Looking to expand their readership, Marvel introduced Luke Cage in March 1972, inspired by the early blaxploitation films Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft. The groundbreaking series was initially written by Archie Goodwin with pencils by George Tuska, who was paired with the African-American inker Billy Graham. A relative newcomer, Graham drew most of the Hero for Hire covers and provided pencils on several issues. He would later work on Marvel’s other black superhero, the Black Panther. Unlike King T’Challa of the black utopia Wakanda, Luke Cage inhabited the grimy neighborhoods around Times Square in Manhattan and struggled to make money by selling his super-powered services. And whereas the Black Panther was a member of the Avengers, Luke had little interaction with the wider Marvel Universe, though that would slowly change over time. As the blaxploitation genre faded, Luke moved away from his gritty private detective / mercenary milieu into more typical superhero territory by adopting the codename Power Man.
Note: The following timeline depicts the Original Marvel Universe (anchored to November 1961 as the first appearance of the Fantastic Four and proceeding forward from there. See previous posts for a detailed explanation of my rationale). Some information presented on the timeline is speculative and some is based on historical accounts. See the Notes section at the end for clarifications.
Breaking out with… The True History of Luke Cage, Power Man!
September 1964 – Carl Lucas, serving his fifth year of a 20-year sentence in Seagate Prison, is badgered by two other inmates, known as Shades and Comanche, about staging a mass protest when the new warden arrives. Carl is not interested and gets violent when they try to threaten him. Carl is then ordered to meet with the captain of the guard, an abusive racist named Albert “Billy Bob” Rackham, who wants him to become an informer so the protest can be prevented. Carl refuses to cooperate and is sent to solitary confinement, where he is viciously beaten by another guard, William Quirt. However, the new warden, Tyler Stuart, arrives unexpectedly and intervenes. The warden fires Quirt and demotes Rackham, giving Carl hope that his treatment will improve.
Several days later, a medical researcher brought in by the new administration, Dr. Noah Burstein, offers Carl the chance to volunteer for a dangerous experiment, promising that it would improve his chances of being approved for parole. Carl is at first reluctant, but when Rackham threatens to make his life in Seagate a living hell, he gives Burstein his consent. When Carl is brought to his laboratory, set up in a disused section of the prison, Burstein explains that his experiments grew out of a project funded by a Stark Industries grant to develop an electro-biochemical system for stimulating human cell regeneration. Burstein gives Carl an injection, then seals him in a tank filled with a strange chemical brew. However, while the scientist is checking his instruments, Rackham slips into the lab and changes the settings on the control panel, hoping that Carl will be killed. Burstein catches him in the act, but it is too late—Carl undergoes a painful transformation that leaves him with super-strength and impenetrable skin. Smashing free of the tank, Carl sees Rackham has drawn his gun and slaps him down, knocking him out. Worried that he’s killed the guard, Carl punches the wall in frustration and is shocked to find he’s put a hole in the stone without hurting his hand. Seeing his chance for freedom, Carl breaks through the wall and makes a run for it. As he reaches the edge of a cliff, Carl is gunned down by the guards and falls into the water. To his surprise, he is unharmed and, leaving his bullet-riddled shirt behind, lays low until nightfall, then makes good his escape.
The next day, Carl reads in the newspaper that he is believed dead, shot while trying to escape from prison. He procures some clothes, shaves off his mustache, and hits the road.
October 1964–August 1965 – Carl slowly heads north through Georgia and up the Eastern Seaboard, adopting a succession of aliases and working what odd jobs he can get with no identification. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he avoids using his newfound powers and keeps on the move, never staying anywhere too long or getting too close to anyone. He is driven by his desire for revenge against his former friend and partner-in-crime, Willis Stryker. Carl remembers bitterly how he and Stryker fell into a life of petty crime while growing up in Harlem, though while Stryker found success as a racketeer, Carl grew sickened by the escalating violence and tried to go straight. Getting a job, Carl soon became infatuated with Reva Connors, the sister of a neighborhood acquaintance, only to have Stryker deliberately move in and start dating her. When Stryker was brutally beaten by rival gangsters one night, Reva ran to Carl for help. She revealed that she had been planning to leave Stryker anyway, as his lifestyle terrified her, and she and Carl started dating while Stryker was recovering in the hospital. However, Stryker felt betrayed and planted two kilos of uncut heroin in Carl’s apartment before tipping off the police. Arrested for drug trafficking, Carl was quickly found guilty and sent to jail, despite his protestations of innocence. Not long after, Carl learned that Reva had been killed in a drive-by shooting while with Stryker, having been lured back into the racketeer’s life with promises that he could get Carl released from prison. Since that day, Carl has nursed his hatred for Stryker and planned to hunt him down and avenge Reva’s death.
