This month, at Wizard World Atlanta, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Dr. Jonathan Gales about representations of Black masculinity in comics for his documentary on Black superheroes. (Please check out his website, www.BlackSuperheroDoc.com , for some great interviews with some real smart and groundbreaking voices. I was honored to be included among their number.) One of the topics we discussed was Marvel Comics’ Luke Cage. Because I’m such a huge fan of Stuart Immonen’s work, New Avengers is currently the only comic book I pick up on a monthly basis. Because of Luke Cage’s prominent role in the old New Avengers and the recently re-launched and re-numbered New New Avengers, I’ve become pretty well versed in writer, Brian Michael Bendis’ depiction of the character, and I have to say:
I’m not a fan of the way Brian Michael Bendis writes Luke Cage.
Before I continue, let me preface my remarks by saying that none, I repeat, NONE of what I am about to say is meant to imply that Mr. Bendis harbors any racist attitudes, beliefs, tendencies, prejudices, etc. That is a million miles away from my conclusion, and it is not what you should infer from this column.
Since his debut in 1972, Luke Cage, aka Power Man, has been a cult favorite and guilty pleasure for a niche audience of comic book fans, particularly Black fans. Brian Michael Bendis deserves an extraordinary amount of credit for renewing interest in the character of Luke Cage among a broader comics audience. Brian Michael Bendis has made no secret of his affection for the character and I appreciate the work that he has done to shepherd the character from semi-dormant intellectual property/punchline to the leader of a branch of the Marvel Comics’ preeminent super team. Bendis’ decision to use Luke Cage as a supporting character in the pages of his series Marvel MAX series, Alias, marked the beginning of the Luke Cage revival and he has steadily pushed him into a higher profile since then. I also respect and appreciate that Bendis has taken considerable pains to show Luke Cage in a positive light and fight enduring stereotypes of Black men. Bendis’ Cage is man of principle, a leader, a committed friend, a loyal and loving husband, and a doting and protective father.
Despite Bendis’ considerable affection for Cage, with creators there can sometimes be a gap between “affection” for a character and “understanding” that character. There have been occasions when Bendis has written Luke Cage in a manner that seems at odds with past appearances of the character or, at worst seemed tone deaf to the experiences of most Black men in America.
DICK RIDIN’ CAPTAIN AMERICA
The hook of New Avengers: Volume I, was that Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, reformed the Avengers from the rag-tag assemblage of heroes who banded together to quell a prison break/riot at the Raft, a maximum security penitentiary. Luke Cage was among those heroes and the day after the riot, Captain America met individually with all of them to extend a personal invitation to join the new team.
Now at this point in the story, every other hero Captain America had visited was already out and about, going about their business. However, at four in the afternoon, Luke Cage is just getting up. It makes Cage seem lazy, especially since he and his pregnant wife live in apartment that could use a few touch ups based on the paint chipping from the walls. Arguably, it’s a minor point, but it’s bad optics that plays into an ugly stereotype. Then there’s this:
It’s the fifth panel that stuck in my craw. Luke Cage was the “Hero For Hire.” The Avengers is the only super team that offers a paycheck (more on that in a minute). Like I said, he’s living in an apartment that could use some work and has a heavily pregnant wife. It’s a sweet sentiment that he wants his unborn daughter to be proud of him, but the pragmatic hero for hire’s first concern might be, “Whatcha paying and what sort of health plan is there?” Why does he need the Avengers, and Captain America in particular, to validate his life? Also, Cage’s “new way of doing things” really didn’t emerge. The need for quick, dirty, abrupt changes was thrust upon the New Avengers when the team went underground during the Civil War/Siege events, but I don’t recall Cage initiating or requesting any big changes while Steve Rogers was at the helm of the Avengers.
Bendis’ Cage also demonstrates a consistent pattern of token resistance (no pun intended) to Captain America, followed by quick, unquestioning deference to him. Given Cage’s background as a Black man who was twice wrongfully imprisoned and a long history as an independent operative and businessman, one would expect a greater mistrust of authority. Instead, Cage seems perpetually awestruck by Captain America. I think Bendis correctly intuits that Cage should assert his independence, but he can’t seem to quite capture how or why. This is a theme that emerges throughout Bendis’ handling of Cage.
In the first issue of New Avengers: Vol. II, Captain America offers Luke Cage his very own team of Avengers, with the caveat that “You can’t have Thor or Iron Man.” Luke’s team consisted of fan favorites, like Spider-Man and Wolverine, but wouldn’t it have made a stronger impression for the three characters most identified with the Avengers to step aside and appoint Luke Cage as their leader in recognition for how he upheld the principles of the team during the entire Civil War/Siege fiasco?
