Randy Jackson Re-Reads Luke Cage Hero For Hire/Luke Cage Power Man

Yup, I threatened to do this, now it's going to happen.  I'd thought about waiting until I was finished with Howard the Duck but I decided to go ahead and get started.

For this discussion, I'll be covering Luke Cage: Hero For Hire #1-16, Luke Cage: Power Man #17-27 and Power Man @28-48.

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Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1 - "Out of Hell--A Hero!"
Cover Date: June 1972
Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artist: George Tuska

We start with a simple splash page of images that relate somewhat to Luke's life--someone shooting at someone else, gambling, the police and a slinky dancer.

The story starts in Seagate prison, nicknamed "Little Alcatraz". No one has ever escaped. We see two prison guards--one with apparently greater seniority named Quirt--releasing a man named Lucas from "the hole".  Apparently Lucas was kept there three days past his allotted time. The other guard suggests that keeping him there that long was inhuman, but Quirt remarks that if he were human, he would have broken long ago. As the door opens, Lucas remarks that the best thing about exiting the hole is not being able to see Quirt's face. Quirt threatens him with more solitary.

Out in the yard, a prisoner called Shades talks to Lucas about putting on a demonstration for the new warden. Lucas tells him that he's awfully quick to speak for the inmates and put their heads under the clubs. Another inmate named Comanche tells Lucas that they need him as the others look up to him. He's carrying a knife, and threatens Lucas with it. Lucas punches him in the mouth. He then tells Shades that if he doesn't handle his demonstration better than he picks his sidemen that he's going to need something besides fancy sunglasses to hide behind. Lucas then tells them both that he doesn't need either of them and walks away.

Quirt is watching with a senior officer, Captain Rackham. Quirt wants to throw Lucas back into the hole, but Rackham has other ideas. He has Lucas brought to his office, and lets him know that if he plays ball and tells him what Shades and Comanche are up to, he could do himself some good. Lucas refuses. Rackham gets really angry and tells Quirt to take him back to the hole, and this time to break him.  Once out of the office, Quirt begins to beat Lucas.  The other officers tell Quirt to stop, but he says that it's dark and the other guys can't see. Lucas tells him that if he had made a move, Quirt wouldn't be standing.  This enrages Quirt, who continues beating Lucas.  The sounds of the beating are heard by the other prisoners, who say that he needs to stop because he knows Lucas can't fight back. Quirt is finally dragged off of Lucas by some corrections officers.

At this point, the new warden, Warden Stuart, walks in. He sees Quirt threatening Lucas and immediately fires him. Then he locks him in the cell with Lucas for ten minutes, and Lucas exacts a little revenge.

In the warden's office, Stuart sees Rackham sitting at his desk.  Rackham thinks he's Quirt and makes remarks about enjoying the facilities while he can before the new warden arrives. Stuart immediately demotes him to a regular guard and tells him he has one week to show he can do the job. Rackham hurries out. Rackham blames Lucas for his problems.

Back in the cells, Lucas is visited by a doctor, Noah Burstein. He looks over Lucas's injuries and tells him he's healing nicely, while also dropping cryptic comments about working together later, specifically about a medical experiment that could use a man like him. Over time, we see Burstein investigating Lucas, telling him that he's perfect, except for his arrest record. Lots of brawls and attempted escapes, including one at a parole hearing where he insisted he was framed. Burstein asks him about the frame, and Lucas tells his story.

At one point in time, Lucas was a petty thief in Harlem along with a friend, Willis Stryker. Initially it was petty theft, but as time went by there was more violence and running away. They both became leaders of their local street gang, with Stryker being an expert with knives, and Lucas being good with his fists.  However Lucas began losing interest in it all. Willis then got involved with organized crime.  He wanted to bring in Lucas, but he refused. Then Lucas and Willis meet a girl, Reva, and and compete for her. However, Willis always had more money to show her a good time. One night, Willis is threatened by the Syndicate when he's with Reva. He tells them to pound sand, but they're waiting at the side door when they attempt to leave, and Willis is beaten. Reva runs away and finds Lucas, who goes to help his friend Willis. Lucas drives the mobsters away, and helps Willis escape. Reva realises that this is what her life with Willis will always be like, and tries to dump him. But Willis won't listen, and blames Lucas for stealing his woman.

