4thletter of July: Luke Cage is the American Dream

July 4th, 2008 by | Tags: , , , , ,

It’s that time of year again, when people barbecue, swim in pools, chill with family, and generally have a good time. I’m stuck in faux-sunny San Francisco for the weekend, though, so all of y’all can eat it. Would it kill global warming to speed up a little bit? I don’t even sweat on hot days here.

Anyway, though, I had a pretty well received post about Captain America and America last year. It’s 2008 now. I’m older, wiser, and meaner. Why not give it another go, yeah?

I’ve been feeling a little nasty lately. Thinking about movies, news, music, and politics. Even comics, man. The presidential race turned into some ugly “My -ism is worse than yours” race, and I’m honestly tired of hearing about how Obama is going to change everything ever, particularly when he took father’s day to air out fathers, but whatever whatever. My point is that I’ve been waiting for an excuse to bite a face. So, you’ll have to pardon any cynicism that leaks through.

You could say that Captain America represents the American Dream. I say American Dream, but if you think about it, it’s really the ideal. Tolerance, perspective, patience, and so on. He thinks before he acts and he does his best to do right. He believes in his country and her people and trusts them to make the right choice. He chooses to lead by example.

If Captain America represents the American Ideal, Luke Cage is living proof that the dream is a valid possibility.

Carl Lucas is a victim of America. He grew up poor in Harlem, had no way out, and ended up running with a fake comic book gang. His childhood is a slideshow of group homes and juvie. He wises up when he gets grown and tries to go legit. His best friend, Stryker, stays dirty, though. Lucas makes the mistake of being the guy his best friend’s ex-girlfriend runs to, which angers Stryker. Stryker frames him, snitches, and Lucas goes to jail in Georgia for some reason.

In prison, Lucas is broken and angry. He doesn’t care about anything, basically, fights constantly, and eventually is used as a guinea pig for a new variant of the Super Soldier formula. A vengeful security guard sabotages the experiment, accidentally granting Cage enhanced strength and hard skin, and Cage escapes in the confusion. He goes back to New York and starts a new life as Luke Cage, hero for hire. He rebuilds his social circle, finds new love, and gets on with life.

Cage was put through a lot, most of it through no fault of his own.

Nine times out of ten, seems like, most Cage talk tends to be about how he once flew to Latveria to get two hundred bucks from Doom, tiaras, ha ha blaxploitation, and jokes about anal sex. He’s kind of a punchline, but I don’t think people realize how far he’s come.

Cage went from the kind of vaguely-insulting, heart-in-the-right-place black character that was popular back then (and kind of still is now) to the guy who took Captain America’s spot in the Avengers. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Part of the American Dream is that frontiersman, wild west work ethic. Staking your claim and all that. You take what’s yours and you refine it, beat it into shape, and make it work how it’s supposed to. Cage applied this to real life. He’s a hero for hire, yes, but that doesn’t mean he won’t work pro bono. There’s a scene in a Daredevil comic where Cage proves this. Luke tells Matt to use his senses to scan the building. Is there anyone selling drugs, being violent, or doing crime in his building? No. Why? ’cause Cage laid down the law.

There’s a line from a rap song that goes “Handle your business before your business handles you.” You can sit and wait for people to fix something for you and get screwed over in the process, or you can fix it yourself. Cage fixed it himself. He handled his business. He did the right thing.

This is something that most heroes do not do. They don’t take a firm hand in policing their area. They just kinda mill around and look for crime, or in Superman’s case, actively ignore things sometimes in the name of “letting people govern themselves.” The problem is, most people aren’t going to govern themselves. Some people do not have that choice or made the wrong choice.

Cage’s method of operating is very similar to how Frank Miller approaches Batman. It’s kind of a benevolent dictator move– he knows what’s right, and he’s going to implement it and you’re gonna benefit, whether you like it or not. He uses the Avengers to clean up a single neighborhood. He believes that heroes should be constantly making a difference, not just fighting supervillains. Superheroes should be visible and lead by example. This isn’t just about fighting crime– it’s about making the world better.

He eventually marries Jessica Jones after the birth of their daughter, Danielle. He begins to take heroing even more seriously after that. What’s the point of having powers if you aren’t going to leave the world a better place? What’s the point of having principles if you aren’t going to stick with them?

