These days, Luke Cage combats world-threatening crime as a member of Marvel Comics' "New Avengers" series. It wasn't always that way, though. Before joining the ranks of the Avengers, Cage operated as a Hero for Hire, patrolling the mean streets of New York City rather than the world at large. Writers Mike Benson & Adam Glass and artist Shawn Martinbrough return Cage to those roots this August, in the four-issue "Luke Cage Noir" miniseries. Of course, things are a little bit different, as the series reimagines Cage as an antihero for hire in the murky streets of 1930s Harlem. CBR News spoke with Benson and Glass about the series.
Benson and Glass were both big fans of Luke Cage in their youth, so when they were offered a book in the Marvel Noir line, which takes place in New York during the Prohibition Era of '20s and '30s, they jumped at the chance to reinterpret Marvel's original Hero for Hire. "Luke Cage came out of that big wave of blaxploitation characters in the early '70s and I've always identified with them a lot (even though I'm a Jewish kid from New York City)," Adam Glass told CBR News. "I guess I've always liked characters that life dealt a shitty hand to, but are still strong and badass."
"Cage feels very at home in Prohibition-era Harlem, maybe because there are so many parallels between his two eras," Mike Benson said. "In both cases you have a period of black empowerment (the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of the black gangsters in the '20s and '30s, and the Black Power and civil rights movements in the '60s and '70s) amid a crime wave brought on by government policy (Prohibition and then the War on Drugs). Some things never change."
The tone and environment of stories in the Marvel Noir line are such that the characters often end up somewhat different than their mainstream Marvel Universe counterparts. Making Cage a Noir character meant Benson and Glass had to craft and gritty and relatively realistic story, so they chose to arm their protagonist with a lifetime's worth of street survival skills rather than his traditional super powers, invulnerability. "The way we kind of tip our hat to the modern Luke Cage is that his invulnerability is part of the legend that grows up around the character during his lifetime, and after his death," Glass said. "Literally, an urban legend,"
Because the Luke Cage of their story did not receive super powers, Benson and Glass have also tweaked his origin. The Cage of the Marvel Universe was framed for a crime he didn't commit and went to prison, where he was given super powers that in turn allowed him to escape and eventually clear his name. The Noir version of Luke Cage had no such luck. "Luke Cage is just coming off a long stretch in Rikers Island when our story begins. And no, he wasn't framed," Glass explained. "Luke committed a pretty serious crime and then paid his debt to society. End of story. As to how it affected him, I think it made him a little fatalistic. He knows there are powers in the world you just can't beat, but that doesn't stop him from trying. Which is perfect for a noir character."
The Noir Cage's fatalistic outlook was cemented during his prison stint, but the roots of his attitude stretch back to his time growing up in Harlem. "Luke actually missed a big chunk of Prohibition, which began in the U.S. in 1920. He spent most of that time in Rikers and was only released from prison in the early '30s," Benson explained. "However, there was plenty of crime in Harlem before Prohibition. I liken Luke Cage to Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name character from 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'. He's a good man in an imperfect world, and understands that sometimes you have to do some very morally questionable things to survive. Killing is just part of that."
After Noir Cage gets out of jail, all he wants to do is reunite with his one true love, but there are a number of obstacles standing his way, including two seemingly unrelated mysteries. "Luke Cage isn't strictly speaking a detective in this story, but he does investigate a pair of mysteries, one personal, one he's hired to solve, that end up being tied together," Benson said. "I guess you could say he's a noir antihero in a gangland setting."
Also standing in Cage's way are a number of adversaries, most notably Willis Stryker, who in the mainstream Marvel Universe became the knife-throwing supervillain known as Diamondback. "I like to refer to Stryker as the Godfather of Harlem in this book (and he and Cage definitely have a history together here)," Glass revealed. "Stryker's the local mob boss, but he's definitely a hood, not a supervillain."
"There are one or two other villains from the modern Cage canon, reinterpreted for the period, but I'd like the readers to discover them on their own," Benson said.
"Most of our choices of who to use and not came from just a pure story point," Glass continued. "I grew up reading Goodwin and Romita's 'Luke Cage, Hero for Hire' in the '70s. Those were some of the first books I read and they stayed with me. My hope is we did justice to the essence of who Luke is and what they created."
The writers also drew inspiration from their favorite examples of classic and period noir fiction, like the films "The Big Sleep," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Maltese Falcon" and "This Gun for Hire." "Those movies taught us that life wasn't so black and white, it was somewhere in the middle, in the grey," Glass said. "This makes for much more interesting characters if there is some moral ambiguity. But when we first starting taking about 'Luke Cage Noir,' we couldn't stop thinking about Walter Mosley and his most famous detective Easy Rawlins."
"Right, even though this story takes place before Easy's time, Luke and he are definitely contemporaries. L.A. much like Harlem had a renaissance of sorts happening," Benson added. "And these characters represent the community they came from and how the changing of the times also changed them."
The writers are happy to be collaborating with artist Shawn Martibrough, who they felt did a fantastic capturing all the grim, grit, violence and occasional humor of "Luke Cage Noir" in his work. "He's a dream. I can't wait to get new pages from Sean every week, it's like Christmas morning," Glass remarked. "He brings a wonderful sense of gritty realism to the page. It really feels like people actually live in the world he creates. And might I say that's it's a pleasure to watch a young artist mature over the course of a project. Shawn's one to watch out for. He's taken this book to another level."
"Luke Cage Noir" isn't Benson and Glass's first comics collaboration; the duo are currently working on the "Deadpool: Suicide Kings" miniseries. The two enjoy working together and hope to collaborate again, especially on another project featuring Luke Cage. "Hopefully Adam and I will be able to tackle another Cage book," Benson said. "A contemporary Cage. We clearly both dig the character and have many more stories to tell."
"'Luke Cage Noir' just a fun book," Glass said. "I had a blast working with Benson on this, he raises my game, and I think it shows. Check it out."
"Luke Cage Noir" #1 hits stores August 1 from Marvel Comics.