Luke Cage, Stagolee, and the Importance of Myth

Mike Benson and Adam Glass’ Luke Cage Noir (2009-2010) pulls from a Noir aesthetic full of femme fatales, double crosses, and private eyes all within Prohibition Era Harlem. The story turns Luke Cage into a Noir protagonist that struggles with life outside of prison, ultimately killing himself at the end of issue #4. It is Luke Cage’s suicide that struck me in this story, and it is here that I want to focus this post. By killing himself, Luke Cage becomes a symbolic myth to the community as a whole, a myth that provides hope and strength to those stuck in a cycle of economic and violent oppression.

Issue #3 begins to set up Cage as a symbolic hero when he comes face-to-face with his childhood friend Willis Stryker. Stryker gives money and tells Cage to get out of town, and when Cage asks him why he is doing this, Stryker responds, “Because you should be dead.” The words lead to a flashback where we see the enforcer Tombstone shooting Cage, at almost pointblank range, in the street as a crowd looks on. Tombstone walks away, stops, and looks back to see Cage getting to his feet. This leads back to the present where Stryker picks up his thoughts about Cage not being dead.

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Stryker tells Cage that he had never seen a man take bullets like that and get back up, and “[n]either did anyone else.” Like Stryker, those gathered around the scene had never experienced anything like Cage either, leading Stryker to continue, “To think that a black man was invincible?” Stryker’s question highlights Cage’s importance. He becomes, essentially, a man who can stand up against anything and live to tell the tale. While not a badman figure like Stagolee, Cage’s invincibility makes him a figure for the community. The folklore surrounding Stagolee turned him into a trickster figure, and as Cecil Brown argues, “Stagolee came to personify the collective feeling of blacks at the bottom of society, and it was in this sense that Stagolee became a symbol of the black community.” This is what Cage becomes.

Cage responds to Stryker by telling his childhood friend, “I’m no hero.” While Cage does not view himself as a hero (a thread that ran through the original run of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire in the 1970s), Stryker tells him. “Maybe not, but to them [the community] you are. And they don’t need to find you dead in their streets. Not now, not ever.” If the community sees Cage dead in the streets, then they will lose the faith they had in him, a faith that sparked within them the ability to stand up when the time comes. Stryker double crosses Cage and tries to have him killed which leads to Cage burning Stryker in a fire and redoubling his efforts to kill Cage.

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The overarching story in Luke Cage Noir is Randall Banticoff, a white man, hiring Cage to investigate the death of his wife. The job is actually a way for Banticoff to get away with the murder of his wife and to pin the deed on Cage himself. The clues lead Cage to a photographer named Snap who took pictures of the Banticoff’s. After getting the information he needs about the Banticoff’s and the white officer Ratchman, Cage offers to pay Snap; however, the man refuses the payment, saying, “You’re my hero. I was there. I was just a kid. But man you stood up. First time and only time I saw that. Changed the way I thought.” Snap saw Cage stand up after Tombstone shot him, leading Snap to realize that if one man can stand up against the forces that oppress his neighborhood, he can as well.

A former Buffalo Soldier during World War I, Banticoff passes as white and marries a rich, white socialite. His wife’s funds allow him to finance his criminal activities in Harlem where he grew up, thus turning his gaze inward on his own community rather than fighting racism and oppression from the outside. Scholars like Jerry H. Bryant argue that this is what the “badman” figure, like Stagolee, does. Banticoff gets his wife pregnant even though he thought he was sterile because of the war, and in fear, he kills his wife and unborn child to protect his secret. Banticoff, instead of letting the police take him, shoots at Cage and falls out of the window of a skyscraper, a scene reminiscent of Clare Kendry’s death in Passing. In fact, both take place during the Christmas season, and when Cage looks up at the building as he is about to kill himself, he thinks, “Sweet Christmas.” This story line needs to be read in relation to passing novels of the Harlem Renaissance like Nella Larsen’s Passing and Jessie Redmond Fauset’s Plum Bun; however, that is a discussion for another day.

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As he departs the scene, people stand amazed that Cage got shot and walked away without a scratch. When they bring this up, he tells them, “Tell people what you saw here tonight.” Cage takes what Stryker said and uses it. He willingly becomes a mythic symbol of resistance to oppression both from outside the community and from within. Cage leaves and walks to a pier where he throws himself into the water, committing suicide. In the three panels that show Cage’s death, the reader sees his thoughts, and those thoughts comment on the construction and importance of myths. Cage narrates, “Rarely do people know the real story. They only know the myth.”

The next couple of pages show various characters that have appeared in the story as Cage’s words influence each panel as he describes the importance of myths to the lives of those in the panels. He tells us that compared to reality “the myth is stronger. Cleaner. It allows people to believe what they want. Gives them hope. Gives them pride. Gives them tomorrow. . .” The telling of the myth provides an outlet, a space where they can vicariously fight back and pave the way for tomorrow. The myth provides psychological relief and escape, hopefully paving the way for full fledged resistance.

Luke Cage Noir ends with a panel that shows his lover Josephine Ball and the son he didn’t know about on a train out of town as Josephine reads a paper with the headline, “Harlem’s Powerman In the Wind?” It is in the panel that the myth “gives them tomorrow.” Josephine and her son do not know everything about what happened, but because of Cage, they have money to start  new life somewhere away from the crime and oppression that affect them in the city they are leaving. The myth of Cage, especially for his son, will undoubtedly play a large role in his formation as an adult.

The more I think about this story, the more that could be said. It needs to be read, as stated earlier, in multiple ways. For one, we need to consider it as a comment on the formation and purpose of myths. This is nothing new in comics. Just look at my post on Jungle Action #22.  As well, we need to read the story in the context of an African American literary tradition passing novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Along with these readings, we need to think about the ways that this story both reflects and challenges the Noir genre. Finally, we need to read this story in relation to the folklore of Stagolee and other “Badman” tropes.

This is a lot to consider, I know, but the story begs us to think about these aspects. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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