To conclude our exploration of Blaxploitation, we’re stepping away from the silver screen and turning to the paneled pages of comic books. After Marvel Studios and Netflix’s one-two punch of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, they’re ready to turn their attention to another corner of Marvel’s neighborhood, one where the shades of gray are quite literally defined by black and white. You may think you know Luke Cage already, but we’ve got the info that will have you shouting “Sweet Christmas!” before the series airs. So settle back, crank up the Isaac Hayes, and discover everything you need to know about our favorite hero for hire, Luke Cage.
The Comic: Luke Cage first appeared in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 in 1972. Created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr., Roy Thomas, George Tuska, and Billy Graham, Luke Cage was a direct response to the boom of Blaxploitation movies that were filling urban theaters. Evident from the number of creators involved in the initial concept, this book was to be Marvel’s gravy train. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire became Marvel’s first comic with a black lead and the publisher wanted a black writer to bring the series to life and increase potential profits. Unfortunately, there weren’t any…at least, none that Marvel was aware of (a lack of awareness that still exists in comics today). In Archie Goodwin, Marvel found a writer willing to at least attempt to capture the world of their new character and his presumed audience. Goodwin’s exploration of New York’s urban spaces and a steady diet of Blaxploitation movies gave him the means to deliver a book worthy of Marvel’s character-first mentality and their growing interest in diversity. And so, alongside artist George Tuska and inker/artist Billy Graham (who was black), Archie Goodwin delivered one of the earliest Marvel books to step away from high-flying superheroics and mainstream villains and step into a world of back-alley crimes, gang violence, and drug deals gone bad. Unlike other superheroes at the time, Luke Cage got paid for his heroics. He struggled with money, relationships, and his past. Frank Miller is often credited as the creator who first began to explore the grittier urban side of the Marvel Universe and its subsequent psychological toll on its characters with Daredevil in 1981, but the creative team on Luke Cage did it first. And while the book didn’t end up becoming the runaway success Marvel had hoped for, especially after Blaxploitation films waned, the book can be considered a direct predecessor for some of the most popular runs on Daredevil, The Punisher, Spider-Man, and Jessica Jones.
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire lasted 16 issues before it was retitled Luke Cage, Power Man with issue #17 in 1974. The series ended with the abbreviated title Power Man #49 in 1978. During its six year run, the series faced a bit of an identity crises in more ways than just its title. As Hero for Hire became Power Man, the series lost much of its urban focus and ventured closer to the territory of Marvel’s other major properties. While Luke Cage always had one foot in the world of low-level sci-fi and the supernatural, his adventures became increasingly strange without the benefit of being backed by a memorable rouges gallery. With issue #50, the series became Power Man and Iron Fist, and it’s this duo that people most associate with the name Luke Cage. Iron Fist, who is set to receive his own Netflix series (and Primer, of course) was created as Marvel’s answer to Kung-Fu movies. As that genre faded and Iron Fist’s own series fell, Marvel saw the opportunity to take two characters birthed by cult film genres and bring them together. The series was defined by the buddy dynamics of the two characters and their efforts to make a living as C-list heroes. The series lasted until 1986 where in issue #125, Iron Fist was killed off and Luke Cage went on Marvel’s backburner.
It wasn’t until 1992 that Luke Cage received a new solo-series, one titled Cage. Marcus McLaurin’s series saw Luke Cage make the move from New York to Chicago and his yellow-disco shirt, tights, and silver tiara were traded in for a black leather jacket and jeans to match the “hard edge” of the 90s. The series was canceled a little over a year later after a mere 20 issues. But Luke Cage, ever the survivor, went on to appear in various Marvel books during the 90s like Marvel Presents and Heroes for Hire. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that creators began to take a real interest in his place in the Marvel Universe again. Brian Michael Bendis returned Luke Cage to the streets when he made him a supporting character and love-interest for Jessica Jones in Alias. From there, Bendis used Luke Cage as a lead character in New Avengers, and eventually the team’s leader post-Civil War. He also became a regular lead in Thunderbolts and occasionally popped up in basically any Marvel title you can think of. Luke Cage may have never been an A-list character, but thanks to Bendis he became a constant and welcome presence. Luke Cage is currently starring in David Walker and Sanford Greene’s Power Man and Iron Fist which just saw its first issue released last week. Go snatch it up!
