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Luke Cage: “And if I’m fake, I ain’t notice, ’cause my money ain’t!”

August 22nd, 2012 by | Tags: , , ,

I wrote a thing for ComicsAlliance about Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and John Romita’s take on Spider-Man. It’s the most amazing piece of writing about comics you’ll ever see in your entire life, even if you live to be two hundred years old. It’s life-affirming and revitalizing. It’s incredible. It’ll make your teeth whiter and clear up your skin. Here’s an excerpt that I’m going to use to spring off into few more thoughts. Prepare yourself — I don’t want you to get hurt when you fall out of your chair in amazement after reading this.

But it makes sense. I figure somewhere around 50% of you out there remember being a teenaged boy. Do you remember that thirst for being seen as a man? Being seen as self-sufficient, cool, and intelligent? Showing the world that the you inside your shell was just as cool as the coolest guy in school, if not cooler? That’s where Spider-Man begins, from that position of deep longing and thirst. He wants to be seen a certain way.

You can see it in how Spider-Man behaves. Keep in mind that Peter Parker was a teenager when he became a hero. He doesn’t know how to be a man. He simply hasn’t had the experience yet. But, he suits up anyway, and he pointedly takes the name Spider-Man, which is a statement in and of itself. And how does Peter Parker, 15-year-old boy, act when he pulls on the red’n’blues?

He acts like a hero. He doesn’t show fear, not usually. He treats his villains, a surprising number of which are double or triple his age, like peers. He condescends to them. He quips. He acts like a man. And he saves the day. He’s acting like a hero, he’s emulating his heroes. He’s pretending, back in those early days. He’s not Spider-Man yet. Spider-Man isn’t the true Peter Parker. It’s just a face he wears sometimes.

I really dig this aspect of Spider-Man’s origin, the idea of superhero as performance. It reminds me of masculinity as performance, and of how rappers amp up what’s perceived as real in an attempt to keep it real. But it also reminds me of my other favorite Marvel dude who started out pretending to be a hero, Mister Carl “Welcome to Harlem, where you welcome to problems” Lucas, better known as Luke “I get the boosters boosting, I get computers puting” Cage. Here’s his superhero origin:

The stuff about Spidey playing a role is an implication, something I can read into the text fifty years later. I have no idea if it’s Lee & Ditko’s intended reading or not, but it works out shockingly well thematically and mechanically. But with Cage, well, the acting is explicit. “Yeah! Outfit’s kinda hokey… but so what? All part of the superhero scene. And this way when I use my powers, it’s gonna seem natural.”

I love that Cage only ever put on a costume because it’d let him do what he needed to do, not because he wanted to be a cape. Cage became a superhero not because it was the right thing to do, but because it’d let him live his life how he wanted to. It’d let him get revenge on William Stryker and use his powers in public. Doing good wasn’t an afterthought, but it definitely wasn’t the first thing on his mind. He needed a way to fit in first, right? So he appropriates superhero iconography to buy legitimacy and freedom.

It reminds me of a couple other things: code-switching and protective reactions to racism. Code-switching is maybe easiest described as the difference between how you talk to your friends and how you talk to your parents. Or you can just read this bit from Dave Chappelle’s episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, which I edited from a transcript of the episode:

Lipton: Now don’t make fun of me– that when you play white dudes, your speech is pitch perfect, which led me to realize that either one of you could, if you wished, speak that way all the time. In other words, is it a matter of choice?

Chappelle: Every black american is bilingual, all of ‘em. We speak street vernacular, and we speak job interview. There’s a certain way I gotta speak to have access.

I had a conversation with someone the other day about baby names. I was trying to figure out a nickname for a certain name, and I tossed one out there. She said that sounds “a little hood.” Her logic was that “hood names allows people to perform preconceived ideas.” I rejected that idea on the basis of the fact that people will form preconceived ideas about you even if your name is John Smith if you don’t look a certain way, so why not make your own way from top to bottom?

I tend to think of code-switching as a negative, a way to fit into a society that doesn’t like you. What’s cool about this Cage origin is that it uses code-switching not just as a way to fit in, but to get over. Cage knows that he’s behind the eight ball in more ways than one. He’s a fugitive from the law, but there were also only so many opportunities for black dudes of a certain type.

So what’s a fella with newly-hardened brown skin to do? The only thing you can do: you find some way around the rules. If you can’t use your powers in plain clothes or get a straight job, then you do something that lets you do that. In the Marvel Universe, you throw on a costume and you come up with a gimmick. You find something that’ll let you get by. More generally, or maybe more specifically from a black American point of view, you find something that’ll let you get by in a white man’s world. (Crack rock, wicked jump shots, telling jokes, putting on a dress and making million-dollar comedies, rapping, underground railroad, enlisting, whatever.) You do what you have to do.

