Luke Cage: Marvel's superhero for the Black Lives Matter age
This week, comic book fans have been bingeing on Marvel's new Netflix series Luke Cage. The hero is a black man who lives in Harlem. His cape is a hoodie. And his super-power is that he's bullet-proof. It's based on the '70s comic book series.
Luke Cage, who made his Netflix debut with a brief appearance in the Jessica Jones series, is the first black superhero to get his own TV show.
The show, created by African-American writer Cheo Hodari Coker, features a predominantly black cast. Cage is played by Mike Colter. With mentions of #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) 30 minutes into the first episode, along with several references, throughout the first season, to black men and women who've been gunned down by police, Cage is being hailed as a warrior for the BLM era.
When David Brothers, a comic book critic and branding manager at Image Comics, first heard that the Marvel character would be getting his own show, he was skeptical. The character emerged from the blaxploitation era, but was also Marvel's first black superhero to get his own comic book series.
But Brothers says that the Netflix adaptation effectively steers away from the origin of the old comic. He says a lot of the show's success has to do with the show's creator Coker.
"As much as I love the comics, I've never connected to the comics the way I have with the show, even when they have a black writer and a black artist working on them because the comics still have to be a Marvel comics thing. But this show does a really good job of standing on its own," explains Brothers.
He says the show explores topics concerning the black community, including Black Lives Matter, through regular interactions.
Comics and diversity
"I have a lot of appreciation for the old stuff. A lot of it is influenced by books by Chester Himes. That's kind of where Luke Cage got his 'Sweet Christmas!' catchphrase. But the new stuff really digs deep into black culture, which is a huge amorphous thing it covers every aspect of being black and it just puts it out there, like it's totally normal. So people talk about Jamel Shabazz, who chronicled a lot of '70s and '80s urban culture, in New York and other cities. He gets name dropped and that was a really cool thing to see."
But Brothers says that Marvel's comic books may not be the ideal place to explore serious issues. They're limited in what they can express. "Your average comic is 20 to 22 pages. It's tough to discuss racism, when you have to have a fight scene for eight pages in the middle of an issue."
Marvel's roster of characters has historically been predominantly white. For years, the franchise has failed to match the diversity of its fan base through its content. As a kid, what kept Brothers interested were the few diverse people that were featured.
"Coming up as a kid, everyone I knew read Marvel comics and I think groups like the X-men, for instance, which were made of people of colour, people who are on the LGBT spectrum, they were all represented in those books. So even if they were being made generally by straight white men, there was always something in there for us to latch onto."
Fortunately, Marvel wasn't the only publisher in the game. There were other comic books that were working to showcase more diverse characters and stories at the time. When Brothers was young, Milestone Media, a company founded by a group of black men, published some of them.
"They were the kind of comics that people, who wanted people like me to read comic books were making. They knew there was a hole in the market and there was an audience for these kinds of stories and they went for it."
He says Luke Cage is doing the same.
"It's a silly complaint," he says of the criticisms that the show is too black. "From my point of view, I've been watching shows that are extremely white for years. And Seinfeld is still hilarious, but there are precious few people of colour on that show.