Retro Reviews: The Crew By Priest & Bennett For Marvel Comics? Was This Supposed To Be The Black Avengers?

The Crew #1-7 (July 2003 – January 2004)

Written by Christopher Priest

Pencils by Joe Bennett

Inks by Crime Lab Studios

Coloured by Avalon Studios

Spoilers (from twelve to thirteen years ago)

After the cancellation of The Black Panther, Christopher Priest was given The Crew, a new ensemble cast comic which he has claimed should have been called The Black Avengers.  The problem was, this book was cancelled by Marvel before the first issue was even published, cutting short Priest’s plans for the characters, and making it one of the most tragic lame duck titles ever, as it was really, really good.  I remember being completely enamored with this title when it was originally launched, and being very sad to see it go, especially since the cast was beginning to come together beautifully.

The series picks up from and continues the later issues of the Black Panther, in that Kasper Cole, the new White Tiger, is a central character, and the drug gang 66 Bridges, his frequent nemeses, are the antagonists.  The book also features Junta, Danny Vincent, a character that got some play in the earlier T’Challa focused issues of BP.  The main engine of the book, however, is James Rhodes, who at this point is retired as War Machine, and is bankrupt.  Rhodey is shown as being older than usual, with greying temples, and no mention is made of his military connections, which he can never seem to escape lately.  Rounding out this book is the wonderful character Josiah X, the son of Isaiah Bradley, the first Captain America from the Truth comic.

These characters slowly converge upon one another in order to deal with the 66 Bridges gang, and once that is done, the book is just over.

Let’s take a look at who was in this series:

Crew

  • James Rhodes (former War Machine; #1-7)
  • Josiah X (Josiah al hajj Saddiq, street imam; #1-7)
  • White Tiger (Kasper Cole; #1-7)
  • Junta (Danny Vincent; #3-7)

Villains

  • Triage (66 Bridges PR man/NY leader; #3)