I like this aspect of Cage, though I can’t remember if it was ever tackled explicitly after this scene. But I always liked the idea that Cage just kinda fell into superheroing, instead of setting out to become the next Captain America or Black Power Man. It lends a certain flavor to Cage that isn’t there for a Spider-Man or Captain America, an edginess and realness that I can appreciate and recognize. It feels like a real life phenomenon heightened and translated for a superhero audience.

It’s cool to look at this and then check out Cage these days, where he’s almost completely eschewed the visual trappings of superherohood and just does his job like he wants to. Cage reached the point where he doesn’t have to act a certain way to get access or dance for his dinner. He can just do what he wants, when he wants, and his stature is large enough that nobody can hold him back.

I said years ago that Luke Cage is the American Dream. Still true.

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17 comments to “Luke Cage: “And if I’m fake, I ain’t notice, ’cause my money ain’t!””

  1. I love your blog DB.


  2. Loved the spider-man article and awesome, AWESOME, explaination of Luke Cage.

    On your example of preconceived ideas though, if everyone is going to build preconceived ideas about everyone why would you give an excuse to have someone form negative preconceived thoughts? I.E “hood” nicknames


  3. Great post. You get extra points for all of those embedded rap lyrics.

    That being said, I want to know why you think code-switching is negative? I always thought of it as neutral. Like you said, we engage in code-switching between speaking with friends and speaking with our parents. To get really specific, we even engage in code-switching when speaking with different friends and different parents. Code-switching is really just a way of navigating different personal, social and cultural environments. Chappelle is right on with his example, but that’s just one environment among and amidst many others.

    Hmmm, after typing that, I’m starting to think that maybe if you’re always navigating the same environment, especially a hostile one, it gets tiresome and frustrating. So I guess I answered my own question, ha.


  4. I re-watch that Chapelle episode of Inside the Actors Studio ALL the time — I learn something new every time.


  5. Okay. You sold me on reading some Luke Cage. Where do I go to do that? What books should I be picking up?


  6. This is great. The piece on Spidey on CA is great and so is this piece. Just really great stuff.


  7. So you’re saying that you yourself wrote this “most amazing piece of writing about comics you’ll ever see in your entire life, even if you live to be two hundred years old. It’s life-affirming and revitalizing”? Because I’m less than inclined to give it a look if you’re going to be that arrogant about it.


  8. @Space Jawa: I let a blind man read it and it gave him sight. Bob Dole said it’s better than viagra.

    But no, seriously, I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not, because I honestly do not understand how you can read this:
    “I wrote a thing for ComicsAlliance about Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and John Romita’s take on Spider-Man. It’s the most amazing piece of writing about comics you’ll ever see in your entire life, even if you live to be two hundred years old. It’s life-affirming and revitalizing. It’s incredible. It’ll make your teeth whiter and clear up your skin. Here’s an excerpt that I’m going to use to spring off into few more thoughts. Prepare yourself — I don’t want you to get hurt when you fall out of your chair in amazement after reading this.”

    and somehow come away with “David Brothers is arrogant and I don’t want to read anything he writes.” I mean, both clauses are likely true (I am arrogant, you apparently don’t want to read stuff I write), but… really? I say it’ll make your teeth whiter and that you might fall out of your chair after reading an excerpt. Did I not do a good enough job making that first paragraph absolutely ridiculous? :crossarms:

    @Stephen Kearse: Yeah, you basically nailed it, as far as where I’m coming from. I think of my… Home Voice, I guess, as the default, and Job Interview as a thing I have to do when dealing with people elsewhere.

    @Dylan: Well, you’d be giving them an excuse, but we’ve more than proven that you don’t need an excuse by this point, yeah? People are going to bother you regardless, so why bother kowtowing to them? That’s why my vote is to do what you want and own it, rather than to shirk away because something might happen, y’know? Better to own all of yourself and be as happy as you want to be if the slings and arrows are going to come anyway.

    @Squidster: You’re gonna have to dig a little, because a lot of it is out of print now. But: Richard Corben & Brian Azzarello’s Cage is pretty great. It’s a harder edged, adult take on the character with amazing art. Essential Power Man and Iron Fist, Vol. 1 (Marvel Essentials) and Essential Luke Cage/Power Man, Vol. 2 (Marvel Essentials) are pretty good, too, black & white collections of the old stories. Fred Van Lente and Mahmud Asrar’s Shadowland: Power Man is great, genuinely great comics. Cage isn’t the star, but he’s featured and important to the story. It’s also a nice history lesson for Cage, in a way. Finally, Jeff Parker & Kev Walker’s Thunderbolts: Cage is probably the best recent take on Cage. There’s also Luke Cage Noir, a pretty good tale set in the Harlem Renaissance.

