Monday, January 28, 2013

BAB Classic: Sweet Christmas, but Luke Cage used to be Cool!

Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972)
"Out of Hell -- a Hero!"
Archie Goodwin-George Tuska/Billy Graham (with plot and design assists from Roy Thomas and John Romita)

Note: This post was originally run on February 3, 2010.

Doug: Luke Cage has really sort of stuck in my craw over these past years. Not that I don't care for the character, his look, or anything else. I just don't like the way Brian Michael Bendis shoved him down my throat in the pages of New Avengers -- Luke Cage may be many things, but an Avenger he is not. Now I'm pretty old school about my comics -- not that change isn't OK. But the Cage Bendis writes isn't the Luke Cage I cut my teeth on. So, my pal Karen and I decided to head back to the character's roots and see what we could recall.

Doug: My Luke Cage experience came not so much from the Hero for Hire series, but from his stint as a member of the Fantastic Four, his appearance in Marvel Two-in-One, and also in the Defenders. So while I wasn't a regular follower of the character, I did have a fair handle on who he was and what he was about. I'll admit that my reading of today's book for this post was my first.

Karen: I know I had a few issues of Hero for Hire, and later Power Man, but like you Doug, I think most of my exposure to Cage was through other titles. I bought Hero for Hire #1 on ebay a few years ago.

Doug: I want to start off with the interior art. We had maligned George Tuska's Iron Man work some weeks ago, but I want to go on record and say that whatever he was doing here it was different and it worked well. There was an edginess to the art -- the black characters were distinguishable from the white characters (not always done well -- see Sal Buscema as an example), but not caricatured. The pacing was well done, the backgrounds were thoroughly done, etc. I can't comment on how much impact inker Billy Graham had on this aspect of the story (Graham is black), but something was surely improved over Tuska's work on Iron Man.

Karen: There was a textured sense to Graham's inks here; it reminds me of some of the black and white work we've seen. I still don't care much for Tuska's work however. I really like the Romita cover though - almost like a movie poster! It also appeared to me that Romita may have drawn Diamondback's face on the final page (see below).

Doug: The story opens in Seagate Prison, known by the inmates as "little Alcatraz", and even Hell. We are immediately introduced to Lucas, a tough who often finds himself in solitary confinement. Upon release from his most recent stint in the brig, he almost-immediately gets into a fight and finds himself back in deep trouble. We're introduced also to corrupt guard Quirt, as well as the equally-corrupt Captain Rackham. Lucas is offered the opportunity to make his life in Seagate easier by informing on one of the prison's gangs. He refuses, Rackham sends him back to solitary, and orders Quirt to break Lucas -- any way he can.

Doug: Quirt administers a severe beating to Lucas, who doesn't fight back. However, unbeknownst to Quirt, the prison's new warden has entered and been alerted of the disturbance. Sneaking into the cell, he turns the tables on Quirt -- Quirt's fired on the spot and then left inside the cell with a now somewhat-liberated Lucas. What happens next is off-camera, and probably for the better.

Doug: The next to feel the wrath of the new warden is Rackham, who is immediately demoted to guard duty. It's clear at this point that the corruption that had been a way of life at Seagate is on the way out. Lucas is visited by Dr. Noah Burstein who cares for him and makes him an offer: subject himself to a new process that might eventually lead to human cell regeneration. But first we get to see Lucas' backstory -- in a way, the origin of the man and how he came to be at Seagate.

Karen: Cage is yet another of the anti-heroes we would see come along in the 70s. While he was framed for heroin possession/dealing, it's clear that he had been involved in muggings and robberies. He was no angel. However, by making it clear that he preferred to use his fists, while his partner used a knife, we are made to look upon him in a more sympathetic light.

Doug: This sequence was really well done. I just felt like the entire story played out like a film -- and of course this was years before Hollywood-types infiltrated the ranks of comics scribes. Goodwin seemed to have a great handle on this tale, the dialogue was believable and not too over-the-top, and Tuska's art (although distinctively his work) was quite appropriate to the mood of the book.

Karen: The whole thing could've come right out of one of the many black exploitation films of the day. I'm sure many of the bullpen writers and artists saw those flicks -along with the films of the kung fu craze, the voodoo/possession films, etc. Marvel took it's inspiration from many sources!

