Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Today, we look at the history of the Hero for Hire, Luke Cage!
Tomorrow the latest Marvel TV series debuts on Netflix. Luke Cage joins Netflix’s line of Marvel series, which include “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones”, both of which have been hits with audiences as well as critics. Before the series drops, I thought we’d spend this edition of “Back Issues” going through the history of Luke Cage, the first African-American Marvel hero to headline his own series, and his journey from blaxploitation cash-in to one of Marvel’s most unconventional and complex characters.
Hero for Hire (1972-1978)
In the early 1970s, America was in the midst of processing the gigantic social upheaval of the previous ten years. JFK’s Assassination, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, race riots, the hippy counter-culture, all of these things had torn America apart across racial, class and generational lines. Now the country was trying to make sense of it all.
Hollywood and the American studio system was particularly lost. The late 1960s saw the film industry lose its audience due a combination of aging studio heads out of touch with a younger audience, strong complex films coming out of other countries, television, and a lack of nurturing of new talent and shrinking appetite for simple escapism. A generation of young filmmakers, raised on B-Movies, television, and foreign films, were taking over Hollywood. But most had cut their teeth, and their first films, in the exploitation grind houses of tiny film studios and distributors looking for lots of product made fast and cheap with plenty of sex and violence.
From this sprang Blaxploitation. They were exploitation films made originally for an African-American audience, focusing either on depressed urban communities or rural Southern communities where racism was more overt. They were not always made by African-American filmmakers, but the best ones often were, and they featured black actors in the starring roles. After the huge successes of films like “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, Blaxploitation became a legitimate genre and major studios began to produce films of their own.
Never a company to miss a trend, Marvel wanted their own black hero in the Blaxploitation style. True, they had icons such as Black Panther and the Falcon by this point, but they wanted something that wouldn’t feel miles away from John Shaft. Writer Archie Goodwin and artist John Romita Sr. took the job, and created Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, who debuted in the first issue of his own series in 1972.
Cage began life as Carl Lucas, a Harlem kid who winds up running with a local street gang. After a childhood of petty crime, Lucas is beginning to turn his life around when he is set up by a rival who tips the cops off to heroin the rival has planted in Lucas’ apartment. Carl Lucas is sentenced to prison, where his unjust incarceration turns him into a man consumed by rage. After frequent assaults and escape attempts, he is out of options. He eventually agrees to participate in scientific experiments led by Dr. Noah Burstein, who was trying to duplicate the Super-Solider serum. The experiment goes awry, but Lucas gains super-strength, unbreakable skin and enhanced durability. Using his new powers, Lucas escapes and flees back to Harlem.
Now calling himself Luke Cage, he decides to use his abilities to help people, albeit for a price. Less a mercenary, and more of a private investigator who barely makes ends meet, Cage becomes a Hero for Hire, aiding those who typically have trouble getting the attention of Captain America or Spider-Man.
And Marvel finally had its first book headlined by an African-American super-hero.
Luke Cage’s series initially was unconventional in its approach. Cage didn’t want or like getting involved in typical super-heroics. He preferred staying effective to the neighbourhood, dealing with the conventional problems faced by the people who lived there. His supporting cast included Dr. Claire Temple, an African-American woman and love interest who has gained more fame today as a character in the “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” series as played by Rosario Dawson.
Over time, though, Cage gradually became entwined with the rest of the Marvel Universe, spending time with the Fantastic Four and the Defenders. His rogue’s gallery didn’t exactly contain any classic foes, but there were memorable antagonists in Gideon Mace, Black Mariah and Chemistro.
Though created by Goodwin and Romita, Cage’s creators didn’t act as midwives for long. Romita drew only the covers for the early issues, while George Tuska was responsible for interior art for most of the early issues. Goodwin left the series after issue #4, followed by Steve Engleheart for a lengthy run of what must be considered the best of Cage’s early period.
The best example of this comes with Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #8-9. Written by Engleheart and drawn by Tuska, the story begins with Cage frustrated at the constant damage done to his offices by rampaging foes. He eventually accepts a job for $200 a day which is offered to him by a businessman who wants Cage to track down some enemies of his powerful employer. Cage eventually tracks down the thugs threatening the employer, but discovers them to be robots. He subsequently uncovers that the businessman who hired him is in the employ of Doctor Doom. After successfully completing the case, Cage discovers that Doom has skipped town without paying Cage’s bill. In issue #9, Cage heads to Latveria to take on Doom with one objective, to get what he’s owed.
It’s a great story, one that shows Cage’s code, and how he won’t let himself be taken advantage of or ripped off by anyone. It’s not a typical super-hero code, true, but it’s very much reflective of a kind of code exemplified by private eye heroes since the days of Sam Spade. They may not be totally altruistic, they may have a mercenary streak, but they have their own kind of integrity. It’s a tough integrity, one that isn’t lofty, but it is unbreakable. Unsurprisingly, Doom pays up.
