Sweet Christmas: Luke Cage gets Masterworked!


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Cover for the latest Marvel Masterwork, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Artwork by Billy Graham.

I’m glad we received this earlier than some fans guessed. Readers speculated a Christmas release due to Cage’s catchphrase “Sweet Christmas” or a release next year just before the launch of the Luke Cage Netflix Marvel series starring Mike Colter. Cage may also guest-star in AKA Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and will definitely be in the Defenders series.

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Mike Colter is Luke Cage in the new Netflix series. Here he is in Halo: Nightfall.

I’ve been waiting for this ever since Marvel Masterworks did the two volumes of Iron Fist. It was worth the wait. This is a big Masterworks with 325 pages of stories, 4 page introduction and 6 pages of extras.

This volume collects 1-16 of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (1972). Extras include the May 1972 Bullpen Bulletins page announcing his title, an unused Hero for Hire #3 cover sketch by Billy Graham showing Cage busting through a wall, the original record negative photostat for Hero for Hire #4 with the villain’s original face before art changes, Hero for Hire #3, page 14 record negative photostat by George Tuska and Billy Graham, Hero for Hire #3, page 16 & 17 record negative by Tuska and Graham, and a very good introduction by Steve Englehart.

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Cage dramatically explodes out of the water. Artwork by George Tuska and Billy Graham.

The movie Shaft came out in 1971. With a budget of $500k, it grossed $13M. It was credited with saving MGM. 1972 saw Shaft’s Big Score. With a $2M budget, it grossed $10M. Savvy Marvel saw an opportunity for the first black super-hero to have his own book. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 had a cover date of June 1972. Shaft’s Big Score was released June 8, 1972 when Hero for Hire would still be on newsstands.

Heroes for Hire #1 is credited to Archie Goodwin as writer, George Tuska and Billy Graham for art. Roy Thomas and John Romita are mentioned on the splash page as having helped out creatively.

Billy Graham had worked with Archie Goodwin at Warren Publishing, with his first artwork appearing in Vampirella #1 and continued to have a story in each of the first twelve issues. He was soon made art director, a rare position for an African-American in American comics. Graham eventually penciled, inked and co-wrote the series before moving on to the critically-acclaimed Black Panther.

I believe all the fantastic covers in this volume are done by Billy Graham, though he only signed them sporadically. The Masterworks are beautiful books and reproduced with considerable attention to detail, but I do wish the covers were credited like they do for Golden Age and Atlas Era.

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Cage realizes he has steel-hard skin for the first time, punching through a block wall. Artwork by George Tuska and Billy Graham from Hero for Hire #1 (1972).

The first two issues of this series were amazing! They almost felt like a genre crime book from the Golden Age (Tuska drew the feature stories for “Crime Does Not Pay” in the late 40s before coming to Marvel/Atlas and working on “Crime Can’t Win”, among others). The first issue is 23 pages long and really sets the stage for the series. Lucas is in Seagate prison after being framed. He runs into two bad guards that have it out for him. I liked that they showed a few of the other guards tried to restrain Quirt from beating Lucas. There are some awesome lines in this first issue:

“Nice thing about being half blind from the dark, Quirt… I don’t have to see your face first thing!”

“Sorry Cap’n, I don’t think anything could make me itch that much. But to be sure, maybe I’ll just skip shakin’ your hand when I leave!”

Shades and Comanche debut in #1 “Out of Hell–a Hero”, along with Willis Stryker, Quirt, Cap’n Rackham, and Dr Burstein. Luke Cage is the ultimate hard luck hero. The backstory is very engaging. I hope much of it makes its way into the Netflix series.

Diamondback was an excellent early foe. Night nurse Claire Temple, movie theater owner D.W. and the super-smart Gadget all debut as well in #2 “Vengeance is Mine!”.

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Cover for #3 Hero for Hire. Artwork by Billy Graham.

