Essential Luke Cage, Power Man v1

A comic review article by: Shawn Hill

collects Hero for Hire #1-16 & Power Man #17-27

Comments: Luke is big, bad and ready to rumble on the cover, featuring his signature costume (a John Romita design). Roy Thomas is also credited with conceptual work, but let’s look at that outfit. Interestingly, Cage picks it himself, in a costume shop, in conscious emulation of Manhattan’s hordes of Day-Glo heroes. He doesn’t assemble it until the second issue, but interestingly it’s from a box of cheap duds left over from a failed escape artist. 

Escape artist is an ironic way of describing Cage, who broke out of Seagate Prison with his newfound super powers, an innocent prisoner subjecting himself to experiment in hopes of parole. He is, at least for this volume of his tales, a fugitive from the law. His bright yellow pirate shirt contrasts with the metal bands on his wrist and around his head. But interestingly, these cuffs aren’t chained, and the chains, broken but still heavy, rest around his waist, a reminder of his hard-won freedom. He symbolizes the proudly freed slave, if only in subtext.

Story-wise, while the race issue is handled in the established Marvel manner (ex-con anti-hero with a chip on his shoulder and a burden of persecution being not too big a stretch for the flawed Marvel archetype, and racism can be folded right in. Another example of how the Civil Rights issue was easier for comics to tackle than were/are issues of feminism and homophobia). The doctor who experimented on Cage sets up a clinic in Manhattan, becoming part of Cage’s supporting cast, just as his colleague Dr. Claire Temple becomes Cage’s love interest.

There are two main problems with these early tales, which otherwise succeed pretty well at capturing the bold energy of the 70s Blaxploitation and action film genre: the inconsistent art and the overall paucity of resonant villains. In 27 issues, there are just a few memorable foes: Diamondback, Gideon Mace, the Avengers-foe Power Man, and rare heroic mix-ups with Iron Man and Black Goliath. I’m not sure why writers of the caliber of Wein, Isabella or Englehart couldn’t come up with iconic foes for their new hero (instead we get Cottonmouth, a poor echo of Diamondback; someone named Chemistro who wouldn’t give Speedball a bad day; and other losers like Senor Muerte, a fake-vampire, evil construction worker Steeplejack and the crazed Dr. Doolitle Lionfang). Most of these dweebs die through mistakes of their own, the biggest being trying to fight Luke. Stiletto and Discus at least have the consistency of being bad mercenaries, rather than the hirable hero Luke is trying to be.

The artist for most of the series is George Tuska, who keeps trading around with someone called Billy Graham. It’s energetic, but not very attractive. Poor Luke didn’t have the good fortune of Iron Fist, who suffered through second-stringers and newbies in Marvel Premiere, but graduated to the soon to be stellar Claremont/Byrne team for his short-lived solo title. Inkers too are mostly sub-par (Colletta, Graham), though rarely an issue will pop up by Frank McLaughlin or Dave Hunt. The covers are significantly better, featuring the likes of Romita, Gil Kane and Klaus Janson. 

That comparison to Iron Fist is apt, I think, because Cage’s book lasted 50 issues, and then folded in Danny Rand as an ideal partner (Asian action films being the major competitor to Blaxploitation at the time), hoping for and achieving a synergy that kept the book alive for several more years. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with issue #27, which features an incredibly young and touchingly awkward George Perez. His command of anatomy is already evident, and he’ll improve quickly, especially when it comes to Luke’s brief visit to the Fantastic Four back then. In fact, one wonders why, in a struggling new series, there weren’t more guest crossovers from the start.

At the very least, this collection makes clear why the character still has potential in the current regime. Unlike some other minority heroes, Cage’s stories were always resolutely about him and his predicaments, from the start. And he’s a pretty interesting guy, a fighter who wants to help.

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