After reading David Walker’s Nighthawk, I started reading his run on Luke Cage that started in May 2017. The first story arc, “Sins of the Father,” sees Cage headed to New Orleans to attend the funeral of Dr. Noah Burstein, the man who experimented on Carl Lucas at Seagate prison, turning him into the superhero Luke Cage. Once he arrives, Cage discovers a plot and believes that Burstein did not commit suicide but rather someone murdered him. However, it turns out that Burstein is not dead; he had been taken captive by a billionaire to help make a superhero serum for profit. The story of Burstein and Cage recalls, to a certain extent, Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black where, before Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, the government experimented on African Americans such as Isiah Bradley to test the supersoldier serum. “Sins of the Fathers” tackles some of the same questions that appear in Morales and Baker’s book, and it is these issues, with some historical connections, that I want to explore today.
Upon first meeting Cyril Morgan, the focus of “Sins of the Father” comes to the forefront. Morgan tells Cage how Burstein saved his some, reversing the debilitating disease that ailed his son, confining him to a wheelchair, and giving him the chance at a full and healthy life, even helping him to walk. After telling the story, Morgan looks at Cage and tells him, “Luke, you are a magnificent specimen.” Morgan’s use of “specimen” is telling. With it, Morgan places Cage as nothing more than an experiment, negating his humanity and positioning him only in the service of the “greater good.”
Dr. Lenore Mornay tells Cage, as they ride away from Morgan’s estate, that Burstein experimented on others as well and that Cage is not alone. However, Cage turned out to be the most successful. he did not have psychological or physical problems as a result of Burstein’s experiments. The other experiments cause some of the confrontation within the arc.
In flashbacks, we see Burstein’s interaction with Cage. Repeatedly, he refers to Cage as “son,” and Cage even sees Burstein as a father figure in his life. At one point, we see Cage in his 1970s outfit talking with Burstein. Burstein tells him, “I’m a bit disappointed in you, son.” Cage responds by telling Burstein that he is a superhero like the Avengers, but Burstein simply says, “You’re hired muscle. No better than a mercenary, selling out to whoever meets your price.” He goes one to tell Cage, “You are more than a test subject–you’re like a son to me, Luke.” Burstein frames his relationship with Cage as one of trust and love, yet, as we see, Burstein’s words are merely platitudes and seem to lack any sincere depth.
Later, as Burstein tries to save the first person he experimented on, Mitchell Tanner, Burstein tells Mornay that he needs to cut Tanner open to see about any internal damage because Tanner “is much too valuable of a specimen.” Burstein calls Tanner “son” as well, and like Morgan does with Cage, he also refers to Tanner as a “specimen,” nothing more than an experiment. Cage stands to the side, listening to Burstein and thinking about his own relationship with the doctor.
Burstein’s words and actions cause Cage to realize that Burstein views him in the same manner. Cage thinks, “I watch him. I listen to him. I realize I’ve never seen the big picture when it comes to Noah Burstein. And that’s when it hits me–harder than anything has ever hit me before–not like the Hulk punching you in the face, but like the Hulk smashing your soul. . . I don’t really know Noah Burstein–I don’t know the truth of him, just bits and pieces of a truth.” A two-page spread shows Cage thinking about his past and Burstein. The pages move from the present with Burstein and Mornay working on Tanner to the past with Burstein experimenting on Cage to panels depicting other individuals Burstein has experimented on.
In the panel that shows Cage in the chamber and Burstein standing over him, Cage thinks, “How can I know who I really am?” as Burstein proclaims, “You and I–we are changing the world.” Back in the present, Burstein comments, while working on Tanner, “I’ve always marveled at how quickly this one heals. Such an amazing accomplishment.” Burstein’s words deny Tanner humanity, and Cage notes this. He knows Tanner is not mentally stable, but he also thinks, “he’s still a person.” This thought causes Cage to wonder what Burstein thinks of him.
When he saves Tanner, Burstein again strips him of his identity. He tells Mornay, “Couldn’t afford to lose this one.” Key here, of course, is “afford to lose.” Tanner, for Burstein, exists as property or goods, as a model of his experimental process, nothing more. Even the panel drives this home because we do not see Tanner. Instead, we see Burstein and Mornay peering at us as if we are in Tanner’s position. After this, the next panel shows Burstein introducing his wife Emma to Cage. Emma tells Cage, “Noah tells me about the works he’s done with you–Amazing!” Emma focuses on Noah’s “work,” not Cage. Interestingly, we only see Burstein, hand outstretched, and Emma. Cage stands off stage to the right. Like the previous panel, this positioning make Cage invisible and nothing more than a product.
Cage confronts Burstein about his faked death and their relationship. Burstein frames his response as “big picture” meant to help humanity, and he even proclaims, “Where would you be without me? You would be nothing more that what you were–wasted potential living out his life as a thug, either still in prison or dead. You’d be nothing without me–I made you the man you are!” Burstein’s white savior comments shadow his positioning with Cage and others he has experimented on. He does not care, as we see throughout the arc, about their lives; rather, he cares about their potential to further his research. Cage responds by telling Burstein, “You experimented on me. You gave me some really inspiring pep talks from time to time. But make me? You. did. not. make. me. I made myself.”
Ultimately, what Burstein’s comments and views remind me of are historical incidents of white individuals experimenting on people of color, without their permission, for the betterment of humanity. It recalls J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” experimenting on enslaved women in Mt. Megis, Alabama. It recalls the government and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. It recalls cancer researchers stealing Henrietta Lacks’ cells and profiting off of them. Lacks’ cells have spawned over 17,000 patents, and the Lacks family, along with Christina Bostick, are suing, on behalf of Lacks’ cells, for their rights. Each of these historical incidents inform our reading of Burstein in in “Sins of the Father,” and we need to think of them in this manner.
Burstein calls us to think about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the Word and Me and how our “legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” Ultimately, Burstein calls upon to realize that our society–through the law, media, education, etc.–devalues Black bodies. We see this everyday. No one should be invisible. No one should be devalued.
This is not all, of course. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.