Luke Cage will be the latest Marvel superhero to receive his own Netflix series some time in 2016, but even before that happens, he's become a major player in the Marvel cinematic universe. He actually debuts today as an important side character in the new Jessica Jones series, and there have been heavy hints dropped that he'll be appearing in season two of Daredevil as well.
But if you don't read comics, you may be wondering: Just who the hell is Luke Cage? He doesn't even have a superhero name, right? So what's he doing as part of a superhero universe?
We're here to help, with a brief history of Luke Cage's Marvel Comics appearances over the last 40 years or so. Keep in mind that it's possible this post will have spoilers for Luke Cage's solo run or his appearances in Jessica Jones, depending on how close to the origin Netflix plays it.
Luke Cage debuted as one of Marvel's first black superheroes in 1972's Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1. You might be thinking, "Hey, African American superhero! How progressive!" I'm with you, but things don't get off to a particularly promising start in this issue.
Cage is described on the first page as "a strangely unique superhero" who has come into being from "out of hell." In case it's not clear that writer Archie Goodwin doesn't mean hell literally, the splash page features Cage's true origins written in creepy floating letters next to an angry policeman: Harlem.
Yes, Luke Cage is from Harlem, and his first Marvel Comics story begins with him in prison. Yikes. If that all reads a little stereotypical to you, don't worry! Cage quickly sets himself apart from the other black prisoners.
He makes it clear that he's not an evil militant, black prisoner, but he's also not a snitch who's willing to inform on people for the crooked police captain. As punishment for not informing, Cage is thrown into solitary confinement and beaten nearly to death by a police officer. Yikes, yikes, yikes.
Cage is saved by the new prison warden, Stuart, who just happens to show up to the job early and hear the beating being administered. Stuart fires the police officer ... and then locks him in a cell with Cage for ten minutes so that Cage can do whatever he wants. Boy, they don't make prisons like they used to. Or maybe they do. I have never been to prison.
As part of his reform project on Seagate Prison, the new warden brings in a doctor named Burstein. Burstein initially visits Cage under the excuse of helping him heal from his fight with the prison guard, but the doctor quickly reveals an ulterior motive: a dangerous medical experiment he wants to perform.
This leads into Luke Cage —still being called Lucas at this point — finally sharing the backstory of how he got put in prison. Cage grew up on the streets of Harlem partnering with a small-time crook named Willis Stryker to rob convenience stores. That's the crime he admits to. What he actually got put in jail for, though, was possession of drugs. Cage is adamant he was framed, presumably by Stryker, because the two were feuding over a woman.
After sharing his life story and going back and forth for a while, Cage agrees to be part of the weird experiment that Dr. Burstein recruited him for. He is taken to a secret laboratory (?!) in "a seldom-used section of the prison," where Burstein explains:
"It's an electro-biochemical system for stimulating human cell regeneration. If successful, it could counter the damages of almost any disease —perhaps even aging."
Of course, in order to prove this hypothesis, Burstein has to first infect Cage with an unnamed disease. His reasoning is that Cage is "one of the healthiest, strongest men in the prison — with the best chance of coming out fine." Cage, who is being offered a chance at parole, agrees to being a guinea pig.
No sooner does the experiment start than things go wrong. Cage is lowered into a tank full of chemicals and locked inside, but then Burstein is knocked out — by the corrupt police captain who's now been knocked down to a prison guard because of what happened to Luke Cage on his watch. The ex-captain keeps Cage locked up with the chemicals far longer than was planned.
Don't worry, though. This is a superhero comic, so you might have some idea where things are headed.
With his newfound superstrength, an enraged, confused Luke Cage breaks through the walls of the prison itself and escapes. He's shot by prison guards and disappears into a river, presumed dead, but a body is never located. That's because he's actually escaped, naturally, and discovered that bullets can no longer pierce his skin.
Cage spends the coming weeks and months in hiding, trying to make sure he doesn't end up back in jail. When he randomly walks in on a robbery and stops it from happening, bystanders heap praise on him, and he gets an idea of what to do with his life.
That idea, no joke, takes him to a costume shop:
Cage begins going after thugs and leaving a calling card behind on the scene: "Hero for Hire." We discover that the thugs he's taking out all happen to be in the employ of none other than Cage's old partner, William Stryker, who also happens to now operate under a new alias: Diamond Back.
This is the setup for the beginning of Cage's superhero career and his first full-fledged supervillain rival.
Luke Cage's early adventures in crime-fighting include taking on a bunch of bad guys with connections to his prison days, hunting down Dr. Doom with the Fantastic Four and being hired by J. Jonah Jameson to capture Spider-Man. Despite his escapades, though, Cage doesn't seem to be getting the attention that other superheroes do.
