Luke Cage possesses superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, so villains who attack him physically are in for a heck of a fight. When it comes to mental assaults, though, even the strong-willed Defender is just as vulnerable to the psionic assaults of malefactors with mind control powers as any other citizen in the Marvel Universe.
In Luke Cage#166, the kickoff to a new Marvel Legacy arc titled “Caged,” writer David Walker and artist Guillermo Sana illustrated that vulnerability with an issue that found their title character inadvertently stumbling into a town taken over by the Ringmaster, where and then being thrown into prison after the villain used his hypnotic powers on him.
CBR News spoke with Walker about making the traditionally comical Ringmaster far more sinister, what sort of life and psychological horrors Luke will encounter in the Ringmaster's prison, and the big story he hopes to tell next with Luke Cage.
CBR: Luke Cage #166 felt like it was one part Marvel Universe mystery, one part Get Out-style horror story. Is that a fair way to describe “Caged?"
David Walker: I didn't realize the similarities to Get Out when I first started writing this, but now I can see it. I loved that movie and thought it was really interesting. It actually beat me to the punch on a project I had been developing for, like, five years. Get Out was kind of a cautionary tale for every writer, because every writer I know has that project that they talk about doing and they never get around to it. Then somebody comes out with it and it's like, “They stole my idea!” That's never true. It's just that you sat on your ass for far too long. [Laughs]
So to answer your question, yes. That is an accurate description. Now, I'm having fun leaning into it.
At the center of “Caged” is the villain known as the Ringmaster. Usually, he comes off as almost comical, but his appearance in issue #166 was pretty terrifying. What inspired you to use the Ringmaster in this story?
To be 100 percent honest, the Ringmaster was not my first choice. It's irrelevant who my first choice was, but there were some shifts that came, editorially, late in the process. That happens often because something is going on elsewhere in the Marvel Universe and certain characters suddenly are no longer available.
I couldn't use the character I originally intended to use, and I was like, “Well, you guys tell me who to use.” [Laughs] Then Ringmaster's name came up pretty quickly. I thought we could have a lot of fun with him as long as I play with him in a way that he hasn't been played with that much and really turn him into something more sinister. Because you're right, he's more of a comical villain than anything else.
Other writers have done some interesting stuff with him over the years and played with trying to make him more serious. I thought, let's keep him looking ridiculous, but let's play with the idea that maybe his powers have improved in some way and he's more of a threat. Also, maybe there still is some of the comical nature about him. When Luke first sees him he's like, “Oh, it's you. I thought this was something serious.” We're going to find out how serious things will get over the next few issues.
What can you tell us about Ringmaster's motivations and emotional state in this story? Is he out to just inflict pain and suffering like say the Purple Man? Or is he after something specific?
I don't think this is a spoiler, but I'll preface it with a potential spoiler warning just in case: There are a lot of villains who want to rule the world, and Ringmaster is like a small version of that. [Laughs] He wants that power and control, but just over this one small town in the middle of nowhere. So he wants to be this omnipotent ruler of this tiny bit of the world.
I like that idea of a villain going, “Everyone else wants to control the world. I'm cool with controlling somewhere like Bridgeport, Connecticut.” That's what I wanted to play with.
What kind of shape is Luke in at the end of issue #166? Did the Ringmaster do something to rob him of his superhuman strength and unbreakable skin?
All I can say is Luke is incredibly vulnerable right now. I want readers to find out the specifics of that, but this is as vulnerable as we've ever seen him.
What can you tell us about the characters we'll encounter in subsequent issues of the “Caged” arc? Will this primarily be a story with new characters? Or will we see some familiar Marvel faces pop up?
It will primarily be new characters. Again, and maybe it's overkill at this point, I really wanted to get Luke out of his element. So if you've watched enough prison movies over the years, whether it's Cool Hand Luke, or Escape From Alcatraz, or Shawshank Redemption you'll recognize some of the characters. They're all sorts of archetypes from those movies. The story is grounded in a very specific reality, and it's a reality that the Ringmaster has orchestrated for his sinister agenda.
Luke disappearing into this prison in this small town begs the question of whether or not his family will appear in the “Caged” arc. What can you tell us about that?
I can't talk much about that, but I will say that in the very near future we'll be seeing Luke's family again. It's very important to me that we do that. I can't say specifically how that happens or if it will even be in this particular story. I've gotten e-mails and people have hit me up on Twitter and other social media. I've heard, and agree with all of it. So we'll be seeing Luke's family again soon.
While we're on the topic of Luke's family I noticed in issue #166 that Luke makes reference to his father. We saw Luke's father, Jim Lucas, a few years back in writer Al Ewing's Mighty Avengers. Are you interested in exploring more of Luke's relationship with his father?
I would love to. And honestly the mention of his father was a tip of the hat to Al's work on Mighty Avengers because I really liked that book a lot, and I loved that story line that brought Luke's father in and sort of tied him into the world of the Marvel superheroes. It's something on the list of things that I would like to explore.
What else can you tell us about the twists and turns of the “Caged” arc? It looks like moving forward you'll take readers to some creepy locales like an old mine and a prison hospital.
Yes, but in comics things are done in sort of a weird time frame. So your covers are done way before your stories are done. Sometimes the stories end up taking a different direction and when you see the cover it's like, “Uh... what's going on here?”
There definitely is some really creepy stuff going on in a mine, for sure. I'm not sure how I feel about the hospital stuff anymore though. [Laughs] That may get cut. So it may be one of those covers where it's like, “What does this have to do with what's going on?”
Razzah's covers for this series are amazing, and I usually see them 1-2 months before I turn in the script. They inspire me, but they also intimidate me. Because now I have to write a book that is as compelling as this cover.
I sometimes feel that my writing isn't as good as his covers. [Laughs] I actually said that to him the other day and he was just laughing. The cover he just sent me for issue #170 is not only the best one he's done so far, and he's done about 10 now, but it's one of the best comic covers I've seen in my life. When I saw it I was like! “WOAH! I might need to rewrite the script for this one.” [Laughs] It's a good script, but it's not one that I feel personally lives up to the promise of the cover. That of course could be my own insecurity too, which is sort of the universal battle cry of most writers.
This arc pairs you with artist Guillermo Sanna who is probably most known among Marvel fans for his work on the recent Bullseye mini-series. I found his art in #166 added to creepy and unsettling tone of the story.
I didn't know Guillermo's name at first, but I knew what he had been doing because I had been reading Bullseye. I was really enjoying that. So when my editor told me my second arc was going to be drawn by the artist of Bullseye I sat down with the issues of the series and studied how he was composing his pages. There's an energy to them that implies movement, and I realized that's something I've been drawn to ever since I was a kid. He's delivering the goods.
Finally, the current “Caged” arc continues into 2018, but what can you tell us about your plans for Luke Cage once that wraps?
We're still figuring things out. I pay attention to what my sales are like and I've had some ideas for some great story arcs, but the question is will sales support us going into those arcs?
We were hinting at a lot of things in our first arc, and one of them was this sinister, shadowy, organization that's trying to capitalize on Doctor Burstein's process that gave Luke his powers. That's at the top of my list of things I want to go back to.
I want to explore that conflict. I think it's really strong, but Legacy didn't allow me to tell that story right away, which is fine. That happens all the time. There's a lot to explore there too with Burstein, the character of Kevlar, and Warhawk. Personally, I'm not done telling stories for those characters, and if we get to that it will be great. So if people want to see that story please buy the comics, and preorder them with your retailer.