Essential Luke Cage Volume 1: In Black and White… Mostly Black

October 22nd, 2007 by | Tags: ,

There are so many reasons people wished they could have Superman’s powers. The strength, the flying, the speed, the eye-lasers, the x-ray vision… er… Pretend I put “x-ray vision” in there a couple more times. It’s always funnier that way. Anyway, one of the cooler things about Superman’s powers is his ability to slowly storm forward as criminals empty clips into his chest and continue firing in horror and futility as the bullets keep bouncing off his body. I’m sure Batman wishes he was from Krypton just so he could do that every other hour. Superman doesn’t even need to do it! He could zip over and steal the guns if he truly wanted. He only does it for the kicks. That has to be the most gratifying thing you can do as a crime fighter.

Luke Cage exists for the sake of doing this bit whenever he’s in a bad mood. He also exists to show that black people can have bad fashion sense too, but that’s beside the point. Luke Cage’s main superpower is walking forward while armed bad guys shit themselves. The difference is that he loses a lot of shirts. Really. Luke Cage goes through more shirts than Bruce Banner.

Heheh. I wonder if he knows that in 30 years, that’s going to be a stinging insult.

I guess it was the Spider-Man-meets-Luke-Cage article I wrote a few days ago that got me back into my Essentials collection. These collections are fantastic and well worth the money, but at the same time, they’re hard to push through. If you can get enough momentum in, it’s hard to put these down. I have to say, I don’t think I could do that for series that aren’t so limited in issue numbers. I love Spider-Man and all, but the idea of reading a dozen of his Essentials scares me. But Cage, Iron Fist, Moon Knight, etc? I can see myself to the end, definitely.

Luke Cage went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, as opposed to the very many that he did. His girlfriend is dead and his former best friend is living it up on the streets. Cage undergoes an experiment that goes out of control thanks to a corrupt prison guard. Cage gains nigh-unbreakable skin, escapes prison and makes a new life for himself as a Hero for Hire. Along the way he gains a supporting cast in the doctor that gave him his powers, the doctor’s foxy assistant, a weasely snitch, a money-grubbing widow and a hippy projectionist sidekick.

I’m a bit disappointed that the projectionist kid, D.W. Griffith, faded so far into obscurity. He was last seen in an issue of the 90’s Heroes for Hire series and didn’t get killed off or anything. He’s just forgotten, left in the past and in dire need of a haircut. That’s a shame as I really like the guy.

This collection is 27 issues long and it’s fucking ridiculous. Ridiculous and badass at the same time. Luke Cage’s daily routine is to take a walk down the street, have somebody get in his face and then pummel them mercilessly while ranting about how he just ripped up another silk shirt. Then he fights a horribly-designed villain, says some snappy banter and probably kills said villain by dropping him to his death. I think about 95% of all Luke Cage villains end up falling to their deaths in some fashion.

Once I get through the entire series, I have to do a retrospective on the entire Luke Cage rogues gallery. This guy has quite a collection on him. You already saw pictures of a guy in a lion costume and an evil construction worker with a lava gun. If you think they’re nutty, check out Señor Suerte, who also goes by the name Señor Muerte!

There are a couple name character appearances here and there. Luke Cage dukes it out with Iron Man, Goliath, the Circus of Crime, the original Power Man (now Atlas) and, best of all, Doctor Doom. There are a lot of people who have read the infamous Doom story arc, review it well and pass over the rest of the series. Bad move. All the other issues are just as outrageous and hilarious.

The back cover of the collection claims that Spider-Man is featured in there, but that’s mostly bullshit. One issue begins with a page mentioning Cage’s appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #123 and how this Luke Cage issue takes place hours later. All we get is one stinking panel of Spider-Man. That’s it.

Don’t expect Iron Fist to show up either. Danny and Luke don’t cross paths for quite a while.

In terms of other things Luke is known for, at no point in the 27 issues does he ever say, “Sweet Christmas!” He’ll yell, “Christmas!” and, “Holy Christmas!” and even, “Sweet sister!”, but his number one catchphrase is nowhere to be seen.

The worst part of the series thus far looks to be what I’d label “the Scooby Doo issues”. Sometimes Luke would get hired to go after some paranormal threat – in these cases a ghost and a vampire – and find that it’s really just some crook in a mask. Zoinks, brutha!

Not only are these issues low on the badass quotient, but what’s the point in the fake-out endings when we know ghosts and vampires exist in Marvel continuity? Even in the vampire issue, there’s a mention in the narration that Cage is an “unconscious imitation of Blade, the Vamprie Slayer”. When you admit that vampires are the real deal in your universe, then turn it into Old Man Withers scaring you away from the old mill all along, it’s just underwhelming.

