'Luke Cage' Season 2 makes wacky comic book characters more grounded, plausible

Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Netflix’s Luke Cage Season 2 features a gallery of fascinating characters, most of whom have appeared in the comics. Well, sort of. There have been some changes:

 

BLACK MARIAH

Cover art by Billy Graham. Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Black Mariah (right) debuted in Hero for Hire #5 in 1972, a character whose only resemblance to the TV version is the name.

Alfre Woodard has given us a nuanced character in Mariah Dillard – part politician, part gangster, a woman who sees herself as a civic hero as she drifts farther and farther into the dark side.

But in 1972 “Here for Hire” comics, we meet a different Mariah Dillard, a 400-pound woman who calls herself Black Mariah, British slang for a paddy wagon. (That nickname came up on the show, assigned for different reasons.) She and her gang play on her name with fake ambulances and paddy wagons, whisking away corpses from crime and accident scenes to take their valuables and keys, steal their cars and loot their offices and homes. Cage makes short work of her gang, but Mariah herself gives him more of a tussle.

“Sweet sister!” thinks Cage as Mariah trundles toward him. “I ain’t much on hittin’ women, but if that whale gets me down, she’ll do me dirt!”

Spoiler: Cage wins their bout. Mariah has appeared a few times since, and has been updated beyond the embarrassing stereotype of her early days to something less objectionable. IOW, she is no longer a supervillain whose power is being realllly fat.

 

NIGHTSHADE

On TV, Tilda Dillard (Gabrielle Dennis) is a brilliant woman who is both a medical doctor and an expert on homeopathic drugs, especially belladonna, aka “deadly nightshade.” Her personal journey leads her to adopt the surname Johnson at season’s end.

That’s really convenient, because a character named Tilda Johnson appears as the supervillain Nightshade in Captain America comics in 1973. An expert in genetics, biochemistry, cybernetics, robotics and physics, Nightshade has been all over the Marvel map, battling everyone from Power Man and Iron Fist (of course) to the Hulk.

Her most memorable appearance was when she used her knowledge of arcane science and biochemistry to turn people – including Captain America – into an army of obedient werewolves.

Heh. I love writing sentences like that.

 

BUSHMASTER

On TV, Jamaican gangster John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir) holds a grudge against the Stokes family, of which Mariah and Tilda Dillard are the surviving members. As a result of a mysterious vaccination – lethal to everyone else – McIver’s body responds to nightshade by becoming as strong and tough as Luke Cage. His battle to exact revenge on Mariah puts Cage in the position of wondering which crook to root for.

There’s no nuance in the comics. Bushmaster is a straight-up bad guy from an unidentified Caribbean island, and in “Power Man” #49 (1978) forces Dr. Noah Burstein to put him through the same process that turned Carl Lucas into Luke Cage, Power Man. He becomes both stronger and tougher than Cage, but eventually dies from the process.

And by “dies,” I mean “turns into metal and disintegrates.” Also, “later possesses his son Cruz McIver and becomes ‘Power Master,’ only to die again.”

And we’re not done with the crazy yet!

John McIver’s brother Quincy, also a Caribbean gangster, loses all four limbs to a boat propeller while trying to escape police. (In “Captain America Annual” #10, as if you didn’t know.) The Roxxon Corp. – Marvel’s go-to evil corporation – equips him with cybernetic arms and a mechanical snake tail for the lower half of his body. Calling himself Bushmaster after his twice-dead brother, Bushmaster II becomes a charter member of the Serpent Society and still serves with them today. (The Serpent Society is, of course, a cabal of villains with snake themes and powers, such as Sidewinder, Black Mamba and Puff Adder.)

David Lee/Netflix

John “Bushmaster” McIver (top, Mustafa Shakir) defeated Luke Cage (Mike Colter) more than once in Luke Cage Season 2.

Cover art by Ron Wilson. Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Bushmaster had a snazzy gold-and-white costume in Power Man #49.

SHADES AND COMANCHE

Hernan “Shades” Alvarez and Darius “Comanche” Jones are high-ranking gangsters on the Netflix show. Played by Theo Rossi and Thomas Q. Jones, respectively, we first see them in Season 1 as thugs at Seagate Prison, working for corrupt guard Albert Rackham. In the second season, Shades is Mariah’s lover and partner, and Comanche works for Shades.

