Last Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Cage #15 Volume 1
“The Good, The Bad, and the Deadly”
Writer – Marcus McLaurin
Penciler – Scott Benefiel
Inker – Frank Tuner
Letterer – Richard Alan Starkings
The modern day is all about binaries, and dualistic reductions: good opposes bad, liberal opposes conservative, etc. The comic book follows similar conventions, and, perhaps, is guilty of exacerbating these petty dichotomies. The calm gradation between good and bad doesn’t exist in our cultural habitat. And if such a gradient exists, it comes off as cliché, or worse, a relic of the anti-hero renaissance of the “dark n’ grit” comics from the mid to late eighties. Because I’m a hypocrite, I can say that “I’m not a Marvel guy.” (I prefer the comic pastiche a la the platonic forms.) Yet that implies a strong awareness of the opposing force that vie for supremacy in my niche hobby cosmos. I have read many DC comics from the early nineties. Many of them are awful. I can say with relative confidence that Cage #15 is the first Marvel trade paperback I’ve read that dates to the early nineties. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
I’ve always reduced the DC/Marvel dichotomy down to a simple difference in motivations. Obviously this is a monolithic and simplistic approach. I perceive that the primary difference between each brand is in the idealized heroes of DC and the petty, morally idiosyncratic denizens-with-superpowers of Marvel. Making an argument from the mouth of an imaginary character conceived in a puddle of ink is grounds for psychiatric incarceration in most civilized circles, but the trend for writers to do this is pretty common as far as comic books go. The varying complexities between such arguments rise to the lofty heights of All Star Superman, all the way down to the murky pits of Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin. (The fact that they bear the same name is good commentary.) All Star Superman was a contemplative journey of coping with mortality. The narrative asked whether or not Superman was merely a figure in the expanse of time, or if he was something greater, an embodiment of a grander design integrated into the ontology of the cosmos. It was the swan song to DC’s Golden Age simplicity, as well as the instrument of expression for DC’s principal outlooks on justice and equity. Funny then, that Cage was nothing like All Star Superman at all; yet I found him just as endearing.
Cage, or Luke Cage, is a fairly bland and uninteresting metahuman. His backstory is blasé, generic, typical of the superhuman mythos. His proximity to being the first African American to own comic book cover real estate is perhaps his only notable contribution to the comic book annals, but his characterization in Marvel’s rebranding of the character beginning in the 1992 reboot is decidedly more modern. Cage is an everyman trying to do what is right. Receiving powers in exchange for a commuted prison sentence is symbolic enough, but Cage’s pursuit of justice through his fabricated identity uncovers a deeper, humanistic element that depicts a man trying to find his way in a world of growing complexity.
This particular issue follows Cage in pursuit of Terror Inc., a zombified Vandal Savage bent on enduring the ages. (To what end, I admit ignorance.) With the little information that I have been given, Cage is awfully cross that a particular relic, the Vatsayana Tryst (or a piece of one) has been purloined from his person, and has chased Terror onto a non-descript luxury cruise liner. Silver Sable has also made it onto the vessel in search of the relic, but begins to clash with Cage. Their brief exchanges are fascinating, illuminating the struggle between idealized justice and practical justice. The comic deals with the limitations of either perspective, while also serving as a foil for the greater struggle between DC and Marvel for ideological supremacy. Cage is particularly honorable, as far as metahumans come, but isn’t willing to put his needs in front of others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if every supervillain threatened to waste a bus boy whenever a super hero tried to stop them, then comic books would be either horribly violent or philosophically duplicitous. “You can’t have metahuman cake and eat it too,” as the saying goes, so when Sable flips out over Cage relinquishing the relic to save one of the crew members on the ship, the reader finds themselves agreeing.
What makes the comic so good, then, is the realism of the characters and their situations. There’s nothing real about superheroes stealing ancient relics to feed the whims of angry demigods, but there is everything real about normal people having lapses of judgment in trying scenarios. Sable, famed war criminal hunter, is more of a parody than a superhero. She’s like the Punisher, only less interesting. Cage, on the other hand, is a ghost who doesn’t belong anywhere. One of the most touching moments in the entire comic, is a conversation between Cage’s father, Johnnie, and Micky, his Korean War buddy dying of cancer. The two talk about what is important in the face of mortality: children, family, friendship. forgiveness. The hostility and disillusionment between Cage and his father are easily inferred by Cage’s exchanges with his partner Dakota, and this is completely understandable. Johnnie’s begrudged look of acceptance on his face is enough to show readers that he is processing the weight of his friend’s words. Not very many comics even attempt this level of pathos, let alone execute it with the deft competency that Cage #15 does.
My continuing research only goes to show that not all was lost in the early nineties. Marvel apparently was winning out over the sheer readability that their comics espoused. Sure, there are the occasional comic book beats, the plot holes, and moments of pure incomprehension, but they are wholly redeemed by the fact that Cage #15 attempts to condescend to the level of its readers. There are plenty of friends and family that I know that have dealt with accepting the death of a loved one due to cancer. Likewise, I, and many others, are prone to making mistakes and misjudging their surroundings. It’s good to know Marcus McLaurin was aware of this when he wrote Cage #15. So, despite Cage’s contrived origins and superpowers, he is sincere and uncomfortably realistic for a comic book character. He is just one of us living on the fringe, doing his best to get by.
9 Caged Birds a’ Singin’ (of 10)