Luke Cage Celebrates His 50th Anniversary as a Comic Book Character

Today, we take a look back to 50 years ago, when Luke Cage made his comic book debut and the Hero for Hire first opened up shop in the comics.

This is “Look Back,” where every four weeks of a month, I will spotlight a single issue of a comic book that came out in the past and talk about that issue (often in terms of a larger scale, like the series overall, etc.). Each spotlight will be a look at a comic book from a different year that came out the same month X amount of years ago. The first spotlight of the month looks at a book that came out this month ten years ago. The second spotlight looks at a book that came out this month 25 years ago. The third spotlight looks at a book that came out this month 50 years ago. The fourth spotlight looks at a book that came out this month 75 years ago. The occasional fifth week (we look at weeks broadly, so if a month has either five Sundays or five Saturdays, it counts as having a fifth week) looks at books from 20/30/40/60/70/80 years ago.


Today, we go back to March 1972 for Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 by Archie Goodwin, George Tusks and Billy Graham, featuring the first appearance of Luke Cage.

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WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE CREATION OF LUKE CAGE?

In 1970, the legendary Ossie Davis co-wrote and directed Cotton Comes to Harlem, a film about two Black NYPD detectives hunting down a drug shipment in Harlem. The film was a surprise smash, earning back $5 million on a $1 million budget, good for the 22nd highest grossing film of the year.

The success of Cotton Comes to Harlem led to two other major Black-themed hit films in 1971. While Cotton Comes to Harlem was still a definite studio film, the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, written/directed/starring Melvin Van Peebles, was the real stunning success story. Shot for less than $200,000, the film grossed over $15 million at the box office. A more traditional, but still highly influential film, shaft (directed by the great Gordon Parks), also came out in 1971, shot for half a million and took in over $10 million at the box office.


The success of these films featuring Black stars with an edge (particularly Sweet Sweetback)…


obviously had a major influence on Marvel Comics, which (like most comic book companies) was wont to make creative decisions based on what was popular in pop culture at the time (which, of course, makes perfect sense).

In the excellent American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1970s from TwoMorrows by Jason Sacks and Keith Dallas, Roy Thomas explained what Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Stan Lee, told him that he wanted from a new hero in the vein of these hit films, “Stan didn’t want a typical super-hero name for the comic, but wanted him to want to make a paying career of crime-busting, and was looking for a title. I had some months ago written an Avengers issue called “Heroes for Hire,” so I suggested Hero for Hire. Stan also wanted a good one-word name for him that was atypical, and I suggested “Cage.” “


John Romita then designed the look for Cage and Thomas assigned the comic book to Archie Goodwin and George Tuska, making sure to add Billy Graham as the inker of the book. Graham was one of the few Black comic book creators working for Marvel at the time and Thomas wanted to “make certain that George’s African-American characters looked African-American.”

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WHAT WAS LUKE CAGE’S ORIGIN?

In the first issue, we meet Lucas, an inmate who is being regularly abused by the guards as well as the captain of the guards. Luckily for Lucas, a new warden takes over right when Lucas is receiving a hell of a beating…



The warden then gives Lucas some alone time with his tormenter and demoted the guard captain down to a regular guard, warning him that he had a week to turn his act around or he would lose that job, too. However, the guard continued to threaten Lucas.

The warden also brought in a new prison doctor, Dr. Burstein, who checks on Lucas’ wounds and tells him about an experiment he was working on that could use a volunteer and that doing will help Lucas get paroled (Lucas fills Burstein in on his life story, namely that his former best friend, Willis Stryker, framed him for a crime he didn’t commit to keep Lucas away from the girl that they both loved. to punish Stryker)…



Lucas agrees to the experiment, but during it, the guard messes with it and things explode and in the process, Lucas is given super strength and super durable skin…


He is seemingly shot to death trying to escape, so everyone thinks Lucas is dead…


He washed up in New York City and after saving a store owner from an attack, he got the idea to become a local “Hero for Hire,” using his superpowers to help others while making some money. He goes to a costume shot and debuts an outlandish new look as well as a new name. He’s no longer Lucas, he is Cage – Luke Cage!


Of course, Stryker is still out there and the two are destined to meet on a collision course with each other. Really strong debut for the series. Happy 50th, Luke Cage! You don’t look a day over 25!

If you folks have any suggestions for April (or any other later months) 2012, 1997, 1972 and 1947 comic books for me to spotlight, drop me a line at brianc@cbr.com! Here is the guide, though, for the cover dates of books so that you can make suggestions for books that actually came out in the correct month. Generally speaking, the traditional amount of time between the cover date and the release date of a comic book throughout most of comic history has been two months (it was three months at times, but not during the times we’re discussing here). So the comic books will have a cover date that is two months ahead of the actual release date (so October for a book that came out in August). Obviously, it is easier to tell when a book from 10 years ago was released, since there was internet coverage of books back then.


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