Time passes, and Lucas and Reva fall in love. However, one day Lucas comes home to find the police waiting in his apartment, along with some narcotics that had been planted there. Lucas is arrested. Through the prison grapevine, he hears about Willis seeing Reva and telling her he can help Lucas. One day, mob enforcers catch up with Willis on the street. Willis drives keeping Reva between them, so the mobsters shoot and kill Reva. The car goes out of control and runs off a cliff but Willis survives. Lucas then says he's only got one thing on his mind--getting out of Seagate and getting revenge.

Dr. Burstein tells Lucas that he believes his story, but that won't get him out of prison. However, he suggests that participating in his experiment might influence parole boards. Lucas refuses, saying a parole won't help him if he's dead.

Back in the cells, Rackham comes to visit Lucas. He tells Lucas that as long as he's there at Seagate, his life is going to be hell. Lucas decides that working with Dr. Burstein may not be such a bad thing.

In an unused part of the prison is Dr. Burstein's laboratory. Much of the equipment was designed by Stark Industries, and the experiment is on stimulating human cell regeneration. There's a giant bathtub that Lucas needs to get into, and Burstein says he needs to give Lucas an injection. Lucas doesn't want it, but Burstein talks him into it. Lucas gets in the tub. Burstein lowers a shell over the top.  He explains that initially Lucas is going to be subjected to the tests for short periods of time. Then he goes to check some sensor readings.

While Burstein is away, Lucas begins to feel less than good. He sees someone out in the lab and asks for help. However, it's Rackham, who has dismissed the other guards. Rackham starts twisting dials, then runs away. Burstein comes back in as Lucas breaks out of the tub. Rackham raises his gun, but Lucas clobbers him. Burstein stops him, and Lucas says he only slapped him, but Rackham is out like a light. Lucas frustratedly punches the wall and puts a hole in it. He sees that his hand is unhurt, and he punches the wall again and again until the hole is big enough for him to go through.

The guards see him escape and pursue.  As Lucas reaches the edge of the island, he grabs a rock and turns to fight, but he's shot several times as the officers thought his rock was a gun. He falls over a cliff and into the water. However, he's survived the shooting--with just a few bruises on his chest to show for it. The officers think he's dead and therefore don't search very hard. Lucas finds a rowboat and escapes.  He makes his way North, working odd jobs until he reaches New York. He runs into a robber exiting a diner. The robber shoots him, but Lucas is unaffected and knocks him out. The owner of the diner is thankful and gives Lucas a reward and an idea. He goes into a costume shop to get a costume, then goes to visit Reva's grave. He's taken a new name--Luke Cage--and plans to hunt down Wilis Stryker. We finally see him in his costume, and we know he's had business cards printed.

We see a criminal talking to Willis Stryker, telling him that once again someone has busted up his goons and handed out cards with "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire" on them. Stryker--aka Diamondback--is pissed, and plans to hunt down Luke Cage.

My rating: 7/10

As origins go, it's pretty decent. Lucas is likeable and shows hero qualities early. At the same time, one looks at his past and he becomes less sympathetic. Additionally, his antagonists are pretty one-dimensional, which I think in general hurts his stories as we'll see in the future. There are some other oddities too--like a prison inmate openly carrying a knife--which are odd. Still, in 1972 it was nice to have a Black headliner with his own comic.

The inks were by Billy Graham, who remained involved with the series until just after the title switch to Power Man and also pencilled some covers and issues.

I have the first two Luke Cage Essentials.  I wish Archie Goodwin hadn't left the series so quickly with issue #4.  He did a great job here.  There's a fair bit of slang but no one talks like a bad stereotype (I am not looking forward to re-reading issue #5, among others).  The story is detailed but not overly wordy.  Goodwin knew his stuff.  I also like the Tuska/Graham combination on art.  It's a gritty, urban story and the art matches it; while the Romita Senior cover is a good one, it wouldn't have been the best choice for the interiors.