Supporting Characters

  • Officer Marcy Howard (NYPD; #1, 7)
  • Gwen (Kasper’s pregnant girlfriend; #2, 4)
  • Ruth Cole (Kasper’s mother; #2, 4)
  • Ma (Junta’s tech servo; #3-4, 6-7)
  • Faith Bradley (#5)
  • Sarah Gail Bradley (#5)
  • Isaiah Bradley (the first Captain America; #5)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • The Crew opens in the Little Mogadishu neighbourhood of Brooklyn, where we see a woman fall from a rooftop onto a car.  A pair of gangster types complain to someone on the roof that they should have aimed for the dumpster.  Next we see Jim Rhodes, War Machine, wake up in a hotel room in Oakland with a woman.  He pops some Percadam, calls the woman Marcy a lot, and reads some papers from Grace & Tumbalt (which we know to be a front for the 66 Bridges gang).  Next he visits a bookkeeper who tells him he is bankrupt.  After that he tries to pawn his War Machine helmet, but instead sells his Rolex.  That evening he’s out with a woman, when he receives a call from an Officer Howard in Brooklyn informing him that his sister has died.  She is the woman from the first page.  We learn that they hadn’t spoken in five or six years, and that his sister was a drug addict and prostitute.  Rhodey goes to The Mog, and the site where his sister died, where he is confronted by a number of gangsters.  He enters a building where she was known to squat and shoot up, and when the gangsters speak ill of her, he begins to fight them.  He takes them out, and is met by a man who invites him elsewhere.  That guy turns out to be Josiah X, a local Islamic preacher, who goes with him to the library, where Rhodey hacks an NSA database to look for satellite photos of his sister’s death.  He sees the two guys from the beginning of the issue, but when he takes a photo to Officer Howard, she refuses to act on it.  Later, Officer Kasper Cole and another cop find the two guys tied up, with evidence that can help convict them of other offenses.  At his sister’s funeral, Rhodey tries to get Howard to tell him which gang those guys worked for.  He tells Josiah X that he’s going to be sticking around for a while.
  • The second issue focuses on Kasper Cole, the White Tiger, and recent star of the Black Panther title.  Kasper is still working towards getting promoted at his regular job as an NYPD drug officer, and spends time in his new White Tiger gear tracking down bad guys and doctoring probable cause so he can get the collar for their arrests.  We see him go after a drug courier working for some guy named Rain Man.  While waiting for a lead, he visits Josiah X as Officer Cole, looking for Jim Rhodes and trying to figure out his involvement in the capture of the guys who murdered Rhodey’s sister.  He suspects that X knows more than he is letting on.  We see Rhodey doing something in the New York subway.  A service train comes along and derails rather spectacularly.  White Tiger begins to threaten his drug informant for information about Rain Man when the man himself, and some goons, arrive.  He makes short work of them (Bennett is excellent here) and leaves them for the cops he hears approaching.  He goes home, where his girlfriend and mother are fighting again, lets potential new readers know about how his father is in prison, and then decides to check in on the Rain Man situation.  He learns that no one arrested the drug dealer because everyone is at the train derailment.  He suits up and goes after Rain Man again, who lets him know that the derailed train is used to funnel drugs and money to various dirty cops and politicians.  He heads into the tunnels, using his Kimoyo card to avoid cops or the other crooks trying to get to the cash.  He cuts his way through to the wreck, where the cop guarding the money opens fire on him.  The cop is trapped, and Kasper decides to leave him and the cash, since he can’t figure out how he can take credit for this situation without ending up working for IAB.  He discovers Rhodey’s scent and leaves, but feels he has to return when a group of cops or criminals begin firing on the lone cop.  He’s quickly outnumbered and appears to be trapped.
  • Issue three focuses on Danny Vincent, Junta, last seen helping Queen Divine Justice stop XCon from taking over America, and hanging out with George W. Bush.  Now he’s basically shunned by the intelligence community, and left taking jobs catching cheating husbands.  He steals one such husband’s car while posing as his opthamologist (he sees an old associate in the waiting room – that becomes significant), and then takes the car to the man’s wife, where he has a forensics team ready to find evidence that the man is sleeping with secretary in it.  He then gets on the phone to shake the guy down for more money.  Moishe, his old associate, approaches him, and we learn that Moishe has been working as a bag man, taking one of the lock boxes off the money train currently derailed under The Mog for 66 Bridges, a very powerful gang.  Danny agrees to go retrieve Moishe’s box for him, and then goes to visit Triage, the NY head of 66 Bridges, at his office at Grace & Tumbalt.  He, with the help of Ma, his techno servo programmed with his dead mother’s personality, has to stop a couple of Triage’s goons as a job interview, before agreeing to do the job for even more money than Moishe promised.  He then goes home, where Triage shows up at his door, offering even more money, before he finally suits up and heads down to the subway.  He finds the hole White Tiger cut, and then finds White Tiger himself, still pinned down by fire coming from who knows who.  Danny figures Kasper for one of Hunter’s Hatut Zeraze.  Kasper grabs him, but due to Danny’s weird gravity powers, that makes Kasper feel very sick and he vomits on Danny before passing out.  Suspecting a booby trap, Danny uses Kasper’s energy dagger to cut into the lockbox, and is about to make his escape, when Jim Rhodes, wearing a SWAT uniform and a War Machine gauntlet, knocks him out with one punch.  He wakes to find himself tied to Kasper, with Rhodey informing him that the cops are about thirty seconds away.  Rhodey leaves them.
