Scoundrels Behind the Cage Part 1

August 23rd, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

Gavok note: I’ve been rather busy the last week and I have my Orlando report that nobody cares about nearly done, but in the meantime I thought I would break through the lack of articles with another old Pop Culture Shock thing I wrote. I guess I was inspired by hermanos posting that link the other day to the Thunderbolt profile.

Before I had really read all that much with Luke Cage and Iron Fist, I was always in love with the concept. You had these two very different characters based on the movie fads of the 70’s (blaxploitation and martial arts) and gave them solo series destined to fail because, well, fads die out. So to cut their losses, they just put the two guys together into a makeshift team that worked like no other and lasted for eight years as a series. You couldn’t do that with just any two ailing comics. You can’t just release something like Atom and Infinity Inc. and think it’ll last past issue 6. The ingredients with Luke and Danny are perfect. These days the characters are stronger individuals for it, but are quick at teaming up without a single fuss.

You can’t forget their beginnings, though. Before the days of Iron Fist taking a break from beating up ninjas because he just saw Cage kick an alien shape-shifter in the lady business, the two were loners trying to rise up the Marvel ranks. Iron Fist’s series, a spin-off of his debut storyline from Marvel Premiere, lasted a paltry fifteen issues. It was cancelled so abruptly that Claremont had to get an Iron Fist/Spider-Man storyline made for Marvel Team-Up just to tie up the loose ends. That said, Iron Fist was a really solid series and adds a little punch to the details of the modern series.

What it didn’t have was a good rogues gallery. Yes, Iron Fist was the first guy to be shown fighting Sabretooth, but other than that, his enemies were really generic and forgettable. Power Man didn’t have to worry about that.

Luke’s comic didn’t have as much of an involved storyline as Danny’s did, but there’s a reason his comic lasted nearly 50 issues. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire was a fun comic. Insanely fun. The guy’s average day involved hanging out with his janitor sidekick, walking down the street in his gaudy outfit, punching a random thug, getting shot at, making sure to note that bullets don’t work on him, fighting a ridiculous villain, then going back home.

And what a bunch of villains he had. You always knew you could read the next issue because whoever Cage was going to fight next was definitely going to make things worth it. Even his villains borrowed from others were pretty entertaining, like Dr. Doom and Zzzax.

Here is part one of a two part look at the colorful characters Luke had to contend with before sharing his comic with Iron Fist on a regular basis. Also, to waste all our time, I’ve rated these guys from 1 to 5 for how threatening they are, how weird they are and how long they would stick around in Marvel.

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1
Threat Level: 1
Bizarreness: 1

Lasting Ability: 2

Who better to be the origin-pushing antagonist for Luke Cage than a pig-faced, corrupt, white prison guard that refers to him as “boy”? Rackham was originally the captain at Cage’s prison and when Cage (back then just plain old Carl Lucas) refused to be his inside man, he had him beaten by the guards. Lucky for Lucas, a new warden had come in, who was far more compassionate than anyone expected. He had the guards fired and demoted Rackham as punishment.

Lucas was chosen to take part in an experiment with Dr. Noah Bernstein. Things were going fine until Rackham, wanting revenge, locked Lucas in a tank meant to merely increase his immune system and turned up all the dials. Instead of killing our hero, it made him invulnerable and able to break out of his prison. From there, he punched out Rackham so hard that he thought he killed him. Afraid that he lost his one chance for freedom, Lucas just ran off and escaped prison, while making most believe he had been shot and killed.

The warden was fired and Rackham spent his time letting out his frustrations on the inmates that were the closest things Lucas had to friends. Finally, he too was fired for his constant brutality. When trying to get a new job, he was discovered by Phil Fox, a sleazy reporter who had evidence that Carl Lucas was alive as Luke Cage. Rackham first thought about using the evidence to send Cage back to prison and getting his job back, but Fox convinced him to use it for blackmail. Rackham went overboard with his revenge, leading to him murdering Fox and kidnapping one of Cage’s loose acquaintances before shooting her too. During a confrontation with Cage, Rackham’s house was demolished by the newcomer villain Stiletto. Escaping the wreckage, Rackham heard police sirens and went mad with fear at the idea of becoming a prisoner. In his crazed staggering, he got run over and killed by an ambulance.


