Man of steel
Um … you do see who he is, right? Down to almost exactly the same powers? No mask, but a secret identity anyway, via an alias? Breaking chains all the time? Alien to comfortably ordinary folks? Flatly cut off from his original identity and home, yet not even the hint of emotional crisis or a personality disorder? Confronting thugs on the one hand and tycoons on the other, too, in a world where “law and order” is not necessarily something to be on the side of.
The Black Panther had stalked onto the pages at Marvel in 1966 with the sleek mystery of a king and mankind’s whole history of culture behind him. But in the summer of 1972, baby, Luke Cage busted out. No guest star introduction, not even a trial run in Marvel Spotlight or Marvel Premiere for him!
Going back to Jacobs and Jones’ The Comic Book Heroes, looking through Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, browsing the internet, I keep seeing the same claim: “cashing in on the brief blaxploitation fad.” And I must tell you, that is not how it was.
First, the term itself is derogatory, from so-called “moderate” black activism (“compromised” is the better term), coined as a put-down explicitly to call the actors and other people involved exploited prostitutes, and the filmmakers pimps. Second, the films were diverse in genre, tone, theme, and content, although the horde of secondary imitations can obscure that just as with any popular thing. Third, it wasn’t a “fad,” but an irresistible, irreversible “we are here, and we are not speaking your lines,” for black people in entertainment, and transformed the look of all TV and cinema to come. “Problematic?” Of course! Everything in the 70s was problematic, with the shining virtue that everything was available for open discussion.
Here are some titles to know. In 1970, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (noting too the frequency with which In the Heat of the Night was shown on TV) and Cotton Comes to Harlem, and the novel Shaft; in 1971, Shaft the film, in which you may notice a certain resemblance:
… Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song; and in 1972 dozens of films, especially Superfly and Blacula – those are the first I remember knowing about – and also The Harder They Come, but I didn’t encounter that until seven or eight years later. Obviously I didn’t see any of these on release, as I was eight, but they exploded across my culture, not least through the soundtracks and their nigh-infinite diffusion through AM radio and TV’s incidental music. There’s also Bakshi’s Coonskin in 1975, which I saw many years later repackaged as Street Fight, in which the live-action prison break sequence was shot at Soleno State Prison … which, a week after filming, burned down in a prison riot.
Because that’s what this is really all about. First with the book Soul on Ice, written by Eldridge Cleaver in prison and published in 1965, easily in the top five “wait, what??” books of U.S. history. Then, in the organizing and writings of George Jackson, who’d been sentenced to one-year-to-life in prison (armed robbery) in 1961, at the age of 18. You know what that “one year to life” means, right? It means your term isn’t set by your sentence. You’re locked up and only released when they decide you’ve been good enough in the interim. Jackson did not attempt to be “good enough.” He co-founded the prison-activism Black Guerrilla Army in 1966 and coordinated it with the Black Panther Party. He published his letters in Soledad Brother (1970) and completed his political treatise, Blood in My Eye, a few days before he was killed in 1971; both books became manifestos of the prison reform movement.
Crucially, too, this was the period of Muhammad Ali’s maximum presence as a political figure. Briefly: having joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and changed his name, he resisted the draft in 1967 and was soon convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment; his sentence would be overturned in 1971, and the famous Rumble in the Jungle bout was held in 1974. The point here being that in 1972, Ali was a very different public figure than he is today, an unapologetic draft resister, member of a radical political party associated with Islam, freed from prison via an overturned sentence (unlike Newton and later, Karenga), notably mouthy, and visually, photographically speaking, putting his fist in your face. Imagine an equivalent figure in the politics of today and think for yourself where he’d be right now.
You hear mostly about draft resistance, anti-war protests, civil rights, and feminism (and more recently, gay issues), as well as all the associated music, drugs, and sex, but prison reform was right up there with the biggest issues of the day. It was very effectively silenced and eliminated from mainstream activism’s memory along with sex work reform by about 1981.
