Reflections #1--Marvel's Missed Opportunity

This is my first Blog attempt and I've been thinking about it for a while now. I picked the title "Reflections" because you can see reflections in Gold, Silver, Bronze and the Brand New. Comics have always reflected pop culture, politics, social issues, current events and the world that they were created in. These are my opinions, my views and my conclusions. And I welcome comments and corrections.

With the relevation of the New Ultimate Spider-Man being half-Latino, half African American, several of us (myself included) observed the lack of original minority/non-White heroes. I'm focusing on Marvel now but DC is equally lax on it. There are notable examples of black characters taking the names/personas of established white heroes: Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Goliath/Giant-Man, even Ultimate Nick Fury. To be fair, Marvel created all-new minority non-White heroes in their Silver Age but there were always problems.

The Black Panther is a real African king from the super sci-fi nation of Wakanda so it was difficult for readers to identify with him. He was a guest star for his first years, joining the Avengers. Then the term "Black Panther" took on a whole new meaning with the rise of the militant group, thus robbing him of a marketable, "safe" name. He was addressed as The Panther, the Black Leopard and his true name, T'Challa but this denied him any solo series until the regretably named Jungle Action. There have been many attempts to make the Black Panther a star; five different series, numerous minis, married to the X-Men's Storm and lately being treated as a major player in the MU. It may work yet though his lack of real powers and a dull costume are definite disadvantages.

The Falcon was always featured prominently but always as the second part of Captain America And... This sidekick label never left him and then there is his convoluted origin and constant attempts of upgrading him. Powers, no powers and the same falcon, Redwing, for over forty years! Maybe he has the super-powers!

The Prowler added some variety to Amazing Spider-Man but he's a very minor character, especially compared to Daily Bugle editor Joe Robertson.

But Marvel's best bet for a non-White superstar was:

Created by Roy Thomas, John Romita and Archie Goodwin, Luke Cage debuted in Hero For Hire #1 (Ju'72). His origin was definitely from the headlines. He was a black prisoner, wrongly convicted, mistreated by racist guards, who undergoes an experimental process to gain parole. But one of those guards tried to kill him but the overloaded treatment gives him "steel-hard skin and muscles to match!" He quickly escapes and starts a new life as a super-hero that the public can employ.

Luke had a hard life which he does not sugarcoat. He has committed crimes and done acts of violence but he was trying to better himself when he got framed. He is wary of the law and authority and rightfully so. But he wants to be a force of good, he just wants to be paid for it. This does has some precedence in the Marvel books. Both the Fantastic Four and the Avengers get stipends and the public believes that Iron Man works for Tony Stark.

Many complain about his outfit but it is appropiate. The metal handband shows his strength and nobility. The much-mocked yellow shirt works with his dark skin and makes him stand out. He does not hide in the shadows. He is in your face and proud. The chain belt reminds him of his wrongful imprisonment and gives him resolve to aid the helpless. He looks like a hero, an individual and a warrior.

Also worth mentioning is that not all whites are bad and not all blacks are good. Cage fought black foes (Diamondback, Black Mariah, Senor Muerte, Chemistro, Shades and Comanche) and white foes (Mace, the Christmas Bomber, Stilletto, not to mention Doctor Doom). The latter smacked in the middle of the Marvel Universe. The Doom issues of Hero For Hire #8-9 also have him meeting the Fantastic Four, which would pay dividends in the future. HFH #12 refer to Amazing Spider-Man #124 where he was hired by Jolly J. Jonah Jameson to capture the Wall-Crawler.

But in what would have been HFH #17, the big change comes as the title becomes Power Man, a strong and memorable name. He also battles Iron Man and holds his own.

Power Man had all the potential to be a super-star. Compelling origin, real powers, an interesting supporting cast but sales were never strong. He may have been Shaft Among the Super-Heroes but he never really fitted in. Too strong for urban crime and too urban for super-hero fare. He was even part of the Fantastic Four for three issues, replacing the Thing briefly. He was paired with fellow fad hero Iron Fist and for a time, Power Man & Iron Fist was one of Marvel's best comics.

Luke had several problems for success. His strength was seemingly purposely left vague. He battled Spidey, Iron Man and the Thing but no one knew how strong he really was. He was part of the Defenders for a time but was never asked to be an Avenger even though he had his own title. Simply put, he was never treated like a headliner. Flavor but not the main course! 

He could have been a contender. He really could have!

"Sweet Christmas!"

Views: 278

Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on August 9, 2011 at 9:55am

For the past few years, Luke has been a main star of Marvel books, even leading his own Avengers team.  He's married to Jessica Jones and may be a big part of an ABC TV series in 2012.  Luke is also a featured character in the Marvel Alliance games.

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on August 9, 2011 at 10:04am

Growing up I was never much of a Luke Cage fan. I read Power Man and Iron Fist. Mainly for Iron Fist, I tolerated Power Man. Really it was when Bendis wrote him into Alias that I really started appreciate him. I really like him now in the Thunderbolts with a leadership role. Some actual growth in a character, seems so rare these days.

 

My new like for the guy has me enjoying those old PM&IF comics more now.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on August 9, 2011 at 11:40am
My first exposure to Luke Cage was Giant-Size Power Man #1 (I bought every G-S and every #1 I saw in those days), which reprinted several of the seminal Englehart/Tuska issues. I remember I liked it, but I didn’t begin reading it or seeking out backissues until years later when I was in college.