Why would you want your daughter to grow up thinking that you’re a coward?

This is part of why his split from Tony Stark is so believable. He thinks that Tony made the wrong choice. He can’t live with going along with that choice if it’s the wrong one, so he chooses to play outlaw instead. He’s doing it for the future and he’s doing it for his daughter.

So, Cage is out there every day, putting in work and doing the best he can. The only way to make it in America, for most people anyway, is through blood, sweat, and tears. You have to get dirty.

Cage is getting dirty. In the process, he’s risen above his beginnings, he’s cultivated a circle of loyal friends, he’s protecting his neighborhood, and he’s providing for his family.

Why is all of this remarkable? Why isn’t it just standard issue? Why should Cage be admired for doing the right thing?

(this is where the cynicism hits, y’all)

The thing about America is that she eats her young. It was founded on the idea of freedom, civil liberties, and making your own way in life. In reality, it didn’t even begin to seriously approach those lofty goals until the mid-1900s, almost two hundred years after it was founded. Even then, the political equivalent of baby steps were what happened, not long strides. It still isn’t 100%.

You’re on your own in America, a lot of the times. Look at the prisons, poverty, and education. You think everyone in prison is there because they’re a bad person? No, I’m willing to bet that a significant number are there because they didn’t have any other choice, so they picked up that gun or bat or kilo and went to work.

Think about it. Say you’ve got a family and your kid won’t stop crying because she’s hungry. You can either hope for a call back from that temp agency or you can hit the corner for a day or two and come home with a roll of twenties.

Now, keep thinking. What kind of a world is this where you have to seriously contemplate the idea of losing your family versus poisoning someone else’s? Could you make that choice? Is it right that you should ever have to make that choice?

This is what I mean. The American Dream should be a reality, but it is still a pipe dream for a lot of people. It shouldn’t be– but it is.

But, that’s life, right?

Well, yeah, it’s harsh, but that’s life. Life isn’t fair. America is not, and has never been, fair. Will it one day be fair? I’d like to think so. Will I see it? Probably not. But, that’s no excuse not to try and do right and behave as if it is.

This is why I love Cage so much. He has every reason to be bitter, full of hate, and furious at the life he’s found himself in. Instead, though, he’s just living his life, trying to do right, and leave it better for the next generation.

That, to me, is the only proper execution of the American Dream. You may feel like Atlas with the weight of the heavens on your shoulders, but your knees don’t buckle and your spine doesn’t bend. When America hurts you, you remind it that throwing a punch is an invitation to catch one right back.

Sometimes, when you love America, you have to fight America. Sometimes, you have to even dislike America, even though you love it.

Cage gets it right. He proves that the Dream exists. You just have to be willing to fight for it.

Happy 4th.

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22 comments to “4thletter of July: Luke Cage is the American Dream”

  1. This is an awesome essay, as was the Cap essay, which I’d not seen before. I think that Captain America must be really hard to write, but when he’s written well, he’s one of the best characters in comics. One of my favorite portrayals of him is in Frank Miller’s Born again.

    Luke Cage doesn’t get enough respect these days. Bendis deserves a lot of credit for rediscovering the character and getting through the tiara and disco shirt to the potential that Luke Cage always had.

  2. I’m with you 100% on this. I always felt that Luke Cage was a special character within the Avengers. It wasn’t anything clichĂ© like him being the token black hero of the group, but it seemed like his values were deeply rooted in his heart, just like Captain America.

    When he took the Avengers to the inner-city just to do a routine clean up, that was truly moving. Forget all the supervillian terror going on, there’s still work to be done in our neighborhoods to protect the youth and our families. I mean, that’s where the American Dream starts right? With ourselves, then our family, and then we spread the dream around and do anything to protect it — and that’s exactly what Cage does.

    Mr. Brothers, you’re killing ’em. Excellent post.

  3. well done essay

    and i agree 🙂

  4. That is the best explanation of what is so very, very right with Luke Cage that I’ve ever read. Nicely done.

  5. Leave it to Dub to put it in perspective. Time to fight.

  6. I always find it telling when people say Luke took Cap’s place at the head of the Avengers. I never hear Ms. Marvel took Cap’s place. It’s always Luke.

