Have Them Fight God: Luke and Danny Destroy the World

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each. If DC are putting out FF material now, can I do any less?

Today it’s…

Heroes for Hire #12

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…from June 1998. A comic in which Sue Storm appears in a one panel flashback to something that happened in Alpha Flight.

Written by John Ostrander. Pencilled by Pasqual Ferry. Inked by Jaime Mendoza. Lettered by Jon Babcock. Coloured by Joe Rosas. Edited by Mark Bernardo.

ONE

The phrase ‘Heroes for Hire’ suggests Luke Cage and Danny Rand having Blaxpolitation/Kung Fu Buddy Movie adventures. Marvel almost once put out a collection called Marvel Bromance and the Power Man and Iron Fist issue it would have contained is exactly the sort of Marvel bromance that ‘Heroes for Hire’ brings to mind. But the first series to actually carry the title wasn’t that sort of thing at all. The second wasn’t either. Or the third. Comics called Heroes for Hire are never what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘Heroes for Hire.’

That said, this particular series, which ran between ‘Ninety-Seven and early ‘Ninety-Nine, did have Luke and Danny. Not only that but they both joined, resigned from, and rejoined this iteration of Heroes for Hire frequently enough to be considered the book’s leads. But…look. This is a series in which Luke Cage is collaborating with the Master of the World to kill off seventy percent of the world’s population in as hygienic a way as possible while Danny’s busy preparing for the culmination of his entirely separate plan to destroy all technology and impose an absolute monarchy across the face of the Earth. The Heroes for Hire are open for business, but it is far from business as usual.    

What’s changed the economic conditions so drastically is Onslaught/Heroes Reborn. Like Thunderbolts, this comic launched into a Marvel Universe where the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are thought to have died in that event. Also like the Thunderbolts this version of Heroes for Hire is offered as the sort of institution that might rise to take the place of those fallen Great Houses. Where it differs from Thunderbolts, however, is in that that superhero team secretly exists to fulfil a villainous agenda, while this superhero team exists to fulfil LOADS of villainous agendas.  

The stated agenda of Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch, is not a villainous one. True, he eventually pitches in with helping the Master of the World try to become the master of seventy percent fewer people, but it doesn’t look like that was his goal from the start. Jim’s been left running Oracle Incorporated, Namor’s surface world corporation, in light of Namor’s ‘death’ and Namorita’s efforts to cover it up. Over the course of the run we learn three things about how he’s making use of the company’s resources; that he’s not been directing them to the environmentalist causes they’re intended for, that he’s been buying enough minoxodil to grow a beard on an android, and that he’s set up these Heroes for Hire.  

The times are dark and hopeless and people need heroes to inspire them, reason both Jim and Danny. Danny’s response is to set in motion the unstoppable process of aligning our reality with that of K’un Lun, bringing about the end of the age of science and the eternal reign of the Dragon King over all nations. He later admits this was a bit of an overreaction. Jim’s response is to start up a new superhero team, one that will work “not as vigilantes, but as hired employees for those needing help, working for a nominal fee” with the nominal fee going to charitable causes.

Now, while not as out there as the whole ‘eternal reign of the Dragon King’ stuff, I still think this is an eccentric model. Jim’s goal is to inspire people with heroic displays, but he’s built in an pecuniary transaction that the ‘nominal’ bit admits is unnecessary. The helping people in need bit? Fine. The donating money to charity bit? Fine. The association of those two into “We’ll help people in need if they donate to other people in need”? A bit weird.

Which is perhaps why nobody’s quite got their head around Jim’s big idea. The team’s first mission is just them hearing some scientists are in trouble and rushing right off to save them with nary a contract being signed. Come the second issue then the wicked Nitro is taunting a SWAT team by telling them they’re not paid enough to stand against his explosive evil, when Danny leaps into action with the words, “Some of us just do it for fun!” Danny, Danny, Danny, what are you doing? You’re pretending to be here to garner charitable donations while secretly working to assemble a round table of warrior knights that will enforce the Dragon King’s autocratic will. Don’t go complicating things further by putting it about that this is all for larks!

