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Friday, February 17, 2006

Luke Cage: A Life In Stereotype

Not too long ago, Morgan Freeman made the comment that the idea of Black History Month is "ridiculous," and I can't say I blame him. The whole idea is to highlight a section of history that might otherwise go undiscussed, but a lot of times it comes off more as a confinement of something that should just be a part of everything else.

And really, if you're still a racist in two thousand and six, then no amount of elementary school reports on the many uses of peanuts is going to change it. You're beyond help.

That's why I think we should get rid of it, replacing it instead with a little thing I like to call Black Spring Break History Month: four weeks of study and discourse on 1998's forgotten classic of film. And its sequel. Because apparently... there was a sequel.

But until that glorious day when director Marlon Parry is hailed as the genius he truly is, I'll just have to work with what I'm given. Which brings me, in a ridiculously roundabout sort of way, to Luke Cage. Because what better way to examine Black History in comics than a look back at the history of the character with the uncanny ability to embody a stereotype whenever he appears.

Scott has this theory that Luke Cage is just one of those guys that we all know who runs out every few years, finding out what the kids these days are into, deciding everything he's done up to this point is stupid and reinventing himself in accordance with the new trends. That makes him seem like more of an affable dope than a self-renewing stereotype, especially when Brian Bendis is trying to write "street." Let's take a look:

Feast thine eyes on Hero For Hire #1, Luke's first appearance, kickin' it blaxploitation style as he uses the Man's own dastardly experiments to get over in the world of ex-con superheroics. Oddly enough, this one's going to end up being the least offensive version of Luke Cage, although there was that cringe-worthy time that Iron Man suggested he refer to himself as "The Ace of Spades."

Jesus, Tony. Just how drunk were you?

Anyway, Luke stuck with this basic look--which inexplicably included a tiara--for a while during his partnership with Marvel's other '70s genre hero and fan of the high-collar, Iron Fist, even sporting the look during the high point of his career, this panel from Power Man and Iron Fist #75:

Then came the '90s, and CAGE, the series where Luke decided to forego his yellow pirate shirt in favor of a leather jacket and metal shin-guards. He also started dropping the Flava Flav-esque "BOYEE" into his conversation with alarming regularity:

Yes, Cage. Yes it is.

(For the record, the story that panel is from involves the Punisher getting cut up by Jigsaw and having new skin grafted to his face by a former med student turned heroin-addict prostitute, which has the result of turning him black for three issues until a story called, and I'm totally serious here, "Fade to White." That, friends, is deserving of its own post.)

That revamp didn't stick either, leading to his appearance in Alias, where Brian Bendis re-established him as an anal sex enthusiast, which subsequently became his most defining characteristic in the past five years. Then came Brian Azzarello's version a few months later, where he hangs out in Harlem strip clubs demanding "a couple hunny" for his services and sporting a costume of sunglasses, gold chains, and headphones that he presumably uses to listen to the "rap" music that the kids like so much. Charming!

Apparently, that's what it takes to get a spot on the Avengers these days, because all he really does otherwise is hang out saying things like "Damn, Girl!" whenever Spider-Woman walks by, and dropping my favorite of Bendis's attempts at slang, "Man, if we wouldn'ta shown up in his face, he'd be wearing a Hydra robe and doin' the robot."

Yep. The Robot. That's what's hot on the streets, all right.

The whole thing adds up to make the current iteration of Cage the most grotesquely stereotypical we've ever had, even without cribbing lines from Public Enemy. And yet, the only person who seems to notice is Robert Kirkman's Invincible:

Maybe it'd be a little bit better if Luke's super-hero costume didn't look like it was cribbed directly from Ali G's closet. Booyakasha!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And really, if you're still a racist in two thousand and six, then no amount of elementary school reports on the many uses of peanuts is going to change it. You're beyond help."

Well, gosh, thanks, you've got it all figured out. Signed, The Entire Population of the Planet Earth.

P.S. If you know how to get China and Japan to stop hating each other, don't keep it to yourself, genius.

2/18/2006 3:27 AM

Blogger Phil Looney said...

I miss 70s Power Man. He represents an era of Blaxplotation that was awesome, when it was a big deal to have a serious movie with all black people in it.

Now, he just really is a big sterotype in the worst "thug life" sort of way. I was reading Web of Romance, and what makes him stick out even more is that he has no costume like the other heroes. I really don't see that as "cool."

Big ups go to Reggie Hudlin for hinting at that classic yellow shirt in the latest Black Panther stroy arc.

2/18/2006 9:53 AM

Blogger Greg said...

That was a weird, angry comment by Anonymous ...

2/18/2006 10:14 AM

Blogger Chris Sims said...

People with no names on the internet don't like me.

Sad face.

Anyway. 70s Power Man is my favorite iteration of the character for exactly those reasons, Phil, and I don't see anything wrong with having him be a sort of slick reference to Shaft and Super Fly, even today.

Although I do think he's pretty good in Web of Romance.

And I'd be a lot more open to his appearance in Black Panther if that book wasn't just an excuse to have black super-heroes team up for no other reason than they're black. "Hm, what kind of story can I write where I can get Blade, Brother Voodoo, and the Falcon in there... Hey, Storm and Black Panther are both from Africa! Sure they know each other!"

