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Luke Cage: The Early Years

Finding those first few issues of Luke Cage back in the early 1970s was tough, and it wasn’t just because of a lack of funds. As I recall, the series came out bi-monthly, which was almost too long for a teenage boy whose mind was filled with endless distractions and the possibilities of girls! 

But I have OCD leanings and I persevered. We didn’t have comic shops in those days. Back issues of different series were found in spinner racks that weren’t fully updated (the print dates back then were always three or four months out from the issue’s actual release date so they’d stay on sale longer) or they were found at places like Pearl’s Swap Shop where I found the first issue. 

The worst case scenario was that a friend had an issue you wanted. That was bad because then trading occurred. Money was saved for actually buying comics. So we’d usually settle down for trading comics, and you never let the other guy see how badly you wanted that comic. We always let other people read our comics, as long as they knew how to take care of them, i.e.—they never folded them over or used them to swat flies. Friendships shattered over things like that.

Skimming a spinner rack became a skill comics kids learned. There was no rhyme or reason how stockers filled the pockets of the spinner racks, and it wasn’t unusual to find three or four months’ worth of issues of a particular title stuffed in the rack.

No parent wanted to stand by while a kid went through those racks, though. You were on a tight schedule once you started looking. You could hear the theme from Mission: Impossible playing in your head when you started in.

The best way to skim a pocket was to bend the comics slightly forward and let them slip through your fingers like shuffling a deck of cards. Doing this meant you’d only see the title and the number, but those were the most important things when you were on the hunt.

Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2cUIM3d.

Between spinner racks, swap shops, and trading with friends, I got most of the first dozen Luke Cage issues. That was a concentrated two-year investment. Unfortunately, the series waned in interest after that initial splash and the issues got harder to find. I never got all of the comics. 

Thankfully, comics readers these days don’t have to haunt comic shops or online stores to get those issues if they’re interested. Luke Cage, Hero For Hire Marvel Masterworks Vol. 1 collects the first sixteen issues, and it’s offered in a hardcover format and ebook. I opted for the ebook and dug in. At 336 pages, the $16.99 price tag was great, and there was a lot of reading.

These first few issues go all over the place. Cage sets up in an apartment above a B-movie theater and more or less goes into action as a private eye. Shaft had just hit the movie screens the year before and Richard Roundtree found a huge audience. Supposedly the movie saved MGM Studios from bankruptcy.

Cage fits that private eye motif. He’s big and bold and brassy, and he sticks when the going gets tough. He’s usually hired to investigate a mystery or protect someone. Some of the later issues have him squaring off against Doctor Doom.

Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2c89ojZ

I liked the private eye take and the match-up against ex-Vietnam vets, and even the “spend the night in the haunted mansion” issue, but in those days Marvel Comics didn’t quite know how to spin Luke Cage in the Marvel universe. Today Cage is solidly part of it, as the coming series on Netflix proves. 

Some of the early villains were over the top, including Black Mariah. She was a HUGE African-American woman who was able to knock Cage around a room with her fists and her purse while wearing a dress that looked like a circus tent. The Blaxploitation influence spread liberally through some of those pages.

Black Mariah

Image courtesy of Screenrant.com 

Back in the day, I thought the comics were great, filled with action and Cage’s street talk and pseudo-swearing, “Sweet Christmas!” I read that now and I still have to laugh, but it’s in joy, a celebration of that long-ago me who loved heroes and didn’t know much about the world.

I leafed through the pages the other day and cringed a little (okay, maybe a lot) during the Doctor Doom story, but I loved the artwork even though it’s dated by today’s standards. There’s a lot of power in those pages, and I remembered several of the panels exactly as they are.

For purists, I’d recommend this Masterworks edition instead of the new Luke Cage: Avenger collection. The origin story is retold there, but I just didn’t think it worked as well as the initial effort.

 

Mike Colter has already starred as Cage in the Jessica Jones series, and he’s a long way from this early Cage in many respects. Of course, Colter’s Cage comes from the evolution of the character. We’ll talk about that soon.

About Mel Odom: Author of dozens of novels in a wide variety of fields, Mel Odom lives in Moore, Oklahoma. His novel, The Rover, was given the American Library Association Alex Award in 2002. In 1995, after only seven years in the business, he was named to the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame. He teaches in the Professional Writing program in Gaylord College at the University of Oklahoma. If you want to know more about Mel’s writing, check out Fantastic Fiction.

 

 Featured image courtesy of comicbook.com.