One of the oddest developments in recent entertainment history is the advent of the comic-book reading list. The box office and, to an increasing degree, the small screen are clogged with adaptations of stories that originated in the idiosyncratic and prolific world of superhero comics. But it’s never a simple matter of a one-to-one adaptation of a given story, like a filmed version of a novel. These characters have long, complicated, and ever-shifting histories. To understand the origins of a show or a movie, you must look at a wide back-catalogue. Marvel’s Luke Cage is no exception.
The Netflix premiere of Luke Cage is just the latest chapter for the title character, who’s undergone significant change over the course of his 44-year-long run. If you want a sense of where Luke Cage came from, but you’re feeling overwhelmed by the reading options, here are five key collections that’ll help you appreciate one of the most important black characters in sequential art.
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, Vol. 1
Here’s the place where it all began. Luke first appeared in 1972 as Marvel Comics’ blatant attempt to cash in on the Blaxploitation craze. This collection of his earliest stories is somewhat awkward to read today, with its urban patois (penned by white men, of course) and simplistic depictions of avarice. Nevertheless, the comic featured a unique and fascinating twist on the superhero concept: As the title implies, Luke wasn’t necessarily in it for high-minded ideals. He would take down a bad guy, but he usually did it in exchange for cold, hard cash. That made him pop out in a genre that was still struggling to figure out where it could go after the Marvel explosion of the 1960s. Plus, no matter how stereotypical he might have been, Luke was somewhat revolutionary by his very existence. He was working-class, he fought street-level crime, and he was proudly, unapologetically black.
Power Man and Iron Fist Epic Collection, Vol. 1
Luke garnered reader enthusiasm early on, but he didn’t truly come into his own until he was paired up with another distinctly contemporary crime fighter: Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist. The character debuted three years after Luke did, and was steeped in another 1970s phenomenon, that of American martial-arts filmmaking à la ABC’s David Carradine–starring Kung Fu. With Iron Fist struggling in his own series, Marvel opted to pair him up with Luke in 1978, rebranding the latter’s series as Power Man and Iron Fist (Power Man being Luke’s nom de guerre). The subsequent stories are delightful buddy-action tales featuring the all-business Luke and the fun-loving Danny, punching their way through comic-book violence at every turn.
Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 1
By the turn of the millennium, Luke Cage had become something of a joke. Blaxploitation was long dead and Marvel hadn’t found a way to make the character relevant in a world where conceptions of black characters in American pop culture were rapidly evolving. Luke hadn’t wholly disappeared — he had a short-lived solo series in 1992 and 1993, plus he popped up in other stories — but he was far from a leading light in the Marvel universe. Then, along came Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. The pair of young creators launched a foul-mouthed and alcohol-soaked mystery/superhero mash-up called Alias in 2001, and though it’s best-known for introducing another Netflix protagonist, Jessica Jones, it’s arguably just as notable for its overhaul of Luke Cage. He appeared as Jessica’s radically updated love interest: costumeless, well-dressed, catchphrase-free, and the epitome of a certain kind of black cool in the era of Samuel L. Jackson’s heyday. You can make a solid argument that this Luke was just as problematic as the previous one, given that he was crafted by white creators and treated as something of a sex object, but there’s no denying his charisma and vivid charm.
Mighty Avengers (2013 version), Vol. 1
Bendis quickly became obsessed with the vision of Luke that he’d dreamed up with Gaydos. After becoming Marvel’s golden boy in the mid-’00s, he carried Luke nearly everywhere he went, marrying him off to Jessica Jones, giving him a prominent role in Daredevil, and ultimately giving him the biggest honor a Marvel character can get: a spot on the Avengers. But Luke’s best Avengers run actually came long after Bendis moved on to other projects, when writer Al Ewing and penciler Greg Land launched a spinoff called Mighty Avengers in 2013. The series saw Luke forming his own Avengers squad while the traditional big names are off in a distant galaxy, one comprised largely of C-list heroes who’d never worked with one another. The resulting dynamics are fresh, funny, and genuinely suspenseful, and Ewing has a terrific sense of what makes Luke a delight to watch.
Power Man and Iron Fist (2016 version), Vol. 1
Even though Luke Cage is the character’s most prominent role to date, Marvel doesn’t actually have a solo series for him quite yet. But that doesn’t mean he’s out of the spotlight. The publisher made him a co-lead in a new Power Man and Iron Fist title, one that offers a modern and quirky update of the old Luke-and-Danny conceit. This series follows the pair as they get back into the hero game (something Danny’s giddy about and which Luke reluctantly enjoys) and navigate their crawl toward middle age. The stories are quite fun, and they’re particularly notable for the fact that they’re crafted by writer David F. Walker and penciler Sanford Greene — two black men. It’s unfortunate that Luke has rarely been handled by black creators, but the new Power Man and Iron Fist is an exciting bit of better-late-than-never corporate decision-making.