The Marvel Comics character Luke Cage is one of those characters who basically just stumbled around aimlessly like a homeless man trying to get money for a cup of tea, but ended up passed out in the alleyways of Marvel Comics shared universe hoping someone would help him out. Luckily though, Luke Cage did find his way out of the ghetto and now enjoys a new Netflix series expanding Marvel’s cinematic/TV universe even further.
Created to cash in on the Blaxploitation craze of the early 1970’s, Luke Cage was created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Snr and George Tuska as a ‘Hero for Hire’. Cage was a superhero with a listing in the Yellow Pages advertising his services for whomever wanted or needed it which is a great, even postmodern, idea – especially in 1972 when the character was created. However, the problem was that the comic just wasn’t that great, not to mention the character was often portrayed in ways which would be called racist nowadays, and even in the less evolved identity politics of the 1970’s, it’d be called racist. John Byrne once outlined just how racist the Marvel Bullpen could be in the 1970’s, which makes you wonder how characters like Cage managed to limp on throughout the decade.
Indeed, Luke Cage (now called Power Man from #17 of his own book) was a bit of a joke character at one point. Invulnerable and super-strong, Cage was a former gang member who gained his powers when in prison as an experimental guinea pig for a super-solider serum. Marvel to be fair had a decent record with black characters; The Black Panther was the first black superhero, while Gabe Jones in their Sgt. Fury comics served in a mixed unit which would never have happened in reality during WW2. Of course, there was the vampire hunter Blade, a character who wasn’t defined by his race or colour. Luke Cage though was not just defined by his colour and race, but as a negative portrayal of black people which was roundly criticised by some over the years. After all, how many of their white heroes came from similar backgrounds? This would be a problem creators would struggle with into the new millennium.
Luke’s title hobbled on into the 1980’s, now teamed up with Iron Fist, another D List Marvel character who’d been created to cash in on another 70’s craze: martial arts films. As such, he had been left flailing when that genre crashed. The odd appearance in Marvel’s team book The Defenders padded out Cage as a C List hero whose only defining characteristics was his yellow shirt, his tiara and his catchphrase ‘’sweet Christmas’’. To be fair some of the Power Man and Iron Fist issues aren’t bad (some are even quite good), but the title was always on the borderland of cancellation and, in 1986, it was put out its misery.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s Cage was a bit-part player turning up as a guest or in various anthology titles. A new series Cage, was released in 1992 but it was awful, didn’t last long and was thankfully cancelled. It’s also worth skimming over a 2002 Richard Corben/Brian Azzarello mini-series and moving right onto Brian Michael Bendis’ series Alias which starred Jessica Jones and featured Luke as her sometimes lover. Finally after 30 years Luke Cage wasn’t some slightly embarrassing minor Marvel Universe character, but quickly rose to be an A Lister, becoming an Avenger and fan favourite. The yellow shirt and tiara were long gone by now, as were the overt racism, not to mention that having Luke and Jessica Jones have not just a relationship, but get married and have a child together gave mainstream American comics a rare mixed race relationship much to the ire of some more conservative readers.
Luke Cage now stars in a Netflix series starring Mike Colter as Cage. It promises much after the character’s appearances in the Jessica Jones Netflix series, and in the future we’re going to see more Cage in the forthcoming The Defenders, so it’s been a long time for Luke Cage to get where he is today. Thankfully though, the tiara is long gone…