Some superheroes’ personalities change over time, especially when many creators work on them over decades of publishing history. But this also creates a multiplicity of possible interpretations for these characters, too. Let’s see what the most telling moments from Luke Cage’s long superhero career actually say about him as a person.
Really, these are the two most important moments ever written for Luke Cage:
• “Outfit’s kinda hokey but so what? All part of the superhero scene. An’ this way when I use my powers, it’s gonna seem natural.”
• “My ‘loud, angry negro’ bit didn’t phase him.”
Respectively, those statements were written in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 by the late Archie Goodwin and in Power Man and Iron Fist #122, by Jim Owsley (who later changed his name to Christopher Priest.) The word balloon and thought bubble establish a special kind of self-awareness for Cage, hinting at the performative nature of his superhero persona. The character ditched his birth name of Carl Lucas after escaping imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, changing it to Luke Cage.
But he also adopted the code name “Power Man,” and became a hero who stopped crimes for cold hard cash, beginning a career of simultaneously hiding in plain sight and selling himself. He was both gaudy and larger-than-life, fitting in line with “the superhero scene” he mentions in his first appearance.
As written by Brian Michael Bendis, Jeff Parker, David Walker, and others, the latter-day versions of Cage—far less histrionic than in the 1970s and 1980s—play into the idea that there was always a more quietly resolute man underneath all the jive talk and bluster. The comics moments below helped establish what kind of superhero Luke Cage would be.
- Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Billy Graham, Skip Kohloff)
- Power Man and Iron Fist (1978) #122 (Jim Owsley, Mark Bright, Jerry Acerno, Janice Chiang, Julianna Ferriter)
Luke Cage wasn’t the kind of man who flaunted his superpowers as soon as he got them. As an escaped convict trying to lay low in Harlem, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He changed his name to Luke Cage but that wasn’t enough. His ex-con status also meant getting a job would be harder, so his over-the-top outfit was a conscious decision to make himself seem like just another “normal” superhero, albeit one who charged for his crimefighting services. The act of donning a metal headband, bracers, and chain-link belt—and eventually using the code name “Power Man”—represent a new identity that he hoped would shift people’s perception of him.
He counted on people having preconceived notions about him, too. His “Loud, Angry Negro” act can be a strategic decision, deployed so people either underestimate or get intimidated by him.
- Power Man and Iron Fist (1978) #90 (Kurt Busiek, Denys Cowan, Mel Candido, George Roussos, Mike Higgins)
- Power Man and Iron Fist (1978) #123 (Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest, Mark Bright, Jerry Acerno, Janice Chiang, Julianna Ferriter)
When Luke Cage first appeared in the 1970s, New York City’s Times Square neighborhood was a seedy epicenter of porn, prostitution, drugs, and criminal activity. It was also Cage’s base of operations and his Hero for Hire offices were above a rundown movie theater. Marvel threw Cage together with martial arts master Danny Rand (a.k.a. Iron Fist) in a team-up title called Power Man and Iron Fist. Their friendship became a symbol of interracial cooperation but attempts to grow their Heroes for Hire business rubbed Luke the wrong way as in Power Man and Iron Fist #90.
Luke got angry at the idea that he would ever forget where he came from…
…no matter who was peddling it.
The same theme popped up in Power Man and Iron Fist #123, which focused on Cage’s attempts to stop a killer presumed to be acting out of racist motivations. When he crossed the picket line protesting police officers’ lack of effort at finding the killer, the angry citizens called Cage out.
Later, the National Guard was called in to quell the unrest and Cage stormed the barricades of the armory where the captured super-killer was being held, along with the Falcon and police detective Tyrone King. In the fight that follows, it’s clear the chatter about Cage “not really being black” got under his unbreakable skin.
- New Avengers (2004) #22 (Brian Michael Bendis, Lenil Francis Yu, Dave McCaig, Richard Starkings)
- Power Man and Iron Fist (2016) #6 (David Walker, Flaviano, John Rauch, Clayton Cowles)
- Power Man and Iron Fist (2016) #8 (David Walker, Sanford Greene, Flaviano, John Rauch, Clayton Cowles)
Like other superheroes who’ve been around for a while, Luke Cage has had his fair share of scraps against other do-gooder characters. These fights have usually been the results of misunderstandings or personal beefs.
But there have been times when Luke’s fought other heroes because of his own moral and ethical stances. When Tony Stark was trying to recruit heroes to help enforce the Superhuman Registration Act In 2006, Luke likened it to institutional oppressions of the past.
Ten years later, another conflict has erupted in Marvel’s superhero community, with Captain Marvel and Iron Man leading factions who do and don’t want to stop crimes that might happen in the future. Luke and best friend Danny Rand/Iron Fist initially opt out of Civil War II...
…but the conflict finds them anyway. After Danny gets thrown in jail during a case they’re working, Captain Marvel arrives to stop a jailbreak predicted by the prophetic visions of the Inhuman named Ulysses.
Luke’s involvement isn’t about a pro- or anti-interventionist stance. It’s about helping his friend and being judged on what he might do.
- New Avengers (2004) #3 (Brian Michael Bendis, David Finch, Danny Miki, Frank D’Armata, Richard Starkings)
- Alias #23 (Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Matt Hollingsworth, Cory Petit)
- Alias #25 (Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Mark Bagley, Matt Hollingsworth, Dean White, Cory Petit)
- Thunderbolts #147 (Jeff Parker, Kev Walker, Frank Martin, Albert Deschesne)
During a breakout on the high-security super-prison called the Raft, a bunch of bad guys attempt to escape. One of them is Zebediah Killgrave, a.k.a. the Purple Man, who used his mind control powers to physically and psychologically abuse Jessica Jones years before she married Luke Cage.
Killgrave tries needling Cage about his past with his wife....
But the Purple Man has a harsh reckoning.
Cage is an ex-con who became a superhero. Years after the formation of the New Avengers team that Cage led, the original Captain America thought he could help supervillains make the same kind of life change. Steve Rogers put him in charge of the Thunderbolts team and a rehabilitation program. Another jailbreak attempt happened with Killgrave again trying the same tactic...
Cage still does what he’s supposed, wading through the goons swarming around Killgrave.
Guess the Purple Man didn’t learn the first time that it’s a bad idea to piss off Luke Cage.
- Luke Cage Noir #1-4 (Mike Benson, Adam Glass, Shawn Martinbrough, Nick Filardi, Cory Petit)
Luke Cage Noir presented an alternate version of the superstrong hero who operated in Prohibition-era Harlem. Like the Netflix show, the miniseries featured a quieter iteration of Cage; the Noir variant uses wits and misdirection more than the superpowers most people believe he has.
The myth of Luke’s powers began to spread after he stood up to criminals in league with corrupt cops and survived their gunfire.
Even in a hardboiled noir story filled with tragedy, Cage manages to be a symbol to the people of Harlem.
The Luke Cage in the Netflix series ruminates on what he should do with his gifts but doesn’t budge from his path once he’s decided. He’s a character who’s gone through a lot of different looks and phases but the important stuff still stands strong.