Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why I love (hate) Luke Cage...

This is a very difficult essay to write because it involves one of the most pivotal literary characters in my evolution as a writer. For those of you who are new to the comic book fold, Luke Cage aka Power Man was one of Marvel Comics' first African American heroes and has been a long standing inspiration for me. Google him, read the black and white Marvel Essentials that you should be able to procure at any decent comic book store and you may begin to understand my affection for the character. As I previously stated in the letter column of Lucius Hammer Rough Cut #0, when I was about eight years old and I first laid eyes on Luke Cage, I was mesmerized. I did not think it was physically possible for a black superhero to exist. Too many years being conditioned to look at the white American, square jawed males as the hero in pulp serials, Superman Comics and Popeye cartoons I guess. But it was just something I never considered. Then something crazy happened. The Seventies. Black is Beautiful. Sly and The Family Stone. Gordon Parks and Gordon Parks Jr. Shaft and Superfly. Of course I was but a child at the time but what happened was companies began to recognize the economic potential of creating products for a burgeoning national black community who were benefiting from the passing of the Civil Rights legislation. Black folks had money to spend and were looking for products that catered to their needs and reflected their culture. This kicked off a whole new era in film and books called blaxploitation. Now without getting to deep into the origins and effects of blaxploitation, I will just say that somebody at Marvel Comics said...look, Shaft and Superfly are making a ton of money at the Movie Theatres...let's create a superhero with the same kind of swagger and see what we come up with. It must have been as simple as that. At the time Marvel was banging out an entire line of horror comics because of the extreme popularity of monster movies at that time and it would only make sense that they continue following trends and try and replicate the success of black action films with their comics. They did the same thing with karate and kung fu oriented books. Luke Cage, though, was a pretty deep character. On the surface, he's very simple and pays homage to all the worst stereotypes of a black man that could possibly be used; he's a street thug,he's incarcerated, he's not illiterate but spews a mangled patois of English and Seventies street style Ebonics, and instead of a superhero costume...he sports a ghetto fabulous yellow, fly away collar blouse, tight blue pants, with a link chain as a belt. Now there is so much symbolism there that we could literally debate for days, but my point is, at the tender age of eight I was not armed with an intellect or life experience that was strong enough to help me process this complicated image of a black man that was being delivered to me via a comic book. Cage was a hot tempered, often irrational, walking time bomb who peddled his super talents to the highest bidder. Money was the sole focus of his heroic efforts and therefore he was a little less noble than the Bat Mans and Spidermans who did what they did because of their strong morals and sense of justice. Even though these are some downright deplorable attributes for someone who is supposed to be a superhero, old Luke still wound up being an interesting character. In most stories he struggled with accepting money for "doing the right thing" with his super powers and turned down payment in some instances because of this inner conflict. When Blaxploitation movies and culture had run it's course in America, Luke Cage was paired with a martial arts character named Iron Fist and the book was entertaining for awhile in the way grindhouse movies was like the ultimate double feature...jive talking, indestructible black man teams up with philosophical, karate kicking white man in an endless string of seventies style police action dramas. It was cute for awhile and then Luke Cage disappeared into obscurity for a few years. Blaxploitation returned in the form of rap music and Spike Lee movies. America once again becomes hypnotized by black people and our refusal to maintain status quo with anything regarding the arts, fashion or pop culture. Marvel decides to revive Luke Cage by giving him some hip hop luster. This is truly the lowest and silliest incarnation of Cage and the series did not last more than twelve issues...I think, I really don't know because I became quite disenchanted by the second issue. It was whacktacular in the way some of those black comics in the nineties know the ones I'm talking about. The comics that tried to ape all of the styles that hip hop was spawning and stealing punchlines from the latest episode of In Living Color so the dialogue was funky fly fresh. The stuff didn't sell, and if it did the success was short lived because like anything in the black entertainment community, it should continuously evolve and change shape. Black comics simply came to a screeching halt because they were whack...plain and simple. They spoke to no one. There was no clear focus save to give a black dude or chick super powers then watch them dance. Bringing us into the present era which I have dubbed the Menace to Society Age. During this current phase of black superheroes...African Americans are depicted as ultra-violent, low life, street adventurers who turn their guns in all types of unorthodox positions so they might look cool while shooting a super-villain or perhaps paralyzing an innocent bystander for life. If anyone reading my vitriolic tirade doubts me, pick up the series entitled Cage written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Richard Corben. This is an outlandish, perverse, and the most visceral treatment I have ever seen of Luke Cage and it made me physically ill. The comic book itself actually made you feel the disgust and filth that drowns the inhabitants of the inner city; you can smell the urine in the can see the garbage overflowing on the sidewalks and the plumes of cannabis smoke wafting out of a neighborhood bar. This would be great if I was watching Law and Order or CSI...but damn...I'm trying to read a comic book about a superhero!! To further add to my disappointment...Cage is now scripted as a young ghetto enforcer who walks around Harlem, breaking up crackhead basketball games and rousting mush mouth junkies for information and tips. His superhero costume consists of; skull cap, wife beater undershirt, sunglasses, headphones/cd walkman, sagging jeans, and fresh white sneakers. Of course his lips are typically swollen and glossy and his language is a confused jumble of Fifty Cent and Jay-Z rhymes. Imagine the die-hard Luke Cage fan that I am...waiting for respectable writers and artists to bring this much maligned but worthy character screaming into the new millenium only to see that their vision of him was way worse than his original incarnation! What this new vision of Luke Cage inevitably led to was a stint with the Avengers which now has him as their leader. Hey Brian Michael Bendis, good looking out...all the brothers and sisters really dig Luke Cage being the leader of the Avengers and all but next time...give the brother his own costume!!! You got Captain America running around with a shield made out of vibranium...Tony Stark has the most sophisticated suit of armor ever created and Thor wields a mystic hammer...and you mean to tell me the best you can do for Luke Cage is a skully and a wife beater? Sweet Christmas, man. Sweet Christmas.



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