A few weeks ago, I published numerous posts on Luke Cage, specifically Dwayne McDuffie and M.D. Bright’s satirical take on the character through Buck Wild in Icon. At the end of that series, I also posted the #lukecagesyllabus, an extension of Tara Betts’ syllabi that she produced when the Netflix series dropped. Over the next two posts, I want to briefly look at two of the issues that I placed on the syllabus, Jim Owsley (Christopher Priest) and M.D. Bright’s Power Man and Iron Fist #122 and #123. Over Priest’s 15 issue run, which also saw the end of the series, he did not overtly address race or representation, except within these two issues.
Writing about his time at the helm of Power Man and Iron Fist, Priest points out that #122 was “ground-breaking” in the ways that it presented Luke Cage, most notably his speech. The first part of the issue focuses on the relationship between Misty Knight and Danny Rand (Iron Fist). Misty has started seeing Tyrone King, a police sergeant, and this has devastated Danny. Cage confronts King in a diner, after King foils a robbery across the street, and tells him that he is doing Danny wrong.
When a uniformed officer comes in and tells King that they need him outside, Cage sits in the diner’s booth alone, contemplating how he approached the situation. Cage thinks to himself, “My ‘loud’ angry ‘Negro’ bit didn’t phase him. Gotta move into ‘Plan B.'” Here, through Cage’s brief thought, Priest comments on Cage’s publication history and the ways that white writers appropriated Black culture that they consumed through blaxploitation media and elsewhere in their depictions of Cage and other Black characters.
As Priest puts it, they cobbled together “Black culture as represented by Sherman Hemsley or Jimmy Walker or Richard Rountree. . . . [creating] a list of rules and hair styles and speech patterns, invented for the game, but bearing any resemblance to any actual culture.” In essence, they were partaking in a long history of white writers stereotypical representations of Black culture and speech. This dates back to Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page and earlier; 1970s Cage is the same, just under a new guise.
Cage’s revelation that his speech and persona are an act, meant to intimidate and to play into the perceptions of others, serves as a moment when Priest directly speaks back to Cage’s origins and history. Priest compares this moment to white audiences becoming “shocked to see Queen Latifa or Usher or the late Tupac Shakur in film or on television shows speaking in complete sentences with a calm, even voice.” Again, this question of “authenticity” has deep roots, dating back to minstrelsy and vaudeville. Cage exists as a prefabricated representation of how the white creators viewed Black culture and speech. They could have, as Priest notes, done a better job if they had reached out to Black creators or others and simply asking questions and listening. However, they mediated Cage through other forms of media.
Bright’s panel adds to this commentary. It shows him in thought, left hand raised, resting just beneath his chin, brows furrowed, as he ponders what just occurred. The image prominently displays Cage’s armbands, and his chain-link belt is visible at the bottom of he panel just underneath the table’s surface. In Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #2, we see how Cage chose his costume. He went to a costume shop asking the owner for a costume, and the man provides him pieces of the costume. The final piece is the chain-link belt.
In the panel where the shop owner presents Cage with the belt, he tells Cage that the chains were part of an escape artist’s costume and asks Cage if anyone can relate to them. Cage simply responds, “Maybe me, friend . . . as a kind of reminder.” Cage’s statement hangs in the air, devoid of any connections to is former incarceration or to the history of slavery and racial oppression inflicted upon Black bodies. This moment could have served an important role in constructing Cage’s identity, yet it falls flat, leaving it up to the reader to fill in the missing connections.
Blair Davis highlights that “the steel chain (along with his bracelets which resemble shackles), also serves as a reminder of the heritage that Cage carries with him, as a black male, signifying the chains that bound those who were loaded onto slave ships to make the forced journey from Africa to foreign lands.” Yet, no commentary on these connections appears in the issue or the series for that matter. Bright’s panel, foregrounding Cage’s armbands and the chain, works in tandem with Priest’s words to partly confront this omission in Cage’s publication history.
While the issue does not discuss slavery, Jim Crow, or incarceration, the visual semiotic connections, paired with Cage’s assertion that his speech and behavior are an act, serves as a corrective to the ways that Cage began and continued to be a misrepresentation of Black culture. This misrepresentation was one of the reasons Priest did not connect with Cage. He writes, “as a reader, most of that work seemed disingenuous, having not much in the way of anything that was true to my experience as a black youth in America.”
The second half of the issue sees Chiantang, a 100ft shape-shifting dragon who can take on human form, kidnap Cage and Iron Fist. When Misty Knight, King, and Coleen Wing come to the docks to save the duo, they encounter Chiantang in the form of Cage. As Misty Knight swims out to the boat to rescue Iron Fist and Colleen Wing goes to see if Chiantang has been caught, King realizes the ruse and points his gun at the Cage impostor’s temple.
Three panels show King shooting Chiantang in the head. The first provides a view from King’s perspective, looking over his shoulder, down the barrel of the gun as Chiantang begins to transform from Cage into his dragon form. His face looks distorted, grotesque, and monstrous. The next panel shows a close up of Chiantang’s face looking more like Cage with the gun pointed at him. Again, our perspective is from King’s vantage point. The third panel switches perspective, placing us as readers into Chiantang’s. King points the gun out of the panel and pulls the trigger. Chiantang’s hands frame King, and we, as readers, experience the shot. King, in essence, shoots us as well as Chiantang.
This sequence serves a couple of purposes. On the one hand, it reinforces Cage’s earlier statements about his facade. Here, Chiantang takes on the facade, acting lie Cage, and that facade falls away when King shoots him. On the other hand, the sequence also addresses us as readers, telling us, through the positioning in the last panel, that we need to let go of the fabricated images that Cage embodies. We need to see through them and to question them. This same positioning occurs in Buck Wild’s funeral when the audience views the preacher from the open casket.
Unfortunately, the issue, like Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #2, leaves these moments hanging in the air, devoid of critical commentary. Unlike Buck Wild’s multiple appearances, and even death, Power Man and Iron Fist #122 fails to openly critique Cage’s publication history. Power Man and Iron Fist #123 does provide more commentary, and this is the issue I will focus on for the next post.
Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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