When I was eight years old, I thought my father was the coolest dude on the scene. My reasons for thinking so were varied. My Pops was a naturally handsome brother who carried himself with a charismatic swagger that was at times overwhelming. Cordell D. Williams was the absolute epitome of cool and anyone who knew him could testify to that truth. In addition to this he was incredibly articulate, well dressed and funny as all hell. But you know what else I thought was cool about my Dad…that he looked just like Richard Roundtree. Yes…as a young buck I thought my father was Shaft. Not literally, but you know…he had all the same qualities that I admired about the superstar black private dick (detective) and I endeavored at my young age to be just like him.
I don’t know exactly how this went down but based on Marvel’s onslaught of horror and blaxploitation comics in the seventies, I’m assuming that Stan Lee caught wind of Shaft and Superfly and said… “We need a groovy guy like Shaft….but here’s the catch, he’s got super-powers. And he’s super-bad. Can you dig it? Don’t give him the traditional superhero costume…give him some really hip vines, that’s what the soul brothers call their clothes. Tell you what…let’s also give him a chain link belt and bracelets to match. It represents the struggle against the man. This guy is as anti-establishment as they come but…let’s not make him Muslim or anything, he’s just angry and I want him to exude the street, you know? Inner city. This guy is no Sam Wilson. Sam would be considered a sell-out compared to this guy. This guy is a product of the ghetto. A subplot could be that he acquires his super-powers while in prison, some sort of experimentation on the inmates. You know like those Tuskeegee experiments? By the time this guy gets out of jail and paid his debt to society…he’s ready to go toe to toe with the pimps, the drug dealers and even whitey. He’ll be our next masterpiece. Let’s call him LUKE CAGE. Out of hell, A Hero!!!”
That was pure speculation on my part. Stan Lee never said those things…at least a s far as I know. But LUKE CAGE HERO FOR HIRE was a visceral experience for me as a kid. His anger was palatable…his “blackness” oozed through the book and was it’s lifeforce. I always thought for some reason that Luke Cage resembled OJ Simpson or Walter Payton…but he looked like an authentic, square jawed black man who was handsomely depicted but always wore a distrustful scowl. I appreciated the fact that LUKE CAGE was a determined if not patient version of Superman albeit in the streets. Even at age 8 this character posed an interesting conceit. I found myself drawn to LUKE CAGE, BLACK PANTHER, FALCON and BLACK LIGHTNING on the spinner racks of old. And all of those books were great, but none of them pulsed with the same fire and resolve as LUKE CAGE. I remember asking my moms for a LUKE CAGE t-shirt and she looked all over to no avail. They didn’t print LUKE CAGE shirts or at least not through any vendors that my moms was hip to. And then, as the HOTEPS say, I got woke.
I realized as I became more worldly…more well read and culturally aware that LUKE CAGE was a walking stereotype. A grinning, skinning and raging black buck caricature created by white writers and white artists who were trying to approximate the black experience and cash in on the residual after effects of the Civil Right Movement of the 60’s. I began to read his snippets of dialog with disdain. His overly exaggerated and sometimes fabricated street lexicon was obviously being written by cats who were trying to approximate the iambic pentameter of the hip speech of the inner city…but it was coming across forced and made LUKE CAGE sound closer to ignorant than cool. In one famous dispatch…LUKE CAGE had been hired by DOCTOR DOOM to track down some robots or something preposterous. Anyway, LUKE CAGE carries out his end of the deal and locates the robots but DOCTOR DOOM bails to LATVERIA without paying CAGE. We are then treated or tortured with one of the most ridiculous Marvel Comics adventures ever written. LUKE CAGE, vowing to get his money that DOCTOR DOOM owes him, bursts his way into the Baxter Building (Headquarters of the Fantastic Four) and demands that Reed Richards loan him one of the FF’s rocket planes so he can get to Latveria and recover the 200.00 fee he charged DOOM. I remember reading this as a child and thinking… “They cannot be serious with this! This story is purposely making a jackass out of LUKE CAGE!” Upon LUKE CAGE’s arrival in Latveria (another completely ridiculous suspension of disbelief…the Fantastic Four’s plane is set on auto pilot and deposit’s LUKE CAGE safely at Castle Doom, hahaha…whatever) he gets into a few skirmishes with Doombots (Doom’s manufactured robotic guards) who immediately recognize that CAGE is black and try to sell him on helping emancipate them from DOCTOR DOOM?!!! Are you kidding me?!!! Steve Engelhart is the writer of this ass-tacular script and I sincerely hope this MF was laughing the entire time he was dreaming this story up. Talk about straight up sequential minstrel show. When CAGE finally catches up with DOOM, this now famous exchange occurs between them that still sends shivers down my spine…
DOOM: When my men reported a crazy black man in the Fantastic Four craft, I knew it had to be you.
