LUKE CAGE BUILDS:
Luke Cage- Blaxploitation Hero:
-Cage has had a pretty crazy run. The first successful black hero to have his own book (DC's Lobo, a black cowboy, was technically first, but is unknown even today), Cage farted around the mid-tier 1970s books during a period where Marvel was going through unprecedented creativity (thanks to the relaxing of the Comics Code allowing for all sorts of supernatural, blaxploitation and crime-based books, the likes of which hadn't been seen since the '50s), but it never really matched up with sales. Cage was a bit TOO exaggeratedly-black for a lot of comic book fans, and stuff like "Sweet Christmas!" just made him look silly. Nobody seemed to HATE Cage, but he was more of a joke. Various re-makes, re-dos, and updates occured for decades, trying to make him more popular. They gave him a code-name (the terrible "Power Man"), a team-up book with similarly-poor-selling Iron Fist, a solo run in the "EVERYBODY Gets a Solo Run" 1990s which suffered the same fate as Darkhawk, Sleepwalker & Terror Inc., and more. He was basically a Dead Horse by the time the 2000s hit (the '90s book Heroes For Hire
gathered together a Defenders-like group of unused heroes, and also failed), which is why it was so weird to see him as an Avenger. But that's part, of course, what gave him a new lease on life...
-Cage, in his original image, was very, very dated, based entirely off of the "Blaxploitation" films of the 1970s, which featured primarily black men as the protagonists, often vilified by major societal institutions (namely the police, jailers, judges, etc.), who nonetheless often had to fight black VILLAINS as well. These men were primal, vital, badass (to the point where the genre's originator was called Sweet Sweetback's Badassssss Song
), and struggled against "The Man", but were undeniably cool. Black audiences loved seeing black heroes on the big screen (especially because they weren't as "safe" as the ones Sidney Poitier and others tended to play- these weren't kindly black men getting stuff old white men to see the light- they PUNCHED the stuff old white men!), and white people of course gravitated to this dark, exotic, cynical underworld.
-It was inevitable that someone in comics would try to rip this off, though it didn't happen as often as you'd think it might. I think the genre was always kind of an underground thing that lacked mainstream popularity. But in any case, here was Luke Cage- he was wrongly imprisoned like a lot of Blaxploitation heroes- a way to make him a bit of a dark horse (if you'll excuse the term), rebel and victim of "The Man" without making him QUITE as negative as a lot of these characters (who appeared in R-rated films) were. He had grown up in a world of crime, and was part of a youth gang, but quit the life when he realized how badly it was hurting his family- this made it all the more unjust he was jailed for a crime he never committed.
-Victimized by a racist authority figure (a BIG Blaxploitation trope), Luke was targetted for death, but was instead chosen for an experimental procedure related to the Super-Soldier Serum- this left him with bulletproof skin and Spider-Man-like super-strength. He uses his new powers to escape prison and start a new life, making money with his might.
-Luke appeared in Luke Cage: Hero For Hire
, with the gimmick being that he was more of a mercenary, charging for his services (usually protection). The seventeenth issue saw it renamed Luke Cage, Power Man
, giving him a real superhero nickname. Luke was decked out in some pretty dated (by now) 1970s fashions- a golden tiara, a white shirt with much of his chest showing, and a small afro, and lived in a grungier world than did most super-heroes. Most of his recurring foes were almost Dick Tracy
-like- deformed freaks and weirdos like Piranha Jones or the obese Black Mariah. He rarely fought the villains of OTHER heroes- instead, it newbies, none of which ever took off. A bunch of drug dealers and Harlem kingpin sorts, too.
-The series sees Luke befriend the doctor who gave him his powers, his assistant Dr. Claire Temple (she and Luke begin dating), and more. He ends up befriending some other super-heroes, and makes an acquaintance of The Defenders as well. Small-time stuff for a lower-end book.
Power Man & Iron Fist:
-The fiftieth issue saw it renamed Power Man and Iron Fist
, combining two lower-selling books into one, and permanently sticking Cage with Iron Fist as a partner. The contrast this time was the more streetwise, grouchy Cage with the serene, mystically-minded Fist. The book would last seventy-five more issues, with people like Mary Jo Duffy (who wrote a pretty good seventy-fifth issue, going into the origins of K'un L'un) and Jim Owlsley (the future Christopher Priest) taking over. Over the course of their teaming, the two become best friends, and Luke stops dating Dr. Temple and instead gets with the model, Harmony Young.
-Eventually, however, the low-tier book is cancelled. Iron Fist is stupidly killed off, and Luke disappears into "Marvel Limbo", from which he doesn't reappear until 1992 sees the debut of Cage
. Since EVERYONE was getting their own solo book, from newbie rookies to established characters, it only made sense to give Luke Cage his own book again. This Cage was less "1970s stereotype" and more "1990s stereotype", complete with giant muscles, black-guy-fade haircut (SUPER-popular with black stars in the early '90s) and Street Clothes As A Uniform, and like most of these lesser-known side-books, he was written and drawn by a pair of guys I've never heard of- Stan Lee once defended the whole "Marvel has too many books out now" accusation by essentially bringing up the point that sure, many of these guys aren't quite ready for the big times, but how ELSE will they learn than by cutting their teeth on new, less-important books? Jim Lees aren't created fully-formed, ya know (I have the forgettable Alpha Flight
books to prove it).
