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Friday, September 30, 2016

Cover Story - Top 12 Luke Cage Covers

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So Luke Cage has finally premiered and become a pretty major deal.  The show is the final realization of a plan a decade in the making to shepherd G-list blaxploitation hero Luke Cage into the hearts and minds of popular culture.  Ever since his inception in the ‘70s Luke Cage has defined street level cool for Marvel, with his legend persisting through generations of creators and editors till it eventually rose him up to become an Avenger.  

Now, Luke Cage stands tall alongside Marvel’s greatest heroes as one of their premiere black heroes alongside the likes of Black Panther, Storm, and Blade.  What better way to celebrate such a momentous leap forward than with a look into the past and the Top 12 Luke Cage covers of all time.

One thing to bare in mind with this list is that even though Luke had a cult comics following for decades his mainstream appearances were pretty limited.  Aside from his own short lived comic he’s only appeared prominently in a smattering of other comics so there’s going to be a good deal of Power Man and Iron Fist and Heroes of Hire on this list.  As for this cover it’s a brilliant exploration of comic book symmetry and a standout example of what made ‘70s covers so unique.

Marvel was always more mature about their covers than DC, especially during the ‘60s, so during the ‘70s they dove into the idea of cover as metaphor with serious gusto.  In this case, obviously Luke and Iron Fist aren’t killed an atomic bomb blast- that’d be silly, but the cover design works with the idea expertly.  The creepy skull face visual is a great concept and works well with the mushroom cloud acting as the fulcrum of the scenes design.  

It’s also a nice touch how obscured the Doombringer is, with the silhouette of his body framed very chillingly by the explosion.  Again, none of this is literal, it’s more about capturing the mood and theme of the story with a cover that’s eye catching and shocking, building on the mechanics of Silver Age covers with a more mature twist.   

Firstly, this is a superb image.  I think Luke’s classic costume gets a lot of unfair criticism for its tiara/chain/bracelets ensemble but I’ve always considered a standout of comic design.  I mean, the blue and yellow costume is one of the only binary color schemes in superhero comics that actually works and whatever else you might say about his tiara and afro it’s at least memorable.  

In any event, this cover is about as platonic Luke Cage as you can get, it’s like an idea that always existed and is just being tapped into here.  It’s a powerful image in its own right, steeped in a blend of urban grit and comic book whimsy. 

What I really like about this cover, however, is the inter-title button in the upper left corner.  Even though it’s inaccurate (Falcon is the first black superhero) it shows just how proud Marvel was of Luke Cage as a character, which I think is pretty charming.  

Marvel’s always been better about racial diversity than DC and they stand by that here as a point of pride.  Just something to remember if anyone ever tries to convince you that pushing for more diversity on panel is some new, recent thing in comics. 

Now we move into the realm of Luke Cage Noir.  The Noir comics were a series of bizarre altered continuity books from Marvel that re-imagined their various heroes as pulp characters in a pastiche of the ‘30s and ‘50s.  It started with Noir Spider-Man as a ’30s pulp crime-buster and expanded to include Noir Iron Man, X-Men, and Luke Cage.  The Luke Cage one was a damn unique exploration of the role of black people in noir and pulp settings with the classical setting fitting Luke’s larger than life persona shockingly well. 

This cover is a perfect example of that, and is honestly pretty similar in style and tone to the opening title sequence of the Luke Cage show.  The visual design of Luke, looming larger than life across the graveyard with the slit blinds in the background is a beautiful structure, and the fedora/suit combo suits his classy style very well.  

I think my favorite part is the use of gold as an accenting color, popping across the page in both the bullets and the tie.  It’s a nice nod to Luke’s classic design while also adding to the sense of style and class that informs his redesign in the Noir books. 

Now this cover is another great blend of figurative and literal cover design.  The issue isn’t about any kind of magic cards that when played alter reality through some kind of Jumanji-esc magic, but it does feature a deadly card player.  

