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Luke Cage Hero for Hire Analysis
March 9th, 2011
Luke Get’s His Foot in the Door Between Past and Future
In the early 1970s, pop culture demanded realism and relevance in their fantasy. As a result, well established characters such as Spiderman, Green Lantern, and even Captain America became immersed in the social and political issues of the times. These superheroes questioned patriotism and searched for solutions to social problems like political corruption, racism, and poverty. Comic book superheroes faced the same uncertainty that many young Americans felt at that time and comic books were a reflection of social upheaval that had left a generation feeling uncertain about their future. Luke Cage is part of a new genre of superheroes who were reflective of the changing culture of the early 1970s and introduced story lines that tested these boundaries. Luke Cage – Hero for Hire is all about making a superhero who can push the envelope of social norms and try to expand them to allow for a more diverse subject matter as well as a broader audience. The writers strive to motivate their readers to see that if we want to break down the barriers enough, it is possible.
This unlikely superhero mirrored changes in American society in the 1970s and called into question assumptions about comic book superheroes. The introduction of non-white characters reflected a growing awareness of the acceptability and profitability of diversity within the comic book industry. It seems that the writers were able to understand that in order to broaden their clientele, they needed to make material that was not so racially specific. It attempted to reach new consumers through characters with whom readers could identify. Previously deemed “unacceptable” themes were starting to become part of the comic industry. While Luke Cage, Hero for Hire introduced an African-American character, the comic book also simultaneously reinforced racialized images of African Americans.
When reading through this comic for the first time, it is not evident that Luke Cage was African American because all of the images of him portray a man who is much lighter skinned than the stereotypical African American man. This is done for a very deliberate reason. The artist wanted Luke Cage to be accepted by the general public even though the notion of this kind of “superhero” was unheard of or rare at best. In order to make it easier to digest, and closer to the imagery already accepted by viewers, the artist chose to make Luke appear as Caucasian as possible while still being multicultural. While the writer’s strived to create a character that was more relatable to the American population, the notion of a multicultural superhero was still very new and they carefully toyed with crossing that line. This is because of the fact that introducing a completely different subject matter than what had been seen before was a bold move that needed to be taken with sensitivity. Playing it safe by still keeping Luke as light skinned as possible while still getting the message across of a multicultural superhero was something that the writers took into careful consideration.
As with all attempts to change popular culture, moves towards advancements and the introduction of new ideas have to be taken slowly. No one can be expected to change the world with the drop of a hat. Reader’s reactions to this new character were both positive and negative. Because of the periodical nature of comic books, these magazines reflected the ongoing public discussion of racial representations in a way that other cultural artifacts such as film and television could not. Through the examination of this unusual character and the analysis of the interactions between the writers, the artists, and the readers, the renegotiation of racialized images becomes clear; while these discussions were not always successful in destroying older stereotypes, the process allowed for a discourse on racial representation at a national level.
The idea of racial cohesion had, of course, been around for a while before Luke Cage was presented to the public but, like most other pop culture artists, these specific artists realized that putting this material into the media, and introducing their ideals on a greater scale would create much more of a ripple in standard social norms than any conference or book could. The audience for media culture is so much larger than the scholarly one. The best way to get people to listen to a particular standpoint is to relate it to something familiar or comfortable. In this case, the artist chose to make Luke Cage lighter skinned than the stereotypical African American in an attempt to slowly break down the barrier between races. The writers knew that racial cohesion was not going to happen overnight but still wanted to introduce the idea to his readers without even really saying anything. He does not bring up a race issue at all the comic. Still, while reading through it, you get the sense of tension between two different ethnic groups.
The chain around his super hero costume could easily be linked to certain social norms and racial oppression in America. The artists used the chain as an icon of slavery and segregation, when African Americans were denied many basic rights as human beings. He chain around his waist and the cuffs on his wrists are a clear reference to how poorly African Americans were treated. The use of this imagery also shows Luke’s power towards breaking down these social norms. Luke Cage embraces the past and where he comes from while trying to change his future for the better. He feels able, now, to take on this challenge. On the other side, he is not trying to change anything within the greater social dynamic. Unlike many superheroes, he does not wish to change the world for the greater good; he only wishes to seek personal benefit and not be so overburdened by his past. Luke Cage, in contrast with the artists’ intentions, is not attempting to break down any stereotypes but there is a clear objective to bring forth the ideal as a whole.
Luke agrees to the doctor’s request to participate in the chemical drug experiment only because he is angry and determined to avenge Reva’s death. Once the old warden challenges him, there is a fire that ignites making everything clear in his mind; he must do whatever it takes to get out of jail. After receiving the chemical bath, he realizes that he has much more potential than he thought and decides to become a “Hero for Hire.” Luke realizes that he is now much stronger than a regular human being and uses this to his advantage. Symbolically, this is an interpretation of African Americans coming out of oppression. Being bolder and stronger than ever before, African Americans decided to take an initiative in the future of the society. Luke’s reasoning, however, for helping others out is not humble. The number one goal is to kill the one person responsible for Reva’s death, who is Willis. He is using his new found powers to earn extra money to survive and does not really care about the well-being of the people who seek his expertise.
From my stand point, he is just trying to live under the radar. He is not trying to look out for anyone else, just himself. From his perspective, if the job pays good money or is going to give him some peace then he agrees to help out but primarily he uses his newly acquired powers to help himself get personal gain.
In comparison between Luke Cage and the typical superheroes of the time period, they both help out others. The only difference is that Luke does it for the money not for fame or admiration. Both of these groups clean up the streets by getting rid of low-life, criminals around them. It is important to compare the “normal” superheroes to Luke because it is through this correlation that pop culture readers were able to better understand Luke Cage and make the transition into broader, less-mainstream material.
In summation, the theme of this story is change; change of social norms and the expansion of the media’s horizons. While there is clear racial tension throughout the comic, it is not about creating cohesion between people of different ethnic groups. Luke wants to get justice for Reva’s death first and foremost but it is so much more than that because he is also willing to help others. Of course, he only agrees is the price is right. He wants to make a kink in the everyday life of people around him without being noticed or honored. In a way the work that Luke does for others is also seen as a sense of personal peace for Reva’s death. Luke makes a difference in the people around him just as superheroes aim to save the world. The aim of this comic is simply to introduce new ideals, not “save the world” from racial oppression. Luke works on a smaller scale and this makes him more relatable and more easily understood. Closing the gap between races is never easy but if we don’t start somewhere, with a small step forward, then no progress will ever be made. Pushing social norms of popular culture during this time is the main objective here. Luke Cage – Hero for Hire aims to introduce the notion of a multicultural superhero without being too bold so that readers can relate to Luke more easily. Historically, changing the way our culture views racial equality, or lack thereof, has proven to be unbelievably stubborn and afraid of adapting. Instead of trying to shove personal stand points from some politician down the throats of news watchers, the writers wanted to try a different approach in delivering their message. Mass media and other forms of pop culture are the most effective ways of reaching a large audience while still making the material relatable to the viewer’s own values and beliefs.
Thomas, Roy, John Romita, Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Gilly Graham, Skip Kohloff. “Out
of Hell – A Hero.” Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1. New York: Marvel Comics, 1972.