Luke Cage Needs To Know: Where's My Money, Honey?
It should be pretty obvious by now, but on the off chance that this is your first day at the ISB, here's the score: When it comes to the mid-70s silk shirt and tiara-sporting Heroes For Hire version, I love some Luke Cage. Even as mired in the stereotypes of the time as he was (and often continues to be, albeit with updated stereotypes), he's a lot of fun, and as someone who considers seeing Shaft in high school to be a life-changing event, there's something immensely satifsying about seeing him beat the living bejeezus out of pretty much everyone who steps to the plate.
But this, of course, is the problem: If there's one thing that really held Luke Cage back, it's his truly abysmal rogues gallery. If he wasn't fighting some low-rent joker like Stiletto and his amazingly bad costume, it was the pure genius that is Mace (the villain), whose right hand was a mace (the medieval weapon) that shot mace (the chemical spray).
Of course, sometimes he fights Doctor Doom.
Yes, it's Hero For Hire #9's Steve Englehart/George Tuska classic, "Where Angels Fear To Tread," and it is quite possibly the single most ridiculously awesome Bronze Age Marvel story not written by Bill Mantlo, brought to you tonight in rich, monochromatic Reprintovision, courtesey of the Essential Luke Cage v.1.
But first, a little backstory: In the previous issue, Luke had been hired by a shady character to take down a few guys who stole his boss's "company secrets," and as these things so often do, they naturally turned out to be robots created by Dr. Doom who escaped to America after fleeing his decidedly nonrobocentric regime. So why bother with getting Luke Cage for the job? Well, according to von Doom, the robots have disguised themselves as black men, none of whom live in Latveria, and therefore he--and I quote--"needed a black, and I needed to hire him. Enter: Luke Cage."
Of course, Luke does the job and beats up the robots in question, but not before Dr. Doom skips town to avoid paying his fee. This, as you might expect, was a bad idea.
And that should bring you right up to speed for Hero For Hire #9, which opens with Cage taking the sensible route when you have a problem with Dr. Doom: He fights his way into the Baxter Building, punches out the Thing, and then demands that Reed Richards loan him a rocketship so that he can go to Latveria and give Doc Doom the business. Fortunately for Luke, he's been getting some positive press in the Daily Bugle lately--yeah, that Daily Bugle--and Reed decides hey, what the hell, and gives him a spare pogo plane that he had laying around.
An hour later, and Luke's entering Latverian airspace, and thanks to Doom's security forces, he crash-lands just in time for the Thursday afternoon revolt. And this time, it's robots!
But more importantly, this is where the story starts to go completely off the rails:
Apparently, Mysterio's older brother up there is a holdout from Astonishing Tales, and he's made it his mission in life to help a ragtag group of slave robots to rise up against their master, which, really, just begs the question of why Dr. Doom went through the trouble of programming an aversion to being robot slaves into his robot slaves. Either way, Luke flat-out refuses to be manipulated by the alien's talk of putting an end to robot slavery, and decides to pitch in while they assault the castle, causing a distraction while he kicks in the door of Doomstadt to face down the Marvel Universe's deadliest villain.
And that is how we arrive at a scene that eclipses even PMIF #75's contender for the single greatest Luke Cage panel of all time:
Even better is the next panel, where Dr. Doom is utterly shocked that Luke Cage flew halfway across the planet in a rocket plane to recover $200. Even in 1972 dollars, that's a little extreme, but, well, it's the principle of the thing.
Clearly, there can be only one outcome:
...and that goes on for four glorious pages where those two dudes just wreck a good portion of Doom's castle, right up until Luke's able to gain the upper hand by discovering Dr. Doom's secret weakness:
"I forged my armor to withstand anything--except repeated stress on a solitary point!
So essentially, Dr. Doom's armor is completely impenentrable, unless you punch him a lot. Suddenly, the robots programmed with a "violent rebellion" subroutine start to make a lot more sense.
Anyway, before Luke can capitalize on his tactic of, y'know, punching Dr. Doom a lot, the bubble-headed alien from seven pages ago shows up with a laser pistol and a plan to blast Dr. Doom into several pieces. Luke, of course, wants no part of a cold-blooded murder, and ends up saving Dr. Doom's life by dropping a balcony on the offending extra-terrestrial, which Doom thinks is an absolute riot.
So Cage gets his two hundred bucks, Doom wanders off to crush a robot rebellion, and everything pretty much works out okay. Because in Latveria, first you get respect. Then you get the money.
And then you get the women.
I've made a lot of references to the work of legendary Batman artist Jim Aparo, whose major claim to fame for me is the fact that when he draws Batman punching someone, it looks like they are permanently wrecked, to the point where they're often drawn with their heads exploding under the force of Batman's fists. Imagine my joy, then, when I read the following panels from Hero For Hire #5, by George Tuska and Billy "Presumably Not The Televangelist" Graham:
(Special thanks to Phil Looney, who pointed this issue out to me)