  7. Well, shit. I can’t follow up on this post. So instead, here’s Captain America’s theme from Marvel Superheroes. Enjoy.

    And here is some awesome music from Captain America and the Avengers.

    Thank you… WONDER MAN!

  8. I always find it telling when people say Luke took Cap’s place at the head of the Avengers. I never hear Ms. Marvel took Cap’s place. It’s always Luke.

    You find it telling of what, exactly?

    It’s true. The New Avengers were Captain America’s team from Civil War on. Captain America died, now Luke leads the team. Ms. Marvel leads the Mighty Avengers, not the New. She’s on an entirely different team that Cap has never been on.

  9. Good essay. But on a tangental note, can someone show me SOME kind of evidence that Ms. Marvel actually leads the M.Avengers and not Tony? I mean it could be there, I don’t follow the book that closely…

  10. “You find it telling of what, exactly?”

    That the Mighty team don’t seem to be considered the ‘true’ Avengers team in fandom. They have the Avengers name but lack legitimacy. People say Avengers, they’re usually talking about the New team.

  11. Onion: New Avengers is pretty well stacked with the characters I like. Mighty’s got, uh, Black Widow. That’s about it for me. They’re “real” Avengers, but I’m much more interested in the New ones for that reason.

    Lurker: I think that she’s had a thought bubble or too around the same lines. “Geez, Tony, didn’t you make ME boss?”

  12. No, I’m sorry, halfway throughout your essay you started describing Doctor Doom rather than Luke Cage. So it’s not fascism if a black guy does it?

    Quotations directly from your text
    “Cage’s method of operating is very similar to how Frank Miller approaches Batman. It’s kind of a benevolent dictator move– he knows what’s right, and he’s going to implement it and you’re gonna benefit, whether you like it or not.”
    Tyranny, right there.

    “There’s a scene in a Daredevil comic where Cage proves this. Luke tells Matt to use his senses to scan the building. Is there anyone selling drugs, being violent, or doing crime in his building? No. Why? ’cause Cage laid down the law.”
    Creating a lawful state through fear from extraordinary (superhuman?) powers is no amazing feat. It’s bullying people into doing things your way. Whether or not you think “your way” is better or not for the people does not change the fact that it is still tyranny.

    “This is something that most heroes do not do. They don’t take a firm hand in policing their area. They just kinda mill around and look for crime, or in Superman’s case, actively ignore things sometimes in the name of “letting people govern themselves.” The problem is, most people aren’t going to govern themselves. Some people do not have that choice or made the wrong choice.”
    I LOVED Red Son too. No seriously, do you actively want people telling you what is good and what isn’t good for you? People who are in all rights INVINCIBLE laying down the law? Look, I want to be sympathetic to the black people’s plight as well, but when you say some people never had a choice; I just roll my eyeballs up high.

    Ultimatly, the problem about Luke Cage is he don’t give a fuck what you think of what he’s doing and he’ll still behave in whichever way he see’s fit with his super-strength and invulnerability. Were I living in the Marvel universe, I’d be all “down with superpowers and up with ACCOUNTABLE powers, whether elected powers or radioactive powers: you are accountable to the American people”. Luke Cage is an outlaw, a tyrant who rules through fear if only through a microcosm (the HOOD!) of society.

  13. When did I say that Cage wasn’t operating off fear? When did I say that it isn’t fascism if a black guy does it? I realize that I’m “the guy who talks about black people in comics on the internet” and all, but this essay is pretty color blind. Luke Cage could be a poor white dude from way down deep in Georgia and the story’d be the same. It sucks to be black in America, but hey, it also sucks to be poor!

    I called him a “benevolent dictator” myself and explained my reasoning. I know what fascism is, I know what authoritarianism is, and the exploration of those under a superheroic lens is endlessly fascinating for me. Cage is one example. Batman is another. Warren Ellis must like it, too, because The Authority, Black Summer, and more than a couple of his other works are all about it.

    There are a lot of really traditional superheroes that have elements of this in their stories in one way or another. The OG Superman went around beating up wifebeaters and stopping state executions. That isn’t imposing your will? That isn’t tyranny? Superman and Batman just went around cleansing the world of kryptonite unasked, and in a few cases, directly against the will of the people who own it. Tyranny there, innit?

