Not to be confused with Erik Josten, a super-strong Caucasian Marvel Comics villain who stormed into the pages of The Avengers in the mid-1960s, the African American superhero known as Power Man (Luke Cage) represents a breakthrough in racial diversity from Marvel’s first great period of publishing expansion in the early 1970s. While Power Man wasn’t Marvel’s first African American superhero—that honor goes to T’Challa, the Black Panther, who was introduced in 1966 (Fantastic Four #52)—he blazed other, arguably even more significant pop-cultural trails: (1) Luke Cage is the very first black superhero to star in a regular series bearing his name (beginning in Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #1, 1972); (2) his crime-fighting name does not contain the adjective “black” (a la Black Lightning, Black Goliath, and the Black Panther); and (3) he is Marvel’s first mercenary superhero.
Conceived by writer Archie Goodwin and pen-ciler George Tuska, Power Man starts life as a streetwise Harlem native known only as “Lucas,” a character whose derivation from the protagonists of contemporary “blaxploitation” films, such as Shaft (1971), represents a real innovation for the superhero genre. Framed for the crime of heroin trafficking by a former friend named Willis Stryker, Lucas finds himself incarcerated in the Seagate maximum security prison, where his self-righteous belligerence provokes the ire of Albert Rackham, a racist prison guard. Lucas’ sole ally is Dr. Noah Bernstein, who believes the prisoner’s claims of innocence and arranges for him to receive parole, in exchange for Lucas’ participation in a hazardous chemical experiment intended to catalyze human cell regeneration and to counteract old age and disease. Hoping to kill Lucas, Rackham interferes with Bernstein’s experiment when it reaches a critical juncture, and the resulting chemical accident leaves Lucas with superhuman muscle and bone mass, incredible strength, and steel-hard skin. Lucas’ principal weakness is his hot temper.
Unaccustomed to his new abilities, Lucas lashes out at Rackham, leaving him apparently dead (thus enabling Rackham to return later as a vengeful bad guy). Now believing himself to be a murderer, Lucas escapes from Seagate, smashing through its walls with his fists. Although the authorities think Lucas has died during his breakout attempt, he makes it to New York City, where he intends to confront Stryker. Unfortunately, Lucas also has no means of support and lives in fear of being recognized and recaptured. But after a restaurateur gives him a cash reward for thwarting a robbery, Lucas finds his niche: engaging in heroics in exchange for money. He also adopts the name “Luke Cage” (an amalgam of his real first name and his recent state of confinement) and a costume that prominently features an open-chested, yellow polyester shirt and a belt made of heavy chain (also a symbol of incarceration). Cage goes on to get revenge on Stryker, who was also responsible for the death of his girlfriend, Reva, and begins confiding in Dr. Bernstein, who now runs a New York City free clinic (Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #2, 1972). Soon, Cage is actually scraping out a marginal living via commercial superheroics (Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #3, 1972), though he is generally, as likely as not, to right wrongs in the world purely out of conscience, whether remunerated or not.
During the first four issues of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, Goodwin did the lion’s share of the writing, with assists from Roy Thomas. Tuska and a young African American artist named Billy Graham provided most of the art (Graham was one of the few blacks then working in the comics industry), and writer Steve Englehart penned most of the next dozen issues. Len Wein (co-creator of the 1970s X-Men revival) took over the writing chores with issue #17 (1974), by which time the series was retitled Power Man, reflecting Cage’s attempt to make his enterprise more marketable by emphasizing his professional moniker. In fact, Cage is forced to fight the aforementioned villainous Power Man (Erik Josten) over the right to use the name (Power Man #21, 1974). After a brief stint as a member of the Defenders, in 1975, Cage temporarily replaces the Thing as a member of the Fantastic Four the next year. During the 1970s, the hero’s exploits caught the attention of an enthusiastic young comics reader named Nicolas Coppola, who years later achieved movie stardom using a Power Man-inspired stage name: Nicolas Cage.
As “blaxploitation” films receded over the cultural horizon along with the kung fu craze, in Power Man #48 (1977) Marvel sought to salvage its investment in both genres by introducing Power Man to Iron Fist (Daniel Rand), a martial arts hero whose own series had recently been canceled. Under the creative guidance of the future X-Men team of Chris Claremont (writer) and John Byrne (artist), Power Man’s two-fisted directness and Iron Fist’s disciplined rationality proved to be a good mix. The pair go into business together under the name of “Heroes for Hire, Inc.” and the book’s title was changed yet again (Power Man and Iron Fist #49, 1978). Writer James C. Owsley has called Power Man and Iron Fist the best “buddy book” Marvel Comics ever produced, describing it as “a dysfunctional version of DC Comics’ venerable World’s Finest series [which teamed Superman and Batman]. It was [a] fairly standard opposites-attract dynamic: the hardened cynic and the philosopher from [mystical city] K’un-L’un. The humor was largely based on Luke’s reaction to Danny, and the inexplicable bond that grew between the two men.”
