Friday, November 27, 2009

Eddie "Iron Man" March Meets Luke Cage -- Retaliator

I went to my first comic book convention in 1973 when I was eight years old. The event took place in the Grand Ballroom at the Statler Hotel in downtown Cleveland. My dad took me. Although not a huge comic book fan, he loved nostalgia from his youth, and amid the boxes of “funny books” he found a treasure trove of souvenirs from old radio shows and movie serials.

Surrounded by what seemed like millions of comic books, I clutched the $10 bill my dad had placed in my hand. Today, $10 wouldn’t buy squat at a comic book convention. In 1973, however, $10 purchased me so many comics I actually struggled with my goody bag on the way out of the hotel. The fact that my dad gave me $10 -- which would be roughly $50 today -- wasn’t lost on me. I knew I had to spend my money wisely.

With half my funds, I purchased some virtually mint Adventure Comics (featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes), Flash, and Justice League of America issues. At that time bagged issues in excellent condition ranged from 50¢ - 60¢. With the rest of my funds I bought 100 assorted coverless comics for 5¢ a piece.

For a kid who just loved comic books, it didn’t matter that “collectors” considered coverless comics as worthless junk. My grab-bag of goodies provided a treasure trove of rapturous reading. The majority of titles were DC, and I spent hours poring over pages of Hawkman, thrilling to the exploits of Adam Strange and Green Lantern. By this time, I’d begun reading the more challenging Marvel comics my brother collected, and I was very excited that almost a third of the books were already-familiar titles like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.

In this cornucopia of comics, I first discovered my favorite series from that era, Captain Mar-Vell. I was also introduced to Iron Man and Marvel’s predominant black superhero at the time, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. The lone Iron Man issue happened to be the classic Invincible Iron Man #21. In it, Shellhead “retires” from the super biz and hires a successor to be Iron Man, veteran boxer Eddie “Iron Man” March, who also happens to be African American. At the end of the story, Eddie almost makes the ultimate sacrifice, and Tony Stark realizes he must never forsake the responsibility of being Iron Man again. To this day, Iron Man #21 still ranks as one of the most influential comics in my life.

By contrast, the Luke Cage offering in my grab bag (#5: “Don’t Mess With Black Mariah”) didn’t quite suit my eight-year-old tastes. The villain of the story, Black Mariah, was a huge, obese black woman with no super-powers. The whole tale seemed ridiculous. A superhero like Cage should be able to punch a fat lady through a wall. Story over. Still, I found something fascinating about Cage’s “for hire” mentality.

Looking back on that first comic book convention, I truly believe my $5/100-comic grab-bag might be the most important and significant monetary investment of my life. A short time after losing myself in all those stories, I began imagining the heroes that would later populate the Trademark Universe. One of my first creations owed his very identity to both Iron Man #21 and Luke Cage #5.

In fourth grade social studies, we read about the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791. I remember the historical account intrigued me. If Haiti’s slaves were able to revolt, why weren’t U.S. slaves able to do the same? Needless to say, I admired the Haitian slaves who had been able to break the chains of slavery themselves.

Several weeks after creating the Trademark Universe in 1975, my ten-year-old self experienced the vague notion that something was missing. Although I didn’t know the word back then, I surmise now that I was experiencing a lack of “diversity” in my characters. Fabricated upon the three-dimensional “realistic” concept of Marvel Comics, the Trademark Universe seemed more like the two-dimensional monochromatic world of DC Comics in its inception. Skater (later Silver Streak), Hangman, Beachcomber, Son of Liberty, the Optimist, Vendetta -- my league of extraordinary white gentlemen exposed a certain paucity in my creative powers, not to mention my social consciousness.

The solution came to me immediately. The Trademark Universe needed a black superhero. I recalled Iron Man #21 and the character of Eddie March, a black prize fighter who became the first substitute Iron Man. I also mulled over the origin and character of Luke Cage, an innocent convict who loans his body out to a corrupt government in exchange for parole. Comingling these two influences with my fascination with the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791, I created the Trademark Universe’s first “black” superhero: Brigade, a.k.a. Timothy LaPierre, a.k.a. the Retaliator.

For a short while, Brigade, who quickly took the name Retaliator (see below), sufficed as the TU’s sole superhero of color. However, as I gradually realized, my first black American hero really wasn’t a BLACK hero because no one could see the color of his skin beneath his helmet. In other words, I’d somehow created a black hero that no one knew was black.

I resolved this dilemma in two ways. I created a story arc where LaPierre’s identity (and thus his race) became public, and I created a second black superhero whose skin color and racial identity presented no ambiguity whatsoever: Wolf. (Much more on Wolf in my next blog entry.)

For more information regarding Retaliator’s origin and career, I will once again cite the Trademark Universe Handbook I provided to Tony Lewis when we originally decided to make Worlds Apart a reality.