We get four issues of superhero punch-ups before anyone presents themselves in any sort of ‘client’ role. It’s Sersi in issue five, who is very keen to transmute objects into gold as payment while the Heroes are very keen to tell her that the fee can be waived. After her the next formal client we see is a kid in issue eight who Luke charges a buck. Namor comes back in issue nineteen, checks in on how Jim’s been running his corporation, shuts the whole enterprise down and cancels the comic.  

It’s fair to say then that what makes this book a book about hireable heroes is less to do with their direct relationship with money and more to do with their relationship to being on a team. Deadpool explicates things on issue ten’s cover when he turns up saying, “Somebody call for a temp?” He has understood this book perfectly. This is a book about casual labour.

The Great Houses have fallen. The big employers have gone. But if we’re going to imagine the power structures of the Marvel Universe as a labour market then we have to remember that what us real humans typically want from a labour market, a wage, isn’t something that superheroes ever really need unless they’re in stories specifically about getting paid. Most of the time in superhero universes then money invisibly takes care of itself and the real wealth is the sense of one’s self as a valid and meaningful hero. The measure of how much a superhero signifies as a self-actualised individual, the semantic weight of the symbol on their chest, is the capital produced by the Marvel and DC Universe’s internal fictional economies.

What we’ve got here then, is a look at being a superhero under unstable conditions in the superhero sector. The superhero-and-related-professions sector, really, as Bambi Arbogast and Jennifer Walters are here in office roles and Jane Foster’s here as a medic.   

Nobody is on this team for long. Deadpool’s here for two issues. The Hulk’s here for one. Scott Lang is on the team from the start, but nobody notices him until issue six and then shortly afterwards he has to take extended periods of absence due to childcare issues. Hercules drifts in and out, leaving the first time because he got drunk and the second because he got distracted. Jen has to negotiate to stay on her hourly legal rate when pitching in with superheroics. Dane Whitman finds himself trying to juggle two jobs once the Avengers are back. The doors revolve so fast that when Danny, the leader of the team, quits in issue eight it gets presented in a perfunctory flashback.    

The White Tiger’s employment status is particularly interesting. If you’re anything like me then you might sometimes get a bit confused about Marvel’s five different White Tigers, but this one’s easy to remember – this is the one who is LITERALLY A TIGER. A tiger who can adopt human form and an attendant human-ish consciousness in order to do superheroing and get in inappropriate love triangles. I bet she’s only on the books when she’s human.    

The issue we’re talking about today, a Double-Sized Anniversary Spectacular, finds the series at some sort of equilibrium. We’ve got a sense here of who officially ‘counts’ as having been a member of this team, a sense arising partly from which of them show up for the anniversary issue and partly from which of them the Master of the World has troubled to make evil duplicates of. We’ve also got everyone’s cards on the table; Danny has half-apologised for inflicting a mystical dictatorship on the world but said there’s not much he can be expected to do about it now, while Luke is about to reveal that he was only pretending to want to dispose of most of humanity even if he does still think there’s a lot to the idea. Issue twelve is the first point in this series where we’ve got a clear idea of who this book is about and what they all want. The only point, really, as after this then we’re into the chaos of how they adapt to a world in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four have returned. This comic looks a lot like a big climactic showdown, but really it’s an island of calm.

TWO

How much does it matter to people who’ve been in the Fantastic Four that they’ve been in the Fantastic Four?

Here in issue twelve we, briefly, have a concrete sense of who this book’s heroes are; Iron Fist! She-Hulk! Black Knight! Thena! Hercules! Luke Cage! The Scott Lang version of Ant Man! The Jim Hammond version of the Human Torch! The LITERALLY A TIGER version of the White Tiger!

