Comics Vixen: Why Luke Cage Still Matters
There are, occasionally, exemplary examples of certain art forms that herald a new era. “Groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” are words that come to mind. The new Netflix hit Luke Cage may not be seen as such by many viewers. It falls into the realm of slightly pulpy comic-book-based entertainment, in spite of its many serious moments and heavy content. But it hearkens back to many films that were revolutionary. And it does such a good job of bringing the tradition of black film and television to a broad audience, it just might be a revolutionary work itself.
Luke Cage was never meant to be more than a money-making character, both on the page and off. On the page, he was a “Hero for Hire,” existing in a gray area of do-gooders: he did good works, but wasn’t above accepting money for them. Off the page, it was a pure moneymaking scheme, along with much of the blaxploitation genre.
Blaxploitation, originally a film category, was meant to “exploit” tropes thought to interest black audiences: sex, violence, urban settings, attractive people, crime schemes. But the genre quickly defied expectations by proving to be of interest to wide audiences beyond the black inner city. In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that campy excesses of sex, violence, and crime were major sellers to viewers of all races. Much of the film world looks something like that today, albeit sans the diverse casts. But at the time, the widespread success of the genre came as a surprise, and sparked a need for a comic book character that would fill the same role. So Luke Cage was born.
Cage was intended to bring those same blaxploitation tropes to comic book audiences. A black comic book character was revolutionary in itself at that time: first appearing in 1972, he was one of the first black superheroes. But the character himself wasn’t that deep. And just as the blaxploitation genre peaked, so it eventually fell. It remains popular among modern audiences today, but at the time, the saturated market began to seek other forms of storytelling.
So Luke Cage’s incredible capacity to survive isn’t just a characteristic of his superpowers. It’s remarkable that he was successfully revamped and reinterpreted so many times that he’s still in comic books today, after his niche beginning. It goes to show that black characters are as dynamic, important, and capable of navigating updates and changes as anyone in the comic book world (something which should be a given, but isn’t among many readers).
As a genre, blaxploitation wasn’t without issues. It frequently portrayed black characters as sex-driven, violence-loving crime addicts, perpetuating problematic misconceptions about black people in general. But it was also good in many ways. It introduced audiences far beyond the intended black urban America to black actors, black music, and black heroes (even if they tended to be anti-heroes).
And it sparked imitation in later works by well-known black artists, the most prominent of which is probably Spike Lee. It’s not hard to see the blaxploitation influence, from his best-known work, Do the Right Thing, to his most recent film, Chi-Raq (which has even more blaxploitation elements than his prior works in some ways). He often exchanged the hyperbole of crime and sex for more realistic gray areas, but kept the gorgeous visuals and highly charged content. Stylistically, the storytelling is similar to blaxploitation, but the story itself is more nuanced and gives a more accurate portrayal of the realities of black America.
Luke Cage is the next step in this process. It hearkens back to a history that started with blaxploitation, while moving it forward (always) into the modern era. But maybe the most important thing is that it’s marketed to a general audience, and not just a black audience. For movies featuring black stories and characters, this is a bit less uncommon. But when it comes to television shows, it’s extraordinarily rare to see a show that features almost exclusively black characters and black stories without being marketed to an exclusively black audience.
It’s not that there isn’t great black television out there, or that marketing to black audiences is bad. But aside from a handful of things like The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, not many white people watch shows that feature highly diverse, black casts. There are shows like Scandal that feature a black lead and several prominent black characters, but they’re surrounded by a sea of whiteness. Empire strikes a little bit closer, with its largely black cast, although I’ve heard tell it may have fallen into some problematic stereotypes. But Luke Cage takes the full step, saying, “Yes, this is black America, these are black actors, these are black stories, and everyone is going to want to watch this.”
It turns out, the creators were right. The show has been (well-deservedly) wildly popular since its debut on Netflix. Although it can be argued that it plays things a little too safe at times, like with its depiction of a mostly-good police force with just a few corrupt players, the show does a good job of tackling modern problems like police brutality while avoiding the accusatory hyperbole that can lose audience members. It’s topical without being preachy. It tells a viscerally real story in spite of its clearly fictional elements (in addition to the superpowers held by its titular character, it is set in a modern Harlem that’s still almost entirely black, which sadly is not really the case anymore).
Fantasy is sometimes our best window into reality, and Luke Cage is exemplary of this fact. It uses the tropes of sex, corny lines, and beautiful actors, as well as urban scenes and camera angles highly reminiscent of its blaxploitation origins. Few onscreen comic book interpretations manage to inject the corniness of old comics into serious storytelling so well. But Luke Cage marries those elements beautifully. It hearkens back to its roots with grace, and continues to introduce widespread audiences to new black actors, black musicians, and black cultural and historical icons. It is unapologetic in its blackness. And it combats the myth that black stories are not relatable stories, or compelling stories, or important stories. They are all of these things, not just to black audiences, but to everyone.