  • As the cops approach, Kasper and Danny come to, and Danny realizes that Rhodey took his Ma.  Kasper is able to free Danny from his cuffs, and as the cops get into the section of ruined tunnel, he frees himself.  Danny takes off one way, while Kasper realizes he has to fight his way through his colleagues or risk being unmasked.  Rhodey is among the officers, and he helps him.  Danny’s gravity belt (which keeps him from imploding and taking a few city blocks with him) has been disabled, so Rhodey knows that he will have to come to him and Kasper.  Kasper is a little freaked out that Rhodey knows who everyone is.  They ditch their various costumes and gear, and enter Josiah X’s ministry, hiding in an AA meeting.  Danny slips into the meeting, killing the lights and causing chaos.  Danny holds Kasper at gunpoint, while Rhodey threatens to not reboot Ma, who is needed to fix the gravity belt.  While our ‘heroes’ stand off against each other, Josiah X flattens Danny with one punch.  Josiah and some of his guys take Kasper out of the ministry, where it is revealed that Josiah’s been shot with a gel bullet.  Rhodey helps fix Danny, and we learn that Rhodey knows a lot of what’s going on, including how Danny is trying to use 66 Bridges to get back in with the NSA, where he worked before the Ghudaza stuff went down in the Black Panther comics.  Josiah is angry with Rhodey, and everyone heads off in separate directions.  Danny shows up in Kasper’s home, and they discuss what Rhodey’s really up to.  At the same time, we see Josiah take a payoff from 66 Bridges and head to a big mansion owned by Grace & Tumbalt (while Rhodey surveilles him).  In the mansion, a woman named Irenia questions Josiah about what went on, and the news that he was shot (which Danny has figured out is actually a gel that Rhodey is using to track anyone who comes into contact with the money train take).  Josiah says his body armor stopped the bullet, and removes his shirt to reveal that he’s wearing the Captain America tunic that Isaiah Bradley once wore.
  • With issue five, Priest and Bennett switch things up some, giving over the entire issue to Josiah X’s life story.  It opens in 1953 when a young woman with a baby knocks on the door of Faith Bradley’s house and declares that the baby is her’s.  Faith is the wife to Isaiah Bradley, the first Captain America and the subject of the excellent Robert Morales/Kyle Baker miniseries Truth that I reviewed here.  It becomes clear that the woman acted as a surrogate to eggs harvested from Faith, fertilized with sperm taken from Isaiah before he became sterile.  Faith is seen to chase the girl off, but later we see that was a ruse, as her and her daughter Sarah Gail place the baby, named Josiah, on a train hoping it will get him away from the government that is always watching her.  In 1965 we see the adolescent Josiah, living in a Catholic orphanage, begin to develop strength, and unwittingly kill a nun before running away.  In 1968 we see him in Vietnam, where he survives a danger close napalm strike and later slugs his Colonel.  In 1973 he is found, in Leavenworth, by government agents who figure out who he really is.  After a year in government care, the woman who bore him appears and frees him, saying that the government is about to kill him.  Before he leaves, she tells him his parents are named Faith and Isaiah.  In 1978, hanging with some Black Panthers (the party, not the Wakandans) he learns about the set of experiments that led to the super soldier formula, and that someone named Isaiah was on the list of victims’ names.  He turns up at the Bradley home and meets his biological family, including the now-childlike Isaiah, but is turned away lest the government find him again.  In 1995 he returns to the church where he was raised, and in confession explains that he’d converted to Islam, but that he was seeking penance for killing that nun, who in a move that probably works against church doctrine, is alive and taking confession.  He’s barely aged, and she absolves him of his guilt.  In 2002, which I believe is the same year that Captain America publicized the Isaiah Bradley story, Josiah receives a package from Faith that includes Isaiah’s Captain America tunic, which he starts wearing.  In the present day, Josiah is visiting his parents again, when Rhodey, Kasper, and Danny turn up at the door.
  • Rhodey, Danny, and Kasper accompany Josiah home to the Princeton Walk gated community, where security forces aren’t willing to let them in.  Josiah pushes the issue, and Kasper is surprised to see how well Josiah lives, immediately assuming it’s all from 66 Bridges money.  The men argue some, and Danny rips open Josiah’s shirt, revealing the Captain America tunic he wears.  Josiah argues that leaving 66 Bridges in power leaves places like Little Mogadishu safer than they’d be in they weren’t there, and Rhodey shames him as the heroes leave.  Danny and Kasper head into the community to track down lawmakers and others who have been bought off by the marked money train cash.  White Tiger confronts a councilman while Junta does some computer stuff, as Josiah, back in the Mog, talks to his assistant about the place of the Black Muslim in America post-9/11, as he tries to work through what Rhodey said to him.  Kasper threatens a judge, and then he and Danny disrupt a packed theatrical performance, locating a few more bribe takers, like a Congressman.  As they go to leave, they run across more security, including some in a helicopter who shoot some kind of foam at them.  Kasper and a security guard end up hanging off a roof, and when Kasper tries to save the guard, he falls, presumably to his death.  Danny falls off the same roof, his gravity belt disabled by the foam, and while Kasper is able to grab him for a bit, they both fall.  Kasper’s not worried because of the protective qualities of his suit, and both are surprised when Josiah X, in full doo-rag Captain America gear, catches Danny.
  • The Crew, White Tiger, Josiah X, and Junta, go into the offices of Grace & Tumbalt with guns blazing.  They fight their way to Triage’s penthouse, which he promptly explodes via remote control in his nearby SUV.  As he begins to drive away, Rhodey blocks his path, and using his War Machine gauntlet, stops his vehicle.  We learn that Rhodey faked the video feed, and that the others are fine; together they prepare to take Triage down, but a missile fired from a Blackhawk wrecks an elevated subway track.  Josiah acts to save the passengers while Junta goes after the helicopter.  White Tiger, trying to figure out what to do, helps Junta, figuring that the best way to hurt 66 Bridges is to flip one of the black ops helicopter pilots.  Triage pulls a knife on Rhodey and stabs him in the gut.  Junta goes after Triage, while Kasper tries to help Rhodey, and as Josiah X continues to work at saving the train passengers.  Kasper is concerned that Danny wants Triage to negotiate his way back into the spy game, and when Danny catches the drug lord, it looks like he is making that choice.  Kasper ends up helping Josiah.  The police and ambulances arrive, and we see that Danny made the right choice and brought Triage in for arrest.  Later, we learn that Moishe is unhappy with Danny, who wants to change his life.  Kasper doesn’t regret choosing to save lives over trying to get the collar on Triage for himself.  Josiah X admits that he liked being a hero.  Rhodey visits his sister’s grave, and then makes out with Officer Howard.  The End.