Doug: Lucas agrees to participate in Burstein's experiment, and as he settles into the vestibule of chemicals, who should enter but Rackham --out for his final revenge against Lucas. Rackham sabotages the experiment, locking Lucas inside the compartment filled with chemicals and electricity. Lucas is nearly overcome by pain, but something transforms him into a powerhouse; he bursts out of the container and metes his justice on Rackham. The next day Lucas discovers that his hands are as hard as steel and uses them to pound through his cell wall and escape Seagate.

Doug: Lucas soon determines that his skin is bullet-proof. He begins to work his way up the East coast, back toward New York -- to Harlem. Lucas has a score to settle with an old friend -- the friend who framed him and put him in Seagate in the first place: Willis Stryker. Inspired by the thanks he got for stopping a two-bit robber, Lucas decides to go straight and become a hero -- a Hero for Hire. Changing his name to Luke Cage and adopting the familiar yellow and blue togs I used to love him in, Cage sets himself up for a battle against his former friend Stryker, now the villain known as Diamondback!

Karen: This ending feels more like a middle! Now I have to read issue 2 to discover the conclusion - Sweet Christmas!


Edo Bosnar said...

I remember having a few issues of this series when the name had been changed to Power Man, but I only really started following it regularly after Iron Fist was added - and I was a pretty loyal reader for a few years. Which brings me to my point: I totally agree with Doug that Cage shouldn't be an Avenger, and nothing more than a temporary sub in any other team. Otherwise, the whole 'Hero for Hire' concept is just genius. I think the only time he worked well in team book was when Gerber had him appear in Defenders for a while.
Anyway, your review kind of makes me want to go out and get the Essentials volume - but I'm going to have to resist that temptation, because I already have too much stuff to read...

david_b said...

Regarding Tuska, yeah he's an acquired taste but having him as IM's artist when I started collecting, I'm sort of partial to him in that book. Suffice to say, when he did a few issues of Avengers, it wasn't as seamless.

I didn't follow Luke Cage much despite LOVIN' his appearance in ASM 123, whaaat an inspired tale immediately following the magnitude of ish's 121-122. I totally missed his FF tenure, which is fine, since the entire power-suit for Ben Grimm was too hokey for me anyways. As mentioned in recent columns, I didn't get much out of Bronze Age FF after Big John left.

I liked the difference in intelligent portrayals given to Sam Wilson, T'Challa and Mr. Cage (and Robbie, etc..). Not sure how much of it was in some 'grand plan' back in the day, but it gave the MU quite a nice mature tapestry.

So what if the Bullpen dipped into too many Blaxpoitation films for dialog ideas..? 'What the hey..??', it was still groovy and fun, without folks getting bent out of shape over it.

His Defender appearances were genius as well (to quote Edo), but I miss the yellow shirt&boots and chain belt look since the Bronze Age. Bald and wearing a hoodie in the Avengers:EMH series..? Ecch.

Matt Celis said...

Luke Cage is an Avenger? Ugh. He works best on his own or with a like-minded buddy!

Next they'll draft Spider-Man as an Avenger...!

Edo Bosnar said...

Uh, Matt, I'm assuming that last remark was tongue in cheek; otherwise, I've got some bad news for you...

By the way, I like your point about Luke working best with a buddy. The thing I liked about Power Man & Iron Fist is that it was a true buddy series - neither was the sidekick or inferior in any way. It worked much better than the only other buddy series I can think of, Green Lantern & Green Arrow.

Matt Celis said...

Yeah i wikipediaed Avengers. There have been some unfortuitous changes since I stopped buying new
comics...good grief!

Power Man & Iron Fist would make an awesome T.V. series with good casting and scripts. You'd hardly need any SFX budget.

Bruce said...

By all means, pick up the Essentials collection! The early issues of Luke Cage are one of the hidden gems of the Bronze Age.

While this series clearly was inspired by the Blaxploitation films of the early '70s, Cage comes across as more sympathetic and three-dimensional than most of his cinematic counterparts. There's a decent guy behind all the tough talk. Archie Goodwin does an outstanding job of balancing Cage's street toughness with compassion.

