"Doorway to Heaven/This Insubstantial Pageant Faded"
Writer: Mary Jo Duffy. Pencils: Kerry Gammill. Inks: Ricardo Villamonte.
Power Man & Iron Fist #74, 75 (1981)
Okay, a two-part story barely seems to justify been counted as a "multi-issue" story -- but, hey, the second issue was double sized, so at least it totals about 60 pages.
Power Man was a super strong, inner city black man who had been one of comicdoms first attempts at a black hero starring in his own title, kind of stemming out of the blaxploitation genre in the cinema. The gimmick was that he was more a private eye than a super hero -- essentially a super powered Shaft. Originally titled Hero for Hire, then Luke Cage, Power Man, then Power Man, the change in title clearly indicated he wasn't quite scoring those magic sales numbers, while the fact that he kept going indicates he was coming closer than some. Iron Fist was a white martial arts hero, part of the mid-1970s boom in martial arts fever that was raging through movies, TV and comics. But he too was having trouble with genuine commercial success, despite a starring run in Marvel Premiere, then a self-titled series.
So then someone got an idea to buddy them up. They seemed an odd combo, but maybe the notion was to take two characters so clearly part of popular media trends -- and it seemed to work, the unlikely friendship between the street savvy Power Man and the fish-out-of-water Iron Fist (having been raised in a mystical lost city) lasting longer than either of their solo runs.
When I first read this story arc years ago, I was familiar with the characters, but only from a couple of previous comics, and so was hardly an expert on them. That's worth noting because the story draws heavily upon Iron Fist's background and origin...yet it's well enough explained and worked into the story that it still worked even for someone like me.
The first issue basically acts as slow brewing prologue. While Power Man and Iron Fist get involved in a minor, diversionary fight with some hoods, we cut away to a mysterious ninja who is stealing parts of a mystical talisman. The Ninja (not "a" ninja, but "The" Ninja) Iron Fist had fought before, and leads the two to Iron Fist's old foe, the sorcerer Master Khan. In chasing Khan, the two heroes end up following him through a dimensional warp...
And in the double-sized 75th issue find themselves in the mystical, enigmatic city of K'un-Lun, where Iron Fist had been raised but which only intersected with earth once every ten years and he hadn't expected to necessarily see again. To Fist, returning to the monastic-like, ordered society of K'un-Lun is like coming home...while Power Man is a little more skeptical. And while Cage learns some of his partner's origin and history, the city is preparing for war with traditional enemies -- the inhuman plant creatures. But there are also mysterious undercurrents and sinister, surprise revelations.
And the result is a genuinely epic story, more than justifying its page count, the very reliance on recounting and recapping past stories adding to the richness and texture of the story, rather than making you feel like you've come in at the final reel. It has the power of an epic, built on years of back story, while still being self-contained enough to be read by itself.
A big appeal is the creators. Over its time, PM/IF enjoyed people like Chris Claremont and Kurt Busiek as writers, but Mary Jo Duffy's tenure was very good. Duffy seemed to have an effortless feel for the personalities, playing up the two heroes contrasts, without sliding into caricature, while also making you believe in their camaraderie. And juggling the disparate tones, from the light hearted (at times the comic seeming like, say, TV's "Simon & Simon" in its comic interplay) to the serious. And this story arc inparticular is full of just nicely rendered scenes, little exchanges and bits of dialogue, whether they be the amusing quip, the emotional aside, or penetrating observation.
And I can't help thinking of the Kerry Gammill/Ricardo Villamonte teaming as one of the most unrecognized in comics. At the time these issues were first published, to me probably the pinnacle of comics art excellence was John Byrne and Terry Austin's work on the X-Men. And, in many ways, I thought Gammill and Villamonte rivalled, even beat them. Like Byrne and Austin there was a lot of meticulously detailed backgrounds, whether it be a honky tonk bar, or the cluttered curio shop where they first track Master Khan, or the ornate and otherworldly splendour of K'un -Lun, but with a sense of depth and dimension Byrne's stuff could lack. And Gammill's faces and figures were equally well rendered (albeit maybe prone to bow-legged-ness), but with a nice eye for composition, for telling a scene, for capturing movement and body language. And Villamonte was clearly part of it, because though I've seen other stuff by Gammill that was good -- nothing quite matched this. And I think that's because Villamonte did his part with shadowing and modelling the figures, giving them real depth and giving the scenes atmosphere.
Maybe all three brought out the best in each other. I've enjoyed most of the (handful) of PM/IF comics I read by the trio, but a subsequent story still written by Duffy, but paired with a different artist, struck me as more bland.
When I first read this, I knew little about Iron Fist's history, so I could just enjoy the story for what it was. But some subsequent letter writers complained that Duffy had despoiled K'un-Lun, taking this idyllic city and revealing it had dark and sinister secrets -- basically the kind of retconning that has become all the rage in later years (of the "everything you thought you knew...you didn't really know" school). Yet I can't help thinking Duffy was actually just working with what was there, based on some of the flashback sequences. I mean, K'un-Lun was hardly an unimpeachable Utopia to begin with.
Although maybe atypical for a PM/IF story, the series usually more prone to gangsters and street crime, and rooted in Iron Fist's history, it remains an equal partnership between the two, and just nicely justifies its length, with a genuine grandeur and scope to the tale, mixing light and dark, action and introspection, and some moments of genuine touching emotion.