Luke Cage predates the concepts of “woke,” “representation,” and “diversity” by 44 years.
When the jive-talking, mercurial hero debuted in 1972, he was Marvel’s answer to the popularity of early ’70s blaxploitation films like Shaft and Superfly. And like those films, Cage — along with female and other nonwhite comic book characters Marvel created — came with a dilemma.
On the one hand, Cage is a symbol of power and an empowering figure for readers who don’t typically see themselves in comic books, in the same way that blaxploitation films featured black casts and characters at a time when black audiences very rarely saw themselves in Hollywood movies. But he’s also, like a lot of the characters in blaxploitation films, a stereotype of his time.
How do you separate tokenism from good intentions? Does one negate the other? Or can you love a character like Cage even though his beginnings are littered with cringe-inducing moments?
Marvel’s answer to those questions lies in its new Netflix show centered on the character. Luke Cage isn’t the same character he was when he was created more than four decades ago. But the series doesn’t gloss over or deny his roots, because those roots are what make series creator Cheo Hodari Coker’s take on Luke Cage so compelling.
Luke Cage’s origin story begins with a stereotype
Whenever people write or talk about Marvel’s superheroes and race, I almost always return to a 1990 Comics Journal interview (republished in 2011) with Jack Kirby. Kirby, the grandfather of the modern-day superhero, explains that he created Black Panther because he wanted to give his readers representation on a page:
GROTH: How did you come up with the Black Panther?
KIRBY: I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black. I was the first one to do an Asian. Then I began to realize that there was a whole range of human differences.
The language is gruff, but Kirby concisely sums up the basic ideas of inclusion, of tropes and stereotypes and implicit bias: If the superheroes he was creating represented the best of humanity, Kirby believed they shouldn’t all belong to one race or one gender. And the topic of representation in comics is still part of an ongoing discussion and initiative at Marvel, thanks to new characters like Miles Morales (a black Spider-Man) and Kamala Khan (a Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel), as well as a female Thor.
I would bet that the same sort of discussion surrounded the creation of Luke Cage in the early ’70s, even if the circumstances that brought him into existence were slightly different from the ones that motivated Kirby.
Cage, created by writer Archie Goodwin and artists John Romita Sr. and George Tuska, makes his first appearance in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire No. 1, published in June of 1972:
Cage’s introduction into the Marvel universe came during a wave of American fascination with blaxploitation films and was designed to take advantage of that interest. His personality (hot-headed), appearance (he wears cuffs and chains), and dialogue reflect that.
While heroes like supergenius Reed Richards regularly make high-tech, jargony references to stuff like the “trans-global scanner” and “stasis cylinders” and speak in superhero-ese (with terms like “beta rays,” and the “negative zone”, etc.) Cage is a jive-talking hero, his dialogue peppered with “babys,” “sisters,” and “mans.”
But there are deeper allegories and parallels woven into that first issue. Cage’s brown skin — a feature that sets him apart — is the source of his power and strength. Cage acquires his powers, indestructible skin and strength, in prison. He volunteers his body for an experiment conducted by one Dr. Noah Burstein, something that calls back to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, an infamous study that was intended to record and observe untreated syphilis in black men, but researchers never told their volunteers of the study’s real purpose, nor did they give their volunteers proper treatment for the disease.
Later in the comic’s first arc (issue No. 3), Cage confronts Burstein a short time after escaping the prison. Both have specific beliefs about the role of law in society. Burstein believes in ideals and the idea that laws are key to an orderly and just existence. But Cage fundamentally understands that in practice, law isn’t always fair.
Cage knows there will always be good people, including good black men like himself, who continually end up on the wrong side of the law. (Cage went to prison because he was framed for drug possession.) In writing these characters at odds, Goodwin seems to be signaling or sketching around the ideas of implicit bias and structural racism, two topics that are still extremely relevant today:
Luke Cage is a man whose powers and story are meant to reflect and transcend the reality of black struggle and atrocities at the time, but he’s also a character who, despite the best of intentions — the kind Kirby had — starts off as a stereotype of a jive-talking, angry black man.
Marvel and Netflix aren’t scared of Luke Cage’s roots. That’s what makes the show good.
Cage, like a lot of his comic book peers, grew and continues to grow along with his writers. There are still cringe-worthy instances where a writer might bungle a nonwhite or queer comic book character, and there’s still a lack of female and nonwhite creators, writers, and artists in the comic book industry, but representation continues to improve.
Still, if Marvel and Netflix wanted to, they could have shied away from Cage’s origin story and the exploitation films that inspired his creation.
Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, who has writing credits on all 13 episodes (Goodwin, Cage’s original writer, also has writing credits on the series), and writer John Romita Jr. (the son of Cage’s creator) keep Cage’s origin story intact and fully lean into his pulpy roots.
The series takes the best aspects of controversial blaxploitation films — the empowerment of black characters, the films’ unapologetic nature and humor — and brings them forward in time. Each character has agency and depth.
Coker’s Cage (Mike Colter) isn’t angry or a fast-talking jive dispenser. There’s a certain slyness and a sense of calm quiet to him. He’s imposing, but not in any outward way. Pop (Frankie Faison), the benevolent owner of a Harlem barbershop, may initially seem like a shopworn trope, but that’s hardly the case. Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a female detective, isn’t fierce or flashy but rather vulnerable and analytical.
The villains — Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) — are swirling tempests of violence and menace bubbling underneath their slick facades. But their evilness isn’t senseless, it’s rooted in their history and mythology, a commentary on how powerful a family — the people entrusted to teach you how to be human — can be. They can’t escape it, but the show sees through it.
All these characters are fighting for the soul of Harlem — a neighborhood that isn’t one singular thing, but that holds deep meaning for each one of them, meaning that isn’t always beautiful or idyllic.
It’s as if Coker and the cast and crew of Luke Cage challenged themselves to do blaxploitation without making it exploitative.
As a result, what Coker and Marvel are doing with the new TV series is not unlike what Kirby wanted to do with Black Panther, or what Goodwin, Romita Sr., and Tuska wanted to do when they created Luke Cage. They wanted to show their readers that no one was being ignored, that all comic fans, no matter their race, could see themselves in this art. And as comic fans will see when they tune in, Luke Cage is a realization of the title character’s past and what feels like just the beginning of his future.
The first season of Luke Cage will be released on Netflix on Friday, September 30.