First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1
Threat Level: 3
Bizarreness: 2
Lasting Ability: 1

Willis Stryker is the reason Carl Lucas went to prison in the first place. The two used to be best friends and worked as criminal partners. Then the two got in a fight over Stryker’s girlfriend Reva. As a way to get Lucas out of the way, Stryker framed him for drug-selling and had him put away. Though, really, when you get down to it, Lucas had done a lot of stuff that deserved being arrested. This was just your usual Punisher/Lobo example of putting your asshole protagonist up against a bigger asshole antagonist. It just so happened that our hero had intent to change himself for the better.

Reva got shot and killed in a mob hit meant for Stryker. Stryker showed no remorse for her sacrifice. He rose up the ranks in the underworld and became Diamondback. His whole deal was that he used trick knives and had Bullseye-level precision with them. He became furious once this new Hero for Hire character on the streets began beating down on his operation.

Cage finally confronted Diamondback and the two fought on a rooftop. With all his other knives thrown, Diamondback pulled out an exploding knife which may have had the power to kill Cage. When backing up to throw it, Diamondback stepped onto a pane of glass, fell through the roof and the knife landed right next to him. The explosion killed him, cheating Cage out of both his revenge and the only way to clear his name.

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1
Threat Level: 2
Bizarreness: 4

Lasting Ability: 5

Shades and Comanche were prisoners in Seagate along with Cage and tried to get him to join their gang. Cage refused, but also refused to be snitch on them. After Cage’s escape, Rackham mainly focused his anger on Shades and Comanche, beating them daily and tossing them in the hole for little reason. The two became filled with murderous hatred, made even angrier when Rackham was fired. In response, they broke out of prison and made it their mission to both get revenge on Rackham and take over Harlem.

They also started wearing really stupid outfits for absolutely no reason, but they did used to hang out with Cage, so that’s probably expected.

The two occasionally worked with a reluctant Cage, but were mainly his enemies. Out of respect, they kept their mouths shut about Cage’s true identity. They would return to plague Cage after his teaming with Iron Fist a couple times, especially after getting weapon upgrades. Comanche had Oliver Queen-style trick arrows and Shades had a Cyclops visor that shot lasers.

Years later, Shades appeared in Marvel Knights, back to his old criminal tricks, but no longer in a flashy outfit.

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #3
Threat Level: 4
Bizarreness: 4
Lasting Ability: 4

I find it suspect that Nicholas Cage, an actor who named himself after Luke Cage, starred in a movie where the villain is almost exactly like a major Luke Cage villain. Gideon Mace is so much like Ed Harris’ character in The Rock that I’m wondering if it’s a coincidence.

He was a colonel in Vietnam where during an unauthorized mission, one of his soldiers stepped on a landmine. The explosion took out Mace’s hand. Due to his mental gnarliness, defiance of authority and new physical handicap, Mace was forced into retirement. Using an inherited family fortune, he bought enough weaponry to attempt to take over Manhattan for one day as a way to awaken the people to see how badly treated people in the military are. Caged nipped this one in the bud before it could happen and Mace ended up seemingly drowning due to his giant mace hand weighing him down.

Yes. You see, what makes Gideon Mace so laughable is that he’s so damned literal. He replaced his missing hand with a spiked ball that shoots eye-stinging chemicals! And his name is Mace! That’s both beautiful and stupid at the same time! It’s like Jessica Simpson in comic form!

Well, turned out he didn’t die after all. Cage and his sidekick D.W. Griffith stumbled upon Mace’s newly-created community Security City, where all outsiders are met with gunfire from its citizens. Cage exposed the city to the people as a way for Mace to farm his own army, leading to a massive riot. Cage and D.W. walked out the backdoor and let the others duke it out.

