Luke Cage Fought The Wrong Villain

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Luke Cage Fought The Wrong Villain

Luke Cage, Netflix’s newest Marvel series, missed its mark. I’m not talking about the acting or the show’s artistic qualities. I’m not a critic and I’m sure those aspects of the show were all fine. I’m concerned with the shows message to the black community and how that message failed it’s audience. He’s the first black comic book superhero to receive his own comic book series and television show which should have felt good. But it didn’t. Heroes are incredibly important to people because they empower us, they drive us and they help us feel as though we can make change. Luke cage fails its audience in that way in a time where its viewers need more hope than ever.

When life is a struggle there are few things that feel as good as being drawn into the fantasies made by books and movies. Fantasy is important to mental health because it helps us imagine a world and a life outside of our own and few things are as good at providing expansive fantasies as comic books and their movie counterparts. The heroes in these fantasies are people we can often relate to in some way and who are kicking ass in ways we can’t. For years society has sought out heroes to provide us with a sense of safety. Religion offers us heroes in the form of deities but because it’s fairly hard to connect with christ-like figures because of our own flaws and with the decline of religion in the west, we’ve started to seek new heroes.

Comic book heroes almost always serve as powerful metaphors that address various societal issues of their day. As the author of The New Mutants Ramzi Fawaz pointed out that the X-Men were social deviants often struggling to engage in society the same way as “normal” citizens. The X-men (first published in 1963) really represented the queer, counterculture, outcast communities in the US that didn’t fit into post war america (think Madmen). They were mutants but what made them mutants also made them cool and extraordinary. This offers the message of “What makes me different makes me special” to millions of Americans who were being told their differences made them “bad”. The X-men were more than a group of superheroes, they were a group of outsiders reclaiming their power and their lives.

It’s a powerful feeling to see someone you feel connected to overcoming adversities when you feel like you’re having a hard time doing that in your own life. The heroes in comic books become people we admire and emulate. We want to be as strong as they are when we find ourselves in a rut. We want to ask ourselves WWWWD? (What Would Wonder Woman Do?) That is the power of comic books. That the characters created can offer motivation and hope for its readers.

(Enter wet towel.) In 1954 a man named Fredric Wertham published a book titled “Seduction of the Innocent”. Not a promising title. The book was Wertham’s attempt to explain to America that comic books were a bad influence on children. Characters like Batman and Robin (gay) and Wonder Woman (lesbian BDSM enthusiast) were encouraging children to engage in similar behaviors. His evidence was eventually found to be falsified but before this, American parents were up in arms and looking for answers.

The public concern regarding comics lead to congressional hearings held to evaluate comic books and their content, at which point the comic book world offered their own solution. They created the Comics Code Authority which listed various guidelines that comic book content would follow. One limit set by the Comics Code held that “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” There were many others but we’ll come back to this one. A recent conversation with Phil Jimenez, artist/writer for DC’s Wonder Woman series, helped me to see just how important the Comics Code Authority are to our views of heroes. Because as Phil said, in short, the Comics Code shapes the Heroes and the Heroes shape us. This will become increasingly important when I (finally) get to Mr. Cage.

Over time,as comic books (and society) progressed, the comic world began to introduce more diverse characters. As I’ve said before, it’s important to connect and identify with your heroes and at some point people realized that white guys weren’t the only ones reading comic books. Not surprisingly this movement has and continues to be met with some resistance. The title of an article recently written for Huffington Post by blogger Chris Boeskool says it all. “When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression” and when comic book characters starting changing colors some white americans started feeling like the new world was pushing out the comfort of the world they had become accustomed to. Despite this, In 1972, Marvel introduced the bullet proof Luke Cage.

Luke Cage, who became the first black superhero to receive his own comic book series, has become increasingly well known after the release of his self-titled Netflix series in September. In the series he uses his unbreakable skin and superhuman strength to serve justice to the gun running crime kingpin (Cottonmouth) who “runs” Harlem. Luke’s attempt to “clean” the streets of Harlem are filled with references to historical figures in black history and are subtly underlined by themes of respect, honor and moral living.

The cast of the series is almost entirely black which again should make me happy, but it doesn’t. Because if the cast is entirely black then all of the villains are black. The message of the show then becomes this: To clean up Harlem (the black community) you have to get rid of the “bad blacks”. This is where the bullet missed the mark.

This argument is similar to the one made in the past by the American economist and author Glenn Loury. He labelled the “bad blacks” of the black community as the “enemy within” along with single parent households and issues of substance abuse. Which In Luke Cage terms means that the “Cottonmouths” of the black community are the real problem. More so than racism, wealth and income disparities and poor access to education. Many see this as misguided and victim blaming as it does not take into account the trauma of poverty and systemic racism and how those factors influence behaviors. Many would argue that these issues exist because of systemic racism and lack of access to various opportunities. So, if the enemy within is not the root of the problem, why isn’t Luke Cage fighting metaphors for institutionalized and systemic racism?

It’s a question that I think we can only speculate but one that is worth speculation. You have to talk about laws and the individuals that enforce them if you want to discuss the black experience in America. Marvel and Luke Cage are unable to do that in any significant way for two reasons: a history of adherence to the Comics Code Authority and a desire to create a salable series.

Marvel stopped following the Comics Code in 2001, but only after over 40 years of adhering to its restrictions. One of which restricted the way the writers portrayed government officials (laws) and police (enforcers). This guideline stated that comics couldn’t portray these figures in a way that would “create disrespect for established authority”. A task that I think would be pretty hard in today’s political climate. For the Luke Cage series, portraying police and government officials as the source of an issue would run against a 40 year practice of doing the opposite. Which then leaves the “enemy within” as the next best villain.

Entertainment is good and fun but it also generates a lot of money. Marvel, which is now owned by Disney, wants to ensure that their entertainment does the same. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s reality. And creating a series that addresses issues that not many Americans are comfortable even talking about (or acknowledging) is bad for business. It almost seems un-Disney to talk about something so charged. What this leaves us with is a show that basically reads as your average good hero vs bad villain comic book show, only the characters in this show are a different color.

The Luke Cage series seems to ask something of it’s viewers. It asks that we see ourselves in Luke Cage and work towards conducting ourselves in a similar way. That we clean ourselves and those around us in order to clean the black community. That we don’t say nigga or swear. That we don’t hurt those who share our skin color. That we restrict our behaviors due to the structures that exist around us. That we hold ourselves to a higher moral standard that the individuals who
oppress us.

Though these may be good suggestions I liken them to asking women to dress differently in order to avoid sexual violence. This is a message that asks something of the black community that I don’t find to be fair and that I think has a negative impact on those who internalize it. People in the black community have the right to get angry and use any language they please when they see another peer killed by police.

Cottonmouth is not the reason Harlem and the black community are struggling and to believe that is to ignore a host of issues. Harlem is struggling because one of the most effective ways to become wealthy in Harlem is to become a Cottonmouth. In reality, Cottonmouth and other “bad blacks” should partner with Luke Cage to fight a more powerful enemy; the systems that limit their opportunity. Luke Cage should be the hero for Cottonmouth. There needs to be a hero for those “bad blacks” who have found themselves in bad situations because of the systemic racism that surrounds them. One who fights for all blacks, not just the “good ones”. Until then, as Phil Jimenez recently commented, “they are essentially just doing the jobs of white heroes.”

James Robinson, LMSW
KIP Senior Fellow


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