Te newest addition to Marvel’s MAX line, CAGE #1, has brought another aspect to the Marvel Comic Universe. The question is whether that is a good or bad thing.
In recent months, Marvel has been working hard to turn itself around both financially and critically. Looking to repair itself from such debacles as the Spider-Clone saga, Marvel has had a long way to go to reclaim its position as the top comic publisher. So far, they seem to be having success in recreating itself. The recent Ultimate line has been a big seller for the company and has drawn much critical acclaim. The Ultimate comics have tried to reinvent certain comic icons for the new generation. On the other side of the spectrum, the new Max line seeks to imbibe the Marvel Universe with a new sense of ‘reality’. It is just debatable as to what kind of ‘reality’ is needed here and how much.
At it’s most basic, the Max line can be viewed as nothing more than the addition of sex and violence into a world that existed outside such precepts. In this instance, Max comics are a strange, Frankenstein-ish combination of superheroes and reality that simply do not mesh. It is odd, even disturbing, to see some old time Marvel characters exhibiting behavior that would never have made it past the censoring Comics Code Authority in any way, shape or form. And yet, we are still drawn to it with a sense of spectators passing auto accidents. We know we shouldn’t look but something compels us and, despite our best intentions, derives a shiver of passion and interest from us. Cage #1 is just such a book.
When the character of Luke Cage was introduced in the early 1970s, black comic book characters were a rarity. When they did appear, they were usually bystanders, sidekicks or guest stars that appeared for only a few issues. Cage was the first black character at Marvel to carry its own book. The unfortunate part was that it was a character created and developed by white men and, instead of showing ‘relevance’, was more of a joke to black readers. Over the years, Cage went back and forth, never really acquiring any life of his own. In most cases, he was a superhero who just happened to be black. Attempts were still made to make him a ‘man of the streets’, but they never rang true.
In Cage #1, Azzarello and Corben have finally brought Luke Cage to the tough, mean streets he was always supposed to roam. So, now that we have what Cage was always supposed to be, do we still want it? Azzarello is a master in dealing with seedier situations and particularly with the format of crime comics. His dialogue and situations ring with a truth never seen in a Luke Cage comic before and we finally believe that Cage is one tough man in a tough city. Cage, who has always been a ‘hero for hire’, is approached by a woman whose young child has died in a drive by shooting. Not normally taking such ‘hard luck’ cases, Cage finds out that the drive by has more behind it than it originally appeared. The dialogue by Azzarello is particularly good and evokes a harsh feeling of life in the slums. Any chance to see artwork by Richard Corben is a reason for celebration and it is particularly jarring to find it in a Marvel comic. But, with the Max line, Corben finally has the room to play in the Marvel Universe. His Luke Cage is a walking brick wall with Max attitude and major coolness. What a pity that it looks nothing like Luke Cage. Therein lies the entire problem with this book and the MAX line in general. None of this is necessary.
The Max line places Marvel characters into realistic situations but it doesn’t need to. With the possible exception of Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias, there is no reason to use the Marvel characters to tell these stories. The story in Cage #1 could have been about any black superhero who happens to be invulnerable. There is no mention of his backstory, of his history, or of his place in the Marvel Universe no matter how slight it might be. We don’t know what his character is like, what his morals (or lack of) are, or really anything about him. All we know is that he is reportedly someone who occasionally ‘helps others’. It is the reader themselves who bring a knowledge about Cage to the story. If the reader is familiar with Cage, they will have a preconceived notion of who he is and how he will react. But these preconceptions work against Azzarello because they are so diametrically opposed to the environment that Azzarello is creating. Cage, the man of the streets, no longer belongs there because, over the past 20+ years, we have gotten used to bled dry version. It does not ring true because the character has too much past. The very thing that should attract readers to the book works against it. It is strangled by it’s own history.
The character of Luke Cage has not been treated well lately. Portrayed as a bit of a joke in reference in the pages of recent Fantastic Four issues, Cage was also shown engaging in casual sex with the lead character in Alias and later described as a ‘cape chaser’. Perhaps Cage is where he will become a more developed character showing the type of layers and contradictions that real people actually have. It is difficult to comment on a story when all one can see is the first chapter. Is Cage worthy of further reading? Certainly. But one hopes that the later issues manage to rise above both the mire of 20-plus years of Marvel history and create something new and unique that deserves the name Max.