Other than the aforementioned Dr. Doom storyline, there are two highlights to the collection. First is Retribution, a three-part story arc that ties into Cage’s origin. The corrupt guard that nearly killed Cage and accidentally gave him his powers is fired and discovers the truth about Cage’s secret identity. Meanwhile, two of Cage’s prison acquaintances escape to murder that guard and take over Harlem. Other subplots involve a rampaging lawyer, Cage’s girlfriend being arrested for murder and the debut of Cage’s mainstay rogue Stiletto.

It’s like they thought that Plastic Man’s costume was pretty gay without even trying, so why not see what would happen if you actually tried to make it gayer. The limp wrist helps.

That other guy in yellow is Big Ben Donovan, one of the biggest examples of wasted potential I’ve ever seen in comics. He’s described as physically being the black counterpart of Wilson Fisk (A black Kingpin? Ha! That’ll be the day!). He has some major anger issues and gets tricked into fighting Cage because of it. The two have a slugfest that demolishes Cage’s office (business as usual) and after the second time Cage beats him down, Big Ben gives up.

“Wait! WAIT! That’s enuf, bro’! Ain’t nobody ever done that to Big Ben Donovan before! From now on, you want anything from me, you got it, man! I’m just achin’ to be on your side!”

From there, Big Ben becomes Cage’s lawyer and makes a couple more appearances in that story. If they did it right, he would have become a regular supporting character and occasional ally. He could have been like that sumo guy from Jackie Chan Adventures. Instead, he’s forgotten about until the Power Man and Iron Fist series, where they make him evil for the hell of it. During his last known appearances, he’s become Tombstone’s bitch and joined a gang with Rocket Racer and Hypno-Hustler in prison. Big Ben deserved better, man…

Back to the Retribution story arc, it’s really good stuff and if they ever go through with the Luke Cage movie project, it would make for the best source.

The other highlight comes from after Cage takes the mantle of Power Man. Erik Josten, the villain once known as Power Man, smashes up D.W.’s movie theater to goad Cage into a fight over the name. During their fight, Josten almost kills a little girl by accident and shows zero remorse. This completely sets off Cage, who goes to town on him so hard that we get two splash pages of ass-kickery. That’s pretty rare for a mid-70’s comic. After knocking Josten onto the streets, Cage delivers this excellent speech.

“Before you go to sleep, little buttercup, I’ve got a few heavy words to lay on you. In the future, you may wish to take up this line of work again. Now… you can call yourself Spider-Man… you can call yourself the Invisible Girl… you can stick a flag in your navel and call yourself the Spirit of ’76… But if you ever call yourself Power Man again… I will tattoo that name on your rib cage!

“Will one of you fine folks repeat that to the gentleman in the orange-and-brown suit when he wakes up?”

Bad. Ass.

I’m planning on reading Volume 2, which ends just as Cage and Iron Fist start teaming up. Then I’m going to move onto Essential Iron Fist and wait for the newly-announced Essential Power Man and Iron Fist to arrive on the shelf. Hey, I may even brave the 90’s crap after that.

The old 70’s Cage comics are what I live for when it comes to old comics. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s so bad it’s good. I win either way. I recommend it to people who enjoy the same and even succeeded in bullying hermanos into buying a copy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m only several issues away from reading the exploits of the evil Mr. Fish!

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9 comments to “Essential Luke Cage Volume 1: In Black and White… Mostly Black”

  1. Wonderful article but how can you forget to mention Luke Cage’s greatest adversary Colonel Gideon Mace! Seriously this guy’s long overdue for an upgrade.

  2. Ah, yes. Gideon Mace. Never has there been a more literal supervillain.

  3. Everything in this post is right on target.

    I’m very glad, however, that D.W. has faded into obscurity, because I liked him too…and despair of what the current Marvel would do to him. And if I may say so, Commanche and Shades are too damn real for Marvel to handle anymore.

  4. I really do love the Essential Luke Cage vol. 1 if anything because it reads like a Darwin Awards for super villains. I crack up every time I think of Steeplejack’s demise.

  5. Wait: Luke Cage had a secret identity?

  6. Of course he does. He’s an escaped convict with an assumed name. “Cage” isn’t his real last name.

  7. […] the first Essential Luke Cage collection so fresh in my mind, it didn’t take me too long to finish off his solo series. Essential Luke […]

  8. […] I was reading through the first two volumes of Cage’s Essential collections, I just had to read through the beginnings of Iron […]

  9. can you please remove the above post? I google’d my name and found that someone was posing under my name and making these posts.