The events of the Infinity War has once again brought back into the spotlight one of the iconic black characters in the Marvel Universe. Born Carl Lucas, our man Lucas “Luke” Cage, once known as Power Man, is pulled back into the business of saving the world. This incarnation of Luke has him once again operating the “Heroes for Hire” agency with new heroes Ava Ayala, aka The White Tiger, and Victor Alverez, aka, Power Man. When the city is invaded, Luke calls to arms other heroes who have showed up to fight, using the familiar battle cry, “Avengers Assemble!”.
This is not your father’s Luke Cage to be sure. From humble yet hard beginnings, Carl Lucas grew up in Harlem, coming to age at the end of the era of the big street gangs and brutal turf wars that came with it (Luke Cage Hero for Hire, #1). He and his partner in crime Willis Stryker ran the streets together earning their rep. Later, with his other partners, Shades, and Comanche, they formed their own gang called the Rivals, in which he was the muscle of the group. It was here the role of protector was developed. Here among his friends whom he would fight or die for. Just as with real life, as the gang grew into young adults they separated, but Luke and Willis remained fast friends, even as Willis began to rise in criminal stature. Then came Reva, proving that given the right (or wrong) reasons, even the longest and strongest of friendships will break. Even after being saved by a vicious beating, Willis plotted revenge on Luke for Reva seeing him for who he really was, and framed Luke with phony drug charges to send him not only to prison, but to his destiny.
The rest is well known, with the outcome resulting in placing Lucas on his way to greatness. As familiar as the Power Man origin has become, what is often overlooked is that before the costume, before the name change, before the business cards, the hero was born. Luke had make it back to Harlem after he escaped, so he worked odd jobs to make money, and never once used his powers for fear of being found out. Arriving in New York, Lucas approached a diner to get a meal. As he got to the door, a man rushed out, having just robbed the place. The man crashes into Lucas, and fires his gun. Lucas smacks the guy and effectively halts the robbery. The restaurant owner was so happy he gave Lucas a cash reward! It was then he realized that he could change his identity, use his powers, and hire himself out to do jobs needing a little something extra that only he could provide. He visits Reva’s grave and while there comes up with the now famous name that represents his past and reminds him of what he came out of, and then finds the costume shop where he puts together the costume ensemble that added more flair to the already flamboyant name. He makes up some business cards, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Reality check #1- unfortunately we have a disproportionate number of Black men who have been incarcerated, and find it difficult to reenter society because they cannot find employment. This lack of employment leads to frustration, and that frustration often leads back to a life of crime and back into incarceration. Luke did not rob his way back home, he did odd jobs to make money, all the while realizing that not only did he have a driver’s license or social security card, but he was considered dead. His answer was simple; he recreated himself. He knew that he had to survive, and he didn’t want to go back to where he came from. He recognized the need for regular folks to feel just as safe as anyone else, and he was bitten by the hero bug, which by the way, will continue to bite him for the next forty years!
Once referred to as the Marvel Universe’s first mercenary, Luke’s career takes off like a rocket, and he sets off doing the thing he values most; looking out for the little guy while making money for himself. He begins by facing guys from his past; guys from his prison days, like Spear, or guys who remained in crime from his old gang, like Shades and Comanche. He went after Dr. Doom to collect a debt, and befriended the Fantastic Four, even standing in for the Thing when he temporarily lost his powers. He also joined the Defenders, but realized that their often extradiminsional exploits where out of his league. His partnership with Iron Fist, whom he met when he was blackmailed into attacking him, Misty Knight, and Colleen Wing, was the best thing to happen to him at the time. It gave him the chance to continue in his Heroes for Hire business, and gave him a “little brother” to look after. After gaining fame and an international reputation, their business shut down when Iron Fist supposedly died, and Luke was blamed for his death. Cage moved to Chicago, and while there, underwent the “Power Man process” again, as well as finding out that Iron Fist was still alive. He also tried to locate his remaining family, consisting of his father James and brother James Jr., who tried to keep their father away from Luke. The brothers ended up teaming up to destroy the corporation which held James Sr. hostage, in order to control James Jr., whom had undergone a super powered enhancement which turned him into Coldfire. He and his brother successfully freed their father, but his brother apparently perished in the destruction of the corporation. After investigating the death of one time fling Harmony Young, he was recruited into the secret defenders. He sat out of heroics for a while, but returned when Iron Fist invited him to join an expanded version of the Heroes for Hire. Although he initially joined for the wrong reasons, he was able to reconcile those reasons and stayed with the team. When the business was bought out by a corporate sponsor, Cage was let go because the sponsor did not want ex-cons to working for them. By this time the concept of being on a team had set in and Luke joined the short-lived Marvel Knights. He grew despondent with the “world saving” and went back to his neighborhood and reopened the Hero for Hire business.