Is it true Romita designed Luke's costume?  I've heard that he did.  The costume for Diamondback at the end of the story also seems like Romita's work to me.

Randy, I don't find Luke less sympathetic because of his past.  He was a criminal as a juvenile, no question, but he took a different path as a young man, reforming, unlike his friend Willis.  It's admirable he turned his life around, on his own.  It's tragic that he went to prison for a crime he didn't commit.

I was just a white kid from Memphis, but I was pretty sure nobody used the slang found in Luke Cage, even -- no, especially -- black guys from Harlem. I figured out that some of the expressions were euphemisms for harsher language, but some of it seemed just ... odd.

Comics have always been terrible at slang. Reading Teen Titans fighting the Mad Mod gave me a headache.

I'm pretty sanguine about attempts to capture a particular social/ethnic group's slang and dialect.  I can see how it might seem to be somewhat insulting if it doesn't hit the mark, but I tend to appreciate it when someone tries to broaden out the representation beyond just 'people like us'.  Of course it's hard to capture a whole other lingo exactly, but I appreciate that they are trying.

As an Irish person, I've seen some terrible versions of the aul' brogue in the small and large screens in my time.  Still, growing up in what was then pretty much a 20th Century backwater, I appreciated that the likes of Claremont and Miller were trying to include us in their stories and welcome us to the party, not to mention add a bit of texture to their tales.  It was gratifying, especially when they showed that they put a little (sometimes only a little!) work into finding out something about our culture/history and sticking it up there!

So, I saw the good intentions and generous inclusivity and appreciated that, and forgave whatever 'stage Irishness', dodgy stereotypes and wonky lingo that came as part of the package, ...so I did....Me boyo!

Marvel's heart was just about in the right place when they produced Luke Cage.   I'm sure. like little Figs, long ago sitting on the mountain enjoying X-Men comics where Banshee was 'readin' James Joyce in front of a 'roarin' fire', black kids probably appreciated that someone noticed they had lives and culture worth representing too.  I don't think we should be too hard on the creators if they didn't quite hit the nail on the head, linguistically speaking.

Having said all that...

I do think it's unfortunate that Marvel's first especially-created black hero to lead his own book had to be a petty criminal - even a former petty criminal - and an associate of drug-dealers.  Such a person would probably have to come along sooner or later, if Marvel continued to introduce as many African-American characters as possible, and that's OK.  But the first guy to be created especially for his own book (and still at that time one of the very few black superheroes at either DC or Marvel), is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders.  He is, by definition, going to represent that whole group of people, and this isn't a good look.

I see issue one came out exactly one year after the movie Shaft, which must have been a big influence on this comic. It's possibly the main reason it exists.  With that movie, the creative team knew they were forging new territory and were concerned to bust stereotypes in a helpful way, by having the lead character be so cultured, sauve and in-control (rather than the angry black man stereotype, which 70's Luke Cage personifies most of the time.)  The movie and no doubt the book are mere pulp entertainments, but the creators went about both in an intelligent, careful way, trying not to be part of the problem they were trying to address.

Here's a great quote from the writer of the book about his intentions: 

“The idea came out of my awareness of both social and literary situations in a changing city,” Tidyman told a writer in 1973. “There are winners, survivors and losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician.”

So I do think Luke's portrayal is problematic, but appreciate that the creators' hearts were in the right place, just about.

It's also a good thing that they didn't end up giving him a name like Black (Whatever).  That would've been problematic too.

There are two things in the subtext of Luke Cage's early appearances that I find interesting, and I'm not sure how deliberate they are.

#1 is that his superpower seems to derive from his SKIN.  Initially, his powers all seemed to derive from his indestructable skin, even though that doesn't quite explain the things we see him do as the series continues.  I suspect that making a black superhero's skin be his defining superpower and what makes him stand out from his fellows was done inadvertantly.

#2 was the incorporation of chains into his costume. That's a real callback to slavery, and where this particular 'angry black man' is coming from, isn't it?  Actually I'm astonished that they did this, but admire it, if it was more deliberate than the skin thing.  Slavery was a big deal in US history and it's not hard to draw the line between it and Luke's general demeanor, political outlook and status.  Slavery is rarely/never talked about in these comics, but the chains are there on every page nevertheless.  Comics, y'see!

