Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Classics - Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1

When I reviewed the recent issue of New Avengers that was Luke Cage-centric, I started thinking about this issue.

This was a rare event in 1972 - an origin issue featuring a character who had never appeared in another comic, and an African-American at that.

While Cage isn't the first black super-hero - I believe the Black Panther has that honor - and Gabe Jones (a member of the World War II-era Howling Commandos) was possibly the first black hero in a mainstream comic book (discounting the racist portrayals from the '40s and '50s), Cage is the first to have his own title.

In modern light, the comic seems very dated, mostly because of the dialogue. Writer Archie Goodwin (one of the all-time greats) had to walk a fine line to approximate street dialogue without actually using the (shall we say) vivid language that would ordinarily require. That he manages it without making the characters sound foolish is a tribute to his skill (it's something later writers would have less success at).

The origin is about as raw as a mainstream comic could manage in the '70s. Lucas grows up in Harlem on the wrong side of the law. He and his friend Willis break the law as a team, but eventually Cage turns away from crime while Willis embraces it.

Jealous of Lucas, Willis frames him, and while Luke is in prison, Willis is responsible for the death of the woman Lucas loves.

Jailed in Seagate Prison, Lucas dreams of freedom, and grasps at a desperate bid for parole - he agrees to take part in an experiment designed to cure diseases by sparking cellular regeneration.

When the experiment goes wrong, Lucas finds his body is now like steel, and he uses his new powers to escape.

While on the run, he hits on an idea - he'll use his powers to make money! He devises a distinctive costume, adopts a stage name and sets up shop as a "Hero for Hire."

It was an original concept, to have a hero sell his skills for a good cause - and the stories managed to walk the tightrope between having Cage be a mercenary and allowing him to do a job that helps people and pays a living wage.

The art for this issue was by the great George Tuska, working in an unusual style. Some of the characters - the evil prison guards, mostly - were drawn in a more exaggerated style, while others - including Cage - were depicted in a more realistic fashion.

Still, the layouts are dynamic, the story is gritty and raw and clearly told. Tuska also benefits from the inks of Billy Graham (who was also an outstanding penciller - and no relation to the famous preacher).

The credits also give a tip of the hat to Roy Thomas and John Romita for the "considerable creative contributions," which I assume would include plotting input by Thomas and the character's design by Romita.

Cage's costume didn't stand the test of time - the low-cut yellow shirt and the metal headband eventually went out of style - and these days he just wears street clothes. Kind of a shame, really.

Anyway, it was a terrific beginning to a series that would have a lot of ups and downs, with some outstanding issues and some (frankly) badly written ones.

But it was obvious the character had great potential - and it's good to see it being realized in modern times. But it started right here, with a great foundation and a unique origin story.

Grade: A

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