    I would poke around and see which one appeals to you most and then go for it. The Essentials are good, but dated, and the rest sort of skip around in terms of tone/approach. I dig all of ‘em, though.


  9. Loved the Spider-Man piece, David, and this one also.

    Although when I was reading the scans of those Power Man pages, I couldn’t help but think about how Nicholas Coppola decided to use Cage as his stage name in order to make his own success in Hollywood rather than just relying on being related to a famous director to get work, as a nod to one of his favorite superheroes. Seems a more apt move now, somehow, now that I know that this is how Luke Cage got into the heroing business.


  10. Thanks! I’ve ordered the first Essentials and the Max series on eBay. If you wanted to use your vast Comics Industry Clout to get the others into a digital format, so that one could conveniently purchase them through Comixology, that’d be just be fine.


  11. I got into comic books when I was nine, because my grandpa sold his house and sent my dad’s collection to him, which had been sitting in my grandpa’s attic since the early ’80s. My dad had a ton of ’70s Marvel, the bulk of which was Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Master of Kung Fu, etc. I’ve got a soft spot for those four characters to this day because of that smorgasbord of reading material. OH! And ’70s Ghost Rider (on the regular motorcycle) and The Champions. Hell yeah.

    I’ve never really revisited those characters in any new books that have come out (mostly New Avengers stuff back in ’06-’08, roughly), with the exception of Daredevil because I had quit comics for a couple years but then the cigar shop I bought Lucky Strike Filters from always had Bendis’ Daredevil on the magazine rack (they had a blank space where the number of the issue was supposed to be).

    ANYWAY. I never gave much thought to their superhero origins. I liked that Matt Murdock was a lawyer and the son of a boxer. I liked that Iron Fist and Shang-Chi were hand-to-hand fighters and were riding the wave of martial arts popularity. Power Man at the time seemed like he was straight up superhero meets blaxploitation, and when I was nine I don’t even know if I could grasp what that was. I didn’t even know his first name was actually Carl!

    So thank you, David. I like your interpretation of Luke Cage. I think it all ties in together quite nicely, and you know you’re onto something good when you an tie in Dave Chappelle’s thoughts on the matter. I’ve always liked the character, but he’s 22 years in my past now. I’ll have to flip through those books again next time I visit my parents.

    Btw, I love Chappelle’s appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. I’ve bought it twice (bought it off iTunes, computer crashed, iTunes let me re-download my purchases for free [a one time thing, folks!], but ItAS was no longer available, then it became available again, bought it again).


  12. “Code-switching is really just a way of navigating different personal, social and cultural environments.”

    There are some “codes” that are taken as signs of being less intelligent or generally inferior, and I can’t imagine that feels right. I’m not talking about cussing or expressing one’s self poorly, but trying very hard not to sound “black” if one wants to be taken seriously. (I’m a white guy so this is me trying, and perhaps failing, to put myself in other peoples’ shoes.) If I’m at a store or wherever, and I want to be taken seriously, I just have to be polite, which is how I usually am anyway. I can generally be relaxed, I can be “me”, I don’t have to change because the regular “me” is “good enough”.

    David, I never realized how far Peter Parker came in his first 50 issues; I wouldn’t have imagined what a frustrated young man he was for so long. We all know his origin story, the one that ends with learning about great power and great responsibility, but I didn’t know it was an origin PROCESS. I grew four extra penii just reading about it.


  13. It’s interesting to see code-switching brought up with Cage because it was something Priest deliberately invoked when he was the Power Man/Iron Fist writer – the idea that Cage would shift from run-of-the-mill English to his slang-ridden “big angry Negro” persona depending on his audience. Priest has said it was an idea some people at Marvel didn’t like – they wanted Cage to be a jive-talking “big angry Negro” 24/7.

    I like the idea that code-switching goes all the way back to his origin. Good call!


  14. Ugh, so this was sitting open in a tab next to your Spider-man piece and I hate that it took me this long to get to it. Great stuff. I don’t know if it was your title on this piece or what, but about halfway through this one, I remembered one of my favorite lines from the same album: “I found bravery in my bravado.”

    This seemed to sync up so well with the Spider-man piece, in a way I never really thought before. Peter was faking or acting or playing at, however you want to say it, being a hero, being brave. He was this scrawny, snarky, jerky kid who acted like who he wanted to be, on some level, until he became it himself.


  15. @David Fairbanks: That is really, really good. Nice catch.


  16. Wait, is Willis Stryker a relative of the X-Men character Reverend Stryker? Or did I just give some writer at Marvel a bad idea?


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