2/18/2006 12:27 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude, the entire population of planet earth reads your blog! good thing blogspot is free, or your bandwidth charges would be through the roof.

also, when did china and japan start hating each other? i thought they hung out eating rice and doing kung fu and shit.


2/18/2006 3:58 PM

Blogger Jacob T. Levy said...

How could you write this whole post and never *once* mention Buck Wild, the devastating Cage parody from Icon?

2/18/2006 5:28 PM

Blogger Richard said...

A different perspective here:

When I was a young boy living in a small rural town isolated from civilization, Luke Cage represented New York City. Sure, I was aware of him as a Black hero. At age ten, I knew Shaft represented the ultimate in cool, and that the comic was riding a wave of Black action films...but that wasn't the most important thing about him to me. What mattered was that he worked out of Times Square, he sometimes hung out in the Village, and the locations in the early stories seemed an essential part of the book's overall feel. Spider-Man is more often held up as the "local hero" of New York -- the use of locations in the first film certainly reinforces that impression -- but at the time, I thought of Luke as the archetypal New Yorker As Super Hero. That's why it pains me to see him reduced to a one-note joke on African-American trend-spotting. Just because a character is Black doesn't require him to always be written as "our house urban Black character." It's sad that even Hudlin sees him as only a stereotype.

2/19/2006 2:36 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

During his run on Power Man and Iron Fist, Priest retconned the older issues as Luke doing an "angry negro act to throw people off", which I thought was amusing.

Luke does have some fun moments in New Avengers, when Bendis bothers to remember that he's there.

2/20/2006 11:28 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect what anonymous may have been getting at is that framing racism as a personal issue that we've evolved past is potentially dangerous. We're taught to see racism as individual acts of meanness, as opposed to a systemic problem ingrained into our institutions, which is where it persists plenty well today and continues to pose a major threat to an equitable society. If you confine racism to being an individual act and view it as expired, you're giving it far too little credit, and in doing so potentially helping it to continue.

This is, I suspect, what anonymous may have been driving at, had he taken time to actually explain himself as opposed to using self-righteous sarcasm.

2/20/2006 11:50 AM

Blogger Spencer Carnage said...

That revamp didn't stick either, leading to his appearance in Alias, where Brian Bendis re-established him as an anal sex enthusiast, which subsequently became his most defining characteristic in the past five years.

Oh, come on. Its called Doggy Style, bro bro. Don't tell me you never got down like that. All this talk of Anal Sex is just you projecting your wanton desires on a female character created by Bendis!

But seriously, if I were to pick any incarnation of Luke Cage, I would choose the present because that's the one that reads the closest to a normal person to me. To bring back the 70s version at this point would just be insulting, just as much as Azzarello's version was insulting. Luke Cage would go from being a strong African American hero to a Fanboy Fetish.

Just because a character is Black doesn't require him to always be written as "our house urban Black character.

Which is a shame, but not as much of a shame as having every super hero be a white guy.

2/20/2006 12:52 PM

Blogger Canton said...

Not that this actually contributes anything to an otherwise stimulating discussion on racial stereotyping, but, well... here:

Brother Voodoo and Luke Cage discuss fashion (sort of) in Heroes for Hire #13.

2/21/2006 12:50 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally feel some of these comments are out of line. Yeah, Cage is an urban character, but that's the way he's always been. Should he suddenly start quoting MacBeth? He was a street tough, not very well-educated, and the fact of the matter is there ARE people like Cage out there in the real world. If every black Marvel character was like Cage, I could see the point. But they're not all urban street toughs. The Falcon has always been portrayed as well-spoken and intelligent, the Black Panther is a brilliant strategist, Storm is probably one of the strongest female characters ever created. So what's the big deal if we have a character who's a bit more like the stereotypical street tough? With the exception of the MAX series, Cage has been portrayed as more than that in NEW AVENGERS. Yeah, he dresses a certain way but he's not being written as an idiot or anything.

When people complain about Cage being a stereotype, I really don't know what they want of the character. He was far, far, FAR more stereotypical and insulting in his original appearences with his jive-talk and how he was constantly being duped by his employers.

3/19/2006 12:13 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that when we look at a white superhero team we never say 'well they're only a team because they're white", but as soon as some black folks form a team then all of a sudden it's an excuse to put black people together.

Also, I never actually saw Black History Month as a way to get racist people to love me. I see it as Carter G Woodson (the founder of Negro History Week which eventually got turned into Black History Month) saw it, a time to reflect upon the great contributions made by black people not only in this society but in the world arena. Not everything is about white folks. lol!

10/10/2006 3:04 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey, to be honest, i like the line about silver samurai doing the robot. it's just funny to envision, and i seriously doubt bendis thinks that the robot is the hip new thing. does luke cage have to be hip enough to name some current street dance if he's going to crack a joke? why would that be the case? hmmm?

11/24/2006 5:46 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Cage's appearance in Heroes for Hire #1 (mid-90's)? There was a serious retcon to make Cage a leader character for the comic, stating he speaks several languages and holds several degrees. That version lasted the run of that series and no farther.

11/27/2006 12:27 PM

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Anonymous Cheap Viagra Online said...

Luke Cage looks more like a fustrated rapper. He doesn't have anything special to be considerated as a heroe, and less as a villain. In short, a pathetic character.

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