As plentiful as all those adventures were, they failed to add any depth to the character. Even the team up with Iron Fist only served to temper Luke’s angry attitude. He was still the street smart strong guy who was more muscle and mouth than anything else. As he went on in the Marvel Universe, he became interchangeable with any other strong guy, and nothing really set him apart. Then along came Brian Bendis. Bendis did something to Luke Cage that no other writer saw fit to do; he matured him. Bendis allowed Luke Cage to grow as not only a character, but as a person. How did he do this? He took the things that Luke started with, and seemingly said to himself:
The uniqueness of this has not gone unnoticed. He was able to do something with Luke Cage that even iconic heroes like Spiderman, the Thing, and even Captain America have not been able to accomplish; he has been able to grow up. Not just in age as with Spiderman, but really come of age. The Fantastic Four has certainly gone through its share of experiences, but even with that, the Thing still has not obtained the kind of depth as a character that represents maturation. In the case of Captain America, his role as the sentinel of liberty has long been established and engrained into the minds and hearts of his fans, and he doesn’t stray too far from it. Spiderman has certainly aged from the high school science geek he started out to be, but his defining moment came when Uncle Ben died, and he has essentially remained the same person he became that day. Luke had to maneuver his way through the Marvel Universe, and that required him to adapt to a lot of different personalities and people. He could have stayed in Harlem cleaning up the neighborhoods, but his calling was greater, and his potential far overwhelmed any perceived notions of attitude or any search for fortune or fame. He was viewed as a solo adventurer at first, but stints with the Fantastic Four, the Defenders/ Secret Defenders, and even the short-lived Marvel Knights, showed that he was as much a team player as any other hero out there. The expansion of his original business idea from a solo act to a partnership, and then to a full-fledged team operation, speaks of the smartness of his original idea, and was the precursor to his desire to be a business owner and work for himself.
Reality Check #2- in the world of black entertainment, there stands three individuals who best display this kind of growth. These individuals represent what can be accomplished if opportunities are taken advantage of. The fact that the three got there starts in similar fashion makes their accomplishments that much greater. They are Will Smith, Ice Cube, and Ice T. All former rappers who achieved success in the rap game, they took advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves, and maximized their potential. Their success opened the door for a host of others who followed the blueprint that they developed. These three are real live examples of coming up.
The biggest outcome of Luke’s maturation process was his decision to step up and take responsibility and accountability for his actions; he became a father. His family upbringing demanded that he not only accept his paternal role, but also take the next step and legitimize his family. This type of dynamic is not the norm in the Marvel Universe. When it comes to the major characters, there aren’t many examples of family life. The vast majority of these heroes are single, of if married, they are childless. By comparison, the biggest exception is Reed and Sue Richards, whom not only have a long standing marriage, but have two kids as well. Other black heroes such as the Black Panther who comes from a strong paternal lineage, but he has no children to carry on that prestigious bloodline and (to many of his fans dismay) is divorced from his wife. Adam Brashear, aka the Blue Marvel, reentered the superhero world with a wife and two grown kids, but is now a widower and single parent. There is another black character that lived both the superhero and family life, Sgt. Joseph Green, aka the Gauntlet. Sgt. Green is married with two children. He served as a trainer with the Initiative and after the fall of Norman Osborn, returned to active military duty. Over in the DC Universe, there once existed a strong black family dynamic represented by Jefferson Pierce, aka Black Lighting. With the advent of the New52, Black Lighting was reinvented as younger and single. The birth of his daughter and his subsequent marriage was just what Luke needed to give him depth as a character and also strengthen his desire to be the hero and protector he sought out in the beginning. Luke ’s family also kept him grounded and better relate to what life was really about.
Reality Check #3- black men are more than athletes, rappers, thugs, pimps, or whatever stereotypical description thrown out at us. We are fathers, we are protectors, and we are providers. We care about not only our neighborhoods, but the world around us, and we go out and do what we can to make things better for ourselves and loved ones. These facts are what Bendis injected into the life and character of Luke Cage. Luke started his heroic career with the simple desire of take what he had been given, use it to provide for him, and protect the people who, in a world of superheroes, are often overlooked.
Luke Cage, Power Man, Hero for Hire, Defender, Marvel Knight, Avenger, Father, Husband, Protector. No matter what name he goes by, they all describe a character who overcame his past to become one worthy of the admiration that has been bestowed upon him, and whose story more than deserves to be told.