That means a whole third of this line up are people who have, by this point in their lives, been members of the FF. Two of them, She-Hulk and Ant Man, will be again, on the same squad no less. When that day comes it won’t particularly matter to either of them that they’d been Heroes for Hire together. That’s as it should be, as this book ends with a decisive “oh well then.” Namor sells the company and everyone goes their separate ways, Luke and Danny resolving that this will have no effect on their friendship and everyone else just being quietly dismissed with a “see you round, maybe” from Danny. Nobody leaves with any sense that having been part of the Heroes for Hire was a part of who they were. It was only ever just a gig.

What then, for the three (Luke, Jen and Scott) who have spent time  in the FF, did that time represent? Was that something that was just a gig for them, or something that they’ve carried with them as part of their identities?

Previous team affiliations are very important here. The whole logic of Namor trusting (to a point) Jim to run his corporation comes from them having been Invaders together, and this issue taps into that with Jim taking command and the team feeling all inspired as they imagine how it would have felt to serve with him in WWII. Having been an Invader matters in this book.

As does having been an Avenger. Dane is forever knowing important information because he was once an Avenger or holding people to the standards he would have expected from them back when they were Avengers. Then, once the Avengers are back and reformed, the Heroes for Hire frequently find themselves short-handed as their roster struggle to manage their commitments. Hammond’s grumpy about everyone being off doing Avengers stuff in issue eleven as they absent themselves for Busiek’s tellingly named ‘Once an Avenger…’ arc, and then again in issue thirteen as Jen and Herc wander off to help out with what’s going on in Waid’s Captain America. Only one of them wanders back.     

People who’ve been Avengers or Invaders want to talk a lot about those associations, but at no point do the three Fantastic Four members feel like talking about that being a thing they have in common. It comes up for each of them individually though. For Scott, and his daughter Cassie, it’s a very material concern. They’re not happy living in the Oracle Corporation’s HQ but, well, they were previously living at Four Freedoms Plaza and that’s not an option now. That their roles with the Fantastic Four have been taken from them is what’s put them in these circumstances.

For Jen it comes up as part of her reluctance to work on the team in a superheroic role. “I’ve done the group thing with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four,” she says in issue eight, I’m here strictly in a legal capacity.” It fits into her sense of identity in terms of where she sees herself in her career.

Most interesting is how it comes up with Luke. That happens in issue nine when Jim’s wondering if Luke’s been dragged off to Busiek’s Avengers book with everyone else. “Cage was never part of the Avengers, Mr Hammond,” Mrs Arbogast corrects him, “He was part of the Fantastic Four.” Not having been an Avenger is is presented almost as a corollary of him having been part of the FF. Arbogast has a strong sense of what it means to be aligned with a Great House, and of which Luke is aligned with. I love the irony of this in light of how firmly Luke will eventually find himself cast in the role of the One True Keeper of Avengers Values.

People in this series then have very pragmatic takes on their own involvement with the Fantastic Four. Yet there’s a real mythologisation of the Fantastic Four as an institution.

“The Avengers are dead, the Fantastic Four are dead,” complains Dane in issue two, “I have no money, no job, no purpose.”

That a team he never had anything in particular to do with is gone is his second biggest problem. Higher on the list than the money, job and purpose stuff. A sense that there is something wrong with the world is the backdrop to this series and the absence of the Fantastic Four comes up every time that wrongness is discussed.

That’s where the characters of Heroes for Hire seem to be with the FF. That Sue, Reed, Ben and Johnny are gone from the world represents a catastrophic existential shift. But that two of their own number once filled in for Ben and one of them once filled in for Reed… those were just gigs.

THREE

Although She-Hulk has been in the book for a couple of issues now, this is the point where Jen begins the character arc that will see her through to the end of the run. Before we can talk about that though there’s something you have to know.

This comic hates her. Really hates her.

Take this sequence, where Jen’s facing off against a duplicate of the Hulk, looking confident and assured that whatever version of the Hulk this is, she can handle the situation.

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She’s then just punched in the stomach in a panel that doesn’t look anything like superheroic action.