I'd highly recommend the Essentials volume to folks who haven't read it.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I remember Power Man & Iron Fist but never bought the series. Both characters had outlived the cinematic fads that spawned them (blaxplotation flicks and kung-fu movies) by the time I was collecting comics in the 80s, so they seemed really dated to me. I took a pass on them.

Luke Cage did have a sharp-looking costume, I gotta admit. Eye-catching colors, but fairly simple design-wise. But, geez, whose idea was it to give him a silver tiara?!? Not cool...

PM&IF was one of those series, like the Defenders, that was never that popular but nevertheless seemed to hang on for ages. Anybody know if I missed much?

Matt Celis said...

The tiara is what holds it all together, jive turkey!

Doug said...

They could have gone with a headband. I think even Peter Parker appeared in a headband at one point. Or was that Greg Brady?

Personally, I've always thought the tiara (man, it's a silver headband!) looked great, as did the heavy chain belt.


david_b said...

Y'know, I often wished I was among my 'brothers of color'. I don't know, I'm certain I'd raise many a snicker if I walked in with a tiara holding down my 'fro.

The chain-belt, I could pull off.

The yellow boots, perhaps.

The tiara..? Not so well.

Doug said...

As an aside here, those wanting to fully participate in the Howe discussion on Friday should review the first half of the book, up to when Shooter took over. The second half of the book will be discussed on Tuesday of next week.

On Monday, 2-4-13 we'll being a four-week examination of Avengers 274-277.

Get ready...


Edo Bosnar said...

Hmmm, just left a comment in the suggestion box about the Howe book and upcoming posts on it...

HB, to answer your question about PM&IF, it was a really solid series, and as I noted above, had a lot of good "buddy" chemistry.

Doug said...

Edo (and everyone else) --

In answer to your question about having to have read the Howe book to enjoy the upcoming conversations: I think we all have a decent-enough grasp of Marvel names and history to fully engage in the fall-out from Howe's narrative. This should be fun for all BABers; at least we hope so!

And I guess it should be stated ahead of time that there will be lots of spoilers.


Inkstained Wretch said...

Doug, it *IS* a tiara. I'm sorry, but it just is...

david_b said...

Y'know, you GQ'ers, I wouldn't TOUCH that tiara.

If Luke Cage came bustin' through the wall wearing a cheap prom dress.., he'd still get a 'yessir' out of me.

"..Probably snap me like a twig.."

Matt Celis said...

if luke cage came bustin' thru the wall wearin' a cheap prom dress, sweet christmas he'd have a blamed good reason for it!!!!

humanbelly said...

Wait, wait, wait--- I feel like we're reinforcing a slight inaccuracy, here. If someone could check, that would be terrif--
but weren't Luke's two primary exclamations "Sweet SISTER!" and then "Christmas" without an adjective in front of it?

Geeze-- regarding the headband/tiara/headgear-- my buddies w/ big fro's in high school (in the 70's, yes. Gerard Lawson's was 24" across, I kid you not) could be unbelievably vain about them, and the problem with wearing anything on their head- like a football helmet, or band hat, or knit winter cap- was that it pretty much dented the whole thing in and molded it to that shape. Luke takes the tiara off. . . and he's still got a negative tiara mold blank smooshed into his hair. THAT'S intimidating-!


Fred W. Hill said...

I actually started collecting Power-Man about a year before Iron Fist was added to the title (I'd also collected the last few issues of Iron Fist's solo title. While not among my top ten favorites, with or without Iron Fist, it was an enjoyable series. And Gerber & Thomas handled him well in his stints in the Defenders & FF. Can't really say much about his membership in the New Avengers as I haven't read any Avengers titles in over 20 years now. Regarding Doug's comments about the modern Luke Cage being essentially a different character than the one we knew in the Bronze Age, I wonder if that actually applies to many Silver & Bronze age characters.

WardHill Terry said...

Luke's headband is such a great artistic shorthand! You can draw a head, with eyes, nose, and mouth merely indicated, and add that headband, you've got Power Man! No one else! I recall an earlier discussion round these parts about the updating of Mr. Cage. There were some ideas about making him look "street" for these times. However, it seems that current fashion has taken its cue from prison wear; baggy pants, etc. I expect Luke Cage would not wear anything to remind himself of prison life!

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