Novelist Walter Mosley Talks Luke Cage, Colorism, and Why Spider-Man Was the ‘First Black Superhero’

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Walter Mosley, comics geek. Photo: Desiree Navarro/WireImage

Whatever you think of Marvel’s Luke Cage, you can’t say it's not literate. A bevy of books are either seen or name-checked throughout the latest Netflix superhero series, and one that gets a particularly bright place in the spotlight is Little Green, a novel by one of the most prolific and acclaimed living crime-fiction writers, Walter Mosley. In the second episode, two of the leads debate the comparative merits of Mosley and fellow African-American crime novelist Donald Goines — and the one going to bat for Mosley is none other than the title character. As it turns out, the feeling of respect is mutual: Mosley is a longtime superhero-comics geek and grew up reading Luke’s initial comic-book adventures in the early 1970s. We caught up with the author to talk respectability politics, the thorny issue of colorism, and why he thinks Spider-Man was the first black superhero.

You were a big Marvel Comics fan growing up, right?
Listen, I bought Luke Cage No. 1 in the store. So, yes. I also bought X-Men No. 1 and Conan No. 1. I didn't quite get Avengers No. 1 — but close. 

X-Men No. 1 came out in 1963, so we’re talking the mid-’60s, here?
Way back. ’63, maybe ’62. I had been reading DC [Comics] before, but I gave up.

Why'd you give up on DC?
In DC, everybody looked alike. Everybody looked white. Marvel, way back in the beginning, had a black character, in Sgt. Fury, Gabe Jones. Everybody's powers were so funnily designed that it didn't feel real. Marvel had things I hadn't even thought of, like hero-villains. You had somebody like the Sub-Mariner, who is a hero to his people, but an enemy to ours. Or the Hulk, who’s a pure being, but his emotions make him a villain or a threat. And you kinda go, Damn, that's real.

The first black superhero is Spider-Man. He lives in a one-parent house — it's not even a parent, it's an aunt. He has all of this power, but every time he uses it, it turns against him. People are afraid of him; the police are after him. The only way he can get a job is by taking pictures of himself that are used against him in public. [Newspaper chief] J. Jonah Jameson says [to Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker], “Go out and take a picture that shows him with his hand in the cookie jar, that shows him stealing and being a villain.” That's a black hero right there. Of course, he's actually a white guy. But black people reading Spider-Man are like, Yeah, I get that. I identify with this character here. 

More generally, what was it about superhero comics that spoke to you in a way other literature didn't? 
The complexity of human nature is expressed in the violence of adolescents’ hearts. You know what I mean? You could read Shakespeare, which actually does that, too, but it becomes very complex and intellectualized. In comic books, characters are like, The surface dwellers have destroyed my people and I'm gonna make war against them!

When you picked up the first Luke Cage comic in 1972, what’d you make of it?
It was wonderful. He's a black man who's been to prison — which is not unusual — who has come back to his home, who wants to do the right thing, and he has a conflicted heart. And he's living in a black world.

Somewhat infamously, the series featured hokey and borderline-offensive replications of urban black patois. Did that stuff turn you off?
Let me put it this way. You're 19 years old and you're gonna go out on a date with somebody. And that person, regardless of gender, regardless of your gender, they're fun, they're beautiful. They might have buck teeth or bad breath, they might say things that you can't quite understand because they're mumbling. They might have all kinds of problems, but what you do is you surmount those problems. Because you're with this incredibly beautiful person. Right? I thought Marvel had taken a big step in doing Luke Cage. They were trying to open a door, and they did open a door. Over the years after that, a lot of black people went through that door. To write comics, to draw comics, to manage the comics. It was great. It was wonderful. So, no, I didn't have problems.

If you were into it, I’m assuming you were into the blaxploitation movies it was drawing from. Was that the case?
I'm gonna go a roundabout way of answering that question. When I was a kid, I used to watch Sgt. Bilko on TV. Every week. There are other things I could've watched. But I watched Sgt. Bilko because, in his barracks, there was one black soldier. That black soldier never spoke or did anything, certainly didn't have any writing around him. But whenever they all got together, he was there. I watched Sgt. Bilko just so I could see him. 'Cause here you are, a black person — almost everybody you ever see is black — but when you turn on the television, there are no black people. So just the idea of seeing that guy, you go, "Look! Look, look, Dad! It's a black man!" So, blaxploitation, I was a fan of it because I had no other choice. It wasn't like that kind of entertainment was gonna come from some other place. I could watch To Sir With Love or In the Heat of the Night, or whatever. But I'm a young man — I needed action. Blaxploitation was doing that. I think if I had a better choice, I might have liked something else more. But it wasn't there.

What did you think of the way Luke evolved? After a while, he became something of a joke; after that, he was revived in comics, but was much more of a calm, respectable guy.
Luke really disappeared for a while. And then they started bringing him back, and it was really hard for them to figure out, Well, how do we do this? The way comic books were drawn and written changed a lot: The story isn't as simple or basic, and there have to be these underlying psychological or identity revelations. I didn't hold it against anybody that it happened. I'm less interested in Luke Cage as a character [now]. Which is why I think [Luke Cage showrunner] Cheo [Hodari] Coker, in doing [his show], goes back to the original one. He's living in the 'hood. He's come out of prison. He has all this power.

Here's a guy who has not benefited from the American dream.
And the reason he has power was because they did illegal experimentation on him in prison. 

