Luke Cage, Hero for Hire: Counter-Cultural Values and Mixed Messages
Kind of in the spirit of Lorendiac and Emerald Archer, I'm going to try and take an extensive look at a particular aspect of comics lore. I've always felt that the portrayal of minorities in comics, particularly those that try to represent an "urban" perspective, always end up feeling a bit awkward. Since Luke Cage is definately one of the blueprints for these kinds of characters, his origin issues (which are available pretty cheaply as part of the black and white Marvel: Essentials books) seemed to be a good place to start taking a look at some of these issues. Anyway, here goes:
Although Luke Cage appears to symbolize counter-cultural values by rebelling against a corrupt white establishment in Hero for Hire, he often unwittingly helps to support and validate the system that created him through its neglect. As an escaped convict who has changed his name, been wronged by the system, and who maintains an unorthodox method of making a living, there is evidence that the authors attempted to portray Cage as a symbol of society's flaws and representative of anti-establishment ideology. However, after examining the events and themes in Hero for Hire, it is clear that this is not always the case. While he does deal primarily with the poor and helps to work for social justice, Cage generally fights to protect the establishment or maintain some other status quo. Although Cage has noble intentions, this dynamic often manifests itself through his gullibility: by going for the “bottom line,” Cage sometimes works to advance values that run counter to his own beliefs. In this sense, he is exploited by the consensus culture because the portrayal of his character and actions in many of these issues support the flawed establishment that led to his creation.
In superhero stories, the factors and events that lead to the “origin” of the hero serve as symbols of what motivates the character, where they come from, and their ideology. Much like the prison guards, by playing a part in Cage's origin, Dr. Burstein is a symbol of the exploitation that Cage endured before his transformation. By telling Cage that “volunteering for a project like mine is the kind of thing that influences parole boards,” Burstein is able to manipulate Cage into participating in a very risky experiment because of his position in society, when he could have used his clout as the prison doctor to testify on the behalf of Cage before a parole board in a more fair and direct manner. Although Burstein later expresses his regret for the role he played in the experiment, Cage still ultimately allies with one of the most prominent symbols of exploitation in his origin story. Despite his change of heart, Burstein still keeps a journal of his experiments, which can be read as a lingering attachment to his previous work and allows Cage's exploitation later in the series by Rackham.
The contradiction between representing seemingly counter-cultural values while supporting the establishment is also central to the problems that Cage faces in “The Phantom of 42nd Street.” In this issue, Cage is hired by Jasper Brunt to protect himself and his theater chain from the enigmatic Phantom. Cage is not motivated to help Brunt because of monetary concerns, but rather by his meeting with the Phantom in D.W.'s place, suspicions about the scene with Jacques in the doctor's office, and Brunt's statement about Loring's face. However, Brunt refers to Cage as “your superhero friend who operates on the profit motive,” and expects him to jump at the opportunity to make some money. Although he is not motivated by money in this situation, the perception of Luke Cage as “Hero for Hire” is what attracts Brunt and ultimately makes Cage vulnerable to Brunt's manipulation. This impetus provided by Brunt caused Cage to tirelessly pursue the Phantom and his associates. We find out that Brunt actually embezzled from his partner Loring, killed him, took all of his assets, and turned them into a thriving business, which drastically changes the context of the situation for Cage. By the time Cage realizes the truth, both Armand and Brunt are dead and neither party receives appropriate justice. In this sense, although Cage is tricked and probably would not protect someone like Brunt if he had all of the facts, he ultimately still protects a symbol of the establishment and subverts counter-cultural forces because of his self-portrayal as a “Hero for Hire.”
Armand represents similar values as Luke Cage. He was cheated out of his ownership, spurned by society, and consequently turned to criminality to survive. Armand is a product of a flawed society, on the run from the law, and decides to take the law into his own hands. Similarly, Cage was thrust into his own situation by an unfair set of circumstances, became a fugitive from prison, and enforces his own vision of justice through vigilantism. Under the law, Brunt is not guilty of anything and it is unlikely that he would ever be convicted for his crimes. On the other hand, Armand's sabotage of Brunt's chain of movies is clearly illegal. However, given the similarity in Armand and Cage's perception of society from their experiences, Cage's view of what justice is would favor Armand over Brunt. Still, throughout most of the story Cage was essentially being employed to protect Brunt's property in a morally ambiguous situation. By acting much more like a security guard enforcing law and social order, rather than as an agent of social justice to help a character with similar experiences, Cage advances the mindset of his prison oppressors as opposed to his own ideology. Although Cage does express regret when both Armand and Brunt plunge to their deaths, Cage is still unwittingly complicit because it is the public's perception of Cage as a mercenary that led him to work for Brunt in the first place.
