Recently, Marvel sent out a press release teasing Cage – an upcoming Luke Cage solo comic to be written and illustrated by Genndy Tartakovsky with inks by Stephen DeStefano.
The series, Marvel explains, takes places in late ’70s New York City where the “shoes are big, bottoms are belled and crime is rampant!”
Apparently Tartakovsky’s Cage is meant to be a send-up(?) of the era’s wave of Blaxploitation, which wouldn’t be so much of a problem were it not for the decidedly problematic art style the book it set to have:
Personally, Cage raises a number of questions based purely on the comic’s aesthetic and the decision to solicit Cage as a hulking, black behemoth.
Everything about the teaser art for the comic is shot through with an artistic sensibility that depicts its characters as borderline racist caricatures. Cage is huge, angry, and veiny and the criminal he’s apprehending is drawn with a a gaping pink-lipped mouth reminiscent of more than one racist cartoon mocking black people’s natural features.
We’re meant to understand that Cage is out there fighting crime with Marvel’s other heroes, but by the end of the page it’s difficult to see anything other than one scary black stereotype forcing another black stereotype literally through a pair of bars into captivity.
When Cage was created in 1972, Marvel was fairly transparent about its intentions with the character: the publisher wanted to capitalize on Blaxploitation bandwagon much in the same way that Iron Fist, a frequent companion of Cage’s, was a grab for the Kung Fu audience.
As Blaxploitation’s popularity faded, though, Marvel realized that giving Cage any sort of narrative longevity or weight would require that he become more than a simple symbol of Marvel’s recognition that black people existed. He would have to become a deeper more complex character who wasn’t just a big, intimidating black man that comic book readers could admire from afar without feeling threatened.
In the near 50 years since Cage was first created, he’s gone on to become one of Marvel’s most recognizable black heroes and is set to be Marvel Studios’ first black lead this fall in the Luke Cage Netflix series. One wonders, then, just what kind of story Marvel is trying to tell about the character by focusing on ’70s-era Cage.
As a cinematic mode of storytelling, Blaxploitation’s complexity is only outweighed by its potential to actually tell thoughtful narratives when executed properly.
Depending on who you are and how you look at Blaxploitation, the style can either be used to reinforce and perpetuate racist ideas about black people, or serve as a means of using camp and humor to unpack and explore difficult conversations about the black experience.
More often than naught, the thing that influences a Blaxploitation project to err towards one side more than the other is the degree to which black people – be they artists, writers, or directors – are directly involved in the production of the project. In the right hands, the racialized and kitschiness of CAGE could easily become a fascinating way to speak about how black masculinity was coded in the ’70s.
I don’t know that Gennady Tartakovsky, a white man, has those hands.
There’s a spirited debate in the comics industry about whether publishers can truly claim to be champions of diversity when most of their characters of color are created and written by white men, and CAGE is the perfect example of why that conversation is necessary.