I don't know the exact process by which they came up with the chain: it could be in early drawings he was drawn busting loose of chains and that suggested it, or that it just felt right. Either way, I'm sure it was used, consciously or unconsciously, because it suggested ideas of breaking loose from chains and steel strength. The Cage name likewise suggests someone who is constrained and needs to bust out, or who has been in jail, or metal strength.

Marvel already had the Falcon. He was co-starring in Captain America and cover-billed. Cage's background and frustrations make him much the more interesting character. I don't believe the Falcon could have sustained a title. Marvel's successful heroes of the 60s/70s all had strong personalities and/or personal problems. The creators probably hoped Cage would speak to readers from inner city backgrounds.

I don't agree with criticism of "black" names. In the period they were likely understood in terms of black pride and cool.

Either way, I'm sure it was used, consciously or unconsciously, because it suggested ideas of breaking loose from chains and steel strength.

It's the 'unconsciously' bit I'm interested in...

The Cage name likewise suggests someone who is constrained and needs to bust out, or who has been in jail, or metal strength.

Ah, the name 'Cage' was the other thing that suggested slavery to me when I read the first Essential (several years ago now.)  I was dimly aware that I was forgetting something when I compiled my little list of 'interesting things' up there.  Thanks for reminding me.

That's two significant symbols of slavery in the presentation of Marvel's first black superhero to star in his own comic.  (Maybe two and a half, if you count the focus on this superheroes skin as a defining attribute of him.)

Yes, everything you say is true.  The cage and the chains do indicate strength in their way, but it's significant that it was this superhero that they chose to use those indicators with.

For myself, I'm going with unconscious white liberal guilt on the part of the creators!  But that's only my reading of what's there on the page. ...Unless anyone wants to argue that Goodwin et al were overtly drawing the readers' attention to the historical institution which contributed most to the family background and general situation of African Americans such as Luke Cage?  (Slavery had barely been gone a 100 years when issue #1 was published, a relatively short itme in the history of families or societies.)

Marvel's successful heroes of the 60s/70s all had strong personalities and/or personal problems.

Shaft had a strong personality and personal problems.

The creators probably hoped Cage would speak to readers from inner city backgrounds.

Shaft spoke to readers from inner city backgrounds.

'Angry Black Man with criminal connections' is an unfortunate stereotype that they fell into.  Perhaps that was because they didn't want their character to be too derivitive of the cultured and sauve Shaft, but once they decided not to have him too similar to Shaft, they don't seem to have put the amount of active thought into avoiding harmful stereotypes as the creators of Shaft did.  Perhaps Luke Cage could have been an obstetrician?  :-)

I will admit the stories they produced from the unfortunate premise were great fun, for the most part, and the tough inner-city locale was pretty fresh and cutting edge for the time.

I wasn't disagreeing about the source of the imagery, but agreeing. I don't think it was guilt percolating up, though, but that it was seen as having the right resonance. Chains were also part of Tyroc's costume later, perhaps under the influence of Cage's.

Right at the start Cage's belt had a loose end, suggesting a broken chain. I don't have the stories, but it sometimes appeared this way on covers into the Power Man era.

Indeed.  It's really hard to know where all this fell on the 'intentional spectrum'.  The slavery signifiers all seem pretty glaring to me, so I'd have to wonder if the creators were ever asked about those aspects?  Maybe someone can add something?

Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #2 - "Vengeance is Mine!"
Cover Date: August 1972
Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artist: George Tuska

Luke is using a pay phone to call his answering service. He's losing jobs because it takes him so long to get to meet people, and he realizes he needs an office. Meanwhile, two of Diamondback's men have spotted him and want to take him down. They knock on the phone booth and interrupt him. They want to take him to see Diamondback. Cage has other ideas. He smashes through the phone booth to take down one of the men, and the other attempts to shoot him. Of course, the bullets don't stop Luke, and he crushes the gun in his hand, then tosses the crook into the broken phone booth.

