I found Luke Cage on the used comics shelf in Pearl’s Swap Shop in Seminole, Oklahoma, where I was currently living in 1972. Pearl’s was a town landmark for kids who read. You could buy used paperbacks for a dime and used comics for a nickel. I begged my mom to take me there every time she went to town, which wasn’t often.
That first comic cover mesmerized me because Cage stands there in a dramatic, angry pose that became so iconic during the first few years of the series.
I was 14 years old at the time. Young and impressionable. Some days I think I still am young and impressionable.
At the time, I was aware of all the social unrest fomenting in Oklahoma City and in other metro areas of the south and west because the Civil Rights movement was still huge and on television all the time. So I was conscious of buying a comic about a BLACK superhero in a predominantly white community. Comic books weren’t on the “cool” approval list for high school, which was where I was going in the fall, and racial segregation was still going on in that small town despite bussing. Getting caught reading Luke Cage, Hero for Hire would have drawn the ire of most guys my age.
Thanks to the Marvel Bullpen, that page in all Marvel Comics series where upcoming projects were announced in those days, I’d known Luke Cage was coming. He’d been featured in that same first cover pose, both fists clenched and ready for action, a challenging snarl twisting his lips.
Check out the cover.
<place cover link here>
That artwork is still a mystery. Back in those days, creators, writers, and artists were acknowledged, but primarily they were the same folks all the time. Nobody paid attention back then. John Romita, Sr., acknowledged as co-creator of the character/series, is credited with the cover by Grand Comics Database. The Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators claims George Tuska did the cover.
Personally, I think Romita did most of it. I’m familiar with his style at the time. But the guard being held back by the other guard is Rackham, one of the series regulars, and he looks like Tuska’s artwork.
The cover resembles a movie poster for a Blaxploitation film, which were all the rage at the time. I had yet to see Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, or any of the other movies coming out then (I caught up with them later and had a blast), but I knew they existed.
Luke Cage was special. DC Comics tended to have superheroes out trying to save the world. Marvel Comics featured heroes with hang-ups, but who still had altruistic goals.
Luke Cage, from day one back then, was out to save his own neck, and for him, superheroing was a job he was going to be paid for. His origin included a burning desire for vengeance against the man who framed him, stole his woman, and ended up getting her killed. Spider-Man’s problems with taking care of his Aunt May, getting J. Jonah Jameson to pay for his latest photographs of his costumed alter ego in action, and finding a date paled in comparison.
I loved Luke Cage when I first saw him just because of his attitude. But when you heard about Diamondback’s frame job and the way he stole Rita from Lucas and got her killed, that wasn’t far from the Westerns I was reading steadily with the Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton science fiction and Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novels mixed in among them.
Skin color didn’t matter. This was a character I got behind in a heartbeat. Skin color only meant I would get to see a different side of my world, which excited me too, because Seminole seemed small and small-minded to me at the time.
Up until 1972, Marvel had never featured an African-American superhero in his own book. I was familiar with T’Challa, the Black Panther, from the pages of the Fantastic Four. T’Challa was covered head to toe in his costume, and I remember how strange it seemed to see him out of that costume because I didn’t think about his skin color when he was in action.
But Cage…he was right there with color, attitude, and a world much different from Marvel’s usual New York City. He wasn’t a high-flying superhero. He was a man of the streets, a man who got his hands dirty and worried over right and wrong because he wasn’t always sure of himself. He was a man who lived with the threat of going back to prison hanging constantly over his head.
I’ve been reading his adventures for the last 40+ years, and I’m looking forward to Netflix’s new series dropping on September 30 of this year.