Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Luke Cage Part 2: Militant Jive Mouth

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. 

“Sweet Christmas!”

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. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Luke Cage’s Evolution: Introduction

Every successful super hero has a core reason for being that is both unique to the character and can resonate with an audience. Luke Cage’s core concept is to be a Black everyman acting as the epitome of the ever changing notion of what “Black” means to a White audience. 

Luke Cage began as a reflection not of Black culture, but of Black-marketed movies. Marvel was expanding their line of comics in 1972, and the popularity of the new Blaxploitation genre was irresistible. 

Marvel had previously introduced Black Panther in the pages of Fantastic Four in the mid-60’s, and The Falcon debuted as Captain America’s partner a few years prior. Luke Cage would be the first Black hero with his own comic. 

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire debuted in April 1972 with a June cover date. At the time of publication the following films, later categorized as Blaxploitation, had been released: 

  • Cotton Comes To Harlem
  • Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
  • Shaft

Just 3 films, only one of which had broken through to a mass (non-Black) audience. Shaft was the rough template for Luke Cage. A half-soul-brother. 

Although derivative, Luke Cage also cross-pollinated with the superhero genre, creating an interesting and enduring hybrid that has evolved over the past 40+ years to reflect dominant mass culture images of African American males. Regardless of any changes over time, the character is at his core about the intersection of white perception of Black culture as filtered through pop culture iconography. 

The first point of commonality between Shaft and Cage is the creative heritage. Both characters were created by White writers. Novelist Earnest Tidyman created the Shaft series of novels, and Archie Goodwin, with assistance from Roy Thomas created Cage. Each author was respectable within their field, doing their best to create an interesting tale of genre fiction with a Black character in traditionally White environs. 

Comics being collaborative, two artists came on board at the start of the Hero For Hire incarnation of Cage: George Tuska (journeyman White artist) and Billy Graham (Emerging Black cartoonist) as penciller and inker respectively. Later writer of Luke Cage’s adventures, Steve Englehart, observes Billy was brought in based on being Black, but also asserts, indisputably I think, that his talent was clearly strong. In fact, Graham eventually became the sole cartoonist responsible for the art in the series. 

Shaft, to continue the comparison for a bit, made the translation to film helmed by Black director Gordon Parks. Obviously, the very African American Richard Roundtree carried the role masterfully. The producers of the film were white, but that was typical of the time. The goal of the film studio, similar to Marvel's, was to tap into the Black market with media directly aimed at them. Shaft was wildly successful, a genre-defining hit with a killer soundtrack, a great balance of action and humor, sex, sharp dialog, and the ability to crossover to mass audiences. 

In September 1973, after 16 issues, the Luke Cage, Hero for Hire title was retired in favor of the more super heroic Power Man. The year this change happened was the peak of the Blaxploitation film genre. The next two years saw a decrease in films under this genre umbrella, and from 1976-1979 the same number of Blaxploitation films were released in total as came out in 1975. 

At issue 50, the economics of comic publishing lead to the next transformation of the series. Once Blaxploitation was down and out, the book was merged with the recently canceled "super martial arts" series Iron Fist resulting in Power Man and Iron Fist. This buddy action genre book lasted 75 issues before being cancelled to make way for Marvel’s New Universe line of “realistic” comics. In general, he was a solo or duo character. Luke also spent brief time in the “non-team” series, the Defenders in the 70s as written by Steve “Howard the Duck” Gerber. 

The next incarnation of Cage came out at the 20th anniversary of the character in 1992 with a series appropriately titled Cage.The creative team consisted of Black creators Marcus McLauren and Dwayne Turner among others. This version was tough Denzel kind of guy who moved to Chicago to resume his Hero for Hire business. It lasted just under 2 years, which left the character without a regular home for the rest of the decade. 

A revamped Luke cage returned just in time for his 30th anniversary in 2002 in the 5 issue series Cage by Brian Azzarello, Richard Corben and Jose Villarrubia where he was recast as a badass urban hip-hop OGMF. He concurrently appeared in the Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Gaydos series Alias, which is the basis for the Netflix series Jessica Jones. That incarnation transformed him into a straight talking moral compass, and eventual family man. He’s been a fixture in Marvel’s Avengers books for the last 15 years in this version. 

That’s the overview. Next time, a closer look at each of the eras described above, from the Blaxploitation years to eventual TV star.