As covered in the introduction, Luke Cage’s first issue was cover-dated June 1972 and was created by Archie Goodwin with art by George Tuska and Billy Graham.
Cage was not Marvel’s first crack at a Black hero. Created in1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four #52. He was the mysterious leader of the African nation of Wakanda, and was an immediate hit. By extraordinary coincidence, the social rights group of the same name took to the streets later the same year. Black Panther made appearances in Fantastic Four and the Avengers over the next several years, and was Marvel’s first regular Black hero.
In July, 1969 Captain America met Sam Wilson, an African American man who took on the mantle of The Falcon. Debuting in Captain America 117, Falcon was a regular fixture in Cap’s book, eventually sharing the cover logo when the book became rebranded as Captain America and the Falcon for issue 134 in February 1971’s issue. That title lasted through June of 1978, and was the first time a Black character was featured so prominently on a regular basis.
This brings us to 3 years after the Falcon’s debut, and 6 years after Black Panther's. Luke Cage: Hero for Hire came roaring out of the gate with a few qualities the earlier Black characters didn’t have.
First, Cage premiered in his own series. No guest star or sidekick tryout required. He was fully realized in the mode of Shaft and, dare I say, Muhammed Ali. Master of his own destiny, every challenge a brief sidetrack until he overcomes it with street smarts, indestructible skin, wit, and raw determination.
Secondly, the first 16 issues were titled “Hero For Hire”, which set him apart from any existing super-hero concept. He didn’t need to keep a gig as a reporter or photographer. His family wasn’t impossibly rich from crazy inter dimensional experiments, and he wasn’t a billionaire industrialist selling arms to the military. He was a super-private detective holed up above a revival movie theater, right in the heart of 70s NYC.
The cover to the premiere issue laid it all out: Neon signs advertising BARS and GIRLS, a mysterious Black woman smoking a cigarette, a clearly corrupt White cop, a winning poker hand, and dice rolling a Natural 7.
Over the course of the issue, Cage both expresses the shorthand of the Black street experience, and mixes in elements of the emergent Black cinema as embodied by Shaft, Cotton Comes To Harlem, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
The man who becomes Luke Cage grew up as a tough street-wise hustler, running with a small gang and just trying to make it. We never hear his birth name, the one he had before the end of his sentence and transformation to hero.
Things went bad when his low-level hustle resulted in his girl Reva getting killed, which lead to a frame-up. He goes into prison, defiant yet resigned to his fate. A singular individual, Cage still gravitates to the Black prisoners, which gets him lumped in with the “Militants”. A corrupt White guard gives him a good beating for standing up to injustice in the prison.
Fate leads to Cage being used as the guinea pig for a chemical bath that is intended to bring out the super from the man. As with Captain America's origin, death follows the scientist playing God, and chaos wreaks havoc in the prison.
Cage escapes the experiment and the prison in a hail of bullets, which reveals his indestructible skin. Once on the outside, he changes his name to Luke Cage, makes peace with his dead girlfriend, and goes shopping for his super-hero outfit. It’s here that Cage dons a silver headband, yellow silk shirt, black leather pants and swashbuckler boots, and a thick chain around his waist as a belt. His dialog reflects what the reader must have been thinking:
“Yeah! Outfit’s kinda hokey… but so what? All part of the super-hero scene. An’ this way when I use my powers it’s gonna seem natural. A little promotion work an’ I’m in business!”
He begins to circulate business cards reading “Luke Cage HERO FOR HIRE” and that pretty much wraps up the first appearance. The final panel concludes with a caption promising “A man called Cage… walks and waits, and thinks of a girl named Reva. And knows soon the time approaches when: VENGEANCE IS MINE!”
Overall Luke Cage’s adventures are a strong addition to the emergent mass media intended to tap into Black audiences. It matched the tone and intent of the new black cinema. Blaxploitation was about to explode beginning in late 1972/early 1973, and this comic was poised to fulfill the need of urban audiences interested in an ongoing superhero.
Being a comic book distributed on newsstands in 1972, however, resulted in some limitations. Starting in the mid-1950’s, color comic book publications generally had to adhere to The Comics Code Authority. This independent self-regulating body ensured young readers (the presumed audience for comics) were protected from sexuality, language, graphic violence, a celebration of criminal activity, zombies, horror, the word “weird” on a comic cover, and a whole arcane system of rules that makes the MPAA seem utterly transparent.
This resulted in broad references to drugs, sexless relationships, and a need to develop euphemisms for nearly every adult exclamation imaginable. Luke Cage’s best know of dialog was one such euphemism.
A joke among comics readers for years, there is something charming about it in retrospect. It doesn’t match up to any typical piece of crass language, it vaguely hints at Jesus, and it is incredibly distinctive. In the recent television incarnation of Cage in Marvel’s Jessica Jones series, the character says it twice and it is both convincing and it suggests a self-aware humor to the character.
Armed with a bizarre catchphrase, a fully original costume, a bad attitude, and a badder Afro, Cage somehow caught enough of the pop-culture imagination to still be relevant after 45 years.
What happened next, following his first adventure? He carried the series under the title of Heroes for Hire 15 more months. Next time, we’ll take a look at what kind of challenges the character met following his origin story.