Once again, Cage inadvertently walked into a Gideon Mace plot when Mace attacked him on a train to Chicago. Mace was convinced that Cage knew of his master plan to hold Chicago for ransom with a giant bomb, but in actuality, Cage had no idea that Mace was on that train in the first place. Cage did end up stopping Mace’s plans, but it turned out the bomb was a fake anyway.

Mace never fought Cage again, but he did briefly tangle with White Tiger and Spider-Man. I’d kind of like to see him make a comeback. In fact, they should use him for Remender’s Punisher. He’d be right at home there.

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #4
Threat Level: 1
Bizarreness: 5
Lasting Ability: 1

This one is pretty weird, but also one of the more boring stories. One night, sleeping in his office, Cage was attacked by an 8-foot tall ghost in a cloak. The Phantom was strong enough to tangle with Cage and even hurt him a bit. When the cloak was pulled back, there was nothing underneath except a disembodied, decaying head.

Some rather lucky detective work led the Hero for Hire to figure out that the ghost was really just a Haitian strongman wearing black with an acrobatic dwarf standing on his shoulders, wearing a mask. They were after a painting or something. I don’t know.

Like many Cage villains, the dwarf ended up falling to his death.

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #5
Threat Level: 2
Bizarreness: 3

Lasting Ability: 2

Black Mariah is a 400-pound mountain of a woman that ran a drug racket with her nephews. Her original plan used to be based on sending her nephews around in a fake ambulance to take in dying rich men and take their wallets. She was able to fight Cage toe-to-toe, mainly because he couldn’t bring himself to hit a woman. Instead, he opted to jump through her getaway boat, causing her to float in the water and be taken in by the police.

She came back in Power Man and Iron Fist, succeeding in getting D.W. hooked on her peddled drugs.

I just hope that when they do make the Luke Cage movie they don’t have Black Mariah in it because she’d totally be played by a has-been male comedian in a fat suit.


First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #7
Threat Level: 4
Bizarreness: 5
Lasting Ability: 1

Oh, man. This fucking guy. Steve Engleheart was on drugs when he made this issue. He had to be. Just look at the cover for this one. Why hasn’t Alex Ross remade this masterpiece? Where are the zombie and Skrull versions of this cover?

Hanging out with his love interest Claire and Dr. Bernstein, Cage saw a boy being beaten outside by what looked to be a Charles Dickens character. It was a man claiming to be Scrooge sidekick Jacob Marley, angry that the boy was charging him fifteen cents for a newspaper when he had never paid more than two cents. After a brief altercation, Cage shattered the man’s cane and got him to leave. He decided not to go after him since it was Christmas Eve.

Cage and Claire went out for a walk, soon crossing paths with a legless homeless man, insane from his experiences in Vietnam. He snapped and fired at Cage, surprised to see the bullets bouncing off his body. Cage understood that it wasn’t the man’s fault for being so loopy, but shattered the guns and told him he’s lucky he dealt with a guy who can withstand bullets. The “legless” veteran soon after stood up and snuck away while laughing to himself.

Cage was, once again, confronted by a crazy man on the street. This time it was a man dressed in a futuristic uniform, carrying a gun and saying that it’s 1984 (which would be the future when this comic came out, natch). Having taken enough jive for one day, Cage finally got his hands dirty and fought him off until he ran away. When looking for this futuristic security guard, Cage came across a guy dressed as Santa Claus. When Cage wasn’t looking, Santa clocked him unconscious with a bell.

This nameless guy dressed in a black executioner-type outfit told the chained-up Cage how he stole an atomic bomb and planned to blow up New York City because the world sucks. He just had to test Cage to see just how pure-hearted he truly was. Our villain was surprised and inspired by Cage’s actions, but not enough to stop his plans. He just figured that Cage earned the right to watch the city explode along with him.

Suddenly, there was a rustling in the chimney, distracting the villain. Cage broke out of his chains and pummeled the crap out of him. The big Christmas miracle coming down the chimney wasn’t Santa, but just a prowler hoping to rob the place. The end!

