Portland-based writer and critic David Walker will continue his exploration of the unbreakable superhero Luke Cage this spring with a new series for Marvel Comics.
Cage, with super strength and impenetrable skin, was introduced to readers as Power Man in the early ‘70s. He shot to the front line of the Marvel universe in 2016, with an original Netflix series and a separate storyline in a “Power Man and Iron Fist” comic written by Walker, with art by Sanford Greene.
Walker says Marvel is wrapping up PMIF in April, but the stand-alone Luke Cage comics series will debut in May.
Q&A with David Walker
April Baer: Had you read Luke Cage as a kid?
David Walker: Oh yeah. I can’t tell you what year I saw him for the first time — I’m bad with issue numbers — but I was probably about 7 years old. I remember where it was. My cousin and I — I was in a 7-Eleven in Vienna, Virginia— and we walked in, and there were comic books there, and there was only one copy. Neither of us had seen anything like it. And we sat down and we read it. At that age — this was 1976 — we were amazed. It was the coolest thing we’d ever seen, but we were also like, “No black people talk like this.” It was the same as watching television shows like “Good Times,” where it’s the best and the worst of representations. But that was the beginning. Like Cage had his own comic, called “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.” Then it was changed, I believe, to “Power Man.” Iron Fist had his own comics. Both of them weren’t doing very well in sales, and someone got the bright idea to team them up.
AB: And it becomes a buddy movie.
DW: It becomes a buddy film before those were super popular. In 1978, “Power Man” issues #48 and #49 featured a team-up, and then with Issue #50 it became Power Man and Iron Fist. And that ran, I believe from 1978 top 1986, when they finally canceled it. While I did not have all the issues, I had the vast majority of them. It was one of those ones that I lived as a kid.
AB: So it was definitely different seeing a comic book about a black man.
AB: Was there anything else about the visual style of the old series that set them apart from other superhero stuff that you were taking in?
DW: There were key issues of the “Power Man” series that were drawn by a guy named Billy Graham — not the evangelist — he was a comic book artist. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a black comic-book artist. There was something so different about the way those comic books looked. When I became older and I found out Billy Graham was a black artist, I was like, “Oh! Now it makes sense!” Then I remember some issues were drawn by Keith Pollard. And he was a black artist. There was something about the way those books were drawn. Now that I work in the industry, I’ll tell editors, “Don’t give me an artist who doesn’t know how to draw black people.” You get one of two things: an artist who doesn’t understand there are different facial structures, who will draw black characters that look exactly like white characters.
AB: Like a black Barbie.
DW: Exactly, Or you’ll get some that are so exaggerated. This is not 1945. We do not need these big giant lips. The subtleties can be really different. I remember on “Power Man and Iron Fist” there was an artist named Dennis Cowan, who at the time was really young. I’ve become friends with him now. He drew stuff in a way that blew my mind. But one of the longest running artists on that book was a guy named Kerry Gammill. I was convinced, as a kid, that Kerry Gammill had to be a black guy. Because the way he drew Luke and other black people, to me, in my child’s mind, was like, “Oh, he knows how we look.” And me and my cousins would talk about it! “Oh, the only black people they ever see is on the subway. This artist has never actually met another black person.” But Kerry Gammill, who turned out now to be a black guy, drew Luke with a strength and didn’t make him look like some bizarre stereotype.
AB: As a writer, you’ve reimagined a number of black heroes: John Shaft, Nighthawk and Luke Cage. “Power Man and Iron Fist” has this touch that’s at once a reference to the older series in the ‘70s, but also humorous, with elements that remake white mainstream archetypes — not just in terms, of who we see and who we hear from, but how everyone interacts with each other. What conversations did you and Sanford Greene have about what this world should look like?
DW: Sanford and I talked about all kinds of different things before he started drawing the book. And fortunately we’d known each other for several years. I’d send him images of what the black villains all looked like back in the ‘70s, and say, “See, we’re not going to do this.” Black Mariah (a fictional Harlem crime boss and one of Luke Cage’s nemeses) was like the most ridiculous looking character you’ve ever seen — this grotesque, big, fat black woman who wore a mumu. She looked horrific.
AB: When I look at the old depiction, she kind of looks like a comic book character of what white people think a welfare queen looks like.
DW: Yes! Really disturbing. And so, I was like, “We’re going to bring back Black Mariah.” And Marvel was, like, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah.” And Sanford and I talked about it. And we decided she’s still going to be a large woman. We’re not going to give her gastric bypass surgery. We’re going to make her really, really fabulous. We thought, let’s look at Missy Elliott. Let’s look at Queen Latifah. There was a rapper in the ‘80s, Miss Melodie, who was part of Boogie Down productions. Let’s look at them and go with this notion that there’s nothing wrong with being a large black woman.
AB: While she’s definitely one of the villains, but her demeanor is — I’m not sure how to describe it — like a warm, observational humor in how she deals with people. Almost a kindness when she’s doing a take down.
