So a friend lent me a copy of the Essential Luke Cage Powerman phonebook. I was pretty hopeful; I’ve watched a fair bit of blaxploitation over the last couple of years; I think it’s a pretty interesting genre, and one which seemed like it should have the potential to make for interesting comics. Or, you know, at the very least, clueless white comics guys writing about gritty urban race drama seemed like it might make for a few good laughs.

There are a couple of laughs, I guess. Mr. Fish has to be one of the least propitious villain names in the history of comicdom, for example. But overall, the thing is simply unreadable. Even skimming it, as I did, was a serious chore. Don McGregor, the writer on much of the early part of the volume, has a weakness for portentous, purple prose ” “The wide sidewalks wait to receive his body. Before the new workday, the bright red that gives blood its vibrant message of life will have turned a dull brown.” Panel after panel of that. I guess it’s supposed to be gritty, but it just sounds like he’s a 15-year old copying clueless hacks copying Dashiell Hammett.

Things improve somewhat when Marv Wolfman takes over the title…it stops being excruciating to read and just becomes dull. McGregor tried, and failed, to make use of pulp grit and the comic’s ostensible gheto setting. Wolfman settles for hacking out standard super-hero adventures, with Cage fighting one boring villain after another.

And lord, the art is horrible. I’ve argued at various points in the past that mainstream comics art has dropped off a cliff in recent years; this volume seems designed to make me eat my words. Frank Robbins and Lee Elias are the main artists in the run, and there’s just nothing to like about either of them. Bizarrely distorted faces, awkward poses, an utter lack of style or design sense; it’s just page after page of ugly, mediocre dreck. A few of the fill-in artists (Sal Buscema, Bob Brown) are somewhat better, but none of the drawing is what you’d call enjoyable until John Byrne (with Chris Claremont in tow) comes in for the last two issues. Not that John Byrne is my favorite artist or anything, but in comparison — well, this volume makes quite clear why he was hailed in some quarters as a demi-god.

As I’ve said before, comics today know too well who their audience is; they pander remorselessly to the addicted fanboys who just want to see continuity clusterfucks and the banal defacement/updating of characters from their childhoods. They’re incestuous and insular and completely uninterested in a broader audience. Power-Man has the exact opposite problem; it’s creators seem to have no idea who their audience is. Who is reading this? And for what purpose? In theory, you’d assume it was an effort to reach out to a black audience…or at least to a white audience interested in the accoutrements of black culture. In practice, the title is too timid to even gesture in the direction of the kind of seedy viciousness, or racial consciousness, which made blaxploitation so appealing. Instead, you’ve just got a standard issue super-title with a second string hero and a rotating series of disengaged, second-string artists, presumably dispatched by an editorial office that had no idea what to do with the title.

On second thought, maybe Powerman does presage the mainstreams current aesthetic difficulties. Marvel at this point was trying to reach out to a new audience — and this series painfully demonstrates how ill-equipped they were to do so. Multiply that failure by another twenty or thirty years, and maybe you end up where we are now.