Combine that with the really unique aesthetic of the character death cards and it creates a deeply memorable and striking image.  The idea of cards of death is actually a pretty common cover trope with comics, going all the way back to the ‘50s.  It’s roots are in comics’ time as a medium for horror stories and weird science fare. 

During that era, covers loved to create bizarre symbolism through games of chance like cards or pool or the like.  Then, later on when superheroes overtook the medium, the visual language of comics using games of chance repainted with new symbolism stuck as a part of the lexicon of comic covers.  

This kind of things goes all the way up to the present with stuff like Killing Joke, which also featured a pretty prominent Dead Man’s Hand.  Speaking of, if you didn’t know, a Dead Man’s Hand is the aces and eights combo featured here as it was, allegedly, the hand of cards Old West Lawman Wild Bill Hicock had when he was shot and killed. 

For Luke Cage’s premiere issue this has got to be one of the best comic covers of all time, certainly one of the most iconic.  I’ve spoken a lot in this column about the stylistic development of covers over the years but something I haven’t touched on before is the way comic cover development ran parallel to movie poster development.  Luke Cage #1 is the first major step the two styles took towards unifying as the design featured here is specifically meant to mirror a blaxploitation movie poster of the time.  

A lot of that comes down to the weird mesh of imagery that blends scenes that actually happened with more metaphoric imagery for flavor.  That particular blend is what attracted comic creators to movie posters as it was pretty much exactly the same blend they were building to as the medium grew beyond the “grab attention at all costs” covers of the ‘60s and ‘50s.  Also, just on a technical level, the way this cover balances its elements and imagery while using that dull, neon red backdrop to make Luke pop is just perfect. 

A lot of nuclear explosions in this list, especially given it’s about a hero who was specifically street-level but more on that in a bit.  This has got to rank as one of the darker Christmas covers I’ve run into, even if New York probably doesn’t end up atomic ash in this book (just a hunch.)  This is one of the few covers to actually feature Luke chained up in some way, which seems odd give it’s a big part of his costume.  

I’m not sure if Christmas at Ground Zero there is linked to the Doombringer from #12 but it wouldn’t surprise me.  Despite being a book Marvel was proud of and a unique story experiment neither Luke or his bro Iron Fist had great villains in their starting run.  Most of their bad guys were forgettable, underdeveloped, or flat out racist- which certainly puts this dude in a much better light.  I think my favorite part of this is the tiny Christmas tree the villain has placed atop his mantel, to lighten up his “nuke the city” room. 

One of the big reasons superheroes translate well to film is that they have a lot of what I call cornerstone stories.  These are stories that are considered fundamental to that hero’s brand and mythos.  Stuff like the Winter Soldier, Days of Future Past, Death of Superman, etc. are all examples of high profile cornerstone stories that’ve been turned into movie recently.  Of all the early Luke Cage stories the one where he fights Dr. Doom and leads a one man invasion of Latveria is the only one people might consider cornerstone.

This cover is actually unique among the bunch as that it’s one of the few to have literal content.  This scene goes down pretty much exactly this way within the pages of the comic.  This is part of Luke’s climactic invasion of Latveria after Doom failed to pay his bill and Luke got real angry.  I do love how much that fits his character- complete undeterred by all this superhero shenanigans because 5 bucks is bucks.

These last three covers have all been a great example of how much the ‘70s changed the idea of scale in superhero covers.  Back in the ‘50s it was more okay to have a single figure take up the whole of a comic cover but superheroes tended to emphasis multiple people, all reduced in size to really free up the page.  

If you look back at the classic Silver Age Superman or Batman covers they’re always full up with various heroes and villains and civilians.  In the later ‘60s and into the ‘70s heroes tended to get bigger, as seen here with Luke and Spider-Man taking up the entire page. 

After this cover and the one where Luke was rubbing shoulders with Dr. Doom, you might be wondering why he’s up to all this evil in the classic series.  That ties in to the theme of Luke’s original comic run; hero for hire.  They’ve dropped this now but originally Luke’s whole thing was that he only saved people for money and was willing to do morally dubious jobs if the cash was right and no one got seriously hurt.  So, if someone wanted to hire him to put the beat down on Spider-Man he was game for it.  This was part of the blaxploitation influence on the character, like how he got his powers from going to jail. 