On TV, both characters show surprising depth, especially in reference to their time at Seagate. (I won’t spoil it for you.) Savor that, because “surprising depth” isn’t a phrase you’ll ever hear applied to their comic book inspirations.

Shades and Comanche appear in the very first issue of Hero for Hire in ’72, serving time in Seagate Prison at the same time as Carl Lucas. Once again, they act as enforcers for sadistic guard Albert Rackam, who went by the name “Billy Bob.” (Early Luke Cage comics weren’t exactly subtle.) After prison, the two become “hoodlums for hire,” and often run afowl of their old enemy Lucas, who had become Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.

This is comic books, so you know these two torpedoes won’t stay in street clothes forever. In 1983 Rand Meachum (yes, from Iron Fist) provides Shades with a visor that shoots force beams (like the X-Men’s Cyclops) and trick arrows for Comanche (like Hawkeye). They immediately hit the streets – and Power Man and Iron Fist – in colorful, yet hideous, supervillain duds. “We are the new and improved Shades and Comanche!” crows Hernan, whose visor clearly inhibits his fashion sense.

Don’t worry. They still weren’t much of a threat. Currently Shades is dead, and Comanche is such a minor character in the comics that he didn’t even get a civilian name until the TV show. He may or may not be alive, but frankly, nobody cares.

 

PIRANHA JONES

On TV, Raymond “Piranha” Jones is a self-made, Harlem-based Wall Street financier. Engagingly played by Chaz Lamar Shepherd, the irrepressible Jones is as ingratiating as he is irritating.

In the comics, Jones is currently dead. But when he was alive, he was a bit more … literal …  than his TV counterpart. Piranha first appeared in 1976 as a crimelord whose teeth had all been replaced with metal, triangular blades. He used these to (somehow) deflect bullets and, of course, bite people.

 

COCKROACH

Played by Dorian Missick, Dontrell “Cockroach” Hamilton lives down to his name on TV by being a low-level thug who beats his girlfriend and son. He’s so vile he actually likes being called Cockroach.

He’s a bit more formidable in the comics. First appearing in 1975, Cockroach is a hitman who worked for Piranha Jones. He is known for his custom, six-barrel shotgun (named “Josh”), which in one issue he used to blow Luke Cage off a roof and dislocate his shoulder. (Something similar happened on TV, too!)

He is also quite fond of the fictional snack food “Cheese Snips.” This was considered characterization in 1975.

 

DAUGHTERS OF THE DRAGON 

David Lee/Netflix

Colleen Wing (left, Jessica Henwick) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) have been a team called “The Daughters of the Dragon” since 1977.

In the third episode of Luke Cage Season 2, Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) get into a bar fight, which they handily win. And this is before Misty gets her bionic arm.

If that pairing looks like a natural, keep your bionic fingers crossed that they will follow the path they do in the comics, where Misty quits the police force and joins Colleen in a private investigation firm, Knightwing Restorations. That partnership – informally known as “Daughters of the Dragon” – was formed in 1977,  long before “strong female lead” was a thing.

 

BEN DONOVAN

Ben Donovan is a high-priced, high-powered lawyer on Luke Cage, working for whomever can meet his price. Played by the imposing Danny Johnson, he never uses a $1 word when a $10 word will do.

“Big” Ben Donovan – yes, a play on the London clock tower, a nickname mentioned a few times on the show – is a lawyer in the comics, too, but that’s the least interesting thing about him. First appearing in 1973, Donovan is nearly eight feet tall and has super-strength. Unfortunately, he’s not mentally stable, so he spends more time as Luke Cage’s foe than friend.

Come to think of it, switching sides is a trademark of the TV barrister, too. Some things never change.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

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Whether or not viewership is the only criterion involved in cancelling a show on Netflix, to me it's obvious how they track viewership.  Netflix and all of the other internet subscription services require one to sign in. Once signed in, they know what shows you've watched, which episode is next for you and if you watched part of a show and didn't finish watching it. They know which subscribers watched a show and when. They don't really know how many actual viewers are watching the same screen, but it doesn't matter to them. Only the paying subscribers matter to them. Since they are charging a flat fee for the service, popular shows will bring in more subscribers than less popular shows. Their number of active paying subscribers has to justify their production costs and/or fees paid for shows they don't own. 

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