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!