Another big, splash cover inspired by movie posters, only this one includes Iron Fist and way more action.  I brought up this cover specifically to draw a comparison between it and the Luke Cage #1 cover to see how comic artists would build on their style over time.  This cover features a lot of the same elements as the previous one like the red background tint to make the main heroes pop.  There’s also that same emphasis on figurative imagery to add flavor, with the chips, dice, and cards falling along the right hand side. 

Where things change is the interior scenes presented and the big white background behind the action.  The big thing is that this cover needs to balance Iron Fist’s costume as well as Luke’s, so the main background becomes white to avoid creating a Christmas color scheme with Fist’s green uniform.  Also worth noting that Misty Knight gets a much more prominent and powerful spot in the bottom right corner with a big gun, looming over the boy’s action scene. 

I usually don’t go for face covers but this one is the exception that proves the rule.  Normally this style is just a lazy excuse for the creator to do less work but this cover is anything but lazy.  Firstly, it’s pulling some of the same tricks from the previous entry with the red background making Luke pop, but it builds on that with the upward lighting effect to make him even more intense.  What really sells this cover, however, is that snarl on Luke’s face.  That expression is pure attitude and power and totally embodies the guy that Luke Cage is- this cover isn’t lazy, it’s a promise. 

It’s also worth noting that this series, Power Man and Iron Fist, easily had the best logo design of Luke’s various incarnations.  The hexagon shape of the text is a lot more compact than the Hero for Hire look and the studded lettering gives a sense of metal and weight that the Power Man logo really lacked.  Most importantly, the size is small enough to fit along the top of the page to give covers like this one all the room they’d need to fit like this. 

Another cover from Luke Cage Noir and it’s easily that series best.  As I mentioned earlier, the real cleverness of doing a Luke Cage comic in the noir universe was finding the overlap between Luke’s larger than life persona and the classical opulence of the noir pastiche.  That’s why Luke’s costume is more in line with a ‘20s style character rather than someone from the ‘30s or ‘50s.  

It’s an attempt to blend the hip-hop infused energy and hype that’s become endemic to Luke’s character in the modern age with the kind of energy and class that was definitive of the Jazz Age.  That’s a pretty spot on point of comparison, it’s basically the same trick Baz Luhrmann pulled with his Great Gatsby and, just like that movie, it’s an incredibly rich visual combination.  What I really like about this one is Luke’s pose.  So often he’s framed as angry or destructive it’s nice to get him in a more cocky and self-assured position without the addition of destruction. 

This wasn’t originally going to be the number 1 pick for this list but the more I thought about it the more this cover stuck with me.  It’s ultimately a byproduct of this moment in time and the torrential flood of media coverage of police fascism that’s punctuated the last 2 years, but even without that element this is a rock solid cover.  I mentioned earlier that Luke Cage’s enemies were usually pretty underwhelming and while that’s certainly true there is one archenemy that Luke had that put him well above most other superheroes- the law. 

From his start Luke has fought the system just as much as the bad guys, with the understanding that the system was corrupt and racist.  This idea persisted all the way up to his present day revival, with Luke as one of the anti-registration leaders during the Civil War.  Luke and the law have never mixed and this cover might be the ultimate extension of that idea.  The image of him chained up on display outside Security City, a clearly racist planned community with its own private security guards, it’s a chilling and evocative visual. 

What’s more, it gets to the heart of how Luke subverted what had become the Marvel formula of the time.  All the frontrunner Marvel heroes have come with a twist on the idea of a power fantasy, their powers always coming with some kind of price.  Bruce Banner goes from a wimp to the strongest being on Earth but it turns him into a big dumb monster, Spider-Man is incredibly powerful and cool and all it cost him was the only people he really cared about, the X-Men have super powers at the price of normal humans hating and fearing them.  Luke Cage, on the other hand, is never paying a price for his powers: he’s paying the price for being born black and the powers are just his payback.

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