Southern California art exhibit looks at Marvel’s Luke Cage and his symbolism

While Marvel’s Black Panther (aka Wakanda’s King T’Challa) is the foremost hero of color in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since his 2018 blockbuster, he was not the first black superhero to be featured as a protagonist, much less the title character of his own comic book. That honor goes to Luke Cage, aka Power Man.

“Funkage” digital mixed media ©2018 (Black Kirby)

A Hero of the Times

When the debut issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire launched in June of 1972 Cage cut a far different figure than the king of a secretive African nation. His heroism was grounded (literally) in the crime-ridden streets of New York City, a world largely beneath the notice of the nearby Avengers, and only incidentally rubbing shoulders with the Fantastic Four. Unlike the majority of Marvel’s stable at the time, who were affluent and could afford to be altruistic, Cage had to trade heroics for money to make ends meet. The hero and comic frequently succumbed to its blaxploitation roots with racial stereotypes through most of its publication history, taking cues from movies such as Shaft. Yet, despite such seeming limitations, the comic proved to be popular, surviving changing times and two title changes before ending in September 1986. Cage himself would continue to appear in print sporadically, including a pair of extended runs starting in 1996 followed by the ongoing Thunderbolts title beginning in 2010.

In 2016 Luke Cage entered the MCU and renewed popularity with the self-titled Luke Cage series in a two-season collaboration between Disney and Netflix that ran 26 episodes and included eight episodes of The Defenders.

Art Looking at Art

It is this new-found popularity that has, in part, lead to an art installation that takes a critical look at the Luke Cage, black representation and the symbolism involved. “Uncaged: Hero for Higher” explores the evolution of the superhero from his first appearance in print to the successful series that was cancelled “due to creative differences” last October as Disney and Netflix geared up for the Streaming Wars. The exhibit is held at the University of California Riverside (UCR), Culver Center of the Arts. Described as a “digitally remixed, visually dynamic, gallery comic-installation” it examines Marvel’s depiction of Luke Cage since his inception in 1972. In addition, it includes numerous pop-art pieces inspired by the character.

Going beyond his appearance in pop culture, the exhibit also seeks to “unpack the possible multiple meanings of Luke Cage as a symbol for the many tensions regarding black masculinity and the historically negative meanings projected upon it.”

Politicized from the Start

Luke Cage and the comic were full of political statements from the first issue. A minor thug who was betrayed and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, Cage received his super strength and bulletproof skin when a racist prison warden attempted to kill him as he underwent a voluntary test of a variant of the same Super Serum that gave Captain America his powers. Throughout his first comic book run, he’s portrayed as “savior” of Harlem. Lacking a wealthy background, he cannot afford to be high-minded and takes sometimes questionable jobs that will pay the bills. That sets him on a path of taking on mostly black villains who would exploit the neighborhood’s residents. His opponents are frequently normal humans with knives and guns, rather than super powers or gadgets. As a result, his adventures mostly involve him being shot without harm – the direct opposite effect of the frequent real-world shootings of the time.

Mike Colter as the title character in MARVEL’S LUKE CAGE on Netflix.

It is the very nature of his superpowers – super strength and being bullet-proof that raise some potentially uncomfortable issues for the creators of the exhibit, the duo calling itself “Black Kirby”. “How do you show that he’s bulletproof?,” asks John Jennings? Jennings is one half of “Black Kirby” and a professor of media and cultural studies at UCR. He continues, “you have to shoot him. You have to have a black man during the Black Lives Matter era shot every episode to prove that he’s bulletproof. And that’s problematic.” Jennings recounts how the inspiration for the exhibition came from a lecture he gave when he taught at the University of Illinois. “I used to do this lecture called ‘Steel-Hard Skin’ about the mythologies of the inhuman nature of black skin. The idea that black skin is impenetrable, or that it takes more punishment, or is harder, that’s actually a story that was told about black bodies to help enable slavery.  I always thought it was really interesting that the first major black superhero to have his own book from Marvel, that was his main superpower. It was focused on his skin.”

Jennings also notes that Cage’s profit motive for his heroics is the result of him being an ex-con, “who’s going to hire him?… Even though you really want more to aspire to for a black superhero, it does speak to the times as him dealing with all these issues and how people project negative things onto his body.” The installation also goes further, exploring the themes of black respectability politics, and the self-policing of black communities to adhere to the mainstream social values, gentrification and cultural appropriation and even medical apartheid – the history of experimentation on black Americans as exemplified by the Tuskegee Experiment conducted from 1932 to 1972, the same year that Luke Cage premiered.

Stereotypes also get examined. “Because of different writers dealing with the character, sometimes he comes across as being very stereotypical, and other times he’s really become a proxy for black masculinity in Marvel comics,” Jennings noted. “This is the thing that really interests us about the character, because he’s such an open signifier. He becomes all blackness to a certain degree and literally he has a superpower of a stereotype.” Indeed, it was James Owsley, the original comic series’ final writer who attempted to shed Cage’s roots in blaxploitation. That included a giving the character a larger vocabulary, and reducing his use of the catchphrase “Sweet Christmas!” which has ironically become a popular quote from the TV series.

“Black Kirby”

The exhibit

The work of Jennings, an Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist populates the walls of the exhibit along with those of his long-time collaborator, fellow comic creator and other half of “Black Kirby”, Stacey Robinson, an assistant professor of graphic design and illustration at the University of Illinois. The pair chose the moniker “Black Kirby” to honor the legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby, an icon himself who created much of Marvel’s own iconic characters including Captain America, the Fantastic Four and Hulk among others. The duo celebrate the work of Kirby and other artists, presenting it through an Afrocentric lens to explore themes on Afrofuturism, representation, magical realism, social justice and even hip-hop culture. Their first exhibition, Black Kirby: In search of the Motherboxx Connection was a reference to Kirby’s Fourth World work for DC Comics and toured around the globe.

The exhibit is conceived as a teaching space and goes beyond the artwork on the wall. In a nod to the TV series which titled each episode after hip-hop artists, the exhibit includes prompts based on songs by Mos Def. There is even a Spotify playlist and expanded reading list from the artists’ personal collections.

Uncaged opened on November 17, 2018 and continues through March 31, 2019. It is located at 3284 Main Street, Riverside CA 92501. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 5pm, Friday and Saturday noon to 7pm and Sundays from 11am to 4pm. General Admission is $6 with Seniors and Veterans receiving $3 off with ID. College students and children under 12 are admitted free.


Wyatt D. Odd
Wyatt D. Odd