This fall, the comics enthusiasts at VOX were excitedly counting down the days until this premiere of “Marvel’s Luke Cage” on Netflix. I should mention that Mr. Cage’s fan base isn’t restricted to the teenaged staff members of VOX, either. As a Marvel Comics crazed eight-year-old, I bought the very first issue of “Luke Cage, Hero For Hire” when it debuted in June of 1972. It set me back 20 cents. Given that my weekly allowance was 50 cents, this was a significant investment.
Devouring the exciting origins issue in my room in my incredibly Caucasian suburban southern New Jersey hometown, I learned all about the wrongfully imprisoned inmate at Seagate maximum security prison who had been set up by a former friend, the corrupt guards who beat and left Luke for dead and the super secret science experiment gone awry in the prison lab (as these often do), giving Luke Cage impenetrable skin and fists of steel. I also learned about Harlem, gangsters, racketeers, drugs, cops on the take and the power of crusading newspaper columnists like the Daily Bugle’s Phil Fox who begins chronicling Cage’s heroic adventures cleaning up his old neighborhood.
In order to drum up business for his hero for hire services, Cage begins sporting superhero threads (it was the 1970s, after all), complete with a yellow disco shirt, a steel chain belt and some rocking yellow boots. Forty four years later, however, I still can’t explain the steel headband (or was it a tiara?!).
Reimagined for the modern Netflix binge watcher, “Marvel’s Luke Cage” (impressively portrayed by Mike Colter) emerges unscathed from a bullet-riddled showdown with restaurant robbers in the drama’s premiere episode and exits the scene pulling a sweatshirt over his head.
A bulletproof African-American male superhero in a hoodie is the most powerful image I’ve seen on television this year. And it’s one that was especially created for every young person of color growing up in America in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing.
Unlike the “Luke Cage” I grew up with that was almost entirely produced by white artists and writers (the exception was a young Marvel talent named Billy Graham, who by issue 12 was both drawing and co-writing the comic), Netflix’s 2016 version is produced by Cheo Hodari Coker, best known for his work on the gritty LA crime drama “Southland” who has assembled a diverse staff of actors, writers and directors to bring the drama’s first season to life. The creative team delivers some much-needed messages on the state of race in America (during the series’ season one shoot last year, the cops accused of killing Eric Garner were acquitted).
Two of our teens bashfully conceded that on the day of the show’s premiere, they might have streamed a few scenes during their journalism class. I could relate. The eight-year-old Marvel geek in me wanted to play hooky that Friday as well.
At VOX, unlike most quadrants of the world, writing about and discussing race is a daily occurrence in these troubling times. This fall during a community race dialogue held at VOX, Kenneth, a 16-year-old VOX teen staffer, aspiring actor and comic described how he navigates through the world as a six-foot-tall teen of color.
“I’ve learned not to stand up straight in public,” he explained. “I try and make myself look smaller so I appear less of a threat.” He described being stopped by MARTA police officers, rides with uneasy Uber drivers, being followed around CVS by managers and being asked by a freshman at his high school if he was a drug dealer. “Because people assume I’m a grown man, I’m uneasy in public spaces,” said Kenneth. “I live my life now not wanting to give anyone a reason to be suspicious of me.”
To me, the bravery of sharing those deeply personal sentiments in a teen-led, safe space at VOX makes Kenneth just as much of a superhero as the Marvel characters emblazoned across the T-shirts he wears to VOX. In the Race & the 2016 Presidential Race video filmed by teens at the community dialogue, Kenneth also took on a certain hate-spewing villainous orange-hued billionaire.
Like Trayvon Martin, our teens make trips to the store for candy and cans of Arizona Iced Tea while wearing a hoodie every day. With the racist stew pot currently being stirred in Donald Trump’s America, their safety is something the adults at VOX worry about daily. Especially this time of year when the clocks fall back an hour, it gets dark at 5:30 and we dispense MARTA breeze cards (presumably to provide our teens have a safe trek home) as we close the space at 7 p.m.
I’d like to put Luke Cage, Hero For Hire on permanent retainer to ensure the safety of each of our brilliant young people 24/7 as they walk through the world on the path toward a bright future. But for now, our teens are using their own superpowers to raise their voice and speak out against injustice. And VOX is the place where we can listen, arm ourselves with the perspectives of the teens we serve and work for a world where every person is safe, every day.
Rich Eldredge, VOX’s Senior Editor, has been a journalist covering Atlanta since 1990. VOX Teen Staffer Kenneth Franklin describes himself as Marvel’s biggest fan. Read his review of “Luke Cage” on our VOX teen site.