Last Thursday, I wrote about Christopher Priest’s Power Man and Iron Fist #122, looking at the ways that Priest confronts Luke Cage’s publication history. Today, I want to continue that discussion through an examination of Power Man and Iron Fist #123, an issue where Priest and co-author M.D. Bright directly address issues of race. This is the only time, apart from issue #122, where Priest and the other creators address representation and race, but it is a powerful issue that needs to be read in relation to the ongoing conversations I have been having on this blog, specifically in regard to Buck Wild in Dwayne McDuffie and Bright’s Icon.
Writing about #123, Priest calls it “the shot not hear around the world [because] nobody seemed to notice the examination of racial issues and the implied indictment of the comics industry.” This lack of acknowledgement, perhaps, occurred because of the impending cancellation of the series. In issue #124, the majority of the letters plead with the creators, hoping that the news of cancellation is nothing more than rumor. However, issue #125 marked the end of Power Man and Iron Fist, so we do not know, at least from the published material in the series, what fans thought about #123.
In “Getting Ugly,” Cage, Tyrone King, and Sam Wilson must track down and defeat William Blake, a man who targets Blacks within the city. The issue opens with a newscast where the anchor describes how Cage “invaded a midtown United States armory.” The reporter’s use of “invaded” and omission that Cage did this to apprehend Blake, a man who had killed a Black mother and her child and Black police officers, presents Cage as a villain, not as a hero trying to protect those in Blake’s path.
The issue then moves to the past, chronicling what led to Cage to his encounter with Blake in the armory. After Blake murders the mother and child, Cage goes to the police station, and Black protesters outside of the station who believe the police are covering up the true nature of the murders claim that Cage has turned against them. One even screams, “I remember when you were Black!”
At the station, the police determine that the radioactive man is William Blake, a “male Caucasian” with a police record. Blake’s next attack occurs outside of Sam Wilson’s office where he attacks two college students. Here, he only goes after the Black college student. Wilson, as the Falcon, Cage and King arrive and arrest Blake. Following Blake’s arrest, a full page shows five panels of Cage watching the nightly news as they describe the day’s events. The panels don’t change, except for the words and the last panel. In each of the first four panels, Cage sits on the left side of the couch watching the screen. In the final panel, an empty couch sits facing the television.
The first three panels relate an interview from a news anchor with a Black man at the scene. The man claims that the whole incident is a cover up and accuses Cage of turning his back on the community, saying, “Cage is so wrapped up in bein’ Mr. Super Hero . . . he’s forgotten all about bein’ Black. He shoulda taken this white devil Blake all the way out.” Here, Priest and Bright confront, head on, the fact that Cage has not, through his history, addressed issues of racism and oppression. Or, when these issues occur, even in passing as I mention in the previous post, they remain floating signifiers with no grounding. Another case in point is the fact that Cage’s office is above a movie theater and his friend at the theater, D.W. Griffin got his nickname from the Birth of a Nation director.
The newscaster interrupts the interview with news that “Blake has been remanded to the Marines’ custody and taken to the twenty third street armory.” At this moment, Cage gets up and makes his way to the armory. The final panel shows the empty couch as the newscast continues. The man’s comments, followed by the news of Blake’s transfer, causes Cage to act. He realizes that he must do more to stop Blake and confront the racist thoughts that Blake adheres to.
Protesters gather outside of the armory, screaming that the whole thing is a cover-up. They want justice to be served, and Blake’s removal to the armory speaks to the fact that Blake will become a test subject and probably not face any repercussions for his actions. King arrives and produces a court order for Blake’s arrest. The guards refuse, and King, Cage, and Falcon burst through the barricade on their way to apprehend Blake. During the fight, Cage thinks about what the people on TV said about him: “The dudes on the TV . . . talkin’ about me . . . sayin’ I don’t care. Saying I ain’t black. Too bust bein’ a hero . . . well, we’ll have to see about that.” The people’s thoughts about Cage affect him, causing him to question his own actions.
Cage gets to Blake’s cell, and a fight ensues. As they fight, Cage continuously thinks about what others have been saying about him. Punching Blake through the floor, Cage thinks, “I gotta prove somethin’ to all those people sayin’ I sold out. I gotta prove somethin’ to myself.” Cage tells Blake that all of this has “got [his] mind all messed up!” He doesn’t want to be labeled “an Uncle Tom,” but he also knows that Blake is “just sick,” needing help.
Cage’s final blows upon Blake occur on another five panel page. He punches Blake, telling him, “But I’m a man! And I’m Black! And I’m just as good as you!” These panels address not just the historical fight for equality they also address the marginalization of Black characters in comic book history. Priest has noted again and again how Black Panther, throughout they years, has been relegated to the back of the Avengers’ class photo, serving as the token Black character, and how he didn’t connect with Luke Cage as a child. Taken with the fact that other characters such as Sam Wilson served merely as side kicks, Cage’s proclamation that “I’m just as good as you!” takes on a new resonance.
Cage knocks Blake out and drags him out of the water. When he gets Blake to safety, he looks down as sees that Blake is actually Black, not white. The twist ending, reminiscent in many ways of E.C. Comics’ endings, adds another layer to the issue. To this point, the focus has been on Cage’s psychological reckoning with himself and what other people say about him. This point gets driven home with the revelation that Blake is Black. As well, though, Blake’s Blackness calls upon readers to interrogate the imbibed psychological effects of racism upon the oppressed. Blake has bought into the thought that he is inferior, solely based on the color of his skin, and lashes out. Brownfield in Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland is the same. He believes what Whites say about him, that he is inferior, and he takes out his frustration on his family, beating them and eventually murdering his wife Mem.
Cage and King return to the precinct and ask the technician why the computer said that Blake was White. The man asks them why it matters. Cage tells King to explain it, but King simply replies, “Explain what? I’m not Black. I’m not a cop. I’m a man, period. This ‘Black’ thing is your hang-up.” King’s comments differ from Cage. Cage interrogates what it means for society to label him as Black, and King argues that this discussion does not matter since he is merely a “man.” While truthful on the surface, King’s comments eliminate history that has constructed society based on constructed ideas of race, thus making discussions of this history important for moves towards equality.
After the discovery that Blake is Black makes the news, the protests cease, and “[t]erms like ‘psychotic race-killer and ‘super-bigot’ were hastily replaced with such terms as ‘victim of society’ and ‘misunderstood young soldier'” in the media. These rhetorical moves deserve more commentary, but I do not have the space to do that here. Instead, I want to conclude by looking at the final two panels.
The last two panels of the issue show Cage, King, and Wilson sitting on the couch watching the news. The penultimate panel shows the trio on the couch, illuminated by the glow emanating from the television. The only words in the panel are the title of the issue and the authors. The last panel shifts perspective, viewing the scene from the side. Cage reaches out and turns the television off as King looks at him. This moment reinforces King’s comments at the precinct that he is merely a man. Instead of listening to what others say and how others define him, Cage comes to the point where he defines himself, turning off the voices that seek to classify him.
“Getting Ugly” confronts the ways that race is a social construct. However, it argues that we need to get past that construct by merely recognizing that we are all human. I find this somewhat problematic because it fails to extensively critique the issues that hinder individuals from accepting this premise. The systematic ways that race has been constructed, and continues to get constructed, appear in the issue through the terms at the end and through the realization that Blake is Black, but the simplistic assertion that Cage is a man elides the way that his Blackness defines in the eyes of others.
I do think that that “Getting Ugly” provides an interesting discussions of issues of representation in comics and the psychological effects of racism. Yet, I feel it falls short on some level as well. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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