The reconstituted series prospered under writers such Bob Layton, Mary Jo Duffy, Steven Grant, Chris Claremont, Mike W. Barr, Dennis O’Neil, Kurt Busiek, Archie Goodwin, Alan Rowlands, James C. Owsley, and Tony Isabella, and such artists as Kerry Gammill, Greg LaRocque, Denys Cowan, Keith Pollard, Ernie Chan, Geoff Isherwood, Richard Howell, Steve Geiger, and Mark D. Bright. As the stories unfolded, various writers allowed Cage to evolve, letting his slangy, stereotypical ethnic speech become more realistic. “Issue #123 had a fabulous panel,” said writer Owsley (an African American), “something I can’t believe I got away with, where Luke reveals [that] his ‘Loud Angry Negro’ routine was just a put-on. It is difficult, by and large, for white America to understand [that] the tribal slang that is stereotypical of black America is an affectation and not a handicap. We can turn it on and off. One minute, we’re Don Blake, the next, we’re Thor. Luke can, absolutely, turn his slang on and off.”
Power Man and Iron Fist ended in 1986 (though still selling well, it was canceled to make room for Marvel’s New Universe titles), along with the life of Iron Fist, who dies at the hands of a character named (absurdly) Captain Hero. Cage is blamed for Iron Fist’s death (Power Man and Iron Fist #125) and lives as a fugitive until his name is formally cleared several years later. A true example of comics publishing synergy, Power Man and Iron Fist lasted longer together than either of them had as solo heroes anchoring series of their own.
After more than half a decade as an occasional guest star in other titles, Power Man earned another series, simply titled Cage (1992). Despite Marvel’s efforts to make the book relevant in the age of Rodney King, the series lasted only until issue #20 (1993). Though weary of superheroics-for-profit, Power Man reluctantly allows himself to be talked into rejoining the mercenary-hero business he had started in the early 1970s; the new monthly Heroes for Hire series (1997) not only brings Cage together with such fellow super-entrepreneurs as the Hulk, Hercules (who is now no longer an immortal), Ant Man (Scott Lang), the Black Knight (Dane Whitman), and the White Tiger (another martial arts hero), it also resurrects the late Iron Fist, bringing him into the group. Because Power Man has spent years on the run, falsely blamed for Iron Fist’s death, he harbors some resentment toward his old partner, and the two have to work at patching up their relationship. Unfortunately, the new supersquad failed to click with readers, getting the ax in 1999 after nineteen issues.
A more successful latter-day update of Luke Cage came in 2002, from writer Brian Azzarello, legendary artist Richard Corben (best known for his colorful and expressive work in Heavy Metal during the 1970s), and painter Jose Villarrubia. Part of Marvel’s adult-oriented MAX line, this series (also titled Cage) dispenses with the character’s 1970s canary-yellow “superpimp” shirt in favor of gray vests, black stocking caps, and sun-glasses—a look that is far more consonant with modern inner-city, hip-hop, and gangsta rap sensibilities. The series’ R-rated language, though far rougher than anything the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code Authority would approve even today, is likewise far more realistic and authentic in comparison with earlier Power Man tales. This had not been Cage’s first appearance in the MAX line; a similarly believable (if somewhat less gruff) version had guest-starred as the iffy love interest of Jessica Jones, the former superheroine turned private eye in writer Brian Bendis’s series Alias (no relation to the TV series starring Jennifer Garner). After both Cage’s own MAX miniseries and Alias ended their runs, Cage and Jones moved over to The Pulse! (2004-present), in which they are revealed to be expectant parents! Shortly after the birth of their daughter Danielle (named after Danny Rand), Luke and Jessica got married.
By this time Cage had joined the Avengers. During Marvel’s “Civil War,” in opposition to the Superhuman Registration Act, Cage joined Captain America’s original Secret Avengers. Following the seeming death of Steve Rogers, the Captain America, Cage became leader of the underground team called the New Avengers. After Rogers returned, he appointed Cage to head the Thunderbolts, and later persuaded him to join the reorganized Avengers as well.
Later, Cage and Iron Fist met a new young superhero, Victor Alvarez, who had assumed the name of Power Man. Iron Fist became the new Power Man’s mentor and crime fighting partner. Though much “grittier” than any of his predecessors, today’s Luke Cage makes it clear that this character is more than capable of transcending the times that spawned him and the unique circumstances of his creation. —MAM & PS
The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes © 2012 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.