In 1969, at Soledad Prison, Jackson’s friend and BGA co-founder William Nolen initiated an inquiry into the prison administration, stating (I’m paraphrasing) that it was directly empowering white prisoners to abuse black prisoners. In January 1970, during a fight with Aryan Brotherhood members, Nolen and two other black prisoners were shot and killed by a guard named Miller. Miller was immediately declared justified in a grand jury hearing (who heard no prisoners’ testimony), and almost as immediately, Jackson and two others were accused of beating a rookie guard named Mills to death. The three became known as the Soledad Brothers and their impending hearing became national news. They were transferred to San Quentin, but over the next months, prisoner racial violence increased and two more white guards were killed.
In August 1970, Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan, a member of the Black Panther Party, arrived heavily armed at the Marin County courthouse and freed a defendant (in another prison guard-killing case) and some witnesses, as well as taking the court officials hostage, seeking an exchange to free his brother. It ended in a police shoot-out and bloodbath, with Jonathan and two other abductors dead, and some hostages wounded. (You’ve heard of Angela Davis? Her highly disputed involvement in this event is why she sought to flee the U.S. and was subsequently imprisoned until her acquittal in 1972.) (You’ve heard of the group properly called Weather? The west coast branch blew up that courthouse soon thereafter. My stepbrother was a member and I’m certain, positive, that he was at home that day.)
The grand jury trials regarding the Soledad Brothers were to be held in Monterey County, yes, my Monterey County. I did not pick up on it; my political attention and involvement began a bit later at ages 7-8 with the McGovern presidential campaign and Watergate; but in retrospect it informed every ethnic relationship in my childhood. I do remember the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee.
In 1971, three days before the hearing, George Jackson and several others were shot and killed at San Quentin in an event which has never been rigorously explained, possibly a prison break. It was certainly violent and several guards were also killed. Six of the prisoners became known as the San Quentin Six during another controversial investigation and hearing.
Independent black film [OK, fine, “blaxploitation,” I’ll use the term just because history insists, and I can’t be troubled to invent a new one] boomed out of practically nowhere from this very issue. It was a lot of things, but if you put aside the content which was common across all new film at the time, one thing that stood out was prison.
Just … just feast your eyes on this, click on it, please. See that background – yes, that is a black man beaten and tortured in a prison cell. That central portrait – those are his own broken chains he’s wearing. And if you don’t see what those fists are saying, then scroll back up, note the Ali photo in passing, and Christopher St. John too, and see that panel above, the one with both BAM and POW. Right. At the top center. Of the panel. Tuska cared a lot about Cage’s fists. These are extremely potent symbols of the day, uncompromising, unambiguous. They were not memes re-purposed and cleverly juxtaposed for irony and advertising.
Marvel’s successful challenge to the Comics Code regarding drugs is well-known and repeated in every history. No one seems to remember that its successful challenge to another explicit issue in the Code, the depiction of the police and the justice system in general, was arguably more gutsy and more culturally significant.
Marvel Comics management and roots were as New York Jewish as it gets, and the Bullpen as it stood then included Jewish-American heavy hitters Lee and Kirby, now hardly or not involved, a few older ethnic white guys (John Buscema was baptized Giovanni Vitale Buscema in case you didn’t know; Tuska was first-gen Russian-American), a few countercultural white guys, one absurdly-under-utilized woman in production, Marie Severin, and one absurdly-under-utilized black artist, Billy Graham. Graham inked and partly co-wrote this title, and you can see for yourself what he brought, as well as doing yourself a treat here. Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr., who created Luke Cage, and George Tuska, who penciled the majority of the 17 issues, were white men, and as it happens, older men, not evidently radical. Even if someone handed them a mandate to do “that black thing,” they could have soft-pedaled it easily enough, with the Falcon as a standing example. They didn’t. Steve Englehart picked up the writing with issue #5, and he didn’t either. Everyone involved with this book knew what they were doing and brought it with a vengeance, it jumps off the pages at you. So, enough with this “flirted with the brief blaxploitation fad” bullshit. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire is a position piece, it is blaxploitation in the proud sense of the word, kicking ass and taking names in a perfect blend of anger and exuberance, in direct reference to real and painful stuff, for which every one of its creators, and later contributors Graham and Englehart, deserves honor.