There are other instances where Luke Cage's “profit motive” obscures or jeopardizes the counter-cultural values that he is supposed to represent. While Cage is socially conscious, he also takes jobs with the primary intent of making profit, from his line about his wallet being thicker on the last page of issue six, as well as telling Dr. Doom “Well... I don't dig it... but you got a right to hire me like anybody else.” There are several consequences to this drive that manifest themselves in the two-issue story about Dr. Doom and the robots. Cage is complicit in keeping the robots enslaved and exploited by Dr. Doom's social order, because ultimately he is concerned with collecting on his two hundred dollars when he could have toppled Doom's regime. Cage understands that Dr. Doom is in an endless conflict with the Fantastic Four and not trustworthy, but still takes on the job for profit. In his effort to get paid, Cage does not do anything about the robot resistance and it is even explicitly referred to as not Cage's concern. One of the last frames of the issue shows a newspaper stating that Dr. Doom crushed the rebellion and retained control of his country, which is an outcome that Cage could have affected by pursuing Doom even after he was paid.
One critical component of the dichotomy between representing seemingly counter-cultural values while actually supporting the status quo is the depiction of Luke Cage as a black member of society. Archie Goodwin and other Hero for Hire writers should be commended for creating a comparatively strong and nuanced black lead, particularly in light of his predecessors like Black Panther and Black Lightning. Unfortunately, like Luke Cage himself, they unwittingly undermine their goal of creating a strong working-class hero through their portrayal of African Americans. Despite rebelling against an oppressive and racist penal system, Luke Cage is still a walking stereotype that reinforces negative misconceptions of African Americans. In this sense, Cage represents the dichotomy between counter-cultural values and the status quo because the book appears to challenge the way that blacks are dealt with in fiction, but really undermines the movement for a more balanced portrayal by use of stereotypes. Cage's nonsensical use of language seems to be aimed more toward satisfying suburban perceptions of slang, rather than providing meaningful examples of communication. As opposed to most other common superheroes, one of Lucas' defining characteristics is that he is naturally athletic, even before his “transformation.” In addition, Cage is overly aggressive, very masculine, and frequently shouts. In the crossover issue with the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom, Cage's anger eclipses even that of The Thing, normally one of the most angry and aggressive characters in the Marvel Universe. Where most superheroes balance multiple roles, responsibilities, and conceptions of identity, we rarely see a gentle, toned-down Luke Cage. Although Luke Cage is portrayed as intelligent, he also seems to be misled or fooled by his employers on a frequent basis (Mr. Brunt's involvement in Loring's murder, Dr. Doom and the robots, Mrs. Jenks role in her husband's death). Furthermore, Cage is expected to be strong, but the characters and readers are surprised whenever he shows intelligence in solving problems. His gullibility, combined with the authors' portrayal of slang and overly athletic and extremely “macho” characterization of Cage portrays African Americans as one-dimensional and sets a terrible precedent for future black superheroes.
There is ample evidence to show that Luke Cage is a charitable and well-meaning character dedicated to social justice and fixing the societal conditions that led to his own creation as a superhero. For example, he is more generous with his poorer clients and expresses regret when he does not see justice being served. Unfortunately, in practice Cage's motivation by profit and unwitting support of establishment values both serve to undermine these goals in Hero for Hire. Despite his noble intentions, Cage condones an exploitative relationship in the robots story because of the profit motive, supports one of the most prominent symbols of his own exploitation in Dr. Burstein, and executes what he would consider to be an unjust application of the law in the story about the Phantom. Similarly, despite the noble intentions of the authors to portray African-Americans in a positive light, these stories still rely on stereotypes to try and capture the imagination of their targeted audience. Cage wavers back and forth between seeking profit and exercising his generosity, in his compassion for other individuals, in his successes in representing his ideology, and in his portrayal as a strong African American character.
Regardless of whether these elements were intentional or not, Luke Cage is just as conflicted as other Marvel superheroes like the Hulk, Christian Walker, and the Runaways. Hero for Hire was certainly an ambitious and well-intentioned effort at expanding the superhero genre to include characters informed by an urban perspective, but by undermining some of these ideals it ultimately proved to be a flawed attempt at advancing these goals. While the comics industry has certainly treated black characters better through more peripheral characters like Crispus Allen and series such as Static Shock, as a whole it still cannot seem to truly effectively tell stories informed by an urban perspective.