Monday, December 6, 2010
Luke Cage Noir: The Power Man returns in style
I was an avid comics reader when I was a kid, though my loyalties went to DC and its stand-alone issues more than Marvel's serializations that jumped titles with no warning. Still, I kept up with Marvel just to be on the safe side, so I remember the original incarnation of "Luke Cage, Power Man." Created by Archie Goodwin, he was a blaxploitation figure dropped among Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. as (it seemed to me) a pandering attempt to stay "hip." I had no particular beef with the character, he just always seemed to jar against the rest of the Marvel universe: his services were for sale, he wore no mask, and even used his own name. His exaggerated "street language" only added to that.
Which is why this particular reboot, Luke Cage Noir--part of Marvel's "Noir" series that places its heroes in pulp settings--seems to me a much better use of a character who broke ground without necessarily being handled well. Instead of working to fit him into an existing universe, writers Mike Benson and Adam Glass create an appropriate place for him: Prohibition-era Harlem.
In this new continuity, Cage is a felon who comes back to Harlem with business to finish and a reputation for being, literally, bullet-proof. He's quickly embroiled in the murder of a white woman in a Harlem alley, as well as old enemies seeking vengeance. All the plot threads eventually coincide, perhaps too neatly, but nonetheless in a way that remains true to the particular time and place.
The artwork by Shawn Martinbrough is the real standout, creating an effective atmosphere for the grim, intensely personal story. There's a page in part one where Cage takes advantage of the fact that no one in white society pays any attention to the African Americans around them, and the illustrations use the bland smiles of so-called servants to great effect.
Race is a central element in the story, more than I recall in the original Luke Cage comics (although to be fair, it's been so long I could be wrong about that). For modern readers it's an interesting post-modern glimpse into a segregated time where things were far more complex than the history books might suggest.