I love comic books. Have ever since I was a little kid. I still get excited every Wednesday for New Comic Day, and am like a kid in a candy store every time I’m in my local comic book store. And while I definitely love the indie publishers for publishing books that are pushing the boundaries of the medium, I’m still a sucker for a good super hero story. For a variety of reasons I’ll get into in a different post, Marvel is my preferred source of superhero fun. Sorry DC, Batman is still my favorite hero, but by and large I pass on all your other heroes.
When you learn about Marvel you’ll usually hear about their golden age of the 1960’s, when they were cranking out some of the most enduring and popular superheroes of all time. Most of them were inspired by the country’s obsession and fear of the Atomic Age. But I’ve got to be honest, as much as I love characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men, I have a serious soft spot for the characters that were created in the 70’s. While the 60’s characters seemed inspired by 50’s monster movies and a ludicrous misunderstanding on the power of radiation, the 70’s heroes were more inspired by pop culture. Exploitation films and cultural crazes were the impetus of the 70’s heroes. Both Marvel and DC have always been very reactive companies, jumping on whatever’s currently popular, but I feel like Marvel has a better track record of what bandwagon to jump on. Here’s just a few of my favorite 70’s characters, and the crazy influences that created them.
I first really became aware of Luke Cage in Brian Michael Bendis’ run of New Avengers. I had come across the character a few times before that, in ancillary things like the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, but had never really thought much of him. But when I read New Avengers it was pretty hard not to love the guy. Yeah, he’s a badass with unbreakable skin and super strength that has no problem diving head first into a situation, but what really gets me about Luke Cage is his morals and sense of responsibility. Responsibility to his friends, his teammates and most importantly, his family. Cage is one of my favorite heroes now, and I heartily recommend looking into him. And where did he come from?
For those who have never heard the term, Blaxploitation was a kind of movie in the 70’s that was created to appeal to a black audience, which usually just meant that it had black main characters, amazing funk soundtracks, and unfortunately usually protagonists who were pimps or criminals, because white people are the worst. Movies like Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown, and Blacula (yes, there’s a movie about a black vampire called Blacula) were becoming increasingly popular in the early 70’s, and Marvel saw their change to catch the craze. Enter Luke Cage, a man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, who volunteers for a science experiment that accidentally gives him unbreakable skin. He then flees prison and becomes something of a private eye, what he calls a Hero for Hire. I seriously recommend reading the classic run of Hero for Hire. It’s nuts, and a very worthwhile read.
Iron Fist & Shang Chi
I’ve loved Iron Fist ever since I first came across Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s amazing the Immortal Iron Fist and have loved the character ever since. His costume is ridiculous and his back story is even weirder. The son of a wealthy industrialist, Danny Rand was brought by his parents to find the mythic city of K’un L’un deep in the Chinese mountains. After his parents die, he’s taken in by the kung fu masters of K’un L’un, and trained to b the most powerful practitioner of the martial arts in the city, eventually fighting a dragon and plunging his fist in it’s magic heart so that he could channel his chi into his fist the make it indestructible. When written right, Danny’s strong sense of duty and the clash between tradition and reality make him a really great character.
Shang Chi, I know less about, but what I’ve read of him, I really enjoy. I first saw him pop up in Ed Brubaker’s great Secret Avengers run. He’s the world’s greatest kung fu master, and the son of Fu Manchu, which has made him a little difficult to write about since Marvel no longer has the rights to Fu Manchu. The thing that really gets me about Shang Chi is that he has no super powers. Iron Fist has a magical fist, but Shang Chi is just straight up beating superhumans with just his skills. That’s awesome.
And both of these characters really came from America’s fascination with kung fu movies in the early 70’s, mostly thanks to Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee and his fists of fury made people want nothing more than to watch movies that consisted of little else than him beating the crap out of people in increasingly insane ways. So Marvel made Shang Chi, essentially just what would happen in Bruce Lee became a superhero, then deciding if people wanted a more magical white protagonist, made Iron Fist. Both characters are a blast, and it was a brilliant idea to have Iron Fist and Luke Cage become partners. Luke Cage’s stubborn street smarts mixed with Iron Fist’s mystical wisdom and naivete made for a very enjoyable and long lasting partnership.
Frank Castle has had one of the crappiest existences in comics, and that’s saying something. Over the years his war has changed to fit the times, bu traditionally he was a Vietnam veteran who came back from the war only to have this wife and kids killed in a mob war. He then dedicated his life to killing criminals. And that’s really everything you need to know about the Punisher. There’s been a lot of different visions of the Punisher brought to life over the years, a gun for hire, a hero, an angel, even a ripoff of Frankenstein’s monster. Hell, he even met Archie once. Frank Castle’s one man war on criminals is one of the most consistently enjoyable series of adventures Marvel has ever had. Frank works as a member of the Marvel universe helping Spider-Man or Daredevil just as much as he works with the more secluded runs that Garth Ennis was known for, taking Frank out of the world of superheroes and into his own reality. Frank can be a tragic anti-hero trying his best to live his life and get some sort of sense of revenge for his family, or a remorseless unlikable killing machine who inspires cringing and disgust. But I think no matter which way he goes, if done right, he can be a hell of a character.
The 70’s could be a pretty disgusting, gritty time. When you watch movies like the Warriors or really anything Martin Scorsese made in that decade, you see New York as a run down, graffiti covered hell hole. And movies like Death Wish or Taxi Driver really tapped into a latent desire for the average person to take the law into their own hands. Crime was running rampant, and the idea of getting a gun and just doing what the law couldn’t was a very appealing concept, and the Punisher clicked into that mind-frame quite nicely.
The last character I wanted to talk about is Ghost Rider. Such an insane concept. He was a circus stunt driver who sold his soul to the Devil, and through some strange loopholes got a demon bound to his soul instead. He then rides around the county on a demonic motor cycle punishing those who deserve it. He’s a hick who literally fight the Devil, and when he senses injustice, his head bursts into flames like a crazy werewolf. He’s the best. But what inspired Ghost Rider?
While the other characters I mentioned were inspired by the movies of the era, I feel like Ghost Rider came from a similar concept as Shang Chi, but instead of answering the question “what would it be like if Bruce Lee was a superhero?” they instead answered “what would it be like if Evel Knievel was a superhero?” And the answer to that question, is rad. He would be rad.
Luke Cage was created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr.
Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane
Shang Chi was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin
the Punisher was created by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita, Sr.
Ghost Rider was created by Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, and Mike Ploog
Go buy their comics. They’re great.
Categories: Back Issues