As the series progresses, it goes through some changes. First, the creative teams begin to be more unstable, with pretty much every Marvel writer around at the time taking a stab at the book for an issue of two. Engleheart would leave and return here and there, with Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Tony Isabella, Billy Graham, Don McGregor and Marv Wolfman all taking their turns at the typewriter. The series would lose the mercenary but cool title “Hero for Hire”, becoming the far more conventional “Luke Cage, Power Man.” But as the 1970s wore on, and Blaxploitation faded out of fashion, the title began to falter.
Luckily, there was another character, born from Marvel’s attempt to cash in on another exploitation film genre, that was in similar need of revitalization.
Power Man and Iron Fist (1978-1986)
As Power Man’s fortunes began to fad, another Marvel character was having a hard time maintaining his own audience. Iron Fist had been created during the Kung Fu boom of the early to mid 1970s. Along with Shang-Chi and the Sons of the Tiger, Iron Fist was Marvel’s attempt to cash in on the martial arts craze begun by Bruce Lee. Iron Fist’s solo comic had a great pedigree, being written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, who were at this same time doing some of the definitive work of their careers turning “Uncanny X-Men” into the comics juggernaut it remains to this day.
But “Iron Fist” just wasn’t selling as well as it should. And Claremont and Byrne were overworked, needing to focus on the obvious smarter bet of X-Men. Marvel editorial decided that these two struggling but still viable properties would be combined into a team-up book to see if it would fly. And so, beginning with Power Man #48, Claremont & Byrne took a caucasian Kung Fu pastiche and a blaxploitation-inspired street-level scrapper, and made something that actually improved on both.
Claremont & Byrne only did the opening three issue arc, beginning in Power Man #48, continuing in #49, and then renaming Cage’s book “Power Man and Iron Fist” with issue #50. The arc redefines them both, crystallizing the differences of each character while emphasizing the integrity that unites them both. The street-smart and down to earth Luke Cage is a great foil for the earnest discipline and good nature of Iron Fist.
The brawler and the martial artist made an instantly compelling team. And the supporting cast improved as well. The duo were aided and abetted by Misty Knight, the African-American private eye girlfriend of Iron Fist, and her partner Colleen Wing. And together they resurrected the cool concept that originally set Cage apart when they formed Heroes for Hire, a business where the partners would hire out their services. The company was now a much bigger concern, managed by lawyer Jeryn Hogarth.
The series would continue for eight more years, enjoying periods of success and steady readership. Though it eventually began to fall out of fashion, the characters had a fanbase, and its sales, though on the smaller side, remained healthy enough to continue the title. But Marvel editorial wanted to launch their ill-fated New Universe line, and they decided to kill a number of books in order to make room.
“Power Man and Iron Fist” was one of those books. So, editorial ordered the book be ended. The creative team at the time was writer Christopher Priest and artist MD Bright. Ordered to end the book, and kill Iron Fist, Priest decided that he would only do so if he could kill the character off in a senseless, meaningless way. And so, Power Man and Iron Fist #125 ends with a sleeping Iron Fist killed by a confused super-powered boy they had been trying to help and Luke Cage the main suspect in his friend’s death and forced to go on the run once more.
Here, Christopher Priest explains the decision to kill off Iron Fist in a post from his website:
The expedient thing to say is, Iron Fist’s death wasn’t my idea. It was my idea in the sense of that is how I chose for him to die– brutally and senselessly. I was ordered to kill IF because the editor was deeply resentful of Marvel’s decision to cancel the book, a book the editor (comics legend Denny O’Neil) invested himself in and worked very hard with myself and artist MD “Doc” Bright. We were all pretty upset, but Denny was outraged. POWER MAN & IRON FIST was a critical success and was selling in excess of 100,000 copies; not a major hit in those days but the book was certainly profitable. Then the company, for no apparent reason, decided to change the publishing schedule from a monthly release to bi-monthly, which automatically depresses sales, and, once the sales projections skewed downward, that became justification enough to cancel the book to make room on the schedule for a new line of books that became the infamous and notorious “New Universe.”
Angered by the slight to our work on the book, in an editorial meeting Denny’s assistant suggested we kill Iron Fist and cast the blame on Power Man. Doc and I really did not like the idea, but the editors were adamant, insisting if we didn’t write the story he’d assign it out to someone else. I agreed to write the story on the condition that IF’s death be senseless and, actually, extant to the story itself. The story and plotlines had resolved themselves by the time Iron Fist fell asleep in the hospital and was subsequently killed. It was shocking and unexpected and completely meaningless– which is how we all felt the company had treated us.