Regarding non-minority heroes, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Either companies are accused of lack of originality if they do, or lack of diversity if they don’t (as a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition accused Hollywood today): http://www.npr.org/2011/08/09/139126504/hollywood-superheroes-losin...
Comment by Rich Steeves on August 9, 2011 at 1:47pm
the "Luke Cage" that has been in Avengers in the last few years is not my Power Man. I prefer the yellow shirted, Sweet Christmas wonder, to this character that has no interest to me.
Comment by Philip Portelli on August 9, 2011 at 7:52pm

I have to agree. The Luke Cage with the shaved head and goatee (not very original, btw) and the drab street clothes came from the 90s Cage series and Alias. He is a part of a team but not the star. With his strength and attitude, he should be the firebrand of the Avengers, not the New or Secret or Thunderbolts. He should be along side Thor, Iron Man and Captain America with his headband and yellow shirt, though the style should be modernized.

Now a family man whose family seemingly is always under attack, he is protecting them more than the poorer classes he once championed. He had a cause, now he has a stroller. He had attitude, now he's Daddy with a job. He rebeled in Civil War only to see his partner, Jessica Jones, register to safeguard her baby. Understandable but it made him vunerable. He, or rather Power Man should have led the fight against the SHRA. He should have been battling Iron Man one-on-one! And he should have invited himself into the Avengers to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Luke should have been proactive but instead he was reactive. He followed Cap's lead when he could have reached the people more. But I still have hope that Luke will once more reclaim the name "Power Man" and move to the forefront of the MU.

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on August 9, 2011 at 11:29pm
You make a lot of sence, Philip, but ... being a husband and father changes your priorities.
Comment by Figserello on August 10, 2011 at 12:34am

Great article Philip.

 

I'd say the Luke Cage of the 70's was a great transitional minority character.  That is, there is a lot about him that right-thinking people would find problematic today.  At the same time, there was a lot about him that indicated that Marvel's heart was in the right place, and he did indeed push forward representation in comics a good deal for the times.

 

The things that were problematic about him - the gangster, drug-dealing background, the temper, the 'angry black man' scary stereotype - would have been fine in a character created when there were many different types of African Americans represented in comics, but as Luke was one of very few African American heroes at the time, and virtually the only one to have his own comic, then he had to bear the burden of representing the whole group, and its hard to believe today that that's the direction they took!

 

I'm sure many African-American readers would have been pained to see him as such a stereotype, even though he did go down pretty well with comics fans generally, thanks to how he fitted into the blaxploitation mode that they all understood.

 

I think it's significant that Luke had a chain around his waist and the surname Cage, which both seem to refer to the slavery period of African-American history, and that he is one of the very few heroes whose primary superpower is from his SKIN! 

 

I don't know if those things were thought through or subconcscious when he was created, but there they are.

 

He could have been a contender. He really could have!

 

I don't know if I'd complain too much about his career as a Marvel character.  It was great that he was created, and he opened doors for further minority characters.  He brought some black co-stars and supporting cast along with him.  He carried his own comic for 50 issues and then had an iconic run (at least to start with) getting top billing in a partnership with a rich white kid.

 

Maybe his star waned from the mid-80s to the 00s, but I can see why!  As a representative of his group he was hardly nuanced!  As political correctness took hold, there was probably some embarassment regarding him, and perhaps Marvel were pushing less problematic African-Americans, like Rhodey Rhodes and Cloak.  (I'm on shakey ground here.  It's a period I didn't follow much.  Perhaps Marvel didn't bother too much with representation at all in this era, beyond not having offensive stereotypes front and centre.)

 

He returned in a post-PC age.  I say "Post PC" both in a good way - society had genuinely progressed, and also in a slightly bad way. It became ok to use old stereotypes, so long as they were 'ironic', which Luke very much was when he first came back.

 

The other factor was that some of the kids who'd loved Heroes for Hire were now writing the comics and wanted to use the heroes of their childhoods.

 

There is a certain logic in Luke's current street-clothes look.  The yellow shirt etc was probably as close to regular clothes as a superhero could wear back then.

 

Making Luke a pivotal player in the Avengers was a huge leap forward for underrepresented minorities in comics, and kudos to Bendis for acheiving it.  Digging old characters out of obscurity and retooling them for the 21st century is a pretty good way to introduce a bit more variety to all those WASPy physogs from the 60s and earlier that we're stuck with in comics.  Luke WAS at the forefront of Marvel comics while Thor and Cap were away.  However, as Colin Smith's blog points out, that too becomes somewhat problematic when blonde, blue-eyed Steve Rogers returns and Luke gets put

Comment by Figserello on August 10, 2011 at 12:39am

back into the 'ethnic sidekick' role in many of his appearances.

 

Yes I know - best of friends, Steve's great, yadda yadda, but just the look of it when someone unfamilair with the history picks up his current appearances.

 

(Curse this lack of editing and cut-off posting!)

Comment by Philip Portelli on August 10, 2011 at 9:57am

There is a scene in Fear Itself where Nick Fury openly states that Thor Odinson, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have to unite to stop the menace. Fair enough from the story's impact but do Thor, Stark and Rogers need the boost? We already know that the MU revolves around them, especially now. Why couldn't Luke Cage, James Rhodes and T'Challa save the day and increase their visiblity and profiles?

Granted all three men are heavily featured in today's comics but where do they rank in importance and influence? Could or would those three be accepted as the Avengers if the Big Three were absent? How far have they gone?

Fatherhood does change a person's perspectives and there is nothing wrong with Luke's characterization in that regard. I feel, though, that his presence should still be more prominent beyond domestic humor. Mister Fantastic was never put in the background due to his being a parent nor did he stop taking risks. Whether that's good or bad is subjective to the reader.

Comment by Philip Portelli on August 10, 2011 at 10:00am

I read that blogpost, Figs, and it was an eye-opener! (I swear, I would never read half these things if it wasn't for you guys!)

BTW, how dare Marvel put Luke Cage in the role of Cap's ethnic sidekick!!! That's the Falcon's job! ;-)

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