Writer Jo Duffy revisits her classic run on Marvel's Power Man & Iron Fist

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Aug 17, 2017

There are many reasons why Marvel's The Defenders, debuting Friday, August 18, on Netflix, may be the most anticipated superhero TV series of all time. Sigourney Weaver playing the Big Bad is obviously one. But for many fans, seeing two particular characters uniting on screen may be the true highlight: Power Man and Iron Fist.

For decades, Luke Cage and Danny Rand have had one of the great bromances in comics. Partners in crime-fighting and spandexed besties, the two have been linked together since the late 1970s, when they headlined their own comic, Power Man & Iron Fist. It was an offbeat, quirky book that often read like no other series Marvel was putting out at the time.

Much of the credit for that unique tone goes to writer Jo Duffy. Having earned her first break at Marvel as an editor, she soon took over the then-struggling comic, which had recently united both Power Man and Iron Fist in an effort to goose sales (both solo books were in danger of cancellation). Duffy was the writer on the series from issues #56-84. That three-year run set the template for how to properly approach these characters. Aside from having them deal with more grounded issues and bad guys in the Marvel U, Duffy focused on the character beats and gave their supporting cast ample room to shine. The result was a comic book that established one of the best friendships in comics.

With anticipation for the Netflix Defenders series peaking, SYFY WIRE thought it would be nice to reach out to the writer who established the blueprint for the Luke Cage/Danny Rand friendship. Duffy, whose stellar writing career included a memorable run on Star Wars, as well as work for Image, Dark Horse, and other publishers, was happy to go back down memory lane with us. She shared the story about how she landed the writing job on PM & IF, at a time in comics when female writers were still somewhat of an anomaly. She also tells us if she plans to binge-watch The Defenders this weekend (you'll have to read 'til the end for that!). FYI, she's active on Facebook too, if you want to pop in and say hello.

Writer Jo Duffy at her desk in the Marvel offices, circa 1980-81, looking over production art. Note the Iron Fist fan art behind her.

Back when I was first reading Power Man & Iron Fist, I'm ashamed to say that I didn't pay much attention to the story credits. Looking back now, you really helped cement the relationship between the two characters during your run. The comic really became a buddy book under your direction.

JO DUFFY: That's exactly what I wanted it to be. That's how I always saw those characters. We know, behind the scenes, that they're being put together because the Blaxploitation craze and the chop-socky kung fu craze is winding down too, so we're just going to splice ‘em together. I happened to love both characters individually. As a fan, I was reading their books. My first question as a fan would be, "Why are these guys working together? What makes them friends?" That was my whole approach to the series. And I have never had a better time [in my career] than working on those characters. And if it wasn't for the vicissitudes of office politics, an executive coming in and wanting to go in a different direction, I could see myself writing them to this day.

What made you such a fan of them before you hopped onboard the book?

It was perfectly obvious to me that Iron Fist was borne out of Kung Fu, which was borne out of Lost Horizon, and it's like, "OK. I love both of those things. What does this have to do with the Marvel Universe and superheroes in the present day?" I had a lot of fun doing Iron Fist because of that. With Luke, the one thing I didn't feel … qualified to do was address the injustices that some of our society perpetrates on people of color. I decided I would just stay away from that whole angle of that part of his life. He suffered tremendous injustices, which led to his becoming Power Man. But I didn't think that remained central to his character at the time [I took over]. I never tried to write him as a black man so much as I was trying to write him as a man.

As a young reader it's easy to miss, but re-reading early Luke Cage, Hero for Hire and Power Man comics, one can't help but wince at the poorly scripted urban slang like "jive turkey" that was clearly written by white guys. You avoided much of that.

I feel [that type of writing] was heartfelt by other writers, and meant to be sincere, but I have to say, I kept "Sweet Sister" and "Christmas" simply because I thought they were charming and they were part of the character's vernacular. But I consciously did not focus on him as strictly a black character, but as just a wronged person, because I was worried it would be embarrassing for me and would come across as condescending, or worse.

Did you pitch [then editor-in-chief] Jim Shooter on taking over the book, or did they approach you for the job?

Neither! [laughs] My friend Chris Claremont, one of my favorite writers, was way overbooked. He had overcommitted himself, and it was clear he had more books on his plate than he could keep up with. So I went to Jim and said, "Every assistant editor at Marvel who was interested in writing has a regular book, except me. Is there a book that might come available?"

I think Jim had in mind that maybe Chris would give up writing Ms. Marvel, and I would take that over. But what I really was hoping for was Power Man & Iron Fist. Thing is, Chris was crazy for Ms. Marvel and had big plans for the character. He was great with Iron Fist, and did a wonderful run on the book. But it was clear his interest there was more with Colleen Wing and Misty Knight than it was with Iron Fist himself. Chris got to make the call, and to my inner glee, he said, "I'm keeping Ms. Marvel, and Jo can have Power Man & Iron Fist."

And that was how I got that assignment. Jim was very fair about if an assistant editor worked hard and paid his/her dues, and wanted to take over a regular book, he would support that. He was a great help to me getting it. But I do think he was hoping that the girl would write the girl comic and Chris would do Power Man & Iron Fist.

How did the office politics impact your work on the book? There weren't many female writers at Marvel back in the 1970s, were there?

