Created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr.
"I ain't about the tights and shit..."
--Cage explains why he's ditched the tiara in Alias #1
A working class hero is something to be...
When LUKE CAGE made his debut in Luke Cage: Hero for Hire in 1972, he was the first African American superhero to star in his own Marvel Comics series -- and one of the first black comic book superheroes, period.
It was Marvel Comics' attempt to jump on the then-exploding blaxploitation bandwagon. Cage was a bad ass, an often ill-tempered, two-fisted black superhero straight outta Harlem with a kiss my ass attitude, nearly bulletproof skin and super-human strength.
I loved him, as a kid. He seemed so fresh and original at the time, although I now realize how intentionally derivative he was.
Born Carl Lucas, Cage's Harlem childhood was essentially that of a thug in training, running with the gangs and committing minor crimes. But it all came crashing down when Lucas was arrested and sent to prison (for a crime -- dealing heroin -- he did not commit, of course).
While in the pen, he was offered a deal by a team of scientists looking to replicate Captain America's Super Soldier Serum. If he agreed to become the subject for a series of medial experiments, they would ensure his freedom. But a crooked (and racist, of course) guard who had it it in for Lucas sabotaged the experiment, leaving the inmate with what the guard hoped would be a lethal dose. It back-fired, though, and Lucas hit the streets, now augmented by super-strength and nearly impenetrable skin.
He took on the identity of "Luke Cage" and became a "Hero for Hire," a sort of super-enhanced private detective/mercenary, out to protect the streets of Harlem. At first he worked alone, and there was a genuine effort to "keep it real," having Cage dealing with a level of everyday crime that seemed light years away from the cosmos-shaking world of the Marvel Universe.
Which made his original costume all the more inexplicable -- it was Shaft as reimagined by Liberace. I mean, really -- the bright yellow silk disco shirt was bad enough, but a golden tiara as well?
Meanwhile, Marvel was being criticized in other quarters for promoting racial stereotypes.
But it was a short-lived complaint -- after just a few years of working solo (and sixteen issues of his own comic, Hero for Hire, Cage became Power Man, a more traditional Marvel hero, and he was teamed up with Iron Fist, a super-powered martial arts expert from another dimension. The name of the agency was retitled "Heroes for Hire," to reflect the expanding roster. The re-titled book, Power Man, lasted until 1978, when it was retitled yet again, and became Power Man and Iron Fist, which in turn ran until 1986.
As superhero team-ups go, it was a long way from the A list. Cage (and Iron Fist) lingered in the increasingly convoluted Marvel universe throughout the seventies and early eighties, never quite reaching the audience Marvel had hoped for, despite numerous guest appearances in other titles.
Originally having little to do with the flamboyant costumed superheroes of the Marvel universe, the decidedly blue collar Cage always seemed a little out of place (with or without tiara) jostling alongside the likes of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Defenders, Iron Man and all the rest. The storylines were often as ridiculous as his costumes.
Far more in keeping with his street-level persona, he also worked as as investigator for vigilante The Punisher and criminal lawyer Matt Murdock (who just happens to be Daredevil) and alongside, at different times, two of Marvel's best known private eyes, Dakota North and, more significantly, former superhero Jessica Jones.
In fact, it wasn't until he was reintroduced in a relatively small but ultimately pivotal role in Brian Michael Bendis' Alias (2001-04) that Cage actually gained the street cred and kick-ass cool that Marvel might have once envisioned -- and that I had latched onto as a kid.
It was in the "for mature audiences only" Alias that Cage, while working as an investigator for Murdock, meets Jessica. Now working as a private eye herself, Jessica is more than a match for our dude -- both temperamentally and sexually. They eventually have a daughter, Danielle, and move in together, as revealed in the sequel, The Pulse (2004-06).
Of course, in the ever-expanding, mutating and inconsistency-laden world of big time comics, it's not enough for Cage to be an aging super-powered private eye and new family man involved in an inter-racial relationship with a former superhero, out to protect his small corner of the universe -- by 2010, Cage had become the leader of the Heroic Age-era Thunderbolts and the New Avengers, and he was back on the superhero chain gang.
The big treat for me is Netflix's ambitious attempt to bring the Marvel Universe to television, with a quartet of interconnected miniseries, each focusing on a different Marvel hero: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Daredevil (2015) and Jessica Jones (also 2015) have both already proven wonderfully gritty, dark and stubbornly street level, a far cry from the high-flying primary colour superhero hijinks of the usual Marvel fare, so I have high hopes for Luke Cage, set to debut in September 2016. Michael Colton, who plays Luke, is well cast; his early appearances in Jessica Jones boding well for when his own series lands.
Re-imagines Luke as a Prohibition con, just out of the Big House, and ready to hit the streets of Harlem again. Possibly the best of Marvel's Noir series.
Cartoonist Tartakovsky (Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack) riffs like a mutha on Marvel's original urban badass, ignoring his current gritty street-level Bendis/Netflix vibe or Marvel's current Avengers continuity, and goes full-on retro, playing it all for slapstick laughs, zeroing in on his over-the-top seventies superhero roots, reviving his original yellow disco shirt and tiara outfit, and pitting the brother with bulletproof skin against some of the goofiest foes around. Not sure if it's spoof or satire, but it sure is fun.
A whole new era begins, with a new smonthly eries from Marvel featuring the bulletproof private eye, scripted by David F. Walker, the man behind the recent, acclaimed Shaft comics. Not sure how much private eying he'd actually do, or how it will tie in with the recently revamped Jessica Jones book, but with Blaxploitation expert Walker on board there's definitely going to some street level grit involved. Dig it.
Finally! The P.I./Funko barrier has been breached! After years of hoping the makers of those ever-so-collectable big-eyed vinyl figures would give us some shamus love, we're beginning to see some light with the release of Luke and Jessica Jones figurines, both taken, not from the comics, but from the TV show versions streaming on Netflix. Hopefully, we'll soon start to see more TV-based P.I. figures soon. Rockford? Mannix? Peter Gunn? Veronica Mars?
Private Eyes of the Marvel Universe
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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