Marvel’s new series Luke Cage arrives on Netflix this Friday accompanied by largely enthusiastic reviews. The title character isn’t yet a household name, but the series is a culmination of more than 40 years of comics and stories that took a character conceived to cash in on the blaxploitation movie craze of the early ’70s to a central place in the Marvel universe. It’s an evolution that stretches across six distinct eras. The comics from each both reflect the times around them and make for fascinating reading.
It all starts, of course, with Luke Cage’s arrival on the newsstands in 1972. Cage was a reaction to two forces Marvel editors saw every day: The rise of the blaxploitation movie, and the racial struggles in New York City. Luke Cage arrived less than a year after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft had stunned Hollywood with their success, and Cage was a different hero right from the start.
Carl Lucas was a former gang member who’d realized the stupidity of being a criminal in his teens and gone straight, only to be framed by childhood friend William Stryker, who’d stayed a criminal. Tortured in prison, Lucas volunteers for an experiment that gives him steel-hard skin and super-strength. Taking the alias Luke Cage, he returns to New York and becomes the Hero for Hire, the guy you call when Reed Richards and Tony Stark won’t come to your neighborhood.
Luke’s approach to superheroics as a paying job was unique at the time, although in the vein of most heroes his rewards tended to be spiritual rather than financial. He was a sharp contrast to DC’s upstanding educator and Olympic athlete Black Lightning, or Marvel’s own regal Black Panther. He didn’t hide behind a mask, but did business under what was nominally his real name. Luke dealt with street-level crime like protection hustles or drug dealers, problems that were mentioned only in passing, if ever, in comics of the time, and had little patience for the “etiquette” of superheroes. When Doctor Doom stiffs him on his fee, Luke “borrows” the Fantastic Four’s jet, flies to Latveria, and barges into Doom’s castle demanding what he’s rightfully owed.
The books were far from perfect. Writer Archie Goodwin, artist George Tuska, and others who took over the book meant well, but it was still the 1970s, and stereotypes abounded. Plus, it was still Marvel: While blaxploitation heroes could swear, the closest Luke could get was “Sweet Christmas!” And as the blaxploitation era ended, Cage’s street level crime focus found an unusual partner.
What To Read: Luke Cage, Hero For Hire, Vol. 1
In 1978, Luke teamed up with Danny Rand, a.k.a. the martial-arts hero Iron Fist. They’d both formerly both anchored solo books that had flagging sales and were paired so Marvel wouldn’t have to cancel either. The team-up led to one of Marvel’s most beloved books of the era, anchored by Jo Duffy’s comedic tone and with a style set in part by classic X-Men artists John Byrne and Dave Cockrum. Rand was a perfect foil for Luke, a rich white kid who had every advantage, even as he was developing his powers. Danny and Luke clashed and got along in equal measure with Luke often finding Danny’s approach to life baffling, and Danny sometimes not getting that Luke had valid reasons behind some of his decisions.
The book established a rich dynamic between the two heroes: Luke was hard-headed and practical, balancing Danny’s flighty, more emotional impulses. The book also marked the beginnings of Luke’s depiction as an everyman. He was still angry, but even amid the supervillains and mystical kung-fu, he was beginning to have more practical concerns. Furthermore, he learned and grew from his friendship with Danny; where before he played the hothead, here he cooled off, at least a little bit. His team-up with Rand ended with Danny’s sudden, senseless death in 1986, though, causing Luke to walk away from superheroics, seemingly for good. (Neither the death nor Cage’s retirement lasted, however.)
What To Read: Power Man & Iron Fist: Heroes For Hire Epic Collection
Cage came back in 1992, with a new office in Chicago, a new outfit, and an extremely ’90s array of villains. This take on Cage, from writer Marcus McLaurin and artist Dwayne Turner, depicted him as angry in a fight, but calmer elsewhere. Cage strikes a deal with a newspaper where he does the hero work and they get the exclusive, paying him a check. At the time Marvel was smarting from the valid criticism that its books were largely white in a pop cultural world that was becoming increasingly diverse, so it seemed time to bring Luke back to see what he could do.
