First appeared in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 in 1972
This week on The Heroes and Villains Podcast…the first week actually…it’s the backstory of Netflix’s latest series, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, Or Powerman, he’s got a lot of names. I’ll just be calling him Luke or Cage.
So let’s dig into the origin of Luke Cage, the man with unbreakable skin…yet, another name.
Luke Cage, also known as Power Man was created by writer Archie Goodman, and artist John Romita, Sr. Cage was created for Marvel to take advantage of the Blaxploitation film boom of the early 70’s. Blaxploitation films were targeted at urban black audiences but like most exploitation genre films its popularity spread through the mainstream culture. Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss are credited as the films that invented the genre.
It makes me wonder if Luke’s favorite catchphrase, “Sweet Christmas” has some connection to the film.
He first appeared in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 in 1972 which Goodman wrote and George Tuska drew and was the first black hero to star in his own comic. This is the same year that Blacula an American blaxploitation horror film was released and was one of the top-grossing films of the year.
At the time black mainstream superheroes were not common, they were quite rare. There was the Black Panther, but he wore a mask so technically no one knew he was black. Luke didn’t bother with a mask, just a really high collar.
So what is Luke’s back story? What drove him to be a “Hero for Hire”? Well this was a fun one, mostly because it gave me an excuse to take out my copy of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire that I picked up years ago for 2 dollars at a Con.
Of course the first thing about getting to read an original copy of his first appearance is the smell of the paper. Love that smell. The rest of the book is full of great poses and action. Really enjoyed the research for this podcast.
Luke Cage was born and raised in the city where most Marvel characters came from, NYC in Harlem. Luke spent much of his youth running with a street gang called The Rivals, along with his best friend, Stryker where they created low level crimes. Because of these activities Luke was in and out of trouble with the police and was shuttled juvenile home to juvenile home. Not seeing any real future he dreamed of rising through the ranks of the syndicate and becoming a major player. But Luke was a good person and became aware of the pain he was causing his family and he decided to go straight. He continued to be friends with Stryker and Stryker’s girlfriend Riva. There was chemistry between Luke and Riva, but they didn’t want to breakup a lifelong friendship so they stayed friends.
Stryker tried to rise through the ranks but started to ruffle the feathers of the Syndicate, who attacked Stryker. But their hit was thwarted by Luke who just wanted to help his friend. Stryker was injured in the hit and ended up in the hospital. While there Reva realized being with Stryker was bad for her so she broke it off and turned to Luke for comfort. Stryker became enraged and blamed Luke for poisoning her against him.
Consumed by jealousy Stryker plants heroin in Luke’s apartment and tips off the police which lands Luke in jail. While in jail the Syndicate attempt another hit on Stryker and again he escapes, however, Reva who was in the car with him does not. She is killed in a hail of gunfire.
Angry and bitter for being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit Luke spends much of his time fighting and getting into trouble. This gets him transfered to Seagate Prison, a brutal prison in Georgia. While there, for whatever reason, Luke became the target of a racist and sadistic guard that went by the name, believe it or not, of Albert “Billy Bob” Rackham. Singling Luke out he makes Cage’s life a living hell. Due to his action Billy Bob is demoted which only adds to his hatred of Cage.
Then one day Dr. Noah Burstein came to the prison to carry out a secret medical experiment and was looking for inmates who would volunteer. If successful his cell regeneration formula which was based off the super soldier formula that transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America, would cure all diseases and make the recipient immortal.
Immersed in a chemical bath with an electrical field running through it, Dr. Burstein left Like unattended. While he was away Billy Bob came into the lab and tampered with the controls on the tank Luke was in. Unable to escape from the tank Dr. Burstein comes back to check on Luke and see the guard and they struggle. Luke wanting to help and angered by this new betrayal breaks free. He strikes Billy Bob, and since he is not yet away of his increased strength, the blow kill the man.
Fearing retribution from justice system that has never treated him fairly in the past, he escapes using his newly acquired powers. Cornered by the police, they fire on him which makes him fall into the ocean below. Believing Luke has been killed, they all emptied their revolvers into him, they go back to the prison to start filling out all the paperwork secret experiment must cause.
Luke emerges from the water and realizes he not only has super strength but unbreakable skin. Luke returns to Harlem where he gets into the hero business…literally. With his headquarters over The Gem Theatre Luke Cage sells his services as a superhero for his community. His adventures are not with the likes of Kang but are more grounded in real life battles as Luke Cage: Hero For Hire.
So that’s the original origin of Luke Cage. The title started out strong, but as the blaxploitation craze of the 70’s waned so did the popularity of the title. To try and save the title they made Luke more of a mainstream hero in the Marvel U having him fight alongside popular heroes of the day. He was then brought into the superhero team The Defenders where he was fighting alongside heroes like Namor and Dr. Strange.
There were bumps in the title popularity but it was still failing. At the same time marvel had another hero that was having a hard time sales wise, Iron Fist. So they decided to bring them together and the now titled PowerMan comic, was changed to Powerman and Iron Fist at issue 50. The teamup proved popular and lasted for another 75 issues before it was cancelled.
Throughout the 90s there were a few more tries at bringing Cage back in his own series and another Iron Fist team up but they never lasted.
It wasn’t until 2001 when Brian Michael Bendis created and retconned the character Jessica Jones that Luke was brought back and started to gain traction again as a character. First as her boyfriend, the as a friend with benefits, Luke and Jessica, at the end of the series run find out that she is pregnant. They decide to have the child and in time mary, became avengers and continue to be heroes throughout the Marvel U.