I knew the story: Carl Lucas, arrested for a crime he didn’t commit is experimented on in prison, as a ward of the state, and receives incredible powers that turn him into a bulletproof man. I knew how Tony Isabella worked with Marvel comics to create the character, how potent that story was to African-American readers, and how long it took for that powerful symbolism to actually be put into the hands of a black writer. But, while I knew the story, I hadn’t read it. So, when Luke Cage #1 came out four months ago, I admit I was surprised by how much I didn’t know. I didn’t know about Noah Burstein or his role in Luke’s story and I didn’t realize that Luke was on good terms with the man who gave him his powers.
After all, there is quite a history behind the idea of experimentation on black bodies. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments were only shut down a few months after the publication of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1. The fact that a white man subjecting an African-American to dangerous experiments was played as a positive thing initially surprised me. Not only that such an interpretation had persisted so long, but that David F. Walker, a writer who no one would call reticent to address issues of racial discrimination, would seemingly devote his run on Luke Cage to eulogizing that scientist. So now that Dr. Burstein has reentered the story, it is not in the least surprising that Walker is poking at that exact issue.
With many of the mysteries of the first three issues revealed, Walker begins to clearly explore Noah Burstein’s legacy, the people who comprise it, and the way that the good Doctor and his creations view each other.
First and foremost, Luke Cage remains a mystery story. As one set of ambiguities is brushed away, a new wave are uncovered and, as is usually the case in such stories, the question of the day is ‘where does the money lead’. Walker weaves a careful balance between classic mystery tropes and more familiar superhero speculation. Luke has the information he’s been looking for, he knows the who, but not the why and, as the pieces fall into place, he’s discovering that, while he may have succeeded in discovering the cast of characters caught up in this web, handling them is another matter altogether.
Narratively, Warhawk benefits greatly from his injuries, providing a real sense of how powerful and how unbalanced he is. There’s also some quiet acknowledgement of how complicated Caleb’s role in this story is. But while Burstein and Luke remain at the core of the story, there’s no denying that KevLar kind of steals the show.
Sharp, powerful, and unapologetically black, Kev is a character to watch both in real life and within the narrative. He steps forward as a powerful, sympathetic antagonist for this story that has thus far lacked one, and a well crafted foil for Luke Cage, however, that’s hardly the extent of his importance. Kev may at times have a slightly unnatural spotlight on him, especially as compared to his Ninth Ward family, but he proves a clear and natural way for Walker to explicitly comment on some of the racial arithmetic that might go over the head of many readers and significantly informs the story. The result is a story that reflects readers who have often been denied and educates those who don’t see themselves there, which is really all we can hope for from speculative fiction.
Luke Cage #4 retains the feeling of a serial novel in a way that is rather unique. It’s not just written for trade, though the issues can have that air of being chapters rather than installments, but instead it feels like a single story using enforced pauses to punctuate its storytelling. This issue proves both a particularly interesting chapter and a more complete narrative than most of its predecessors, however, it still has a slow-build, pulpy atmosphere that could put impatient readers off.
Nelson Blake II’s art remains consistent, still delivering the same sharp, minimal superhero art that defined the series from day one. Blake excels at communicating tense character interactions with stark lines and a real grasp of what his characters are specifically feeling. At times panels can still feel a little flat, especially as colored by Marcio Menyz, however, despite this weakness, there is a surprising power in how quietly the art communicates its purpose. Little things like the looseness of a character’s grip or the tension on Luke’s arm as he ruminates are surprisingly palpable.
The art demonstrates an impressive storytelling sense, but there are just a couple of problems that are hard to overlook. Most obviously is that the aesthetic doesn’t carry the right tone. For one reason or another, the combination of the linework and colors, each solid in their own right, feel less like Luke’s first solo title in a quarter century and more like a particularly lovely branded ad comic, a comparison that a Defenders-themed travel ad on the back cover doesn’t help.
The other problem is that, for the impressive subtlety of Blake’s work, he doesn’t make his presence known enough. It’s odd to say that because many other artists have the opposite problem, but, while the issue’s fight scene offers a couple of opportunities to show off, it feels like Luke Cage prioritizes strong representations of a dialogue heavy script over providing forceful or memorable panels.
Luke Cage #4 is probably the best issue of the series yet, though it remains merely a piece of a larger narrative. As layers of mystery are pulled away, deeper questions about trust and vulnerability are revealed. David Walker’s history in film and prose is easy to see and help craft a story that’s got its eyes on bigger themes, but its feet on the ground.