It was a strange book, not least because it took Cage far away from his street crime roots, even though nominally he was on the streets of 1992 Chicago. Instead of the problems he dealt with in his New York neighborhood, Luke found himself dueling flamboyant Jamaican ninjas with rocket launchers on private airfields, rap-hating white supremacists in power armor, and, of course, the Punisher, who Marvel shoved into every comic in the early ’90s.
Luke’s career as a media sensation quickly came to an end. It wasn’t clear just who the book was for, and Cage’s anger sat oddly with the goofy tone. He quickly returned to form and founded a new Heroes for Hire, dedicated to the memory of his friend, and put his Chicago days behind him. But it’s a curious experiment, and one that Marvel even brings up now and again, usually when Cage needs to feel a little shame.
What To Read: Luke Cage: Second Chances Vol. 1
Luke’s real return was in a role Netflix fans will know well: as a love interest of Jessica Jones, the Brian Michael Bendis-created private investigator who handled the seedier side of the Marvel universe in the book Alias. Bendis and artist David Mack, who illustrated the majority of the series, wanted to explore what happens to heroes after they hit bottom. In Jessica’s case, that tended to involve drinking heavily and hooking up with her fellow superheroes.
Sleeping with Cage, however, laid the groundwork for a deep, meaningful relationship that, eventually, made Luke and Jessica one of the most grounded couples in comics. Neither of them are happy, shiny people: Luke’s past still haunts his personal life, and Jessica is still trying to get over the trauma she was put through by the Purple Man. Their relationship grew in fits and starts as they struggled to admit they care for each other and try to find time for each other amid the chaos of a superhero’s life. Alias wasn’t his own book, but it helped redefine him for the new century. (Though there’s also a 2002 miniseries so embarrassing Marvel won’t even put out a collected edition of it.)
What To Read: Alias, Volume 1
Avenger, Leader, And Mentor
Probably the biggest step up Luke took, though, was to become an Avenger courtesy of Bendis, who had a long run penning Avengers titles. This came about via Jones being a former Avenger and Luke having built up an enormous amount of respect in the superhero community. It also involved just a bit of coincidence, as his first adventure with the Avengers involved stumbling into a fight, going to the Savage Land, and waking up nude next to the rest of the team.
He also found himself dealing with the new Power Man, Victor Alvarez, the son of Luke’s sometime nemesis Shades. At first, Luke was furious; Alvarez not only took the name and classic color scheme, he even took the shtick, advertising his heroic services on Craigslist. Luke quickly found himself with the most unlikely job: Mentoring a young man not unlike himself. But it gave Luke some perspective, especially on his relationships, and he even took command of a branch of the Avengers. Still, in the end, it came back to helping his community.
What To Read: Mighty Avengers Volume 1
Family Man, Superhero, Everyman
Recently, Luke has come full circle. He’s back together professionally with a back-from-the-dead Danny Rand, even if he won’t admit it. He’s fighting his old villains, and some unexpected new foes, on the streets, with a lighter heart and more funny moments. He’s also now a married man and he’s no longer angry all the time, or at least expresses it better. He’s a father who says “fiddle-faddle” and “Sweet Christmas!” because, well, he has a daughter:
Luke has, over the years, grown into Marvel’s everyman. In many ways, he now is us, the hero we’d be if we had superpowers but also a day job to hold down. For many Marvel readers, who’ve grown up and have kids themselves, Luke and his struggles are real in a way that’s hard for most heroes to match. This recently launched title Heroes For Hire title, written by David Walker with art by Sanford Greene, explores Luke’s new place in life, and how it clashes with his race. Confronted by a group of Avengers told in a “premonition” he’d commit a crime, for instance, Luke is outraged, but not surprised, that they’ve shown up looking for a fight instead of a conversation.