Shining beyond ‘Moonlight’

  • Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth on a “Luke Cage” promotional poster. Netflix

  • Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth next to his Marvel Comics counterpart. Marvel/Netflix

For the Bulletin
Saturday, April 01, 2017

With Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali still in the spotlight, Amherst comics pro L.A. Williams and artist George Carmona III dive into the world of one of Ali’s other works: Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” where the actor brings memorable gravitas to antagonist Cottonmouth.

LAW: The news after the Academy Awards was so (understandably) focused on the unprecedented fact that the wrong movie was announced Best Picture that some missed something else unprecedented before that night: Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar for his role in the (actual) Best Picture, Moonlight.

But if you saw him in Marvel’s Luke Cage, Ali role before Moonlight, you already knew how talented he is. If not, some background first.

GC3: Carl Lucas. Wrongfully convicted and gains superpowers in prison.

LAW: Uses superpowers to do what most innocent and sensible brothers would: breaks out and assumes an alias.

GC3: Becomes “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire,” Marvel Comics’ grab at Blaxploitation era of film trending then.

LAW: When his comic debuted in 1972, Cage had an office in Times Square and took gigs as a bodyguard or P.I. as (basically) an invulnerable, super-strong Shaft.

GC3: But at least Shaft looked cool! Cage was --at best-- a "D" list character with a corny catchphrase, a wack costume and a really silly tiara. What grown man wears a tiara? I never cared for him.

LAW: Book sales were poor, so you weren’t alone. Marvel thought the problem might have been his lack of a traditional superhero name, so they tried boosting sales by retitling the series, Luke Cage, Power Man. It didn’t work.

GC3: So Marvel teamed Cage up with Iron Fist (a character from the 70s Kung Fu craze that we examine in another article)...

LAW: ...and retitled the series Power Man and Iron Fist.

GC3: This so-so incarnation is what I am most familiar with but again, didn't really care. What followed in the 80s and 90s were more half-hearted runs and that damned tiara.

LAW: For years, Marvel treated the series like a “try out” book: assigning novice writers and artists to it and, if they proved good and reliable, promoting them to better known and selling books. Without consistency and commitment, Cage suffered. But while sporadic quality contributed (mightily) to Luke Cage not being a household name, every lengthy comic series has quality dips and spikes and Cage also had some terrific runs.

GC3: Cage finally dropped the Power Man name, the puffy yellow shirt, and the tiara. With Brian Michael Bendis' writing, Cage went from being a Hero for Hire Blaxploitation holdover to an Avenger, a father, husband and a leader. He works to create a better life for his family and, by extension, the world and all the little people that the Avengers miss while fighting cosmic threats. Cage is now a character I care about.

LAW: I never minded and don’t think the problems were his moniker, costume, or being for hire. Some fun stuff was done in his 70s costume, some garbage stuff happened in his superior 90s outfit, and some brilliant stuff’s been done with him in jeans and a tee. Unlike billionaire super-heroes, Cage’s need to work for a living made him relatable and he was never motivated by money. He refused lucrative offers from the unscrupulous and accepted a nickel from a child to take out a supervillain. Written poorly, Cage is a stereotypical buck or buffoon. Written well, Cage is one of comics’ most honorable, most lovable, and funniest characters. He’s also, to paraphrase Ice Cube, “th’ wrong [one] to f#⥹k with” and knows it.

More importantly, there’s a handful of black superheroes on movie and TV screens these days, and many more on comic book store shelves each month. I doubt most of them would exist now had Cage not sustained a regular series from 1972-1986 with numerous subsequent revivals.

We differ on Cage’s comic past, but we like his “save the hood, then the world” approach and agree you should check out the live action Netflix series based on the best aspects of the comic (albeit with tweaks) via Mike Colter, Simone Missick, and the aforementioned Mahershala Ali as Cage’s enemy, “Cottonmouth.” He’s a lightweight in the comics given gravitas for the TV series, and the writing and Ali’s range effectively make you revile, pity and cheer him.

GC3: Ali made his character, with no powers, just as dangerous as Cage. And Missick’s is just one of the series’ many amazing performances by strong women of color…

LAW: …including Rosario Dawson, Alfre Woodard, and Sônia Braga. We also enjoyed the performances a lá New York Undercover from singers Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq, and Jidenna. There are plenty of references to real heroes like Percy Sutton and Jackie Robinson. And the show touches topics like use of the “N” word, gentrification, and community values. But note: while Cage comics are usually PG, the TV show isn’t for kids.

GC3: And you’ll get the show’s in-jokes and references better with this original source material that either one or both of us recommend:

Alias (GC3/LAW) (for mature readers)

Black Panther: Bad Mutha TPB (GC3/LAW)

Mighty Avengers (Bendis run) (GC3/LAW)

New Avengers (Bendis run) (GC3/LAW)

Power Man & Iron Fist Epic Collection (LAW)

Power Man & Iron Fist - Priest & Bright run (LAW)

Power Man & Iron Fist - Walker & Greene run (LAW/GC3)

George Carmona 3rd is an Artist/Designer operating FistFullofArt.com. L.A. Williams is an Amherst Regional High and UMass Amherst alumnus and former comic book editor who runs AquaBabyBooks.com online comic bookstore.