I read it with great joy, and note too, that at not even ten years old, I was familiar with Guy Colwell’s Inner City Romance (draft resistance + prison time), so to get this, put that title and Hero for Hire next to one another and put the Soledad Brothers controversy on the news. Then maybe you’ll see how shitty it is to disrespect the films, the look, the music, and Luke Cage that way, whether through condemnation then, or through dismissal and hip ironic appropriation now.
The good stuff lasted for about a year. Cage went through three stages, similar to the Panther, pretty quickly.
- First, uncompromising and beautifully realized, with a perfect blend of detective fiction, jailhouse/street grit, and that certain superhero I alluded to at the start. Luke was a smart, bad-ass guy who made a difference in a tough town. Based only on my memory, the book’s single but central weakness is that no villains worth the name were developed. (I wouldn’t mind a solid re-read, not a bit.)
- Then for the next few years, he was relegated to generally ineffective and baffling guest appearances, with his proud natural buzzed close. (Oh, PSA: no one called this an “afro,” OK? Natural, with a bit of emphasis on that first syllable.) No more ripped shirts. The first sign of this impending process, more or less with the name change to Power Man and probably about the time the title was slated for cancellation, came when FOOM assured readers that his “jivin’ slang” would no longer trouble them, as if it had. (At some point the title was canceled, but then wasn’t, or something; I’m not bothering to figure it out since late 1970s Marvel titles appeared and disappeared as often as a parrot shits.)
- Finally, he settled into a solid if comparatively bland superhero role, his powers safely relegated to “not all that tough” status, combining titles with Iron Fist in a comfortable salt-and-pepper 80s teamup. I read a pile of these in the mid-80s and liked the stories (Jo Duffy, Kurt Busiek among others; Kerry Gammill’s art), but the prison politics were long gone .
Counting on my fingers, 1975 …. gorsh! Forty years! I don’t want to patronize my fine blog readers, so join me in listening to way more people say the following than you would believe. But times are better now! That indeterminate sentencing thing, geez, civil rights must have done away with that, being so successful and all. We wouldn’t just lock someone up indefinitely like that. Besides, we only put people in prison who deserve it. The world they must live in.
Jerry Siegel’s original Superman is almost invisible today, obscured by his radio and then TV adaptation, by his retooling into a patriotic warrior during World War 2, and by a certain skillful blandness characteristic of 1960s DC. It’s hard to remember he was a street super, a tough guy with hardly any powers or science fiction trappings – no eyebeams, no flying, no Fortress of Solitude, no kryptonite. He was quite the scofflaw, kidnapping politicians to teach them a lesson about poverty and fightin’ crooked governors’ goons, admittedly a bit thuggish himself, and standing up for justice as he, Superman, not the establishment, saw it. Those politics were real then, and it was all about now I have some power, and always, always breaking those chains.
Next: BONUS POST: Looking for a hero
Posted on April 12, 2015, in Heroics, Politics dammit, The 70s me and tagged Angela Davis, Billy Graham, Black Guerrilla Army, Black Panther, Black Panther Party, blaxploitation, Christopher St. John, Coonskin 1975 film, draft resistance, Eldridge Cleaver, FOOM, George Jackson, George Tuska, Guy Colwell, Hero for Hire, Huey Newton, Inner City Romance, Jerry SIegel, Jonathan Jackson, Luke Cage, Maulana Karenga, Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam, Ralph Bakshi, Shaft 1971 film, Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, Steve Englehart, Superman, Weather. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.