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Credit: Marvel Comics

How Luke Cage brought swagger to the Marvel Universe

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Feb 26, 2020, 12:27 PM EST (Updated)

48 years ago this week, Luke Cage walked out of hell and changed the game.

Don't believe me? It says it right there on the page 1 splash to the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero For Hire ....

Credit: Marvel Comics. Art: George Tuska/Billy Graham

Not only was Cage the first African-American superhero to headline his own comic, he also was the first hero to deliver something the Marvel Universe to that point had lacked:

Swagger.

Spidey had the quips, Cap had the authority, Thor the regality, Mister Fantastic the know-it-allness. But Luke Cage had the cool. He was the D-Generation X of comics. Cage exuded attitude at a time when most mainstream comic book heroes had very little edge.

Created during the height of the Blaxploitation era, Cage was saddled with some dialogue and situations that, thanks to the gift of hindsight, are painfully misguided. If you re-read some of the early Hero For Hire issues, it is clear that Luke's dialogue was written by well-meaning white comic book writers — such as comics legend Archie Goodwin — who had no idea how an actual black man in Harlem talked. But the words in those comics couldn't deter from the visual aesthetic of the character that artists, especially the criminally underrated Billy Graham, put forth on the page.

In every Luke Cage comic, he was the coolest guy in the room. He walked with purpose. He acted without hesitation or fear. Is there another Marvel hero from that era who would've had the stones to fly to Latveria to take on Doctor Doom ... for a $200 past-due notice? I don't think so.

Credit: Marvel Comics

I know that sequence is one of the most popular comic book memes, and a very polarizing one. Read this story by Evan Narcisse for a deeper dive into why this scene is problematic for the way it portrays the black hero from Harlem against the aristocratic ruler from a European country. For me, what I've always loved about that scene is that it showed that Cage may have been a hero for hire, but he was nobody's punk. And he was a man of his word who demanded others keep theirs.

I was a huge fan of Power Man & Iron Fist as a young reader, not only because the two title characters had great outfits but for being the best depiction of friendship in comics. Their dynamic was perfect, thanks to storytellers like Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Mary Jo Duffy and Kerry Gammill. In the waning days of PM/IF, writer Christopher Priest, then known as Jim Owsley, intentionally did away with the forced street slang in favor of dialogue that better reflected Luke's intelligence and sophisticated.

Credit: Marvel Comics. Art: John Byrne/Terry Austin

While he came back in the '90s in the (mercifully) brief solo series, Cage, it was the early aughts when the revival of Luke Cage truly began. Brian Michael Bendis recognized instantly the potential of the character and made him a key figure in Alias. Bendis turned Luke and Jessica Jones into one of the best couples in Marvel history.

But it was turning him into an Avenger that really made him into a cornerstone of the Marvel U. He was a legit badass, one of the team leaders and also someone who gave the group the most grounded presence it ever had. New Avengers #17 features one of the greatest Luke Cage moments ever. These two pages right here capture what makes him awesome, without a single punch thrown.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Credit: Marvel Comics

As Luke explained to a television news reporter, he wanted the New Avengers to do 'impact superhero work' beyond saving the world. He wanted to make a difference in the places that too often get overlooked. It's a perfect encapsulation of Cage's philosophy as a hero:

Saving the world is great, but you have to save the neighborhood, too.


Got a favorite Luke Cage story? Hit me up on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram and let me know.

And here's your weekly reminder that Behind the Panel is a multi-platform series, as well. Our video series is chock-full of my in-depth interviews with amazing comic book creators. The Behind the Panel podcast is an audio documentary series that provides unique insight into your favorite creators and stories. Check 'em out, we think you'll enjoy them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.

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