    Put simply, beneficial tyranny is still tyranny, yes. However, I can appreciate it in fiction. This doesn’t mean that I want someone to tell me what’s good. That’s a ridiculous assertion to make. I don’t want someone telling me what’s good and what’s bad any more than I want some dude with webs shooting out of his wrists swinging around my city or a demented rich boy drafting little kids into his war on crime.

    What I enjoy reading is often times diametrically opposed to what I enjoy living. That’s the benefit of fiction, it lets you look in another universe’s window and see how things are working out for them.

    So, in fiction, a dude with big muscles doing the right thing by scaring people and being unaccountable? Fascinating. In real life? Not so fascinating.

    I didn’t like Red Son, though. Just didn’t find it very interesting at all.

  14. For all the reasons that I’ve stated (and that you don’t seem to deny), I disagree with your general assessment that Luke Cage represents the American Dream. I understand there’s this cynical world view where America is the great invader that stomps over all other civil liberties, but at it’s best; America REPRESENTS civil liberties and the free expression of those civil liberties across tyranical regime worldwide.

    You do this great big fourth of July essay on the American Dream and the American Ideal, and your topic of choice is someone who’s so powerful that nobody dares stand against him: a good-hearted man who nevertheless uses his power to (illegaly!) cow the evildoers of his neighborhood into silence. That is NOT what America stands for. That is not the American Dream: you can come from all walks of life and become a winner in this land of opportunity, but what we have here is basically a tin pot dictator with the right intentions imposing his world view upon others.

  15. Colde:
    Um, have you read any of the Cage comics? I think you’re missing the point entirely.

  16. Honestly, I disagree with both of you guys’ calling Cage a benebolent dictator. He’s just never really gone that far to impose his law to gain that title. Sure the guy can be rough, but I’d see him more as a community leader or a good samaritan, especially in Bendis’ depiction.

    Like most superheroes, Cage is a fairly reactionary guy, with a dash of precaution (Like staring down assholes who might be a bigger problem later). More often than not the people he takes down in Harlem are direct threats, and more importantly, he does does this with the goodwill of the people living in the district. This has been shown multiple times.

    But to the point of Cage and the American Dream: It has nothing to do with him beating up/scaring criminals. It has to do with the strength of his character that syncs up with the American spirit. He’s made mistakes and also had things out of his control wreck him, but he’s built himself up to be better than his past instead of being bitter. I can relate to that. My grandfather owned 20 businesses in his lifetime. Sometimes a bigger guy would run him out of business, but my grandpa would simply make a new business with the knowledge retained of his past mistakes. Cage also gives back to the community; his “I only fight crime for money” schtick was weak to begin with, and it’s been pretty much abandoned at this point. He expresses his right to disagree and protest the government, and he sticks by his word. No real person is the total embodiment of the American Dream — not even Steve Rogers — but Cage certainly hits the big points.

    Also, I really can’t get that much in a huff about Cage (illegally!) cowing evildoers in a superhero/vigilante universe containing characters like the Punisher, Spider-Man, and hell, pretty much everyone else with a comic book. Even before Civil War, everyone in a mask was imposing their world view on those they deemed guilty. However, the main conceit in mainstream comics is the fact that these heroes are totally right 98% of the time, which is unrealistic, but we gladly suspend disbelief for them. Why is Cage any different here? When Cage starts a crack dealer genocide or something, then maybe I’ll consider him a benevolent dictator, but certainly not in his current form.

  17. I want people to tell me what’s good or bad, and to provide their reasoning so I can come to my own conclusion. I don’t have the intelligence or training to put out a scientific report on alternatives to fossil fuels, I don’t have the intelligence or training to put together a report on trends in economics so I know what’s good stock to buy, and any other number of things professionals do.

    What I don’t want is for them to go along and take actions to make what they say is good a reality inasmuch as the democratic process will allow.

  18. The benevolent dictator is more than a little tongue in cheek for me, with the dictator being a bit of an exaggeration. It mostly stems from the fact that he’s willing to be so proactive, no matter who it pisses off. You’re going to do right when you’re around Cage, because he refuses to do wrong.

    A lot of superheroes are totally right, yeah, but how many make an active push to fight crime outside of the “swinging around town and saw a mugging” or “setup a sting when they heard some word on the street?”

    I think we mostly agree on what makes Cage cool, though in different words.

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