DW: Well, part of what I wanted to do was look at all these black characters I’d read in comic books for years and tried to figure out what was wrong with them. It seemed like there was more things wrong than right. And the thing that was wrong with all of them was a stunning lack of humanity. I’m not embarrassed to say I come from a family of people, who did things that were questionable. Relatives of mine who definitely did illegal things, and I didn’t necessarily see them as bad people. In the original comics, Mariah was supposed to be this aspiring criminal mastermind, and she had virtually no personality. She practically talked like Mushmouth (of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids). You don’t get to be a criminal mastermind if you’re this way. There’s never been a story about her origin, and I made up a story and it was really simple. Here you have a black woman who was overweight and was dismissed her entire life. If she was in a room with ten other people, she was in the top three smartest, but she was the darkest and she was the fattest. And so she never got any respect, never got what she deserved. And I decided to write her that way, as a criminal. What we discovered [as we created the story] is she was part of this early gang in Harlem, except guys in the gang thought she was nothing but fat cow. One or two were after her as a sex object. In her mind, she was neither of these things. ‘I’m the one who should be running the show.’ That was how I wanted to play her. She knows she deserves to be the boss. She’s thought it through.
AB: PMIF was publishing in 2016 concurrent with the very popular Netflix series, “Luke Cage.” Did you like the series?
DW: Yes. It was something as a kid I never thought I’d get to see. I was working on the comic series while the show was in production. I’d already made the decision to bring Black Mariah back before they announced Alre Woodard was going to be playing Black Mariah [in the Netflix series].
AB: We should mention these two storylines have characters in common but the visual look and plots and the way the characters are fleshed out, are totally different. You really did not know what was going on. Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah is more like a creature of “The West Wing” or “Scandals.”
DW: Yeah, when I saw that I was like, “Wow, I kind of wish I’d done that!” But in the comic book context, you couldn’t have created a character like that. It would have taken a long story run to do that. It brought up everything. It’s very rare I watch at TV show and go, “I should’ve been in the writers’ room.” I say this in all humility! I would have been able to hold my own. In every single episode there was a moment like, “That’s the moment I would have written.” There were things I had planned on putting in comics, where I said, “Well, can’t do it now!” And moments were I said, “Yep, there goes their tribute to ‘The Last Dragon.’” It was very interesting to me. But the moments that were most fascinating where they’re talking about black crime fiction, Donald Goines versus Walter Mosley. And they bring in George Pelecanos, and I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe they got away with this conversation.” Every episode there was a moment of “This was written specifically for black audiences, and if white audiences didn’t get it, that’s their problem.”
I never met Cheo Coker, the show runner, but we run in some of the same circles, and we’re friends on social media and chat once in a while. It was clear from the very first episode, the people responsible for the show, one of the things they had in mind is that this might be the only opportunity anyone ever gets to do anything like this, so we’re going to kitchen-sink it. What if this is the only time this happens? How do you get as much in there as you can? I do the same thing with my comics, everything from police brutality to aspects of gender equality.
AB: Part of the dread of watching Luke Cage in 2016 — when Barack Obama was president — was that the whole storyline is an affirmation of black life. It’s set in Harlem, and Harlem is booming. The main characters are strong and interesting and complex. And yet the threats to black life are still ubiquitous.
AB: What do Luke Cage and his world mean now?
DW: I think they mean the same as they’ve always meant. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. People keep asking me these questions about representation and where America is headed. A lot of black folks out there — we’re not surprised by anything that’s going on. All you had to do was look at the way they treated Barack Obama. The white supremacists — I refuse to call them the alt-right — and certain conservative groups treated Barack Obama, the level of disrespect they showed him. They thought if they could get away with going into the White House, literally dragging him out, lynching him and burning his body, they would have done that. None of this stuff surprises me. What it means for me, as a creative person, is I just have to work harder to get my messages out there. My message is going to be considered more subversive, and it’s going to be counterintuitive to where this country is in a lot of regards. That’s OK with me. It’s difficult to say this, but with the exception of two or three people in my family, I’ve outlived every man in, like, three generations of my family, and I’m not even 50 yet. To me, every day is a borrowed day, given to me by my dad and my uncles, all of whom were gone before they were 50. I’m taking Luke Cage down this road. I don’t believe a black man can be a superhero in America. You can only be a superhero if you obey a certain set of rules. If you don’t obey that set of rules you will become the villain. And you can’t be the leader. At one point, Luke Cage was the leader of The Avengers! I don’t know if you could get away with that in a film. I don’t know if America would be ready for that.
AB: Tell us about the artist you’ve been paired with for the new series.
DW: The new artist is a guy named Nelson Blake who’s relatively new to Marvel but he’s been doing indie stuff. His name had come up a lot from other artists I knew. His work is very different than Sanford [Greene, the artist on “Power Man and Iron Fist”]. Right now we’re just getting our groove going.
AB: He’s kind of got a more minimalist style.
DW: Yeah, and less cartoony — and I love Sanford’s cartoony style! But Nelson and I have had long conversations about influences and storytelling, and I think we’re on the same page. A lot of times you don’t see the art until sometimes months after you’ve written the script. Sometimes the artist doesn’t send you the art, they send it to the editor. And it’s the editor’s job to show it to you. And sometimes you have to ask. And I usually don’t ask for a while. Let’s just go with it. I’m doing my part of the job. The cinematographer doesn’t necessarily know what he shot is going to look like until it’s been edited and color corrected. Everything I’ve seen of Nelson’s work has led me to believe he’s going to do a great job, and talking to him, he understands where we’re coming from, from a storytelling standpoint.