I’m pretty sure that I got this issue of LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN from my school buddy Donald Sims, who also collected comics, a fact that bound us together as friends until the switch to Junior High. It’s probably worth giving a little bit of context as to my own experiences with African-American culture. As a child, I lived in an extremely white suburb of Long Island. There were few people of color in my neighborhood, and so all that I knew about Black people was what I saw on television and read about in books and comics. It really wouldn’t be until my family relocated to Delaware when I was 14 that this would change, as my new High School bussed in kids from the predominantly Black areas of the nearby city of Wilmington. Consequently, the more broadly drawn or caricaturish aspects of Luke Cage’s depiction went right by me. To my slight credit, I didn’t view him as other to myself–he had substituted for the Thing in the Fantastic Four, after all. But his world and experiences were alien to mine at that time.
So my impression of Power Man had been initially formed by his appearance in FANTASTIC FOUR #170, wherein he was taken control of by the Puppet Master and forced to battle the FF. His own series was just a little bit more grounded and urban in that exaggerated ghetto style that dominated 1970s depictions of Black life. Cage himself started out as an attempt to cash in on the wave of blaxploitation films that had been doing big box office, and as such he’s very much steeped in the flavor of John Shaft and his fellows. Of course, in Luke’s case, this was all being written by white writers without any first-hand experience concerning what they were writing about, and they seem to have been just as influenced by popular media depictions as my own childhood conception would have been. Some did better by Luke and some did worse, but none of them were especially genuine–a fact that many of the earliest African-American creators with whom I worked, notably Dwayne McDuffie, lamented. Luke was a product of well-intentioned white saviorism, and an attempt to make a buck.
Especially around this time, LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN seemed to have a hard time keeping talent working on it. Ever since the switchover from HERO FOR HIRE to POWER MAN, there’d been a bit of a rotating door when it came to writers and artists. This particular issue was handled by Marv Wolfman and Bob Brown, with Bill Mantlo doing the final dialogue. As such, it was a solid enough job, although it still contains cringeworthy character depictions such as the one of the Cheshire Cat on the page above.
The issue opens with Cage in battle with his old enemy Chemistro, who turns the street to quicksand and Cage’s shirt into lead to drown him. Luke’s able to survive by punching downward straight into the subway tunnels and breathable air, but Chemistro is long gone by this point. Taking the subway back to his 42nd Street office, Cage is shadowed by agents of two rival crime operations: the Cheshire Cat, who is in the employ of somebody known as Big Brother, and who has been flown in from the West Coast to handle Luke–he must be good, as he somehow found Cage on the random subway train that he took after escaping Chemistro’s trap–and the other, an operative of a mystery an called only The Baron. This was very much like the underworld struggles that Spider-Man would get involved with on occasion, and so this sort of set-up was familiar to me.
After a change of clothes, Cage heads out to see Curtis Carr, the man who had been the first Chemistro until he’d turned his own foot to steel and it disintegrated, ending his criminal career. Luke is determined to get the jump on the new Chemistro this time–but he has no better luck here, as the new guy is lying in wait for him at Carr’s place, and an all-out battle takes place between the two. It’s a pretty good super hero throwdown as these things go, but eventually, Luke ends up smashing Chemistro’s hands, and the fight is over. Luke forces Chemistro to give up the location of Big Brother, the guy that hired Chemistro to rub him out, then he cold-cocks Chemistro just to prove that he means business. I can recall not liking this moment as young reader. While I understood the attempt to get across a bit of machismo on Cage’s part, this made him feel a bit like a bully to me, whaling on a disarmed man. That said, I don’t know that the scene itself was entirely responsible for my reaction all on its own. I think that if I’d read a moment where the Thing had done the same thing, it wouldn’t have bothered me. So there was maybe some unconscious bias on my part. Or else the moment just didn’t play for me as a kid.
From there, we got a few pages of personal dynamics, as Luke checked in with his sometimes-girlfriend Claire, who wants him to quit the Hero For Hire business, and is hounded by IRS agent Oliver P. Sneagle for not paying taxes (which he couldn’t, given that Luke Cage is not his real name.) He also has a run-in with the coffee machine in the hallway outside his office door, a bit that I thought was part of a regular running gag, but turns out to have been more short-lived than I had imagined. This was probably my favorite moment in the story and the one that I remember most vividly, even now (though I do have a certain fondness for Chemistro)
Time for the wrap up, so that night Luke makes his way to the address given to him by Chemistro that’s meant to house Big Brother’s headquarters. Cage breaks in, makes short work of a few goons, and ultimately finds himself face to face with Big Brother and Cheshire Cat themselves–Big Brother looks like he got his costume from a black market Jack Kirby knock-off brand–it’s trying for something, but it’s really ugly. Honestly, most of the costumes in this story are pretty ugly, which was on par for Luke’s world. Nobody had yet invested in giving him foes worth fighting, so he tended to contend with a lot of bottom-feeders who seemed like they wouldn’t be caught dead in MARVEL TEAM-UP. I think it speaks to the strength of the need for a hero of color that LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN lasted for as long as it did, though it was never a great seller. But it does feel that there was a lot of potential in the character in this period that was being wasted. I know for myself, while I would pick up an occasional issue, nothing here grabbed me anywhere near as much as, say, BLACK LIGHTNING had over at DC.