Image above: Sanford Greene, an artist in residence at Marvel, sketches at his Columbia home. Photo by Daniel Hare
Marvel’s X-Men comic was first released in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement. Created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the comic focused on super-powered beings called “mutants” being persecuted in a divided country. The mutants themselves were largely separated into two different factions following two powerful leaders with different theories on how to handle regular humans: Charles Xavier was a man of peace striving for mutants and humans to live together; Magneto wanted justice for humanity’s crimes against the mutants.
Over the years, people have hinted that Stan Lee’s inspirations for the characters were Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Indeed, Magneto even invokes Malcolm with the phrase “by any means necessary” in the first X-Men film. Stan Lee has never confirmed the connection, but he did mention in a 2000 interview that the X-Men were “a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at the time.”
Last month, 53 years after X-Men arrived, Marvel Studios — the comic giant’s prodigious, profit-churning film and television arm — debuted the series Luke Cage on Netflix. The show features a tall, bald African-American superhero who’s indestructible. It features a black writer, director and a largely black cast, along with a score composed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of iconic hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. Episodes are named after songs by the rap duo Gang Starr.
Once again, Marvel finds itself at the forefront of an important moment in the fight for civil rights. Arriving at a time when prominent, authentically black characters have become more the norm than the exception in both comics and television, Luke Cage, based on the long-running Marvel Comics character, is an affirmation of the progress made in both media, trumpeting the merits of a strong and moral black character — and one that just happens to be a wrongly accused ex-con — as racial divisions grip the country.
South Carolina is no stranger to such racial tension — from the heartless slaying of nine souls at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church to Walter Scott’s high-profile death at the hands of a North Charleston Police officer, both in 2015, the state, like many, has been rocked by racially charged tragedies. So it’s appropriate that two Palmetto State exports are involved with recent, politically potent interpretations of Luke Cage.
Michael Colter, the actor playing Luke Cage, hails from Columbia, where he attended Benedict College and the University of South Carolina. Sanford Greene, an artist in residence with Marvel since 2011, also attended Benedict. The Charleston native now living in Columbia is the illustrator for Power Man and Iron Fist, the most recent comic version of Cage, who sometimes fights under the Power Man moniker.
In addition, the upcoming Marvel film Black Panther stars Chadwick Boseman (of 42 fame), whose hometown is Anderson. Black Panther, the first black comic book character by Marvel in 1966, was introduced into the company’s film and television continuum, known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in this year’s Captain America: Civil War. The hero is the alter ego of T’Challa, the fictional leader of the African country Wakanda, a nation often abused due to its being home to the rare and nigh-unbreakable alloy vibranium — the stuff used to make Captain America’s shield.
Memes circulated the internet this past year with the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLIT, displaying something rarely (if ever) seen associated with a comic book movie: an overwhelming amount of black audience excitement.
Anticipated with good reason. Marvel recruited writer-director Ryan Coogler, the mastermind behind the Oscar-nominated Creed. That Rocky reboot had a reported budget of $35 million. Even though the budget for Black Panther, this year’s Captain America: Civil War boasted production costs of $250 million. If Marvel is consistent with their major films, it will be the first time a film with a predominately black cast, writer and director would have so large a budget.
Columbia native Mike Colter plays the title role in the Netflix series Luke Cage
The unapologetic blackness of both the new Luke Cage comic and show — and, likely, Black Panther — can be linked directly to today’s music. More and more, the buying public for hip-hop wants artists to be socially conscious in terms of their blackness. And — given the success of Luke Cage, which was so watched upon its release that it temporarily crashed Netflix — people want the same thing from their black superheroes. The first teaser trailer for the series featured the Ol’ Dirty Bastard song “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” as well as a cameo from Method Man. Wu-Tang is all over the show. For the fingerprints of hip-hop to be all over both a comic and series at this level is unprecedented.
Greene, for one, isn’t at all surprised about the recent emergence of black comic characters on the big and silver screen. He sat down with Free Times earlier this month after getting back from New York Comic Con in support of the new Luke Cage series and comic.
“In 2008, I’m at [the Savannah College of Art and Design] at a Marvel symposium,” Greene recalls, explaining that he overheard someone mention the revered hip-hop producer Pete Rock. “I took a chance, never meeting this man before, walk over to him and introduced myself. I asked the guy what was he saying about Pete Rock and the man responded, ‘He’s my favorite producer of all time.’ I literally asked the man if I could hug him. It turned out to be Axel Alonso, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.”
Alonso, too, sees these current hip-hop influences as inevitable.
“With a diverse catalog of characters — from Luke Cage to Ghost Rider — and a talent pool that grew up to hip-hop — like Sanford — I think Marvel has been poised for this moment,” Alonso tells Free Times. “Across all media platforms — movies, TV and print — we are expressing an ever-growing piece of our creative DNA.”
