Sunday, August 3, 2008

Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1 (June, 1972)

A man who grew up in a New York slum is written off by society, until an authority figure sees potential in him. He's introduced to a brilliant scientist who believes he's perfected a process that will create a superior human being-- if the subject survivors the experience. The volunteer is helpless as a saboteur appears to wreck the experiment, but launches a counter-attack that ends the threat. Fated as the only recipient of this special process, the man becomes a lonely super-hero.

Captain America, right? Umm...

"Look closely at the figure before you. Study him, study his costume. This is Luke Cage now. A super-hero... Yet unlike any other before him. But he was not always as you see him. Before the super-hero, there was the man."

So maybe Luke Cage wasn't quite as unique as advertised, but by the 70's, pretty much every option conceivable to receive super-powers had been used up twice over. Many African-American super-heroes have been dismissed over the years as being "the black version of..." but the truth is that there haven't been all that many great characters created since the Silver Age, and even they tended to be derivative. It's really all in the execution these days, and Luke Cage's origin story was dynamite.

A man known to the reader only as Lucas is released from solitary at the maximum security Seagate Prison. Lucas has no love for the guards: "Nice thing 'bout being half blind from the dark, Quirt... I don't have to see your face first thing!" Lucas has no love for his fellow inmates: "You been awful quick to speak for the brothers ever since you came here, Shades. Sounds like now you gonna be quick gettin' their heads broken, too. If mine goes under the club, it's gonna be cause I put it there, not you!" Lucas has no love for society at large: "Mankind's done nothin' for me... an' I'm returnin' the favor!"

Lucas turns down attempts to extort his assistance from ambitious cons and guard captains alike, always leading to violence. When Quirt is assigned to "break" Lucas, prisoners howled from their cages at the "flat, moist sound of flesh being struck... again and again!" A progressive new warden was due to assume command, and caught Quirt in the midst of his assault. The warden fired Quirt, left him alone for ten brutalizing minutes with Lucas, and demoted Captain Rackham for good measure. He also allowed a Dr. Noah Burstein access to Lucas.

"Health records indicate you're everything I need, Lucas. But the prison files are nothing but depressing! Brawls, attempted escapes... all leading to your transfer here. Even your parole board appearance usually ended in violence," with Lucas shaking his fists and shouting, "What right you jokers got to sit behind your starched shirts, passin' judgement on me? You think I'm lyin'! But I was framed, blast you... FRAMED!"

Unlike a lot of half-assed "urban" characters, the man who would become Luke Cage admits to having fallen far short of being an angel. "The game on the street is survival... an' you learn to play it any way you can... A way that got meaner... an' uglier... the better we got at it!" Known only as "Lucas" in this first tale, his true given wouldn't be revealed until decades later, "Carl." Speaking of derivative...

Early in his criminal career, Lucas hooks up with Willis Stryker, and the pair become "closer than brothers." Stryker turns into a master with the blade, while "nobody could touch me usin' fists." However, Stryker just gets deeper and nastier into the thug life, while with adulthood Lucas "began losin' heart. Got sick... always fightin', always runnin'... Yeah. I got my fill with the gangs..." While Lucas turned straight, Stryker took up with his friend's co-worker Reva, and took on the Syndicate. Reva got scared when Stryker was worked over by some mobsters, and dumped him after Lucas saved his life. Stryker accused Lucas of poisoning his girl's mind, and when Reva and Lucas hooked up, things got really serious. Stryker planted dope in Lucas' crib and tipped the cops, which is the crime the character was infamously framed for. I like that Lucas was truly a bad guy who went straight on his own, as the "innocent victim of circumstance" riff goes at least as far back as Wildcat.

Stryker claimed he could help Lucas as a way to draw Reva back into his circle, but the dealers Stryker stole from to frame Lucas were smarter than the cops. They attempted to gun Stryker down during a freeway pursuit, but Willis maneuvered his car to use passenger Reva as a human shield. Reva caught a bullet in the throat, and the car hit the drink, but Stryker laughed as he crawled from the wreckage.