What I can’t get over is this villain’s costume. It’s mostly pretty nondescript, except his belt buckle has a knife going through it, with the blade right over his crotch. Is that really a good idea, having that so close to your goods? Can you even sit down right with that on?

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #10
Threat Level: 4
Bizarreness: 5
Lasting Ability: 3

Ramon Garcia was one of the most outlandish and hilarious villains Cage has ever had to face. He ran a series of underground casinos and wanted to be known as both Señor Suerte (Mr. Lucky) and Señor Muerte (Mr. Death) because he was equally both. He was so lucky that as a child he would get a perfect score on the SATs just by guessing.

He went out of his way to prove just how lucky he was. If someone rubbed him the wrong way, he would walk away and change into his maskless supervillain tights. On his chest was a mini-roulette wheel with a button, connected to two wires that ran down his arms and into his gloves. He would press the button, the roulette wheel would go and one of his hands would be electrically charged. Then he would confront whoever he didn’t like and ask them to shake one of his hands. The poor guy would always choose the charged hand and die an electrified death. Because Suerte’s both lucky and deadly.

I know the term gets tossed around a lot these days and a lot of people find it insensitive and politically incorrect, but I just can’t think of anything else to say: that is absolutely retarded.

Luke Cage could withstand Suerte’s electric shock and only pass out instead of die, but rather than just shock him once or twice more, Suerte just chained him up in a sewer and tried to drown him. At the end of the story, Cage had removed his chain belt and tossed it at Suerte. The chains wrapped around his arms, meaning it didn’t matter which arm was the electric one. Señor Suerte got electrocuted to death just the same.

In later comics, Garcia’s younger brothers Jaime and Phillip took up each of his names. That just doesn’t work as well. Having one guy named Señor Muerte and another guy named Señor Suerte isn’t nearly as golden as having one idiot named both.

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #12

Threat Level: 5
Bizarreness: 2
Lasting Ability: 5

If you had been paying attention to the Hood’s gang in New Avengers, you might recognize Chemistro. Especially after the latest issue.

Curtis Carr worked as a chemist for Mainstream Motors, where he created an alchemy gun. Rather than let the company reap the benefits of his genius, he instead allowed himself to be fired and kept the gun for himself. He began working out to get himself in supervillain shape and tried to attack Mainstream Motors for both the revenge and the money.

His alchemy gun is able to transform just about any substance, but the molecules become unstable. If the changed object is near too much heat, it turns to dust. This is what happened when fighting Luke Cage, as Chemistro shot himself in the foot and turned it into solid steel, allowing him to kick Cage away. A nearby fire caused his foot to disintegrate and Chemistro became hysteric. He was horrified at his own folly.

“No! Don’t you see – I got forty – fifty – sixty years o’ livin’ still to go! I ain’t even got started yet. There’s s’posed to be a wife out there – kids! But all that’s there now is crutches, an’ prison! All for one lousy GUN!”

There were, I shit you not, two other Chemistros. One was a fellow inmate who bullied Curtis into giving him the secrets to the alchemy gun. The other was Curtis’ younger brother Calvin Carr, who stole the alchemy gun. Against both copycats, Curtis was always instrumental in stopping them. He turned his life around, built a prosthetic foot and got work at Stark Enterprises. After helping Iron Man and Jim Rhodes thwart Calvin, Curtis became known as High-Tech.

Though, for some reason, it’s Curtis Carr who works as Chemistro in New Avengers. He specifically says so when ratting out the Owl to the Hood. This could just be a typo and he’s really Calvin. It could just be that Bendis just wanted to make Curtis a bad guy again for the hell of it. I myself suspected him of being a Skrull for quite a while.

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #13
Threat Level: 3
Bizarreness: 4
Lasting Ability: 1

Alejandro Cortez was a professor with a love for the circus. He created a helmet that could create a symbiotic mental link to others, allowing shared instincts and information. He was denied funding, so he later got his revenge by having some guys mauled by tigers.

He mainly used his helmet (hidden under a giant lion’s mane) to work with jungle cats. They became smarter and able to speak – in both English and Spanish – and, in turn, he gained their agility and ferocity. He also had electro gauntlets for the hell of it.