I think it’s such a shame that this comic didn’t get a longer run.  The interplay between these various characters is fascinating.  Danny and Kasper are both incredibly self-interested and calculating in the way they go about their business, and Josiah is kept pretty pure, although we know that he had been taking drug money to fund his community centre.  Priest’s approach to Rhodey was perhaps the most interesting, as he took on a bit of a T’Challa role, manipulating and controlling events from the shadows for most of the run.

I wonder where Priest might have taken these characters.  Presumably, he would have eventually addressed the fact that Kasper’s ‘hero cop’ father is secretly running 66 Bridges from prison, and that Triage, the New York gang boss, is actually Kasper’s half-brother.  None of that was even mentioned in this book.

I also would have liked to see a lot more of Josiah X.  The character seems as topical and necessary today as he would have in the post-9/11 world, and it’s a complete shame that he hasn’t been used by any other writer since this series ended.  I’d love to see him show up in Nick Spencer’s Captain America Sam Wilson, or in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther at some point.  

Likewise, I think it’s too bad that neither Junta nor Kasper have been used by other writers in the decade plus since their creation.  Junta did show up in some Civil War I related stuff, and in Joe Casey’s Last Defenders, but he was never a central character.  Kasper also turned up in a CWI anthology, and attended T’Challa and Storm’s wedding, but again, here’s a character with a lot of potential that just disappeared on us.  Whatever happened to T’Challa’s adopted brother Hunter, too?  There’s a lot of treasure that was left lying on the table when Priest left these characters, and I wish someone would make good use of it.

The other thing I loved about The Crew, especially when compared to the last two arcs of Black Panther, is just how good it looked.  Joe Bennett’s layouts and figure work on this book were incredible.  It felt very fresh when it came out, and still looks very good.  Bennett’s a great artist, but a lot of his more recent work (such as on X-O Manowar) does not strike me the way this book does.

Anyway, that brings us to the end of my look at Priest’s work at Marvel on Black Panther and related characters.  I really feel like it was a high point in Marvel’s catalogue, and also in the character’s history.  From here, Reginald Hudlin took over, retconned in the existence of T’Challa’s sister Shuri, and went about stealing the best elements of Priest’s work, and presenting them in a less interesting and effective format, before forcing the wedding to Storm on the character.  It was a disaster of a title, and it wasn’t until Jonathan Hickman started using T’Challa in New Avengers that I began to care about him again.  From there, Ta-Nehisi Coates has done a great deal to revitalize the monarch, and make him interesting and relevant to our times.  Priest, meanwhile, has returned to comics and is straight killing on Deathstroke at DC.

Now that my Panther-related columns are done, what’s next for me?  I’m going to be digging into a DC book from the late 80s that made use of a licensed character from a long time ago, and that featured art by one of my most favourite artists of all time?  Who would that be?  Only I know…

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

If you’d like to read The Crew, it’s recently been collected here:
Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Vol. 4

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