Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Our ongoing series of Marvel Noir reviews has now come to Luke Cage Noir, the sixth installment in the franchise. Written by Adam Glass and Mike Benson, and with art by Shawn Martinbrough, it tells the story of African American Luke Cage, a man from Harlem who has just been released from prison as we catch up with him. Soon after getting out, Cage is hired by a white man whose wife was killed in Harlem. At the same time, Cage also goes looking for his old girlfriend, whom his friends tell him died in a fire while he was locked up. Both stories progress through a classic noir pattern, with the detective hitting the streets and feeding us his thoughts with some homespun axioms and a heaping helping of cynicism. As he moves deeper into his cases, it turns out that there is no-one he can trust.
Luke Cage is arguably one of the most realistic is the Marvel Noir franchise. Anyone who is familiar with the standard-continuity character knows that he has unbreakable skin. And while it is said that the Noir Cage’s skin is as thick as iron and that he was given early release because he participated in some kind of medical experiment, there are no super-powers involved in his seeming invincibility, only luck and urban legend. Similarly, the transposed supervillain Tombstone’s increased strength and thick skin are explained away as being caused by a skin disease that causes the skin to harden. Nonetheless, there are some cartoony aspects of the series that stand out, perhaps because most of Luke Cage keeps such elements at arm’s length; most noteworthy, Cage twice sticks his hand through a peephole in a door and (with his hands in his nostrils) bangs a man’s head against it so hard that the metal buckles.
When it comes to the setting, Luke Cage captures Harlem in the early 1930s pretty well, from references to the Harlem Hellfighters (an army regiment that recently starred in its own graphic novel) to rent parties and white cultural “tourism.” More noteworthy, the plot centers around elements of 1930s American racial formation. The end result is a somewhat reflexive and mostly sensitive engagement with African American experiences. While it is neither perfect in its narrative composition or in its representational politics, Luke Cage Noir is well worth the read.