#3 is also a great issue, though Mace lacks a bit of the flavor and enmity of Diamondback.

#4 “Cry Fear…Cry Phantom” is a weird issue with the ghost of dead theater owner Lansing haunting 42nd Street. The coloring isn’t credited for these first four issues. The first three had pretty good coloring. The fourth issue had some odd choices for coloring, especially the ghost who is supposed to be glowing white but is colored purple.

#5 “Don’t Mess with Black Mariah”. I’m not sure what to make of her. Is that a Ford GT in their garage? I think Englehart wanted to set a record for most colons used in one script: seven by my count! Two odd references to the mid-west. First, Phil Fox mentions readers of the Bugle “in Indianapolis love choppin’ bananas on their corn flakes” while reading the paper. Secondly, there’s a reference to Bears linebacker Dick Butkus (spelled Butkis). Both seem kind of random.

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A misunderstanding comes between Cage and a foxy widower. Don’t worry, baby, we haven’t seen the last of Mrs. Jenks.

Englehart picks up with the mysteries that Goodwin established. They’re very entertaining. We could also make a drinking game out of Cage losing his shirt.

#6 “Knights and White Satin” is another strange issue. Cage seems to agree, saying “I been in a lotta weird heads since I started this super-hero gig… but the one I’m in now beats all!” It’s not every day that superheroes do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

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Luke Cage doing his own brand of interior decorating at the offices of Hero for Hire. Artwork by George Tuska and Billy Graham.

#7 “Jingle Bombs”. I’d love to hear the story behind the character design with the guy with a dagger in his belt buckle. How does he sit down?

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Heavy Metal clash: the armored Dr Doom vs the man with the steel-hard skin, Luke Cage. Artwork by Billy Graham.

#8-9 Dr Doom & Luke Cage. The splash page is incredible. I want a poster of this one. I love the line “I’m Georgie Simms and I’m Baaad! I’ll cut you from ear to toenail, man!” Luke says “Georgie, you couldn’t cut school!”

This one tops it though “…with both fists an’ a big hunka mean ta drive ’em!”

The Faceless One was a nice touch. (hopefully you’ve read Marvel Rarities Masterworks Volume 1, though it’s not required to enjoy this story).

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#10-11 “The Lucky and the Dead” Senors Suerte and Muerte. That incinerated body on the top of 203 looks terrifying! Page 215 (page 1 of #11) is another epic splash page. Looks like Graham does most or all the art on these splashes. Page 220 even tops that one. That gash on his hand looks seriously nasty.

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#12 “Chemistro” Spider-man is on the splash page but doesn’t appear in this issue. Cage guest-starred in Spidey’s book that month. The art style shifts a bit. Graham is using heavier brushstrokes. I think this is my favorite art yet. Petra Goldberg did the coloring on #11 and #12. She’s a great colorist and really makes quite a difference to the art as well.

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This cover was enough for me to buy Hero For Hire Masterworks! Artwork by Billy Graham.

#13 “The Claws of Lionfang”. What a fun issue! Graham’s first complete art on the book and it’s a home run.

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I love the way the Black Panther is cupping his head while he tries to sink his teeth into Cage. Artwork by Billy Graham.

#14-15 “Retribution” I and II. Big Ben Donovan, Shades, Comanche, and foxy lady Mrs. Jenks. Now what do you suppose Phil Fox wants with former Captain Rackham? And what does Rackham want with Claire Temple or did he grab Mrs. Jenks by mistake?

#16 “Shake Hands with Stiletto” Claire Temple is arrested for murder! A new bad guy makes the scene in Stiletto. Also the conclusion of the Retribution storyline.

That was a wild ride! Hero for Hire was even better than I expected. There were a few moments that it almost became a regular superhero title but then it snaps back into being one-of-a-kind. I’m looking forward to the Power Man issues. Hopefully Marvel releases that volume in the spring next year in time for the Luke Cage Netflix series. Sweet Christmas!

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