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. 

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