Throughout comics and their history, we have seen the extenuating circumstances of the origin stories of characters change. Iron Man was originally injured in a war, and over the years, they just keep changing what the original conflict was, so that Tony Stark isn’t 100 years old. In some cases, it is easy to retcon and keep moving. But some characters are harder to do that with.
In 1972, 3 creators, riding the wave of popular blaxploitation films of the era, created the character Power Man aka Luke Cage. It was clearly a case of pandering and it allowed the creators to tell the story of an African American hero who was fighting crime at the street level. Wearing skin tight jeans, a frilly yellow shirt and a chain for a belt, topped off with a tiara, Luke Cage was like no hero Marvel had seen before.
Luke Cage was a child of poverty and the streets who wound up going to jail because he was set-up, after his childhood friend, who had gone down the path of organized crime that Cage rejected, thought that Cage had stolen his girl.
Though innocent, Cage is treated horribly as his own anger about his circumstances and being incarcerated were a poor match. Eventually, after suffering police abuse, Cage is in an experiment where, after an abusive guard has adjusted the parameters past what Cage was supposed to experience, Cage winds up with super strength and nearly impervious skin.
Luke Cage breaks out of prison, returns to New York, and decides to become a hero for hire.
When the blaxploitation era slowly faded away, so did the sales of Power Man, Hero for Hire. But Marvel decided to do something that in retrospect was genius, likely saving several of their characters. Rather than cancel the titles of two heroes, Marvel merged the stories of Luke Cage, Power Man, with the Kung-Fu based character Danny Rand, aka the Iron Fist, and the two became Heroes for Hire.
That book, co-led by the two heroes, lasted for a long time, and Power Man and Iron Fist became a version of Marvel’s buddy cop scenario. The streetwise Cage and the wealthy martial artist Rand become best friends and had a stellar supporting cast, most notably Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, the Daughters of the Dragon, martial artist private detectives.
There are several attempts to retcon Luke Cage over the years between the end of Power Man and Iron Fist. Each scenario was a little bit flawed and the character really doesn’t have a resurgence until Brian Michael Bendis makes Cage a part of this Jessica Jones series Alias. This adult comic allowed Cage to be explored in new and different ways, eventually having Jessica and Luke become a regular couple.
Bendis, seemingly having found a love of the character, then has Cage be a part of the relaunch of the New Avengers, and Cage fights alongside Captain America and crew, becoming one of the core members of the team. Since that time, Cage has consistently been a key factor in the Marvel universe, having been an Avenger, a leader of the Thunderbolts and, currently, reunited with Iron Fist in a critically acclaimed Power Man and Iron Fist comic, written by David F. Walker and drawn by Sanford Greene.
And Luke Cage is also prominent because of this appearance, first in the Netflix Jessica Jones series and in his soon to be released self titled show, which releases on September 30, 2016. The discussions of the show by the creators demonstrate that they want to use Luke Cage in ways that are helpful past his unfortunate in some ways origin story; when he could easily be a stereotype birthed in the blaxploitation era, good writers have used Cage to be a commentary on the world around him (and us) and giving voice to a different perspective.
The goody two shoes America of Steve Rogers isn’t the America Luke Cage knows; having those two extremes held in opposition creates some healthy and needed dialogue that makes Cage such a great character when used well. Seeing those ideals interact in the comics gives some hope for the Netflix show, which will continue the trend of street level characters doing the best they can to bring help and hope to the world.