Out of the Spotlight (1986 – 2001)
Cage disappeared for a while, and pretty much faded from being a B-list Marvel character to even further down the alphabet. He would gain a new solo title in the early 1990s called “Cage”, which saw him relocated to Chicago, ditch his disco-era uniform, sport a fade instead of a bushy afro and recommit himself to solving problems on the street. After Iron Fist returned from the dead (this is comics, remember?!?) Cage was cleared of his murder and returned to being a Hero for Hire, but the series didn’t last.
For the rest of the 1990s, Cage popped up in different books as a guest star. There was an aborted attempt at a “Heroes for Hire” book (it’s just too catchy a title to stay dormant!), this time more of a team exercise rather than solely Iron Fist and Power Man. But it didn’t catch on.
In 2000, Marvel launched its Max line, an adult-reader line that would feature Marvel Universe characters in adult-themed series. Luke Cage, with his street-level, crime-based vibe, seemed like a natural fit. And though he would star in a Max mini-series by Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben, it was received with mixed reviews. Many felt that Azzarello’s script didn’t really understand the character of Luke Cage.
Thankfully, a different Max series by a different writer would feature Cage in a significant supporting role, one that take the character from the C-List to being one of Marvel’s signature and most interesting tough guy characters of the new century.
Alias, The Pulse and the New Avengers (2001-Present)
Alias didn’t star Luke Cage. Rather it starred a new character, private eye Jessica Jones (it was originally intended to be Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman). Jones is a surly and troubled former super-hero who now ekes out a living doing the sleazier private investigation jobs in and around Manhattan. Written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Michael Gaydos, Alias is a noir triumph from start to finish, with the overarching examination of the damaged Jessica anchored by several fascinating narratives and spiced up by the patented Bendis dialogue that doesn’t yet feel forced or artificial. It’s basically the perfect merging of both his super-hero and crime writing.
Woven throughout the series, subtly at first and gradually taking greater and greater importance, is her burgeoning relationship with Luke Cage. He and Jessica are clearly friends at the outset, friends with occasional benefits. But part of the story of this series is how Jessica and Luke grow into something deeper as she gradually deals with some of the issues that have been haunting her and Luke gradually becomes aware of how much he can allow himself to care for her.
Unlike Azzarello, Bendis nails how to make Luke Cage both a modern, adult and nuanced character while retaining his essential traits. What Bendis hangs his hat on is the aspect of Luke Cage that has remained consistent; his iron-clad integrity and dogged independence. Luke is Luke and he has his code and no one can shake him from that. Loyalty, remaining grounded to ordinary people, toughness without sacrificing emotional access. This is what makes Luke Cage compelling, and Bendis nails that.
When Alias ends, and ends with Luke and Jessica committing to each other, Luke Cage is a completely revitalized character, ready for the 21st century. More than maybe any other Marvel character besides Spider-Man, Cage responded to Bendis’ style, his dialogue, his ability to delineate what makes certain characters compelling. Bendis managed to redefine Cage as a family man, a guy who embraces responsibility and takes it seriously, without ever reducing his badass toughness. He removed the blaxploitation side of Cage that had always lingered, and made him a multi-dimensional character with an authenticity and singular voice. He also placed him at the center of one of the most grown-up relationships in the Marvel Universe.
After Alias, Jessica and Luke were central figures in The Pulse, Bendis’ follow-up book that placed them back inside the Marvel Universe proper. Gone were the adult themes, but it gave space for their relationship to grow with the birth and raising of their child Dani. Most importantly, it also allowed Luke Cage to begin to utilize his energized presence in the Marvel Universe by putting him back in the thick of things.
When Brian Michael Bendis was given the task of destroying and then rebuilding the Avengers, he was able to choose some of his favorite characters to join the team. Working form the viewpoint that the avengers should be a gathering of Marvel’s a-listers, he immediately elevated Luke Cage to that status by making him a central figure of the relaunched New Avengers title.
Bendis paired Luke with Spider-Man, making them one of the most unexpected treats of the new series. Cage provided a down-to-earth viewpoint that never wavered, even as his banter with Spidey resulted in the best jokes throughout Bendis’ run. Over the course of the era, Luke became a central figure in the Marvel Universe, going so far as to eventually become a leader of several Avengers squads. Bendis retained the trait that Luke had right form the beginning, a focus on the average everyday person, an approachability and common touch that kept him both a hero and still just a guy from the neighbourhood.
The era that saw Bendis redefine Luke Cage’s position in the Marvel Universe is directly responsible for the TV series that is about to drop on Netflix tomorrow. without the care he lavished on the character, I doubt we’d be seeing him in live action. And Bendis’ approach to the character, his effort to keep him recognizably real and authentic, to make him one of the signature every-men of Marvel, means that Luke Cage continues to be rich and complex enough to support a TV series all his own.
Here’s hoping that the large exposure brings more fans to the Hero for Hire, and if you find yourself wanting to dive into Cage’s history, I hope you found a few books to pick up at your local shop or online wherever comics are sold.
Until next week, enjoy digging through the quarter bins!!