In Netflix’s Luke Cage, with Harlem as the backdrop, the title character is falsely accused of crimes, battles with cops and deals with police brutality and wears a hoodie throughout the series, which show creators say pays homage to slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
Music has recently embraced similar sentiments — from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah to the Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly— and Luke Cage appears to be the superhero most in tune with the conscious hip-hop that’s popular today.
Qiana Whitted, an associate professor of English and African-American studies at USC, writes and teaches about race and comics. She is the author of Comics and the U.S. South. She sees Luke Cage as delivering something black audiences desperately need.
“While Cage’s show should appeal to audiences of all races, the series is also an acknowledgement of the importance of developing quality programming for black viewers,” she reasons. “But perhaps more significantly, Cage’s relevance as an African-American crime fighter will resonate deeply with the growing outrage and activism against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States. The racism that Luke Cage will confront in this fictional series is very real and very relevant today.”
The Luke Cage character was introduced to the comic world in 1972 following the civil rights movement. Whitted says that this timing was significant.
“Racism, drugs and urban poverty were urgent problems for the U.S. at the time, and while Cage’s prison background associated with him in the criminality of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, the pride he expressed in defining his predominantly black Harlem neighborhood [away] from those problems made him the kind of hero that African-American communities could finally celebrate,” she says. “But with Cage fighting against fantastical villains as well as corrupt police, his heroism as an African-American man with bulletproof skin has always carried a distinctive kind of social and political importance.”
During a recent interview on the nationally syndicated New York radio show The Breakfast Club, Michael Colter was asked about the show’s focus on social awareness in the black community and issues with social injustice.
“It’s funny, we don’t have to do anything. It’s almost like if you want Trump to look like an idiot you let him speak,” Coulter responded “Right now it’s at a fever pitch. We couldn’t have timed it any better. … So when we put this show out it just happened to be at a crucial time in society where they feel like we really needed this.”
Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, in order for Marvel to do these characters justice they have to be willing and interested in portraying the authentic black experience that these characters draw on.
When asked if being a black artist working for Marvel comics was ever a difficult thing because of color, Greene thinks quietly before answering.
He says that being black didn’t necessarily have “anything to do with difficulties or me working there, but my experiences are ones that are the black experience, so in a way, yes. I’m influenced by hip-hop and that vibe and energy transcends into the art. You see many artists with those influences — like a Khary Randolph, Ed Piskor or even Jason Latour — and you see the hip-hop influence. You see art coming from graffiti. It influenced the way we draw. There was a time that Marvel wasn’t ready for that.”
They definitely seem ready now. In addition to Luke Cage and Black Panther, Marvel recently spearheaded a concept called the Variant Covers, allowing artists to reimagine classic hip-hop album covers using superheroes as a backdrop.
Sanford did two, recreating De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising cover with X-Men characters and Pete Rock & CL Smoothe’s Mecca and the Soul Brother cover with Hawkeye. Dozens of covers were made and the idea exploded with several big-time recording artists retweeting the covers, flattered by the homage.
Sanford remembers speaking with Marvel when the idea was in the infant stages.
“I had conversations with Marvel and told them that we had to make these covers as authentic as possible,” he says. “There’s an audience that is ready for something like this but we have to handle it with respect. We have to make sure that the people we are paying homage to support the idea.”
For Charlamagne the God, co-host of The Breakfast Club and another South Carolina native, this is nothing new.
“This is the thing, it’s always been happening,” he says. “When I was younger, I didn’t even realize Luke Cage was blaxploitation. I just thought it was dope that he had super strength, steel hard skin, and he was set in an environment that I could relate to. Even though I’m from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, I just connected with the backdrop of Luke Cage, not because it was the city but because Harlem was black and his super powers were how black men feel anyway.”
Charlamagne also thinks that Luke Cage being bulletproof isn’t an accident when it comes to being black and strong in America.
“We have to be super strong and have hard thick skin to survive in America,” he explains. “I think it’s happening now simply because Marvel is successful and if you watch the evolution of Marvel since the first Iron Man, it’s just the right time.”
Greene echoes the sentiment, but thinks it’s simple reasoning: Marvel allowed these characters to develop and gave them a chance to be understood.
“You can see how with things like black television how shows began to improve showing black culture,” he offers. “Shows like The Jeffersons began to show black characters in a different light and not in the hood. It’s amazing how with Luke Cage you can have a black character that’s a hero for hire and allow other characters to come into the universe like a Thor, a god, and it can actually work. When you see writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates write for Black Panther, you see Marvel’s attention to that detail. Even watching Luke Cage you realize that the show is The Wire with superheroes.”
There is an underlying beauty in the Southern — and South Carolina — connection that’s involved with these pivotal black super heroes. It can’t be considered a coincidence that people with such a background are involved in the re-emergence of black Marvel characters.
“What is important is the way Cage is presented in the series as a Southerner who runs away from Georgia as urgently as he flees his youth and his past incarceration,” she says. “The South is too often used in comics to convey racism, confinement and conservatism, but I hope it’s also clear that the South is as meaningful as New York in portraying Cage’s complexity as a hero who happens to be black.”