September 1965 – Carl finally arrives in his hometown, New York City. A chance encounter with an armed robber that brings Carl a cash reward inspires him to make a living as a superhero. He goes to a costume shop in the Theater District and buys a second-hand outfit that once belonged to an escape artist. Accessorizing the yellow silk shirt and black leather pants with a steel headband and matching wristbands and a length of chain as a belt, Carl realizes he’ll need to choose a permanent new name. He settles on Luke Cage, then goes to set up an account with an answering service and orders a set of business cards. With the remainder of his reward money, Carl rents a room at a fleabag hotel, then heads out to a Harlem cemetery to visit Reva’s grave. He renews his vow to avenge her death, then finally leaves his life as Carl Lucas behind him.
Over the following days, Luke Cage makes trouble for Stryker’s crime syndicate, beating up the guys who try to collect protection money from neighborhood shops and restaurants. He then passes out business cards which read “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire” to the onlookers, hoping to draw Stryker into a confrontation. Sure enough, about a week later, Stryker sends two hitmen after Luke, but he shrugs off their bullets and easily defeats them. Thinking Luke has been shot, a woman runs up and offers to treat his wounds, introducing herself as Dr. Claire Temple. She is shocked to find the bullets merely bruised Luke’s chest. Finding her attractive, Luke agrees to accompany Claire to her neighborhood clinic, which has been ransacked several times since it opened. When they arrive, though, Luke discovers that Claire’s partner is none other than Noah Burstein. Fearing that Burstein has recognized him, Luke leaves, cursing his luck.
The next day, Luke rents some rooms above the Gem Theater on W. 42nd St. to serve as his office and living quarters. He hits it off with the theater manager/building superintendent, a young movie buff named David “D.W.” Griffith. However, he is summoned back to the clinic by a frantic Burstein, who reports that Claire has been kidnapped by Stryker and his henchmen. Expecting a trap, Luke heads to a run-down parking garage to confront Stryker. Luke quickly frees Claire from Stryker’s assassins, then pursues his old friend up to the roof. Impulsively revealing himself as Carl Lucas, Luke mocks Stryker’s street name, “Diamondback,” and his snakeskin jumpsuit. Shocked that his former rival is still alive, Stryker goes on the offensive with his high-tech throwing knives. During the battle, though, Stryker stumbles through a skylight and is killed when an explosive knife detonates on impact. When the police arrive on the scene, Claire informs them that Luke rescued her from the gangsters and Burstein elects to keep silent about Luke’s true identity.
Later, at the clinic, Luke confronts Burstein, who has indeed recognized him as his test subject from Seagate Prison. Burstein is torn as to whether he should turn Luke in to the authorities, but Luke storms out before the matter is settled. He returns to the Gem Theater and, too agitated to sleep, spends the night pacing around and talking with D.W. In the morning, Luke is hired by a Vietnam veteran, Owen Ridgely, who has discovered a plot by a disgruntled former Army colonel named Gideon Mace to use a combat veterans’ protest to cover a series of bank robberies. A trio of hitmen manage to kill Ridgely, but Luke overpowers them and forces one of the crooks to drive him out to Mace’s compound on the New Jersey Palisades. There, Luke fights his way through a gang of mercenaries and battles Mace, though the old soldier gets away from him by spraying Chemical Mace in Luke’s face. Nevertheless, Luke stops Mace from escaping in his helicopter, causing the chopper to crash into the Hudson River. Assuming Mace has drowned, Luke returns to his Times Square office. Though Ridgely paid him before he died, Luke decides to send the money to his client’s wife and daughter, feeling that they need it more than he does.
October 1965 – Luke’s encounter one night with a mysterious phantom leads him to investigate the history of the Gem Theater and its former owner, Adrian Loring, who died in a mysterious fire in the late 1940s. The phantom has been terrorizing local theaters that are part of the same chain as the Gem, and the company’s owner, Jasper Brunt, hires Luke to get to the bottom of it. Luke discovers that the phantom is really Loring’s son Armand, an acrobatic dwarf, and his partner, a silent strongman called Jacques, who want revenge on Brunt for causing Adrian Loring’s death. Before Luke can stop him, Armand knocks Brunt through a window and they fall to their deaths on the street below. While working on the case, Luke meets an annoying gossip columnist for the Daily Bugle, Phil Fox, who is sniffing around for a story on the city’s new “Hero for Hire.” Not wanting that kind of publicity, Luke gives Fox a wide berth.
November 1965 – Luke’s attempt to meet a new client, Frank Jenks, goes awry when the man is stabbed to death during an apparent mugging. To make matters worse, the body is stolen by a phony ambulance crew before the police arrive. Luke promises the victim’s widow, Mimi Jenks, that he’ll investigate free of charge, as he feels responsible for not preventing the murder. With some dubious help from a local informant known as Flea, Luke tracks the fake ambulance to a warehouse in Chelsea. There, he learns that the ambulance is used to make off with the recently deceased, after which the gang strips the bodies of any valuables and then uses the keys and ID they find to burgle the victims’ homes. Outraged, Luke beats up the crooks, but is unwilling to fight with their leader, an enormously obese woman called Black Mariah. After slapping Luke around a bit, Black Mariah tries to escape in her speedboat, but Luke smashes it and captures her. However, Black Mariah and her gang turn out to be merely criminal opportunists and were not involved in Jenks’ murder. Heading back to the Gem Theater, Luke is harassed by Flea, who wants money for the information he provided, even though it was of little use. Unfortunately, Mrs. Jenks misinterprets their argument and thinks Luke is going back on his promise to work for free. She throws the money in his face and storms off. Frustrated, Luke pays off Flea and goes up to his office, thinking that his superhero business isn’t quite what he thought it would be.