Retaliator (Timothy LaPierre) A black American professional boxer of Haitian descent, Timothy LaPierre boasted not only a Golden Gloves championship but an Olympic gold medal by age 18. Known as “The Haitian Machine,” hard-hitting LaPierre had a penchant for putting down his opponents in the first round. Finally, after battling through dozens of professional fights, LaPierre got the title shot of his dreams against Heavyweight Champion Malcolm “Bruiser” Bruno. LaPierre’s dream, however, quickly turned into his worst nightmare.

Viciously race-baited by Bruno during the pre-fight weigh-in, LaPierre entered the ring determined not only to beat Bruno, but to punish him as well. As the fight started, Bruno’s racially-charged taunts enraged LaPierre, throwing the young challenger off his fight. Bruno even managed to land a hard uppercut that sent LaPierre to the canvas, something that had never happened to the young boxer before.

As a dazed LaPierre pulled himself together, Bruno stood over him, jeering and spitting down on him. Struggling to his feet, LaPierre found himself strengthened by a cold, merciless rage. As the fight resumed, LaPierre overwhelmed the champion, unleashing a flurry of punches that made the onlookers gasp. As the coup de grace, the Haitian Machine delivered a devastating knockout blow to Bruno, a punch so hard it broke Bruno’s neck, killing the champion instantly.

Needless to say, pandemonium broke loose inside and outside the ring. Amid the chaos, LaPierre found himself being drugged and hustled out of the ring by mysterious men in black suits, who then dumped him into a waiting black helicopter. Hours later, LaPierre regained consciousness and found himself being held in a top-secret underground research facility. During a relentless interrogation, LaPierre discovered where he was and who was holding him. The installation belonged to the U.S. government’s top-secret S-1 Operations Bureau.

S-1 Operations, LaPierre soon learned, constituted a top-secret agency entrusted with policing America’s super-powered citizens, heroes and villains. S-1’s primary objective at the time was the recovery of a valuable piece of re-engineered alien technology: a visor mask which enabled the wearer to view the world in slow motion, as well as see through walls and perceive surroundings with 360 degrees of peripheral vision. The visor had been stolen by a man named Matt Carpenter, a.k.a. the Optimist, an investigative reporter turned super-powered vigilante.

Faced with the prospect of criminal prosecution for the death of Bruno, LaPierre was offered a position with S-1 in order to pay his debt to society. To combat the Optimist, S-1 designed a suit of battle armor projected to be ten times more effective than the Optimist’s visor. However, they had been unsuccessful thus far finding a man with the reflexes and physical abilities required to control the armor. After studying LaPierre for months, S-1 believed they’d found their super-soldier.

Undergoing rigorous training with S-1’s battlesuit, LaPierre was given the codename Brigade and dispatched to retrieve the Optimist’s visor. After hunting down the Optimist for weeks, LaPierre slowly realized the truth behind Matt Carpenter’s actions. S-1 abused their authority while breaking countless laws, and Carpenter, as the Optimist, had only been fighting to expose S-1’s corruption. What finally turned LaPierre against S-1, however, was knowledge that S-1 operatives had actually been the ones to kill Bruno in the ring. S-1 had framed LaPierre for the slaying in order to secure his cooperation.

Disenchanted with his employers, LaPierre divulged the information to Silver Streak and the Protectors while bringing suit against S-1 and the federal government. For their part, the Protectors swore to protect LaPierre until his trial, and for a brief time he signed on with them, still under the name Brigade. S-1 tricked the Protectors into leaving Brigade alone at Protectors HQ, however, and with the team absent, S-1 moved in to silence their rogue agent once and for all.

Needless to say, Brigade survived the assault and lived to fight many more days. Tricked into believing that the Protectors betrayed him to S-1, Brigade left the group, relocated to Haiti and went into “business” for himself as the Retaliator, “a superhero who looks out for number one.” Retaliator works for anyone (except criminals) who pays his fee: $10,000 a day plus expenses -- in cash. Essentially given asylum by the Haitian government because of his super-powers and duel citizenship, Retaliator constantly flaunts his outlaw status in the States by crossing the border with impunity. During one such mission, Retaliator fell in with a ragtag bunch of marginalized superheroes led by another black superhero, Wolf. The resulting partnership led to the creation of the Irregulars.

Weapons -- Originally designed by S-1 from back-engineered alien technology, Retaliator’s suit is one giant weapon giving him super-strength, speed, and invulnerability, as well as the ability to fly, survive the vacuum of space, and fire high-intensity energy blasts. Years after first donning the armor, Retaliator’s suit received an upgrade with even more advanced alien technology during an off-world adventure. Presently, Retaliator is one of the Trademark Universe’s most powerful heroes.

Personal Items -- Retaliator’s pariah status in the superbiz makes establishing any close contacts nearly impossible. Quite simply, his motto of always “looking out for number one” means even his teammates don’t completely trust him. A year before the events of Worlds Apart, LaPierre met and married Somali supermodel Ayanna, and the two have a baby girl. LaPierre’s status as a family man governs his actions at the opening of Worlds Apart, where he very un-superheroically leaves the battle with Breakneck to save his own family. Such unpredictable and nonconforming self-interest is emblematic of Retaliator’s character and career.

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