I think I was the first regular female writer in a while on a Marvel book. There had been some women writing occasional issues, but for x number of years before I landed Power Man & Iron Fist, I think all the writers were men. But I have to say, I just remember having the best time on that comic. I couldn't have been happier.

The fact that we spliced together these two books that were headed towards cancellation, and then it wound up going from a struggling bi-monthly to a monthly, to suddenly other people felt they were better qualified to write it than I was … I mean, that irritated, hell, it devastated me. But on the other hand, it was a huge compliment to me. No one jumps onto a sinking ship unless they're an idiot like I was, where I thought I could pilot this ship to a new destination [laughs].

I find it interesting that it was the woman in the Marvel Bullpen who was writing what was the best "buddy comic" on store shelves at the time. That speaks to something, because obviously, equality in comics is a big topic today. But 40 years ago, you were blazing trails not on Ms. Marvel or another female comic book but with a comic about a bulletproof black man and a martial arts master.

That is exactly what I wanted to do. I loved my bulletproof black man and my martial arts master, and I think Chris did a much better job with Ms. Marvel than I ever would have. It's a big credit to Jim that he let Chris make the call on his own. The funny thing is, for the early part of my career, I overwhelmingly wrote action-adventure tough-guy comics. It wasn't until much later, in the late '80s, that I became associated with girl books. That was around time when the seeds of the "bad girl" comics phase began, and lasted until the mid-'90s. That's when I would get calls to give Barb Wire a try, let's ask Jo to write Catwoman for a year, let's ask Jo what she would like to do with Glory. That was after years of doing Power Man & Iron Fist, of doing The Punisher and Hercules, and yada yada.

You don't write who you are, you write who you're interested in. And I've always been interested in buddy stories.

What sparked that interest?

It probably started when I read my first Hardy Boys book or Spin & Marty. Sure, I read Nancy Drew. But I never asked myself "What happened to her?" after the book was over. But I asked myself that question after read the Hardy Boys. Now you go forward 20 years, and it's Power Man & Iron Fist.

The supporting cast, from Jeryn Hogarth, who really was the person who put Heroes For Hire together, to Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, were integral to the book. Whether it was Misty's PTSD from the explosion that took her arm, to Colleen worried about losing her business … these were things not happening for supporting cast members in books without "Spider-Man" in the title.

[Laughs] What can I say? Stan Lee was absolutely my idol. Always was, and I loved what he did with supporting casts, especially in Amazing Spider-Man. I don't think I set out to copy that, but on a subliminal level, I guess I picked up that you can't stand real people or characters up against a bogus canvas and have anybody care about them. It couldn't just be Luke and Danny were real; everyone around them had to be real and had to matter. And that's where you get a lot of your interesting storylines.

original art by Kerry Gammill 

The occasional appearance by the Living Monolith notwithstanding, this was a very grounded book. It was very street-level. And you had some incredible artists work with you on this. Marie Severin, Kerry Gamill, just to name a few. Was it easy to find artists to work with on this comic?

Mark Bright, Trevor Von Eedon as well. I was incredibly lucky. Around this time, Marvel would soon get more organized and structured, editors began controlling assignments more. "You do this, you do that." But when I first came in, and comics sales were in the doldrums and we were still decades away from big-budget comic book movies, you did things at the grassroots level. You went to your buddy and told him you have a series you'd like to work with him on, and do you want to do it?

Kerry had done a Star Wars fill-in issue for me when I was the regular writer on that book, that didn't actually see print until much later. I was crazy about it. I thought, "Man, if we get an opening at some point, we've gotta grab Kerry. I'm dying to work with him again. He would be so perfect for these characters."

Any of the villains from your run that you look back fondly on? Like "El Aguila"?

Well, credit where credit is due. El Aguila was designed by Dave Cockrum. Dave was my buddy, and he had a sketchbook full of fabulous characters that didn't have series. He would just come up with a costume design and a great-looking character. If you were lucky enough as a writer for Dave to say, "Sure, use this one," then you got to invent the powers, the personality … but the look was pure Dave. I told him I wanted to do a Zorro type character, and he said, "Well, step into my office. I happened to have designed what I think Zorro would have looked like if he had been a superhero." It was a great favor to me.

Have you seen the Marvel Netflix series Luke Cage and Iron Fist?

I have not seen any of the series. I've read up on them, but no, haven't seen them. I'm thrilled to see that both have made it on to television. People have been trying to get Luke Cage on screen for 20 years, so I'm very happy it's finally happened.

But I ... it's a problem I have, to enjoy the work of anyone who follows me on a character, because I find myself going, "Wait. That's not how his powers work! He would never say that! He may have been born in K'un L'un, but he was raised an American!" et cetera, et cetera. So it kind of impairs my enjoyment. But I will say, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is a notable exception. But I began taking note of Power Man on the Ultimate Spider-Man series on Disney XD, and loved that he was a teenager with parent issues. Yay!

Then on Netflix, he's got this incredibly dark story going on on Netflix.

Marvel's The Defenders is debuting this weekend. Do you plan to watch?

I'm actually very interested now to see it because of the team-up factor. I have given myself a binge weekend to watch it all. But I do have to get over my whole thing. I mean, they married him to someone other than Harmony, and for good measure, you killed her? Oh, the pain! [laughs]