Necessary Reading Material:
Marvel Masterworks: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire by Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, George Tuska & Billy Graham (collects the complete run of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1-#16)
Power Man and Iron Fist Epic Collection vol 1: Heroes for Hire by Mary Jo Duffy, Chris Claremont, Kerry Gammill, John Byrne, and Trevor Von Eeden (collects Power Man #48-#49, Power Man & Iron Fist #50-#70)
Luke Cage: Second Chances by Marcus McLaurin, Dwayne Turner, Rurik Tyler, Gordon Purcell, and Sal Velluto (collects Cage #1-#12 and material from Marvel Comics Presents # 82)
Alias Omnibus (also reprinted in three volumes as Jessica Jones: Alias) by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos
Jessica Jones: The Pulse – The Complete Collection by Brian Michael Bendis and various artists
New Avengers vol. 1 (2005-2010) and New Avengers vol. 2 (2010-2012) by Brian Michael Bendis (100 issues collected across numerous New Avengers trade volumes)
The TV Show: Long before Netflix, and long before Marvel Studios, Luke Cage spent years in development hell as a film property. Quentin Tarantino recently revealed on the Nerdist Podcast that he wanted to make a Luke Cage film in the 90s with Lawrence Fishburne in the lead role, which would have been amazing. But the studio the film was involved with at the time didn’t think Fishburne had the right ‘look’ and wanted Wesley Snipes to star instead, which would have been less amazing. The dispute drove Tarantino away from the project, studio tentpoles, and superhero films altogether. In 2003, The Hollywood Reporter reported (as they do) that Columbia Pictures optioned the rights to develop the film. Just think, we could have had a Sony/Marvel Universe with just Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and Ghost Rider, all under the helm of Avi Arad. John Singleton was attached to direct, which would have been a nice choice, but Ben Ramsey, the guy who wrote Dragonball Evolution, wrote the screenplay, so we can consider that a dodged bullet. While the film was at Columbia, a number of stars campaigned for the role, including: Tyrese Gibson, Jamie Foxx, Dwayne Johnson, Isaiah Mustafa, Terry Crews, and Idris Elba. Singleton told The Latino Review in 2006, that his dream was to make the film with Tyrese as Cage and Terrance Howard as the villain Diamondback. But Columbia never got onboard with Singleton’s vision and the film languished for a decade.
Marvel Studios got the rights back in 2013, and announced that Luke Cage would be the star of one of their upcoming Netflix series. In 2014 it was announced that Luke Cage would have a supporting role in Jessica Jones before getting his own series. Lance Gross, Cleo Anthony, and Mike Colter were all in the running for the role, but Colter won out after displaying the best chemistry with Krysten Ritter during the screen tests. In March 2015, Marvel and Netflix announced that Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland, NCIS: Los Angeles, Almost Human, and Ray Donovan) would serve as the executive producer and showrunner for the 13-episode first season of Luke Cage.
The Tone: Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones before it, Luke Cage is expected to carry the same grounded feel while tackling the mature issues and personalities of Harlem through the black perspective. Colter told the Los Angeles Times that “Luke Cage is going to have soul, it’s going to have intensity, it’s going to have dark parts to it…it defines itself through sound that you can feel when you’re watching the scenes.” Music is said to play an important role in the series, and one can only hope that we’ll hear some of the tunes and rhythms that defined the Blaxploitation era.
Luke Cage will pick up about six months after the season finale of Jessica Jones, and the show will feature flashbacks dealing with the character’s origins. In the same interview with the Los Angeles Times, Colter said that the show won’t tackle the Black Lives Matter movement head on, but the show will feel timely and relatable to people on the streets. The series will focus on morally gray characters and will ultimately be a story of redemption and change. From the way things are shaping up, Luke Cage sounds like it could be just as significant to the image of blacks in America as Jessica Jones is to women.
Luke Cage (Mike Colter): Luke Cage means business. Born in Harlem and moved from juvie center to center, Carl Lucas spent most of his youth in the Rivals gang along with his best friend, Willis Stryker. His ultimate ambition is to become a major crime figure in New York, but as he grew up he realized the consequences of his actions and the pain he caused others, including his parents and brother, James Jr. Lucas, decided to give-up his life of crime, but still maintained his friendship with Stryker. When Stryker’s girlfriend, Reva Connors, left Stryker’s life of violence behind and turned to Lucas, the two friends became enemies. Stryker planted heroin on Lucas which gets him sent to prison. While Lucas is in prison, Reva is placed in harm’s way by Stryker and is killed. Cut-off from his family by a brother who hates him, angry of over his lost love, and hopeless of his circumstances ever changing, Lucas spent his time starting prison fights. But his life took a turn when Dr. Noah Burnstein approached Lucas about volunteering for an experiment to create a new super-soldier. Lucas volunteered, but the experiment was sabotaged by a sadistic and racist prison guard. Cage survived, and with newfound superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, he escaped prison and traveled across the country until he returned to Harlem to take revenge on Stryker, now going by the name Diamondback. Lucas, in hopes of not being found by the police, changed his name to Luke Cage as a reference to who he was before what he remembered most about prison. After defeating Stryker in a match that led to the latter’s death by his own hand, Cage moved into an apartment above an old movie theatre and decided to offer his services for money as a ‘hero for hire.’ This led him into numerous interactions with various superheroes and villains, and despite not wanting to be a part of their world, he became a key part of it. As an Avenger, husband of Jessica Jones, and father to a baby girl, Cage went from a life of crime and anger to a moral center in the Marvel Universe. We’ve already seen Colter handle the role of Luke Cage with aplomb, tapping into the character’s humanity, sensitivity, and tight-capped anger. What we’re looking forward to most is seeing the character’s reckless past and a man who doesn’t have much control over his life. Jessica Jones offered Luke Cage a number of threats, but his own series will be where he really gets to let loose.
