As part of our lead-up to Marvel’s Jessica Jones, we’ve put together a few posts to introduce you to what we know about the show’s cast of characters—most of whom have quite a bit of history in Marvel Comics. Today, we meet Luke Cage.
The ’70s were a weird time, with just about every pop culture medium scrambling to keep up with the seismic shifts taking place in America. Vietnam. Deepthroat. Kent State. Harvey Milk. Change happened fast, and comic books were not immune. There was a lot of flux in Marvel’s leadership throughout the decade, with frequent changes in price, distribution and even titles. This led to a lot of industry grief but it wasn’t without reward. By the middle of the decade, Marvel had finally pulled ahead of DC Comics in sales.
In an effort to diversify its brand outside of the superhero genre, Marvel started trying to capitalize on booming film sub-genres. Iron Fist was a direct response to the booming kung-fu movie market. Ghost Rider was Marvel’s attempt at Easy Rider-type biker films. And then there was Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, one of the most radical titles to ever be launched in mainstream comics.
On the surface, Luke Cage: Hero for Hire was Marvel’s clear attempt at its own Blaxpoitation movie. In truth, it was the first comic book to to star a black superhero, but even that doesn’t really hit at how different it was. As created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr., Cage’s world was a very different, much more dangerous place than most of Marvel’s characters lived in, and he was a different sort of character.
Although definitely a do-gooder, Cage was first and foremost a survivor. With his super strength and bullet proof skin, he’s aware that with great power must come great responsibility, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a little money on the side. Cage saw being a superhero as means to a legitimate enterprise: Heroes for Hire, Inc. He charged for services. He worked out of an office. He took out ads in the paper. Although his first “costume” has been the butt of plenty of jokes in recent years, it had one of the most believable origins of any outfit in superhero history: It was all he had lying around.
Just as notably, Cage worked in Harlem and spoke in jive, making his Blaxploitation roots much clearer. In the same way Tony Stark was technologically brilliant and Reed Richards was a genetic genius, Cage’s street smarts were shown to be just as important to his saving the day as his superhuman muscle. He’s often baffled by the colorful villains and caped heroes he interacts with, vastly preferring a relatively normal life with no alter ego. Bullets may bounce off him but, in many ways, Cage is among Marvel’s most human superhero.
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (1972—1978) covers Luke’s origin, the birth of his organization, Heroes for Hire, Inc., and his growing friendship with Iron Fist.
Alias (2001—2004) is really the key Jessica Jones story, but it chronicles the budding romance between her and Cage as well.
New Avengers (2005—2010) follows the fallout of Civil War storyline, in which Cage puts together a new group of Avengers to operate independently of SHIELD.
(Please note that, from here on out, some of this information could be considered a spoiler for either Jessica Jones or the upcoming Luke Cage series coming to Netflix.)
Cage spent most of his early life in a street gang before being sent to prison after being framed for heroin possession. While in prison, Cage is recruited by a scientist trying to duplicate the Super Soldier experiment that created Captain America. The experiment is maliciously botched, inadvertently giving Cage super strength and skin hard enough to stop a bullet.
What’s interesting about Cage’s origins is that he’s not a victim of an accident (like Peter Parker) or destiny (like Thor), but his own government. As David Brothers notes over at Marvel, the project that gave Cage his power is a chilling riff on the Tuskegee Experiment, one of the darkest chapters in America’s history of white supremacy. From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health service told 600 African-American men they were being given free healthcare to treat “bad blood.” In actuality, most of them had syphilis and researchers deliberately withheld treatment in order to study its effects. None of the men were ever told the true nature of their disease, and none were offered penicillin. By the study’s end, 128 of the men had died from the disease or related complications.
Cage’s origin story was actually published just a few months before news of the Tuskegee Experiment leaked to the press, but the parallels are difficult to ignore. Where for Steve Rogers, the Super Soldier Experiment was a government-sanctioned blessing given only to a man who was brave and noble enough to embody America’s highest ideals, it was for Luke Cage a curse conferred only because his black life was considered expendable in a white system.
Fortunately, the experiment worked better than anyone planned and Cage was able to escape prison and clear his name. He returned to Harlem and promptly did what anyone who finds himself suddenly super strong and bulletproof ought to do: use it to make some scratch.
Cage quickly realized this his powers made him a superhero, but he hadn’t gotten that far by turning down financial opportunities. He started calling himself the Hero for Hire, setting up an actual business with an office and a hotline, willing to administer truth and justice for anyone who could afford it.
It was all refreshingly realistic. He didn’t bother with secret identities or a job where he has to hide his true calling from his co-workers. He charged a fair price (and was willing to work pro bono when the mood suited him) but he intended to get what he earned. He once even traveled all the way to Latveria to shake down Doctor Doom. Now that’s a hero.
From there on out, Cage has undergone a number of different allegiances. He’s stayed in the hero for hire business, even gaining a partner and co-worker in masked vigilante/kung-fu aficionado Iron Fist, who has become one of his most trusted friends. But at times, Cage been a more conventional superhero—adopting the code name Power Man and working as a Defender and even an Avenger.
None of that has been as crucial to his characterization as his romance with Jessica Jones, the mother of his child and his eventual wife. How much of their canonical romance will actually be used in the Jessica Jones show remains to be seen, but in the comics, their has been healthy and relatively drama-free. When Jessica realized he’d gotten her pregnant after a drunken tryst, the two got married and have enjoyed a close relationship ever since.
But through it all, Cage has remained a fighter. He’s not Marvel’s flashiest superhero, and he never had Steve Rogers’ ability to inspire multitudes. No, Cage is the guy you want on your side when you need someone who just won’t lose. When you want someone who looks bad odds square in the face without blinking. He’s been dealt every rough hand a person can be dealt, and he just keeps coming like a freight train. It’s made him a hero, an Avenger, and a Defender but most of all, it’s made him a good man. Those are short supply in any universe.
It’s anyone’s guess how much of all this will stick in Jessica Jones or the Luke Cage series which is slated for release in 2016, but regardless, it’s well past time Luke Cage was given the spotlight he’s deserved. As the first black character with his own comic series, he’s definitely earned his due. Fittingly, he’ll also be be the first black character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have his own show, portrayed by Ringer‘s Mike Colter. But first, we’ll see how he fairs as a supporting cast member on Jessica Jones, which will debut on Netflix on November 20.
P.S. Final fun fact: When an aspiring young actor by the name of Nick Coppola wanted to avoid being linked to his famous Uncle Francis, he borrowed a new last name from Luke Cage. The rest is history.