[This piece is excerpt from our superhero podcast It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast! Listen to the whole episode below.]
The ’70s was a weird time, with every pop culture medium scrambling to keep up with the seismic shifts taking place in America. Vietnam. Deepthroat. Kent State. Harvey Milk. Change happened fast, and comic books were not immune. There was a lot of flux with Marvel’s leadership throughout the decade, with frequent changes in price, distribution and even titles. This led to a lot of industry grief, but it wasn’t without reward. By the middle of the decade, Marvel was beating DC in sales for the first time in its history.
Marvel’s readers were growing up, and to retain their attention, Marvel started trying to capitalize on booming film sub-genres. Iron Fist was a direct response to the booming kung-fu movie market. Ghost Rider was Marvel’s attempt at Easy Rider-type biker films. Marvel created Dazzler as a riff on the disco movement. And then there was Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, maybe the most radical comic book from a mainstream company up to that point.
On the surface, Luke Cage: Hero for Hire was Marvel’s attempt at its own blaxploitation movie. In truth, it was the first comic book to star a black superhero, but even that doesn’t really hit at how different it was. As created by writer Archie Goodwin and artist John Romita Sr., Cage’s world was a very different, much more dangerous place than most of Marvel’s previous worlds, and he was a different sort of character.
Although definitely a do-gooder, Cage was first and foremost a survivor. With his super strength and bulletproof skin, he was aware that with great power must come great responsibility, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a little money on the side. Cage saw being a superhero as means to a legitimate enterprise: Heroes for Hire, Inc. He charged for services. He worked out of an office. He took out ads in the paper. Although his first “costume” has been the butt of plenty of jokes in recent years, it had one of the most believable origins of any outfit in superhero history: It was all he had lying around.
Just as notably, Cage worked in Harlem and spoke in jive, making his blaxploitation roots much clearer. In the same way Tony Stark was technologically brilliant and Reed Richards was a genetic genius, Cage’s street smarts were shown to be just as important to his saving the day as his superhuman muscle. He rolls his eyes at the colorful villains and caped heroes he interacts with, vastly preferring a relatively normal life with no alter ego. Bullets may bounce off him, but in many ways, Cage is among Marvel’s most human superhero.
Cage spent most of his early life in a street gang before being sent to prison after being framed for heroin possession. While in prison, Cage is recruited by a scientist trying to duplicate the Super Soldier experiment that created Captain America. The experiment is maliciously botched, inadvertently giving Cage super strength and skin hard enough to stop a bullet.
What’s interesting about Cage’s origins is that he’s not a victim of an accident (like Peter Parker) or destiny (like Thor), but his own government. As David Brothers notes over at Marvel, the project that gave Cage his power is a chilling riff on the Tuskegee Experiment, one of the darkest chapters in America’s history of white supremacy. From 1932 to 1972, the US Public Health Service told 600 African American men they were being given free healthcare to treat “bad blood.” In actuality, most of them had syphilis and researchers deliberately withheld treatment in order to study its effects. None of the men were ever told the true nature of their disease, and none were offered penicillin. By the study’s end, 128 of the men had died from the disease or related complications.
Cage’s origin story was actually published just a few months before news of the Tuskegee Experiment leaked to the press, but the parallels are difficult to ignore. Where for Steve Rogers, the Super-Soldier Experiment was a government-sanctioned blessing given only to a man who was brave and noble enough to embody America’s highest ideals, it was for Luke Cage a curse conferred only because his black life was considered expendable in a white system.
Fortunately, the experiment worked better than anyone planned, and Cage was able to escape prison and clear his name. He returned to Harlem and promptly did what anyone who finds himself suddenly super strong and bulletproof ought to do: Use it to make some scratch.
Cage quickly realized this: His powers made him a superhero, but he hadn’t gotten that far by turning down financial opportunities. He started calling himself the Hero for Hire, setting up an actual business with an office and a hotline, willing to administer truth and justice for those who could afford it.
It was all refreshingly realistic. He didn’t bother with secret identities or a job where he has to hide his true calling from his co-workers. He charged a fair price, (and was willing to work pro bono when the cause was just enough) but he intended to get what he earned. He once even traveled all the way to Latveria to shake down Doctor Doom. Now, that’s a hero.
From there on out, Cage has undergone a number of different allegiances. He’s stayed in the hero for hire business, even gaining a partner and co-worker in kung-fu aficionado Iron Fist, who has become one of his most trusted friends. But at times, Cage has been a more conventional superhero—adopting the code name Power Man and working as a Defender and even an Avenger.
None of that has been as crucial to his characterization as his romance with Jessica Jones, the mother of his child and his eventual wife. In the comics, their relationship has been healthy and relatively drama-free. When Jessica realized he’d gotten her pregnant after a drunken tryst, the two got married and enjoyed a close relationship ever since.
And so we come to a television show, with Cage portrayed by Mike Colter, who viewers were introduced to in Jessica Jones. Much has been made of the modern relevance of a bulletproof black man in 2016 America, at a time when there are daily headlines about the black lives snuffed out by bullets. The idea of wish-fulfillment has always been key to superheroes success. What teenage nerd hasn’t wished for spider powers? What distant loner hasn’t fancied himself as sort of the brooding Batman type? But in contemporary America, and for the black people who live in it, Cage’s powers are more than just a whimsical fantasy; it poses an important question: How would America really feel about a black man who couldn’t be stopped by a gun?
But through all these questions, Cage has remained a fighter. He’s not Marvel’s flashiest superhero. No, Cage is the guy you want on your side when you need someone who just won’t lose. When you want someone who looks bad odds square in the face without blinking. He’s been dealt every rough hand a person can be dealt, and he just keeps coming like a freight train. It’s made him a hero, an Avenger, and a Defender but most of all, it’s made him a good man. Those are in short supply in any universe.
[A version of this article was originally posted at The Marvel Report]