During a confrontation at Madison Square Garden, Cage beat down all of Lionfang’s cats and went after the ringmaster himself. Lionfang began to trapeze away. Unable to match his speed, Cage ran shoulder-first into a trapeze support pole and caused Lionfang to fall to his death. As dumb as Lionfang was, he still had a great death scene.

“Cortez! Christmas, man, I was just tryin’ to stop you! I never figured—”

“Cage… I… uh… Cage…”

“I’m listenin’ Cortez. What is it?”

“You… son of a…”

*Luke gets up and sadly walks through the exit*

Big Ben Donovan
First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #14
Threat Level: 3
Bizarreness: 3
Lasting Ability: 3

Man, I love this guy! Big Ben Donovan was awesome!

Big Ben was a mountain of a man in platform shoes with six-inch iron heels who happened to be a lawyer. He had hit on the widowed Mrs. Jenks, a former employer and constant pain in the ass to Luke Cage. She went on a date with him, but before they could go too far with it, she turned him down and left. Feeling that she was just leeching off of him, Big Ben got very, very drunk and very, very mad. Mrs. Jenks came to Cage to explain the situation, just before Big Ben came crashing through the wall.

“AH-HAH! Thought you was jivin’ me for anotha dude, afta spendin’ up all my party-timin’ money, huh? Ain’t no jive-time broad gon’ shuck me ’round after I spend fifty bucks on ‘er – ’specially for no otha stud!”

Luke Cage and Big Ben Donovan brawled throughout the entire issue, almost evenly, until Big Ben screamed uncle and declared that he’d rather be on Cage’s side. From there on, Big Ben became Cage’s personal attorney. This had potential to rock. Just the idea of Luke Cage having this gigantic dude handling his law problems and giving him street information while occasionally fighting thugs as the two stand back-to-back is a neat concept. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way. Big Ben was forgotten about after that storyline. By the time Iron Fist had come into play, they already had Danny Rand’s lawyer Jeryn Hogarth filling in the spot as Cage’s attorney.

Big Ben returned to villainy during the Power Man and Iron Fist series. He also made a brief comeback in the pages of Marvel Knights, where Daredevil knocked him out fairly easily. Later on, he got really tubby and formed a prison gang with Tombstone, Rocket Racer and Hypno Hustler. He was last seen in Brubaker’s Daredevil run, which I really need to catch up on. He never did wear those iron platforms again. He deserved better.

Stiletto and Discus

First Appearance: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #16 (Stiletto)/Power Man #22 (Discus)
Threat Level: 3
Bizarreness: 4
Lasting Ability: 5

Stiletto was the first to show up, stalking Luke Cage during the Rackham/hostage situation. Neither the reader nor Cage himself knew what Stiletto’s deal was, other than that he shot tiny, rapid-fire knives from his wrist and dressed like an even gayer Plastic Man. Like all good weapon-based villains of the 70’s, he didn’t just carry knives, but trick knives as well.

He returned at a later time with his brother Discus. Same deal, only with trick throwing discs. Remember that warden that got fired earlier in the series? These are his sons, each wanting vengeance for their father’s unfair treatment. Stiletto is supposed to be the brains, with Discus as the more athletic one. It was a cool concept when you look at it. Their father was a compassionate man interested in reforming criminals, so his children respond by being closed-minded, murderous vigilantes.

The two fought Cage and Iron Fist for a bit before being reduced to simple henchmen for Justin Hammer. Stiletto and Discus quit the villain business a couple times, but kept coming back. While obscure, they’re still active to this day, showing up as recent as Civil War: War Crimes. Stiletto’s costume thankfully got better.

After #16, the series changed titles to Luke Cage, Power Man, so this is a fitting place to stop for now. I’ll look at the other half of ridiculous villains tomorrow. Yes, this includes Mr. Fish.

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One comment to “Scoundrels Behind the Cage Part 1”

  1. I’m still trying to get over Cage having a sidekick named after the director of Birth Of A Nation.