Because this is how superheroic action looks in this comic…

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And this is the punchline to Jen’s conversation with the duplicate Hulk…

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That’s just a woman being punched in the stomach, that is. Her cheeks comically inflating as the reader is invited to enjoy her being punished for her smugness and presumption. The pleasures being offered by the two depictions of violence couldn’t be more different.    

Whatever has she done that’s made the creators suppose that her humiliation there will be a satisfying moment?

Part of it is that, by the time she’s introduced, the book has become acutely aware of the fact that it’s called Heroes for Hire and that nobody in it is motivated by money. Jen therefore gets the job of being the one who cares about money. You can see the logic. ‘She-Hulk is a lawyer’ is a thing. ‘Lawyers are greedy’ is a thing. So we get a greedy She-Hulk who’s here because the Oracle Corporation made her a better offer than the DA’s office and who does not take her eye for a moment off how much she’s getting paid for all this.

There’s also a lot of awkward, and perhaps thankfully not unpacked, stuff about her gender identity – Mrs Arbogast refusing to consider her a ‘lady’ – but to be honest this series will beat her with any stick that’s to hand. There’s a scene where the narration boxes are endorsing the idea that her meanness and size identifies her as being a Skrull, when push comes to shove and…

…oh. Before I can tell you about that, I have to talk about the narrator. Heroes for Hire has a sense of itself as a retro comic. We’ll talk about to what extent that’s true in the next section, but we know that’s part of the remit here because issue eleven opens with narration about how “people say this is a ‘retro’ type comic.” And we know what doing a retro type Marvel comic involves, don’t we? Only the sensational stylings of Smilin’ Stan’s blistering baloney, True Believers!

Stan-Speak is what this book seems to call for, but what John Ostrander delivers is something far more fun. Ostrander gives us a narrator who’s trying to be Stan but who hasn’t quite understood what’s being asked of him and is spiralling wildly out of control. More than one issue involves the narrator in a genuine state of panic that the dangerous events unfolding are going to result in everyone’s death and his own unemployment. For one issue he decides to withhold useful information from the reader and have a fun quiz instead. Stories that start in medias res see him furious with the reader for turning up late and trying to hurry things along by asking any New York based readers to skip text boxes explaining local features. Much confusion arises from him inviting the reader to put themselves in the White Tiger’s place and then getting in a flap about whether or not the reader is literally the White Tiger (they are not. The White Tiger is LITERALLY A TIGER).   

The chaotic narration and the comic’s poor treatment of Jen come together in an incredible scene that might genuinely be one of my favourite ever She-Hulk fourth wall breaks as it also brings together her metafictional awareness with her legal role.  

Yes. She-Hulk fires the narrator.

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It’d be nice if the comic got more sympathetic to her after that brilliant play for control, but a text’s voice is not only expressed through narration. Two issues after this she’ll be drawn flouncing absurdly off while Luke makes shrugging “Dames, eh?” gestures at some random bloke. Heroes for Hire continues to hold her in a pointedly gendered disdain. This, at times self-aware, conflict between She-Hulk and the comic she’s in is the backdrop to the weird character arc that begins here in issue twelve.

It concerns her attitude to ex-cons. An attitude that’s very distinct from her attitude to anyone else that’s doing wrong. She’s the very first to tell Jim Hammond that he shouldn’t feel bad about almost destroying the human race and doesn’t seem bothered in the least by Danny Rand compelling all to bow before the Dragon King. Her heart bursts with forgiveness for any wrongdoers who haven’t been tried, convicted and sentenced. But as regards anyone who’s ever been through the criminal courts and been found guilty, She-Hulk’s putting the vert in Javert.

The arc starts here with Danny incredulous that Luke might have betrayed him. “He’s an ex-con, what do you expect?” she says, with poor Scott Lang stood right there. The arc ends with her speaking up for Luke and Scott to make sure they get their severance packages in the final issue.

What happens in between to change her mind seems to be one adventure and one date with Luke Cage, both in issue seventeen. The adventure sees them rescue several girls who’ve been kidnapped to serve as a harem by a couple of teenage terrorists. Luke strips the boys to their boxers and has the girls spank them. It is this “nasty sense of justice” that causes Jen to start to warm to him, even though one of the abductors is shown to be very much enjoying his punishment. It is uncomfortable.