Cage walks away, but he's stopped by a young woman who's concerned about him getting shot. He assumes she's a nurse, but she corrects him that she's a doctor, Claire Temple. She looks at his chest but only sees bruises where the bullets hit him. She assumed he would be hurt, but he basically says that turnabout is fair play along those lines. She does insist on treating his bruises. She and a partner have a storefront clinic a few blocks away, but when they get there, the place has been ransacked and her partner is underneatch a broken cabinet. Cage lifts up the cabinet to reveal Dr. Burstein. There's a quick recap of Luke's origin. We find out his costume belonged to a former escape artist, hence the chains. Following this, he goes to a printer to get cards printed.

Dr. Burstein comes to. Dr. Temple introduces Cage, and Burstein doesn't let on that he recognizes Luke. He gives Luke a line about how his charging for his services doesn't seem right, and Luke replies that if you can hire security guards, why not an actual hero?  Dr. Temple wants to hire him to guard the clinic, and Dr. Burstein says he'll think about it, letting Luke know one way or the other that they'll be seeing more of one another. Luke realizes that Burstein does recognize him, and gets very frustrated, smashes something, then walks away.  He's been seen by two men on a rooftop who have been the ones wrecking the clinic. They don't want to tangle with him and go off to call Diamondback.

Stryker hears the news and is pretty pissed off. He's talking to his lawyer, who works for the Syndicate. His lawyer warns him that he needs to take care of Cage. Diamondback calls in his man Gadget, who creates his weapons. He's created some new tricks with Diamondback's knives, including one that can include a gas cartridge, another that delivers a sonic attack, and an explosive one. One wonders if Gadget designs arrows for Hawkeye as well.

The next day, Luke arrives at a movie theater with a space for rent. Asking at the ticket office, a young woman directs him to the entrance for the office. After climbing up three floors, he enters an office where a young man named D.W. Griffith is cleaning. He shows Cage around. The office has a living space as well, although it is over the projection booth. Luke decides to rent the space. Just then he gets a call from Dr. Burstein, claiming it's urgent.

Luke runs to the clinic expecting to see the police. Instead he finds a despondent Dr. Burstein. He tells Luke that Diamondback's men have taken Claire, and that they'll kill her unless Cage comes to get her. Cage punches a file cabinet (he just seems to punch things sometimes rather than say he's frustrated) and Burstein reveals that he knows who Cage is. He says that's unimportant now, and he needs to rescue Claire.

Cage walks into the obvious trap. A car runs into Cage, knocking him down. The men inside exit to see if he's dead. Stryker even comes down to check, and he has Dr. Temple with him. But Cage is playing possum, and he grabs the driver of the car and hurls him at Diamondback, giving him time to escape. She takes the car that they used to hit Cage and asks him to leave with her, but he says he needs to deal with Stryker first. He goes to pursue Diamondback.

He chases Strker into a parking garage, and lets him know who he is and that he's out for revenge. Diamondback throws the sonic knife at Cage. The pain is terrible, but Luke manages to destroy the knife and it's sonic waves. He chases Diamondback up to the roof where Diamondback is waiting in ambush. However, Luke has anticipated the trap and smashes through the door before Stryker can throw the gas knife. Diamondback pulls the explosive knife, but Cage reaches him first, knocking him through a billboard. Stryker loses the knife and grabs a piece of the billboard frame to attack, but it has zero effect on Cage. Cage advances, giving Stryker time to grab the knife, but he needs some distance to make sure it doesn't hurt him as well. He backs up and into a skylight, falling through. The knife falls next to him point down and explodes, presumably killing Diamondback(no body, so you never know). Luke is up on the roof as the police arrive.

My rating: 9/10

This was a fun, action packed issue. There's a bit of intrigue introduced with the reunion of Luke and Dr. Burstein, not to mention a quick resolution to the vengeance story line.  I very much enjoy the fact that Luke's fighting style is pretty much hit 'em and hit 'em again until they don't get up again. Also, there's enough introduced in this issue for several future storylines, as Luke's supporting cast is fleshed out.  Now if they can just stop him from punching things when he's angry...

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