Did you know that there’s never been a series called Luke Cage before?
It’s true. Though he was the first black superhero to star in his own series and has long been known by his full name, Luke Cage’s previous leading roles have always referred to him by his last name or featured a subtitle, as in New Avengers: Luke Cage or Luke Cage, Power Man, the latter of which revealed its official position when the last two issues simply read Power Man. So, strange as that is, it feels strangely resonant that David Walker’s latest series takes that name as it turns its eye on the man beneath the tiara and the unbreakable skin.
Though I expect my comfort with the genre contributes, at times you can almost forget that Luke Cage #1 is a superhero comic. Yes, it frequently deals with Marvel continuity, and, yes, there’s plenty of science-fiction driving the plot, but Luke Cage’s stripped down approach to superheroics and hardboiled roots are the stronger elements of this story.
When the man who made Carl Lucas into Luke Cage commits suicide, the hero for hire discovers that family comes with complications and that some things can sting even a bulletproof man. To be perfectly honest, I’ve actually given you not only the starting point for this story in that sentence but most of the subtext as well. This is not, to my eyes at least, a terribly complicated story. The plot moves forward in a classic detective formula, the prose is straight-forward, and the concepts explored are relatively few and easy to grasp. However, David Walker turns in a script that’s overflowing with sincerity, enough to make all of those seeming criticisms into strengths. There’s no need for cheap surprises at this stage, Luke Cage #1, like its protagonist, is straightforward and thoughtful, drawing readers in with honest emotion and solid character beats.
From Luke’s rapidly shifting reactions to the discovery of a family he didn’t know he had to his quiet eulogy for Dr. Burstein, there are abundant moments of heartfelt subtlety in this book. And, yes, many are familiar, but they just work as executed here. My favorite example comes early, when Luke gets the fateful call. There’s no voice on the other end, just Luke and the fading color and breadth of the world around him. It’s been done before, but I don’t care. It connects you to the character instantly and Nelson Blake II conveys Walker’s intention wonderfully.
It’s easy to mistake a comic writer for another type of writer. We think of them like a screenwriter, turning over their concept to be realized by someone else, and treat them like novelists when the craft is strikingly different. Nevertheless, Walker’s work in both of those fields clearly influences his writing here and does so for the better. There’s a really nice dichotomy between Cage’s direct, focused voice and the strong emotion it conveys. Some writers would lean into that too far, make Luke cold or inarticulate against the sea of feelings within him, but Walker’s vision of Luke and of manhood is stronger than that and the same concepts are explored without obscuring subtlety or patronizing obviousness.
The main thing that this issue is missing is an engaging villain. Admittedly the narration does a decent job of building what could have read as a nameless goon into a legitimate threat for an Avenger out of his element, but these mysterious baddies are nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as Luke’s brutal take down of their means of conveyance.
Perhaps the best answer to this is a delightful scene that, on its face, is just exposition, but drips with quiet, racially charged tension. I mean, that’s a villain introduction, right? And honestly, that question mark is the key, because reading this story, straightforward as I’ve said, I know that Walker is more than smart enough to pull that certainty out from under me or prove it true with force I didn’t expect. It could also fall flat, but as a single issue, this debut is able to draw enough faith out of me as a reader to put the charge of possibility into the pages.
I also wanted to talk briefly about the prologue. Once again this is a fairly standard plot, with a fairly standard resolution. But what I like about it is the degree that it talks directly about Luke Cage and who he is as a hero.
“People come to me with their problems,” the first page begins.
“Mostly it’s people who feel like the cops don’t care…
“Or the Avengers are paying attention to bigger problems.
“Maybe they’d call Spider-Man — if he was listed.
“My number — That they have.”
It’s not “I find people who need help” or “I save people”, It’s “People come to me with their problems.” And not specifically supervillains or monsters, just “their problems” Problems that “the cops don’t care” about. Right there, in a few lines Walker establishes Luke’s connection to the community. In fact, for those of you who see issue with the Hero for Hire model, he kind of addresses that; after all, he waits for you to come to him. What’s ever more, that comparison to Spider-Man is brilliant. It grounds you in Marvel’s New York, but it says something about Luke. It shows a little bit of where he came from. “If he was listed”, that’s a good burn. And yet, they would call Spider-Man if they could. For any resentment, Luke knows that he’s second string, that he’s street level and Spider-Man is the big leagues, but, you know what, that’s how he likes it.
By the time the phone rings, you know Luke Cage. He has a guy, not necessarily a friend, who needs a job. He knows the over-under of buying his shirts in bulk. He stammers discussing relationships with a teenaged girl. You thank him for everything, not just the rescue. And, while there’s nothing that redefines the character, the ease and subtlety with which he’s introduced is impressive.
Nelson Blake is an appropriate match to the story and its strengths and weaknesses. In terms of linework, this book is admittedly simple. At times figures can become overly geometric. That said, the book never feels bloated by line weight or crowded to the point of confusion and the characters look good around the moments of angularity. In fact, together with Marcio Meynz, Blake does a great job of communicating specific moments and emotions with very little. With such sparsity, the faintest shade or curve of a line can color an entire panel.
Indeed, Blake’s strength lies not in any single character or setting, but in his storytelling. This issue is full of clever layouts and cinematic ‘camera movement’, for lack of more comic specific term. Even the simplest panels possess clear motion and tone and, more often than not they flow meaningfully into the next one.
- It is seriously weird to compare this with the first issue of Power Man and Iron Fist and, in fact, kind of ironic. Despite the classic title, the hero who appeared in that series was very much the Luke Cage version: calmer, sturdy, concerned about his wife and daughter. Amazingly, in the span of those fifteen incredible issues, Luke’s life has drastically changed off panel. All of a sudden, he’s on his own, doing good in exchange for (extremely altruistic) favors. He’s one tiara short of a Power Man! They both work, but it’s definitely odd to think that the character could shift from one interpretation to the other with almost no mention in either series.
Luke Cage’s new #1 seeks to build a world around Marvel’s first headlining African-American superhero and, in doing so, David Walker and co. follow all the rules for building up a character. The story is a classic return to basics that seeks to connect Cage with the process that made him. Detractors will rightfully say that there’s not a lot that’s new on display here and that the art, nice as it is, fails to give a sense of an A-List revival for an overdue character seeing the peak of his popularity, but, at least in issue #1, that doesn’t seem to be the point of this one.
This is a welcoming open to a series that is already brimming with heart and depth. Walker’s distinctly noir-ish sensibility combines with Blake’s wonderful storytelling and Luke Cage’s clear and likable personality to provide a reading experience that not only has great fun with the tropes it invokes, but seems destined to stay relevant on bookstore shelves long after it fades from the new releases wall. This issue puts in the work, the down and dirty of storytelling. And, though it could benefit from a bigger hook for those who haven’t yet realized the inherent appeal of Luke Cage, like its protagonist this issue stands strong, primed for incredible possibilities.