho this is your host, Adam Graham, signing off.

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