Lucas is set on getting out of prison and having his revenge, but scoffs at the method Dr. Burstein offers him-- as a guinea pig! "A parole sounds beautiful, man-- but it sure ain't much use if I'm dead!" Lucas returns to his cell, only to be threatened by Rackham, who's intent on taking out all his frustration at the new regime on his least favorite prisoner for the foreseeable future. Lucas can't stand the prospect, and calls for Dr. Burstein.

Using equipment made by Stark Industries, Dr. Burstein intends to subject Lucas to "an electro-biochemical system for stimulating human cell regeneration." Since Lucas was a fine specimen in excellent health, Dr. Burstein would also have to inject him with an unidentified disease to test his machine's health benefits. Lucas was not amused, but accepted as part of his brass ring of probable parole. The intention was for Lucas to undergo a series of short sessions submerged in Dr. Burstein's chemical stew to build up a tolerance, but Rackham snuck in and cranked the volume to eleven. "The man called Lucas is enveloped-- all but drowned in a swirling tide of chemicals gone mad! Then, searing skin, crawling flesh, can endure no more...! Fists frantically hammer metal... as electronic power hits the overload point... and there is sudden, explosive-- RELEASE!"

My-- that was... descriptive. What kind of Mandingo shit was that? The thing is, John Romita Sr. supplied the cover for this first edition of the brown-eyed handsome man called Cage. However, the interiors were pencilled by George Tuska, a Golden Age veteran known for drawing in a, shall we say, less glamorous mode. His inker was Billy Graham, the only person of color on the project. Combined, the pair recalled Gene Colan somewhat, though Lucas was a grim, bulky, graceless figure amongst a slew of even less attractive Anglo-Saxons. Just as suddenly as Lucas burst nude from the contraption, Graham kicked in to completely redraw him for several panels. Billy Graham would define his career on "Jungle Action," drawing the Black Panther with a muscular, almost expressionistic anatomy presaged by the sensuous birth of Luke Cage. Lucas swatted Rackham away in a second panel, exposing a gorgeous backside that would have done Burne Hogarth proud, and once again skirting the Comics Code Authority with strategically placed falling debris. A third panel was framed just below Lucas' buttocks, as Graham reveled in illustrating every sinewy detail of Cage's newly enhanced thigh and calf. A panel later, Lucas was again dressed, and Tuska had returned. The brief departure was both jarring and torturous at the thought of what might have been had Billy Graham been able to produce pages at that level of craft consistently, and of course, had he worked and lived long enough to be given the chance.

Believing he may have killed Rackham with his newly enhanced strength, Lucas found it was equally effective against the prison wall, and made his escape. Guards fired on Lucas, who fell from a cliff into waters below. The guards found his bullet-riddled shirt and assumed Lucas' demise. Lucas himself found a boat, and assumed a new guise. Over long months, roughly a year's time to reach the present, Lucas made his way back to New York. He inadvertently foiled a robbery, and used both the reward money and the inspiration to begin a new life. He had a costume and business cards made up, and rented a "fleabag" hotel room. At Reva's grave, he said, "I'm back, honey... but I'm hardly the man you knew. Even had to get a new name. Kept a little of the old one... rest is what I remember most about prison... Luke Cage! Hope you like it, Reva, 'cause under that name-- I'm gonna be doin' somethin' for you... an' me... bringin' grief to Willis Stryker.

In another panel clearly possessed by Billy Graham, Luke Cage dons his familar yellow-and-blue costume, and strikes a determined pose. To drum up business, the "Hero For Hire" makes a name for himself by clobbering collection men of Stryker's. Now going by the name "Diamond Back," Willis figures, "I got me some teachin' to do!"

With some help from Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin wrote a compelling and reasonably authentic script that launched Luke Cage into a decade of continuous publication. Like Graham, Goodwin left this world too soon and produced too little work for a man of his considerable talents. Instead, Goodwin focused on becoming one of the most respected editors in the industry's history. Goodwin and Romita are co-credited with Cage's creation, one of the first African-American characters to star in a comic book.

As previously noted, Luke Cage escaped Seagate Prison, a stand-in for Alcatraz Island. Also known as "The Rock," Alcatraz was closed in 1963, and became a national recreational area the same year Cage debuted. Inspired by Luke in the early 80's, the actor Nicolas Coppola changed his stage name to "Nick Cage," and eventually starred in a movie called "The Rock" set on Alcatraz Island.

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