-The same facts prove true even today- witness Matt Fraction doing very well on the relatively-nothing character Iron Fist, which allowed him an upgrade to the X-Men and other books (as well as an upgrade for Danny Rand as a character). Sure, it doesn't always work (like Cage, who took another decade & a half before he became relevant again), but when it doesn't, what was the loss? At least they tried. This series is set in Chicago, with Cage symbolically destroying his old costume on the cover of the first issue, and adopting a more "hero in regular clothes" mentality that suits the '90s. Here, Cage fights all-new villains, and even reunites with the father he thought was dead (both had been led to believe the other was deceased by Luke's brother, who hated that Luke had "become a criminal"). However, the book only lasted 20 issues, having been written by a minor writer (Marc McLaurin) and featuring a pretty minor hero. John Ostrander wrote a Heroes For Hire
series in the late '90s that lasted only 19 issues, as well.
-None of this stuff really mattered to the character, though his brother sacrificed his life (as the super-powered Coldfire) to defeat some of Luke's enemies in The Corporation. Harmony Young is later killed in another book.
Bendis Takes Over- A New Lease On Life:
-Luke was in a bad state of "Marvel Limbo" from the 2000s on, until Brian Michael Bendis used him in the Alias
series, having a liaison with a drunken Jessica Jones. This grittier book made Luke into more of a "regular guy" character, and saw the two partner up, first professionally (as bodyguards for Matt Murdock), then romantically. Bendis gained a lot of respect for that book, and his fanboy love for Cage ended up getting the hero included on the reborn Avengers roster, giving him the biggest push of his existence! There's a great bit in the book's debut when he nearly murders The Purple Man for trying to mind control Cage into killing Jessica, and genuinely thanks Captain America for getting him to stay his hand at the last second (leaving Killgrave a badly-bruised grape).
-During this time, Jessica and Luke married, even having a daughter- Danielle. This gave him a whole new aspect for a super-hero, given how few of them breed. He also takes Cap's side, along with most of the other "Street Level" heroes, in the Civil War, making him a fugitive from the law once again. He goes underground with the "New Avengers", taking over when Cap is assassinated.
-Bendis gets distracted with other things, and Luke sadly kind of just fades away in importance, leading a Thunderbolts
book that nobody really cared for, acting as a jailer (ironically) to a bunch of super-villains who were supposed to reform as part of a Suicide Squad
knock-off. He joins one Avengers group, then another, becoming the leader of The Mighty Avengers
version of the roster, where I've read most of my "Luke" appearances. Here, he's depicted as a mature, responsible "established hero" and leader of the team, which got Al Ewing noticed in the comic book world. Using a great "aren't comics WEIRD?" sense of humor with little-used heroes, Al created a book centered around a Minority Cast that many readers (like me) didn't even realize was a Minority Cast until several issues in, as everyone was made quite varied and never harped on it. I mean, not everyone on the book became a star, but it was a fun ride.
Current Luke Cage:
-Ewing would later coast on this success to The Infinites
and another Avengers
book, this one making SUNSPOT out to be a bigger star. Sadly, Cage was mostly done as a major name by this point. He appears in few major recurring titles (just lower-tier/newbie creators doing an indie-comics-style team-up book with Iron Fist, plus a random Marvel Knights
book featuring all four "Netflix" heroes), no Avengers
book is using him, and he's kind of faded into the background once more. Ironically, this is right as his Netflix TV series becomes a bigger deal, celebrating the urban black culture of the United States while showcasing the first black hero in a leading role in any of the modern Marvel Universe productions. Of course, he's now been completely overshadowed by The Black Panther- a recurring issue with Cage in the comics, too (T'Challa being THE black hero, of course).
The Trouble With Cage:
-Cage runs into a lot of issues that heroes created after the 1960s (which unfortunately includes EVERY MINORITY HERO EVER, save the Black Panther... who still has this problem) have- his Rogues Gallery kind of sucks, and he lacks credibility as a major name. With guys like Archie Goodwin on his book instead of top-tier guys of the era like Roy Thomas, etc., he had a tough go of making it. Chris Claremont & John Byrne were a better bet, but they soon leapfrogged the C-Tier Power Man & Iron Fist
book to greener pastures with the X-Men, which revolutionized both comics and their careers. Luke, meanwhile, was pretty much always left as a low-tier act, with the writers either being amateurs or unproven names.
-The biggest problem, of course, is his Rogues Gallery. Doofuses like Mr. Fish & Black Mariah are primarily meant for laughs, but those types and other Jobbers make up the BULK of his enemies. Most of the guys named after snakes were generic drug dealers, most of whom were killed and then had Serpent Society guys take the names. The TV series actually uses some of them, which might have given them a new lease on life. 90% of them, however, simply took a twenty-year "nap" before suddenly popping up in modern times, showing up in group scenes as part of Dr. Nightshade's "Flashmob", a group of guys Tombstone hired, and then Alex Wilder's "New Pride" in Runaways
. Seriously, expect to see me type those things up a lot during this set.
-He's a very good "Street Level Hero", though- super-strong, but nothing any other super-team can't do better with about three other guys. His DURABILITY is much higher, though, meaning you can get some fun "he gets his ass kicked, but gets right back up" stuff, making him look like a huge bad-ass. A kind of "Wolverine" thing. But he's really best for CHARACTER bits- most superheroes kind of grew up in middle-class whitebread lives, are kinda nerdy, or are Grim Vigilantes. Cage? Cage is ANNOYED with all this shit. Many comics I have featuring him represent him as more of a normal guy- someone who finds the tropes bothersome. He's passionate and can care quite a bit, but he's not a bleeding heart, nor is he overly full of gravitas or "woe is me" stuff. He's pretty good at back-talk and the like, though.