CAGE: Where’s my money, honey?
You flew all the way to Southeastern Europe to collect 200.00 from a master criminal , confirmed genius and wizard who has almost single handedly conqured the world on more than one occasion? LUKE CAGE, HERO for HIRE…was also a dumbass and at that point in my limited tenure as a comic book fan I started to notice many problems in the writing concerning the Black characters. These patterns I began to notice running through black characters created the trope or the LUKE CAGE PARADIGM that you can see to this day if you revisit any of these superheroes.
Almost every Black Superhero at Marvel or DC was fluent in JIVE TALK.
Black superheroes had no parents except CYBORG in the TEEN TITANS.
Most Black Superheroes at both companies were from the hood.
BLACK superheroes in the seventies went through a stage where their particular codename was proceeded by the adjective, Black. As if we didn’t already notice that you were…never mind.
The Black Panther was from Wakanda but white Marvel writing staff insisted that he battle the KU KLUX KLAN. In multiple issues.
DC’s one original superhero of color, Black Lightning, who I actually found quite entertaining, wore an afro wig that was connected to his domino mask.
WHAT?!!! WHAT?!!! HUNH?!!! FOR REAL!!! DID Y’ALL REALLY APPROVE THIS?
The amazing thing though after all my wincing and agonizing over the blatant and not so obvious literary faux pas committed in the effort to be inclusive, the black characters of the late sixties and early seventies went on to become great characters. Beloved characters. Luke Cage who later goes on to become Powerman and join martial arts partner, IRON FIST, in the best hero-buddies team up book book since Captain America and Falcon and Green Lantern /Green Arrow magazines. Falcon became a force to be reckoned with in books like Captain America, The Avengers and a few solo one shot type series where he was the main feature. Black Panther probably being the most unique of all the characters has made it to global star status thanks to his introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s also BLADE and STORM…fascinating characters that have largely only been written significantly by white creators at this time but remain as a sign that “Black Superheroes Matter.”
So what is the answer to this connundrum? I’ve said many times before to as many people who would listen to me…if you want to see a superhero like “you”…create one yourself. Dream up the story, Write it. Go find an artist. Don’t let other people tell your story or approximate what it is. Stop being lazy and waiting for one segment of the population to create things to entertain you with. If you don’t have enough money to publish your own comic, draw it on notebook paper…write it as a novel or a play. Artists…draw heroes who look like you and make sure your community is represented. Hell…if you can draw, seek out the people who are looking for representation and ask them what kind of heroes would they like to see. Create these new characters from the ground up, imbue them with an undeniable authenticity that will guarantee you find an audience.
LUKE CAGE taught me some very important lessons about myself and the image of black folks in comics. One…I was definitely moved by the visual of a powerful black man and the idea that we too could have super powers and make a difference. The second lesson I learned, if I was unsatisfied with another man’s depiction or idea of what my community means or represents then it was incumbent of me to create something to counteract, correct or eliminate this skewed vision or…shut the fuck up.
NEXT EPISODE: THE AUDACITY of MARK WAID: A RETRO REVIEW of his graphic novel…STRANGE FRUIT