By Matthew Cowans
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
A man with a steely will and unbreakable determination who emerges from a scientific experiment with abilities far beyond mere mortal men. In the Marvel pantheon of heroes, one would assume that this surely describes Steve Rogers: Captain America. However this man isn’t some self proclaimed sentinel of liberty known for punching totalitarian dictators in the jaw. This man of course is Marvel’s Hero for Hire, Luke Cage, and the first major Black superhero #1 in mainstream comics.
Luke Cage Hero for Hire # 1 debuted in June, 1972 and was written by Archie Goodwin, drawn by George Tuska, and inked by Billy Graham. This hero was born in the tumultuous streets of 1972’s Harlem just as the Blaxploitation film genre that inspired him was reaching its peak. While Luke Cage was mainstreamed by his Netflix show, his origin provides a glimpse into certain unsavory facets of American history, touching upon negative portrayals in the film industry, injustice, and human experimentation. Luke Cage #1 offers interesting parallels to Captain America and gives readers a look into the 1970s Blaxploitation genre and historical events while laying the ground for a genuinely inspiring story.
The story of Luke Cage cannot be divorced from the Black exploitation genre that spawned it. Black exploitation films generally featured a black male or female protagonist from an impoverished urban neighborhood with a rough and tumble past, out for revenge against the criminals that have wronged them. These films were mostly formulaic involving women, murder, betrayal, and the glorification of the dangerous and seductive criminal element. The dialogue often used White perceptions of black slang or jive talk and did not shy away from racial stereotypes and derogatory language. The 1971 film Shaft is a key example of this genre.
These films were often written and directed by white men featuring a majority black cast for mostly black audiences, and Luke Cage #1 was no different – bring both written and drawn by white men. African American directors, actors, and writers did also create several films of this genre. Minus a few fantastic elements, Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #1 could easily read as the first act to any number of Blaxploitation films. Ultimately, the creators of both Blaxploitation films and Luke Cage were aiming to use or exploit black faces to access the expanding market for African American films and literature and harnessing the increasing amount of black freedom for their financial gain.
Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #1 introduces us to a man named Lucas who was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, brutalized by racist prison guards, and mistreated by an indifferent criminal justice system. Talking to a doctor who offers him his freedom in exchange for submitting himself to an experimental chemical bath, Lucas recounts his upbringing in the rough streets of Harlem and his friendship with a man named Willis Stryker. Lucas is at this point no hero, simply a man trying to survive the cards he was dealt. The two friends eventually drift apart due to Willis’s growing involvement in the criminal underworld, Lucas’s disillusionment with his life, and the influence of a woman named Reva. Reva leaves Willis over his criminal actions and bonds with Lucas. Ever the jealous man, Willis frames Lucas for a drug crime causing him to be sent to prison. While incarcerated, Lucas endures the brutal mistreatment and racist jeers from the guards and authorities there. After failing to get parole once again due to a prison fight, Lucas agrees to the doctor’s experiment.
The experiment is interrupted by the same guard that abused Lucas earlier. The guard attacks Lucas but is severely injured when Lucas defends himself. The experiment has given him super strength and invulnerability to gunfire. Upon realizing that his attack on the guard would invalidate his promised parole, Lucas escapes prison using his new abilities and is presumed dead by the authorities. After returning to New York and being paid for stopping a robbery, Lucas decides to become a hero for hire as a way to put his talents to good use. Unfortunately during Lucas’s incarceration, Reva was killed acting as a human shield for Willis who narrowly escaped the assassination attempt that took Reva’s life. Lucas visits Reva’s grave while vowing revenge on Willis for her death and taking on a new identity named Luke Cage. Luke out of respect for his old life, and Cage in memory of his time in prison.
Blaxploitation films provided a clear inspiration for not only Luke Cage’s look but also his dialogue and backstory. While Cage’s initial look – consisting of an afro, bellbottoms, and yellow collared shirt with a bared chest – was a clear product of the disco era, the strong, confident Luke was a marked improvement in how a black character had been traditionally seen. Prior to 1970, black characters were often solely depicted in a negative light being casted as either slaves, simpletons, or sidekicks, the worst of which conjuring up terribly racist portrayals and stereotypes that would make Disney’s Song of the South seem progressive. However with the breakthroughs rightfully earned by the Civil Rights Movement, the increasing acknowledgement of the Black Power Movement and the growing economic and purchasing power of Black America, the film industry eventually sought to show black characters and African-American culture in a slightly more positive if still somewhat problematic light. Due to these cultural shifts and the desire for Black dollars, the awkwardly named Blaxploitation genre was born.
In many ways the origins of Luke Cage and Captain America are quite similar, having both been normal men given extraordinary powers due to scientific experimentation. However key differences remain. The two men are divided by race, decades, and also choice. Steve Rogers volunteered for the superhuman experiment that gave him his powers, seeing it as a means to serve his country and spread its promises of freedom. Luke Cage saw his superhuman experiment as his only hope of personal freedom. Captain America actively chose to become superhuman by approaching the scientist that ultimately transformed him into Captain America as an equal. Lucas only chose to take part in his superhuman experiment that transformed him into Luke Cage as he felt that he did not have any other choice to obtain freedom from a prison system run by petty, vindictive men.
The doctor that experimented on Cage saw him not as his equal but as his lesser and approached him from a position of power. It is quite telling that Lucas is not chosen for the experiment for his character like Steve Rogers but for his health and his strength, In other words, he was simply a guinea pig to be experimented on and discarded if the results proved dissatisfactory.
Historically this was not an uncommon experience for Black Americans. This callous experimentation on African American patients should bring up memories of the infamous Tuskegee Experiment where in 1932 the US government under the guise of free healthcare, infected hundreds of poor black men with syphilis and left them untreated for decades to perform autopsies on them after they died and document the results. This experiment caused many of the men to die, have mental disorders, experience blindness, and spread disorders in their offspring.
One can easily see the problematic ethics of a doctor employed by the government conducting illegal human experiments on prisoners under its care. Even as a prisoner, Luke Cage had to overcome his past, his trauma, and his own exploitation to become a hero. As much as what made Steve Rogers a hero didn’t come from a bottle, the same his doubly true for Luke Cage. Sadly this tale of a man overcoming great injustice and adversity from the 1970s would not be so terribly out of place a half century later.
Luke Cage Hero for Hire #1 is undoubtedly a Blaxploitation comic book that tapped into a genre that was riding high at the time. It deserves praise for being the first major black superhero from the Big Two… but also displays many the common pitfalls of the era. Despite his birth in a time of greater racial injustice and containing the trappings and tropes of the genre, Luke Cage #1 laid the foundation for a character that overcame his trauma and exploitation, and grew beyond being one of many black exploitation characters into a full fledged hero. In a single issue, Luke Cage endured what the greatest of Marvel heroes endured and showed great will and determination in combating his personal struggles and his historical era, while ultimately finding a greater purpose.
Over the decades, many other writers and creators have evolved and crafted this character into what we now know him to be, but this debut issue planted the seed. Today in 2020, Luke Cage is seen as an Avenger, Netflix star, and an inspiration to any young black boy who would like to see more of themselves in their superheroes.
Luke Cage: Hero for Hire # 1
Written By Archie Goodwin
Drawn by George Tuska
Inked by Billy Graham