Which is not that far off from things that have actually happened.
No, not at all. With those, you don't get superpowers. You get cancer. But it's the same thing: Here I am, you're killing me, and when I fight back, you condemn me. I think that's true in the show. That sense is true. The inner turmoil and confusion is true. Later on [in the comics], it's less inner turmoil, especially when he gets to be in the Avengers. It's more, Well, I'm a superhero with conflicts, and I have this white girlfriend, and I'm going to fight the bad guys. That's like, You could live like we live. But the thing is, people are still living in the 'hood today. Know what I mean? There are millions of black bodies in prison. And so with that as a fact, the old Luke Cage speaks more to today than the new Luke Cage, I think.

How well do you know Coker?
Oh yeah, I know Cheo, I've talked to him before. I mean, I'm a Hollywood guy. I do things out there. I had no idea he was doing this for a series. It wasn't until it happened that I knew about it, but it's kind of wonderful for my book to be in the show.

When you heard about the show, did you call him up to talk about it?
No. There's so many shows, so many of the Marvel shows coming out on Netflix, I knew he was doing it, and I probably ran into him once and asked him how it was going. But the thing is, it's television — you wait to see it. You don't want to jinx it with anybody. So you say, “What are you working on?” “Oh, I'm working on the new Luke Cage.” “Well, that's great.” And then you just hope that it appears. I think Cheo did a wonderful job. He's a good choice. From the first moments, you think, Okay, here we are, we're in Harlem. It's black people and Hispanic people and a couple of white people, and some are criminals and some are lawyers and some are doctors and some are just nice guys. It went where I expected it to go, so I wasn't surprised, but I was happy.

When did you find out that you were going to get mentioned in Luke Cage?
Somebody told me before it was on the air, but not that long before it was on the air. [Laughs.] Somebody I knew in Hollywood had seen a premiere or a preview or something and they said, “Man, your book is in there.” I went, “Oh. That's good. That's great.” That made me happy. [Laughs.] And really, I can see where it would be there. I mean, I write about black male heroes. This show is about a black male hero. I can understand why Cheo made that choice.

But do you think the show fits into the genre of crime fiction, as the book they’re discussing does?
Not really. This is a superhero comic, based and oriented in an African-American world. Because he has superpowers, there's a thing about him being a hero that goes all the way back to Gilgamesh and Hercules. That kind of hero who has a lot of power but who needs incredible courage to use that power to succeed.

Something that’s been criticized is the show’s take on respectability politics. Morally compromised characters use the N-word, but Luke himself derides it as something to be ashamed of. What did you make of that?
The fact that they used it meant that they weren't being too prejudiced. [One of the villains, Cottonmouth] is like, “Listen, man, I'm a nigga, people underestimate a nigga.” That's real. This political-correctness thing, it's so interesting. Inside the black community, you have the fellas who've appropriated the word, but then you have people from another generation who think the word is terrible and it's awful and you should never use it. Cheo decided, “Well, I'm gonna be the one to use it.” I think it's great.

The show also takes on colorism within the black community: Alfre Woodard’s character, Mariah, gets furious with Cottonmouth when he insults her for having dark skin. Colorism is something that’s getting talked about in mainstream discourse as of late — for example, there was a lot of criticism lobbed at the casting of the relatively light-skinned Zoe Saldana as the dark-skinned Nina Simone. Do you see colorism as a major issue?
Huh. To begin, you have to understand that I don't really believe in the existence of white people. If you went to Europe before trips to the “New World,” they didn't call themselves white people. They were the Vikings, they were Greeks, they were Spaniards, they were Basques. If you compared one to the other, they would kill you. If you told a Viking that he was just like the Greeks, he'd cut off your head. It wasn't until they came to America and they were killing the so-called red man and enslaving the so-called black man that they needed their own identity. So they called themselves white people.

With the idea of white, it's like black — it doesn't mean anything. It just doesn’t. You look at somebody and they’re dark brown or light brown or light-skinned like me. Somebody'll say, “You're black.” Okay, I'm black, but I'm not literally black. It's just a word that you are fixing to me. Do I believe in colorism? Probably. But on a much larger palette than the context that you're asking in. My mother, that whole family is Jewish. When somebody's Jewish and they come to me and say they're white, I say, “Man, are you crazy? Do you know your history? You're going to call yourself white and they've been killing you for a thousand years in Europe?” Everybody, not just Hitler, called the Jews another race. But they’ll say, “I'm white.” I look at them and I go, Is that like when I say I'm black? You can look at me and you see I'm not black, right? I understand racism and I deal with it. I speak in those terms, but in an ideal world, we're all just people, right?

Have you been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run on the Black Panther comic?
I haven't even seen Black Panther yet. I'm looking forward to seeing it. Ta-Nehisi’s father and I are, like, best friends. Paul Coates. Paul Coates was the head of the Black Panthers in Baltimore, back in the day, in the '60s. When people say, “Have you seen Black Panther?” I’m like, “No, but I know the original Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi's father.”

If you’ve known Ta-Nehisi that long, did you ever talk comics with him? Did he talk to you for advice about writing fiction when he got this assignment?
Never. No, we never talked about comic books. Now and then we run across each other. I look forward to seeing [Black Panther]. It's kind of like television shows: Some television shows I like, I wait until the first season is over, then I watch the whole thing all at once. It’ll be great. I know he really loves doing it.

Any closing thoughts about the show?
I think there are some really important things about Luke Cage. Some guy got out of prison and he's going to work in this barbershop and people are after him. You couldn't make that story without making it a comic-book story first. It's really brilliant of Cheo to figure that out.