Recently, I discussed representation in Milestone Comics’ Icon. Today, I want to continue that discussion by focusing on the character of Buck Wild in the Icon series. Buck Wild originally appeared in Icon #13, and as Dwayne McDuffie has made clear, he serves as a commentary on the Black characters that appeared in mainstream comics’ during the 1970s onward. As Rebecca Wanzo notes, “By calling attention to the history of representation and, importantly, crafting new representations, those who work in visual media can challenge these visual histories.” This is exactly what McDuffie and artists such as MD Bright do with Buck Wild.
Buck Wild’s appearance on the cover of Icon #13 sets the stage for what will follow. The image shows Buck Wild in a costume that takes cues from Luke Cage’s original appearance. The only difference, though, is that Buck Wild is breaking the chain belt that Luke Cage wears around his waist. When determining his outfit in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (1972), Cage asks the white shop owner if he has anything left in the trunk to complete his costume. The man brings out an escape artist’s chain and asks, “Who can relate to an escape artist’s props?” Cage responds, “Maybe me, friend . . . As a kind of reminder.”
What is the “reminder” that Cage refers to? We never get an answer. The obvious connection, of course, relates to Cage’s time in prison, but it also symbolically represents the historical legacy of slavery. However, by leaving Cage’s in the air the connections to Cage’s imprisonment or slavery remain unexplored. Instead, Cage flexes and says the costume works.
In his afterward to the Marvel Masterworks collection of Don McGregor’s Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther, McDuffie discusses how he “never connected with Cage.” He writes,
But I never connected with Cage, the bastard child of a 10,000 blaxploitation movies, a super-strong “angry black man” who wore chains by choice, didn’t seem particularly bright, and spoke in a bizarre version of street slang that didn’t remotely resemble the speech of any black people I knew. (lol!!!) Spider Man made sense to me, Cage? What can I say? I just couldn’t relate.
Within McDuffie’s statement are two important things that we need to consider. For one, he mentions that Cage is “the bastard child of a 10,000 blaxploitation movies.” Steve Englehart has even admitted as much, mentioning that Marvel saw an economic opportunity with the rise of blaxploiation cinema and they wanted to cash in on it. The other aspect that we need to consider her is McDuffie’s comment on Cage’s chains. He says that Cage “wore chains by choice.” This means that Cage, in essence, plays into stereotypes and is confined within those stereotypes. Through Buck Wild, McDuffie breaks those chains.
This is why the initial image of Buck Wild on the cover of Icon #13 is so important. It shows Buck Wild, front and center, breaking the chains that bind him. Without any words, the image shows how McDuffie and Bright “challenge [the] visual histories” that Luke Cage embodies. This visual history, of course, begins with Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1. The opening page of that issue presents an image of Cage directly tied to the urban environment, specifically ghettoizing the hero.
Cage stands front an center, arms raised, and screaming. At the top, the heading proclaims, “Out of hell–a hero.” This phrasing, amidst the images of the urban environment, presents Harlem as dangerous and as “Hell.” Surrounded by images of criminality and police presence from the shootout in the top left corner to the police car at the bottom of the page, Cage and the images become, as Blair Davis argues, “linked in the reader’s mind with scenes that are implied as being criminal and/or morally questionable given the entrenched presence of the law among the visual milieu.”
Along with the visuals, the narration creates Cage and Harlem as a tourist stop for readers, something that presses like Holloway House did with books by Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines who depicted urban centers in the midwest. The narrator tells the reader, “Look closely at the figure before you. Study his costume. This is Luke Cage now. A super-hero, yet unlike any other before him.” This narration, amidst the visual imagery, instructs readers to study Cage, making him into an object. This, of course, is nothing new in comics; however, taken in consideration with pulp texts of the era from presses such as Holloway House, we need to think about the broader implications of the narrator’s calls.
“No other book in the world comes anywhere near this one in its description of he raw, brutal reality of the jungle that lurks beneath the surface of every city.” The are the words that appear on the back cover of Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967). Before readers even open Pimp, they are presented with the same type of invitation to enter into a world that they are not familiar with. They are, as Bonnie Rhee Andryeyev puts it, presented with a “voyeuristic impulse” that asks them to depend “on Slim as an urban authority and ghetto tour guide.” This, essentially, is what the narrator asks readers to do in Luke Cage, to enter a world, look around, then return to their own environment.
Calling upon readers to tour the ghetto simply works to separate the reader from the characters in the texts.
Calling upon readers to tour the “ghetto” simply works to separate the reader from the characters in the texts. It creates, essentially, a distance between the characters and the reader that tells the reader, “You are an observer here. I will present you with entertainment and nothing more.” Essentially, that is what pulp is, right? It’s a form that presents salacious material for mass consumption without any politicizing. However, that is not totally true. Iceberg Slim’s work confronts, within his pulp fiction(s), white supremacy. Comics have the ability to do the same thing. The original Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, had the chance to do this. However, it fails in that regard, presenting Cage as nothing more than a blaxploitation clone. Later iterations, like David F. Walker’s, do challenge white supremacy through Luke Cage.
Stay tuned in the next post where I continue this discussion by focusing on Buck Wild’s appearances in Icon, specifically his initial appearance in Icon #13. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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