Having won her favour with his ability to organise Abu Ghraib-esque spectacles of atrocity, Luke then takes her out for a meal and tells her his origin story. She listens attentively and then starts talking about the mechanics of them having sex. Immediately. No “I see now that people have the capacity for change.” No “I see now that the US justice system isn’t perfect and, y’know what, there might just be a racial element to that.” None of that. Straight to, “I don’t break. And I’m looking for a man who doesn’t bruise when I hold him tight.” It is uncomfortable.  

FOUR

Although a flashback to Sue’s adventure in John Byrne’s Alpha Flight is what qualifies this comic for inclusion in this project, there isn’t terribly much to say about that flashback itself. Yet Byrne’s fingerprints are necessarily all over the continuity of a book that is essentially a confrontation between a baddie he invented in Alpha Flight and a corporation in invented in Namor. The prevalence of Byrne material brings us into a very Eighties space, as do Luke and Danny themselves since nobody until Bendis will solve the problem of moving either beyond where Priest left them.

One more important Eighties element factors in. John Ostrander’s writing this book. We know what we want from Ostrander here, don’t we? Mark Bernado, the editor who assembled the creative team, wanted him because he knew he was “great with juggling lots of characters in a mission-orientated setting from his days writing DC’s Suicide Squad” and so much of this book makes sense when you realise that Marvel fancied this as their version of the Squad. The unstable cast. The extent to which everyone is both morally and operationally compromised. Even the way this book sits in relation to Onslaught/Heroes Reborn recalls Suicide Squad’s relationship to Crisis on Infinite Earths.  

A lot of fun can be had playing with how this sits next to DC material. We’ve got the adventures of the Oracle Corporation here as a follow up to the run that established Barbara Gordon as Oracle. That’s pleasing even before you get to that fact that the Oracle Corporation has a relationship with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing’s PI firm; Nightwing restorations.

So that’s a big wodge of Eighties material informing a book with a Sixties-style narrator who isn’t really a Sixties-style narrator at all. How that guy works becomes clear when Deadpool joins the cast and the narrator announces that there’s no way he’s going to compete. The narrator that She-Hulk fires is a post-Joe Kelly version of Stan Lee.

Because that’s the amazing thing about this volume of Heroes for Hire, and this issue especially, the way that it’s a massive nexus of anything that could possibly be an influence on it. Think of something that might have been informing a superhero comic in Nineteen Ninety-Eight. It’s in here somewhere.

Watching the art provides the big clues. Ferry and Mendoza start this run serving up the extremities of Nineties Image books. Their early Hercules looks like the kind of dude who’d stand at the back in Gen 13 and their early White Tiger is an unsolvable knot of Liefeldian jumblewumpf.  

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There’s none of that by the time we get to issue twelve. Its spaceships might still be zooming around a cosmos of limitless speedlines and crosshatching, but everything surrounding its human figures has calmed the fuck down. There’s a resurgent sense of ‘classicism’ happening around Mark Bagely on Thunderbolts and George Perez on Avengers and a sense of the collapse of Heroes Reborn having represented a final failure of the extreme early Image style. Looking at the compositions here and they’re very comparable to how Howard Porter’s JLA is looking. You could hand someone this and the first couple of issues of ‘Rock of Ages’ and they would absolutely tell you that they were the same sort of thing.              

As much as this comic is trying to present the recent past through a reinvention of the distant past, there’s so much here that’s forward looking. The very idea of the Corporate Superteam will be a huge concern in the decade ahead, from Milligan and Allred’s X-Force to Arcudi and Huat’s Doom Patrol, so Heroes for Hire is undeniably ahead of its time on that one. 

This is an artefact from an interesting and uncertain time for Marvel. It was obvious that the Nineties were dying but they weren’t sure what came next. They’d narrowed it down to either the Sixties, the Eighties or the Twenty-First Century but were reluctant to commit.