Cage takes his first step towards changing that in February 1974 when he adopts the name "Power Man," which also becomes the new name of his comic series. In the name-changing issue, Power Man #17, Cage is hired to break into Stark Industries and steal a suit of Iron Man's armor as a test of the building's security. After a brawl with Iron Man, Cage realizes he's been tricked and wasn't hired by legitimate Stark Industries employees. Classic villain tactic!
Cage also spends some time on various Marvel universe teams. In 1976, he briefly becomes a member of the Fantastic Four, after The Thing is successfully turned back into a regular human. (It's a less triumphant moment for the big guy than it should be.)
He also becomes a semi-permanent member of the Defenders when D-tier superhero Nighthawk basically begs Cage not to leave and puts him on a retainer so he's being paid for his time with the group.
But Cage's greatest team-up comes late in the ‘70s, when his struggling solo series is suddenly turned into a duo book with an unexpected partner: Iron Fist.
I won't dig too much into Iron Fist here — Netflix has an Iron Fist series planned for some time after Luke Cage, so we'll be going into greater detail then — but these two actually make a surprisingly great team. If Cage is a character whose origins are steeped in Blaxploitation, Iron Fist is tied to that other great genre of ‘70s film, the kung fu movie.
Also, just in case Power Man and Iron Fist weren't enough on their own, they regularly team up with Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, a.k.a. the Daughters of the Dragon, a.k.a. two of the most under-praised and underutilized characters in the Marvel Universe. Knight, at least, is confirmed to be a part of Luke Cage's series — here's hoping that Colleen Wing follows suit.
Anyway, Cage and Iron Fist enjoy a good run together for 75 issues before Power Man and Iron Fist is canceled in 1986. Cage pops up here and there over the next couple decades, including in a short-lived solo book in the ‘90s, but he mostly remains obscure until the 2000s.
Alongside a brief Marvel Max mini-series, Luke Cage comes into the spotlight once more in 2001's Alias — the very series that Netflix's Jessica Jones is in large part based on. Revealed as a long-time friend of Jones, Cage gets further involved with her in Alias.
However, that was only the start of writer Brian Michael Bendis' plans for Luke Cage, a hero he loved and wanted to lift out of obscurity and stereotype.
In 2004's New Avengers, Cage just happens to be on the scene with Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, as there's a massive supervillain breakout on Ryker's Island, a maximum security penitentiary on an island off the coast of New York City. Shortly after that incident, Cage is visited by Captain America. Luke Cage is living with a now-pregnant Jessica Jones, preparing to be a father.
After years of trying to be taken seriously by the superhero community at large, Cage is now invited to join the New Avengers by Captain America. He's asked to be part of a team with other heavyhitters such as Iron Man and Spider-Man. He's finally made it.
Cage joins the team but finds himself often torn between superheroics and keeping his family safe. At one point, during the Civil War — an event in which the superhero community is split in half based on the issue of whether or not heroes should be required to register their identities with the government — Cage sends Jessica Jones and their infant daughter to Canada to escape the conflict.
Eventually, Cage takes a leadership role in the New Avengers, as the team is essentially in hiding from a dangerous new world order. He and Jessica also name their daughter Danielle, after their best friend Danny Rand a.k.a. Iron Fist, which is just adorable.
After numerous breakdowns in the superhero community, including the short-lived death of Captain America and an invasion by a shape-shifting alien race, Luke Cage decides he's done taking orders or working for any form of the Avengers that has ties to the government.
Instead, Cage purchases the Avengers Mansion and becomes the leader of a new and autonomous team made up of himself, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Wolverine and the Thing. It's a strange group, perhaps the most ragtag band the Avengers has ever seen, but it works well.
Simultaneously to this, Cage also takes over the Thunderbolts program, which is sort of like Marvel's version of the Suicide Squad. As a reformed criminal himself, Cage sees this as an opportunity to help other criminals change their lives around and become superheroes.
Cage has grown into one of the most fully fleshed out heroes in the Marvel universe
Cage eventually breaks away from the Avengers to focus on his family, but he's pulled back into the superhero business once more when cosmic villain Thanos threatens the Earth. Cage leads another new team of heroes, including martial artist White Tiger, the energy-wielding Spectrum and even a new Power Man. This was his role in the most recent run of Mighty Avengers, which just came to an end.
It's unclear what Luke Cage is going to be up to following Marvel's semi-reboot of their Universe with Secret Wars, but here's hoping they don't lose much of this history. What's incredible and noteworthy about Cage is that he has grown from a generic, stereotypical character into one of the most fully fleshed out heroes in the Marvel universe. He's someone who has actually changed an incredible amount, in ways that superheroes rarely do, moving from a two-bit criminal to a respected hero to a loving father and mentor.
He's a great dude who's been begging for an introduction to more mainstream superhero audiences, and that begins today with Jessica Jones.
[Information from this article has been gathered from multiple sources, including Marvel Comics Database, Marvel.com and my own wasted brainspace. I'm sure my college professors would all be very proud. Images in this piece are primarily from Marvel Unlimited and are owned by Marvel.]