Where we’ve seen him before: Besides a supporting role in Jessica Jones, Luke Cage has appeared in a large number of Marvel’s various animated series and video games.
Mercedes “Misty” Knight (Simone Missick): Misty Knight first appeared in Marvel Premiere #21 in 1975. The bionic-enhanced, kung-fu fighting, detective (yes, she’s as awesome as she sounds) was also born from the Blaxploitation craze and clearly modeled after Pam Grier. A police officer for the NYPD, Misty lost her arm preventing a bomb from exploding. She was given a bionic prosthetic by Tony Stark, and after growing increasingly familiar with the world of superheroes, she set up the private detective agency, Nightwing Restorations Ltd, along with her best friend and samurai master, Colleen Wing (fingers crossed for a spin-off). She became close friends with Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and assisted them on many of their Heroes for Hire assignments. She eventually began a romantic relationship with Iron Fist, which has been on and off again over the course of the decades. She was last seen helping Captain America track down the HYDRA moles placed in every superteam. Simone Missick has had guest spots on Ray Donovan and Scandal, but she’s relatively unknown. In this show, Misty will be an NYPD detective who takes an interest in Cage’s past. There’s no word yet if she’ll already have her bionic arm or if that’s a plotline for the future.
Where we’ve seen her before: Misty Knight appeared in The Super Hero Squad Show and was voiced by Tamera Mowry. She has also had small roles in a few Marvel video games.
Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley): Rafael Scarfe first appeared in Marvel Premiere #23 in 1975. A Vietnam vet, Scarfe joined the police force and was partnered with Misty Knight. A longtime ally of the street level heroes, and close-friend of Misty Knight and Iron Fist, Scarfe later betrayed his friends after becoming disillusioned with the police force. After going rogue and taking the law into his own hands, Scarfe was arrested much to Misty’s dismay.
Where we’ve seen him before: Luke Cage will be the character’s first onscreen appearance.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali): Cornell Cottonmouth first appeared in Luke Cage, Power Man #19 in 1974. A powerful gangster with sharp gold teeth, Cottonmouth once controlled most of the heroin in NYC and it was he who Willis Stryker went to when he went about framing Cage. After Cage became a superhero, Cottonmouth attempted to lure him back into a life of crime by offering him a position in his gang. Cage accepted under false pretenses and brought Cottonmouth to justice. He has remained a minor recurring presence for the Heroes for Hire, never moving beyond the drug trade. Luke Cage will see the wonderfully talented Mahershala Ali of House of Cards take on the role of Cottonmouth. He will serve as one of the season’s big bads, and will be depicted as an ambitious nightclub owner involved in illegal activities. Ali isn’t known for playing loud or abrasive characters, so expect Cottonmouth to work his evils in the form of sinister manipulation and sabotage.
Where we’ve seen him before: Cottonmouth appeared in a Marvel anime series we’ve never even heard of called Marvel Disc Wars: The Avengers and is a playable character, sans the drug history in LEGO Marvel’s Avengers, which is a pretty big deal for such a low-level character.
Shades (Theo Rossi): Shades first appeared in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 in 1972. A former member of the Rivals along with Cage and Stryker, Shades served a prison sentence during the same time as Luke Cage. Armed with a visor that shot energy blasts, he became a Hoodlum for Hire which brought him into numerous conflicts with Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Shades eventually gave up his life of crime and became a community organizer until he was killed in an explosion created by the Daredevil villain, Bullseye. Theo Rossi from Sons of Anarchy will play Shades in Luke Cage. He is described as a smooth-talking menace with ties to Luke Cage’s past, a past that Luke Cage is going to find harder and harder to keep secret.
Where we’ve seen him before: Luke Cage will be the character’s first on-screen appearance.
Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard): Black Mariah first appeared in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #5 in 1973. The leader of a gang called the Rat Pack, who used a stolen ambulance to pick up and loot dead bodies, Black Mariah served as one of Luke Cage’s earliest foes. When she was later released from prison, she started over as a drug dealer and once again came to blows against Luke Cage, this time joined by Iron Fist. Black Mariah hasn’t had a major presence in the Marvel Universe, but she will be brought back and re-imagined in David Walker’s new Power Man and Iron Fist ongoing. Screen-legend Alfre Woodard will portray Black Mariah in Luke Cage and will serve as the primary antagonist. Deviating from her comic origins, Mariah will be a local politician and cousin of Cottonmouth whose life turns chaotic when the conflict between Cage and Cottonmouth enters her world.
Where we’ve seen her before: Luke Cage will be the character’s first on-screen appearance.
Luke Cage will come into our households with fists swinging on September 30th 2016.
Featured Image: Netflix