Commentary: Why Luke Cage Matters

A former Marvel artist who drew the Harlem superhero on the importance of images.

I learned at an early age that images matter.

It was in the 1980s when I first discovered the Luke Cage comics published by Marvel. Back in my junior high school days, I bought comics by the boatload. Being a serious comic fan,  life was defined by which books arrived at the local candy store that week. Back then, the cost of a comic was thirty-five cents. Let that sink in as you think about today's average price of $3.99 for a single issue! The comic industry was much smaller at that time, but it was filled with big ideas. Every week I would get my fix of new stories featuring characters named The X-Men, The Fantastic Four and Iron Fist.
For you civilians, the classic superhero, Luke Cage, was a Black man imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. While in jail, he was subjected to a Tuskegee type experiment resulting in Cage gaining powers of super strength and bulletproof skin. Luke Cage is also known as Power Man. Shortly after being introduced, Marvel gave the Luke Cage character the more superhero sounding name. In an effort to boost lagging sales, Marvel partnered Cage with a white Kung Fu expert named Iron Fist and renamed his comic series — Luke Cage: Hero For Hire became Power Man and Iron Fist. This black/white, superhero buddy duo had an office in Harlem. They walked down 125th Street in costume. They fought crime — and I believed it.

If executed well, comics can make you believe in almost anything. I believed that a Black man could be a superhero. Luke Cage was bulletproof and could knock a dude across the street. Cage made his way into my schoolyard fan debates about power rankings. "Who was stronger? The Hulk or Power Man? Who could win in a fight, Power Man or Wolverine?"

A Black superhero was in the conversation. A Black superhero mattered.

My love of comics sparked my interest in drawing. I majored in art at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. In the 1990s, while a junior at The School of Visual Arts, I landed my first  job as an artist for Marvel. After working in comics professionally and transitioning into an adult, my regular comic reading dropped off. I began to see the world differently, or rather, how the world always was. However, the years of reading comics were burned into my psyche. I was a fan for life.

Whenever I was hired to draw an iconic character such as Batman or Captain America, I had to pinch myself. This Black kid from the Bronx drawing characters known throughout the world? GTFOH! It was a special day when Marvel approached me to draw the mini-series, Luke Cage Noir. The project was tailor made for my noir-inspired art style. The alternate story re-imagined the character of Luke Cage, originally created in the wake of the Blaxploitation film era, as a man in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Written by screenwriters Michael Benson and Adam Glass, the series was grounded in gritty realism and touched on issues of race and class. It allowed the adult in me to reinterpret the stereotypical character I easily accepted as a kid. Gone were Cage's trademark metal tiara, his yellow silk shirt, blue spandex and pirate boots. Instead, my version of Luke Cage wore a classic suit and a fedora. His look was loosely modeled after the great Black actor Paul Robeson. Working alongside cover artist Tim Bradstreet, I designed a set of covers that depicted Luke Cage as larger than life.

As an adult, I understand how much representation matters.

Today, kids don't read as much and that's unfortunate. As technology advances, there are many forms of entertainment that are visually more interesting than words and static images. Despite being a true American art form, comics have often been ghettoized and seen as indistinguishable from comic strips or animation. However, today's Hollywood studio execs grew up on comics. Like me, they believed in these characters and stories. As a result, films and TV shows based on comic book properties dominate the entertainment industry like never before.

At the same time, grim realities like racism, classism and social injustice now occupy the public psyche in a much larger way than when I was a kid. Make no mistake, these threats were always present. Only now, they are regularly exposed by civilians and commercialized for profit by various media outlets. The world needs positive images of Black men now more than ever. That is exactly what makes the new Marvel/Netflix Luke Cage television series so important in 2016.

Kids and adults need to see a hero can look like them. A superhero who can look like their neighbor, like the man or woman sitting across from them on the train. Luke Cage proves that images matter.

Shawn Martinbrough is a creator/artist who has illustrated characters such as Luke Cage, Batman, Captain America and Black Panther for Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics. He is the artist of the acclaimed crime series "Thief of Thieves" written by Andy Diggle and Robert Kirkman, the creator of "The Walking Dead." Shawn's art instructional book, "How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling," is published by Random House and has been reprinted in several languages.

More of Shawn's work can be viewed at
He forces himself to tweet at @smartinbrough and recently discovered and joined Instagram at @smartinbrough


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