A few days later, Luke is attacked in his office by five hitmen, but he beats them up and drives them off. He is then hired by two wealthy white women, Catherine and Laura Forsythe, to protect their terminally ill grandfather from being murdered. Luke accompanies them back to their vast country estate, where he feels out of his element. The young chauffeur’s thinly disguised racism doesn’t help matters, though he becomes much friendlier after Luke saves the sisters from a falling chandelier. During the night, Luke is attacked by the family’s collection of medieval suits of armor, which have been converted into radio-controlled robots. The battle is meant as a diversion to keep Luke busy while the grandfather’s iron lung is turned off, but Luke quickly demolishes the primitive robots and saves the old man. Confused as to why anyone would want to murder someone so close to the grave already, Luke studies the family’s genealogical records and realizes the chauffeur is really Catherine and Laura’s long-lost brother, who will only inherit the family fortune if his grandfather dies before his 25th birthday. His plot exposed, the would-be killer attacks Luke with a blowtorch, but Luke easily knocks him out and calls the police. In the morning, Catherine and Laura drop Luke off in Times Square, but while they are both giving him a kiss of thanks, Claire happens to see them and assumes Luke spent the night in bed with them. As the sisters drive off in their limousine, Luke tries to reassure his jealous friend that the women were just clients.
December 1965 – On Christmas Eve, Luke stops at the neighborhood clinic to pick up Claire for a date. While waiting for Claire and Burstein to close up shop, Luke sees a boy being beaten in the street by a man straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Luke drives the man off, then takes the boy inside, where Claire treats his cuts and bruises. While she’s occupied, Burstein warns Luke that Phil Fox has been around, claiming to want to do a story about the clinic. Burstein is worried that if Fox digs into his background, he’ll find out about the experiments at Seagate Prison, which could lead him to discover Luke’s true identity. Luke and Claire then head to a nearby bar, but pause along the way to help a beggar who lost both legs in Vietnam. Seized by hallucinations of the Viet Cong, the beggar suddenly produces a machine gun and opens fire on Luke. Shielding Claire with his body, Luke disarms the vet and mangles his gun, though he and Claire decide that the man is mentally ill and not responsible for his actions. Sometime after midnight, Luke and Claire leave the bar, only to be accosted by a man in a futuristic uniform brandishing a laser gun, who claims it is Christmas Day, 1984. During the ensuing fight, Luke realizes that all three of the violent characters he’s encountered are the same man. Luke is knocked out and wakes up to find himself chained up in the man’s apartment. His foe, now dressed as a modern-day executioner, reveals that he plans to detonate an atomic bomb that he stole piece by piece back in 1946 while serving with the O.S.S. Luke tries to talk him out of it, but to no avail—the man has lost all faith in humanity despite Luke’s own bravery and compassion. When a burglar suddenly comes down the chimney, Luke takes advantage of the distraction to break free and defeat the mad bomber. He then calls the police, who take both criminals into custody. The atomic bomb is quickly located by the authorities and dismantled. Luke enjoys the rest of his holiday, gratified that his “Hero for Hire” business is going well enough to provide a steady income, though he worries that his past will soon catch up with him.
September 1964–August 1965 – Luke Cage is introduced in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1, where his past as Carl Lucas is detailed in lengthy flashbacks. Additional details are provided in Power Man and Iron Fist #50. It is later revealed that the gangsters who put Willis Stryker in the hospital were with the Maggia, and the heroin that Stryker used to frame Carl was stolen from the Harlem crime boss Cottonmouth. It was actually Cottonmouth’s enforcers who killed Reva Connors while trying to get at Stryker. The fact that Noah Burstein’s early research into human cell regeneration was funded by Stark Industries suggests that Tony Stark hoped it would lead to a treatment for his injured heart. However, after the Carl Lucas debacle, Burstein resigned in disgrace and his research program was abandoned. He then came home to New York and started the neighborhood clinic with Claire Temple. Warden Stuart was fired for greenlighting the experiments, and not long after, Seagate Prison was shut down and sold off by the government, also putting Albert Rackham out of a job. These repercussions all become seeds for future stories.
November 1965 – The “muggers” who murder Frank Jenks are actually enforcers for the mob boss known as Señor Suerte, who also hires the five hitmen who try to eliminate Luke in the next issue.
December 1965 – This sweet Christmas story brings us up to Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #7.
OMU Note: The final canonical appearance of Luke Cage is in Power Man and Iron Fist #125.
Next Issue: Secrets of the Scarlet Witch – Part Four