Captain America also requests that Luke accept Victoria Hand as a liaison for the team. Victoria Hand was the second-in-command of Norman Osborn, the villain who forced Luke Cage and his family to live on the run and made their lives a living Hell for the better part of a year during the Civil War/Siege events. Hand’s interview for the job consists of showing up at the Avengers Mansion with a note from Steve Rogers and a giant Liefeld 3000 gun which she shoves point blank into the face of Luke’s wife and infant daughter.
Now, why would Captain America want someone like that working with Luke Cage and the Avengers? Because, as Steve Rogers wrote in his note, Hand deserves a second chance and Rogers needed “someone to keep track” of them. ”Not to interfere or to tell you what to do,” Rogers writes. “Just to help facilitate your work there.” Luke’s obvious answer here should be to tell Rogers to kiss his natural Black ass. If he wants someone to “facilitate” his work, call Accountemps or put an add on Monster.com for an administrative assistant, don’t send an archvillain’s Girl Friday with a note pinned to her blouse. Besides, since when does Luke need anyone to “keep track” of him and his team? If you wanna play that game, Captain America, Luke will have Shades and Comanche ringing your doorbell tomorrow morning and start auditing YOUR damn team! “Keep track of” is some paternalistic bullshit that Luke Cage would have none of. Instead, he welcomes Victoria Hand aboard over the objections of his wife, Jessica. Sure, Victoria Hand hounded Luke and the New Avengers for months like runaway slaves. Of course, hours before Luke decides to relent and give Victoria Hand a job (heh), she was holding his baby daughter at gunpoint, but Captain America says she’s cool, so Luke’s willing to let little things like that slide.
THE MANDINGO COMPLEX
In Alias, Brian Michael Bendis introduced Jessica Jones, a former super-hero turned private investigator. In the very first issue, Jessica seeks to distract herself from her problems with the help of a little booze and casual sex, both of which Luke Cage is more than happy to supply.
In subsequent appearances, Bendis has implied that Luke Cage was the town bicycle for the women of the Marvel Universe. In New Avengers #7 alone, there are two such inferences: one by an employee of Damage Control and the other by former Avenger, Tigra.
Granted, in the above pages, Luke Cage’s sexual history is put on display in front of his wife, which would be uncomfortable for any man. However, when you contrast how this scene is played with a later scene in the very same issue which involves Wolverine and Squirrel Girl, who are revealed to be former lovers, there’s a world of difference in tone. In the former, and with the Tigra episode, the women’s leers reduce Luke to a big, Black dildo with steel-hard skin. In the latter, Wolverine and Squirrel Girl engage in a brief conversation in which the two discuss their past dalliance in a mature, adult manner.
Bendis’ intent may be to make Luke Cage seem like the ultimate ladies’ man, but instances like the ones above do more to objectify Luke than making him seem like a super-stud. Bendis’ Cage doesn’t own his sexuality like other comic book ladies’ men, such as Tony Stark or Oliver Queen. He didn’t even initiate the first sexual encounter with his future wife. As the above scan from Alias demonstrates, in that encounter, Jessica wasn’t even necessarily looking for pleasure. She had no concern for Luke’s pleasure or feelings, either. Jessica was seeking pain and humiliation. It’s a clever enough gender reversal where the guy is usually the one who wants to get his rocks off without any regard for his female partner, but unfortunately there’s enough ambiguity in the art and writing to leave the reader wondering whether Jessica’s feelings were derived from rough, anal sex or the perceived taboo of interracial sex. (That single sentence totally skewed my Google search hits.)
If Bendis wants readers to believe Luke is a reformed Lothario or some kind of bedroom gangsta, he should really give us some evidence of the charm, flirtatiousness, or swagger that would make Luke such a hit with the ladies. Even though he’s married, that should still be evident, but Bendis never even gives us a hint of Cage’s game. What does Cage say or do to make himself irresistible to women? That sort of interplay should be tailor-made for a writer whose trademark is lengthy dialogue exchanges. Unfortunately, that aspect of Cage’s personality never comes across under Bendis, so from the knowing smirks of these women, the reader is left to conclude that they come on to Luke to see if the rumors about Black guys were true. Luke certainly seems to have given each of these ladies a good time, or at least been attentive enough as a lover to give them what they were looking for (”Pain. Humility. Anger.”) Nonetheless, in every one of these instances, Luke Cage comes off like a clueless Black buck. He’s Ken Norton in Mandingo, cluelessly waiting in the barn for the slave master’s daughter to tiptoe in and satisfy her curiosity about the new Black buck her daddy bought. In this set-up, any potential reader discomfort over a sexually aggressive Black man is neatly shelved, but the wink-wink-nudge-nudge mythology of the Black male as prodigious, and prolific, sexual titan is preserved.
Next week in Part II, I’ll focus on the most drastic difference between past portrayals of Luke Cage and Bendis’ current interpretation: Luke Cage as self-made entrepreneneur and businessman.