Luke Cage’s symbol of justice

luke-cage-bulletproofCaptain America has his shield. Thor’s got his hammer. Iron Man’s got his full-body armor. Not just weapons that they wield, but iconic symbols of their mythic power. At first glance, all Luke Cage seems to have is superhuman strength, bulletproof skin, and some pretty cool street clothes. And while some purist naysayers may not agree, I have to say he looks a lot tighter in his chosen garb than if he was wearing, oh, this:

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But as the new Netflix series bearing his name proceeds, it becomes fairly obvious that while Cage doesn’t have red leather fetish gear like fellow New Yorker Daredevil, he does have an iconic costume of sorts–he just has to change it more often than even MCU Cap changes his. Luke’s armor may be his own black flesh (as powerful a metaphor today as when he was created in 1972), but his symbol of justice, as potent as Cap’s red-white-and-blue, as memorable as green skin or a spider logo, is his bullet-riddled sweatshirt. TINY SPOILER AHEAD: This becomes more explicit in a kind of “I’m Spartacus” moment late in the series, but it’s clear that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is well aware of the mythic power of his central protagonist as well as the imagery with which he’s chosen to adorn him.

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I don’t go need to go into too much real-world detail to explain the sociopolitical ramifications of that aesthetic choice. It’s not subtle, nor is it intended to be. The imagery of superhero comic book mythology is rarely subtle, and for all its nods to gritty street level realism, Marvel’s blaxploitation-savvy, issues-tweaking Luke Cage engages just as equally, and as crowd-pleasingly, with the immersive comic book multiverse from which it sprung. Case in point, during Luke’s origin story, Coker and company conspire to let us see Luke in this snazzy get-up:

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As in Daredevil and Jessica Jonesreferences to the MCU abound, from a corner kid selling DVDs that feature footage of the “incident” where aliens invaded New York in The Avengers, to villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes quite accurately calling out the stoic, righteous, cursing-averse Cage as “Harlem’s Captain America.” Dependent on the viewer, these occasional nods both large and small to the hyperfantastic “world outside your window” in which these stories take place may render their Bigger Ideas cheap and facile, and it may seem that Marvel’s adult-oriented Netflix shows are scratching at the surface of bigger social issues and ills as a way to borrow a deeper relevance than they earn. And it’s a fair argument, for sure. On the other hand, if these stories are functioning as a synthesis of pop art and cultural myth, isn’t it better that they stretch to imbue the narrative with some meaning, even if the reach at time exceeds their grasp?

For better or for worse, the Netflix shows are the equivalent of Marvel’s more challenging and engaging slate of comics, like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. MarvelDennis Hopeless’ Spider-Woman, and Tom King’s Visionwhere creators are given a long leash to play in the Marvel sandbox and craft smart, compelling stories with relatable leads (in spite of their preposterous abilities) that reflect a bit of the real world and the way we live in it back at us. And they’re expanding the playground in a way the movies haven’t managed or even attempted yet, giving us a strong female lead confronting issues of abuse and disempowerment in Jessica Jones, and a nigh-unbreakable black protagonist who’s equal parts badass streetsmart John Shaft and steel-skinned Boy Scout Clark Kent. And in both cases, they’ve gone outside the white male box and hired showrunners (Melissa Rosenberg for Jones, Coker for Cage) with a uniquely qualified perspective on the issues they’ve chosen to address head-on. In a world brimming over with mainstream pop entertainment that often scrupulously avoids coming to terms with anything that might make us pop a social blister, there’s something refreshing, if not downright heroic, about that.

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When it comes down to it, the only downside I see in having a bulletproof sweatshirt as your icon is that it’s much harder to print on a t-shirt. Though I wouldn’t mind owning one of those hoodies.

 

 

 

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The Deep Dork Forest

You might think, with my background in comedy and my years as a writer in LA, that I should’ve been on dozens of podcasts by now. Or at least a few. Or hell, even started my own, by gum. But that just ain’t the case. In fact, my pending appearance on episode #307 of Jackie Kashian’s The Dork Forest is the official cherry-pop that will hopefully open a floodgate, or even just a small babbling brook of guest podcastery leading up to the release of my next magnum opus, CItizen Skin.

Recorded about a month ago, this was a fun, freewheeling conversation that used superhero prose fiction as a jumping off point to talk about the current state of mainstream comics, Marvel vs. DC movies, the ever-widening world of comics-based TV, and, in a moment of accidental depth, the value of redemption tales over bloody revenge stories (not that I don’t still love a good bloody revenge story from time to time).

Anyway, give a listen, and if you like what you hear, go ahead and subscribe to Jackie’s terrific show, where she invites a wide swath of guests from within and without the world of entertainment to come geek out about their favorite subject, from pop culture specifics to California surfing to obscure moments in history to hard futurist science to just about any topic worth throwing your mind, heart and soul into. She’s a great, game host with a quick wit and many dorkable passions of her own, and one of the best comedians on the scene these days.

And if you already know about her but are just now learning about me, go on and buy my books, cause I write better’n I talk!

Roleplay and the Art of Storytelling

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes – The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art – Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

For a few months now, my 9-year-old and I have been playing our own “role playing game” based on his favorite TV show, The Walking Dead. I put RPG in quotes because the fact is, while we did make character sheets in the early going, we’ve never used them, nor do we make maps or roll dice. We just pick which character or set of characters we want to play as, and one of us serves as game-master, pitching out scenarios and asking the other what their response will be. It’s a very free-form version of roleplaying, basically an interactive way of telling each other stories using these characters and scenarios. We mix and match characters from the show, the comic, and the videogame, so Darryl can interact with Dwight when they stumble across Clementine and Lee wandering the Georgia wasteland. It can be a lot of fun, and my boy came up with a very entertaining do-over of the war with the Governor which ended with a much more satisfying death for that old bastard than what we got on the show.

However, after several weeks of playing for fifteen or thirty minutes before bed a few nights a week, I noticed that our narrative thrust was suffering from some of the same inertia as the show frequently does. A lot of time was being spent navigating a bus down abandoned-vehicle-choked back roads, fighting zombies and ill-tempered human survivors in the woods or at one broken-down compound or another, then hitting the road again. We were trying to juggle too many characters, completely forgetting some were even on hand while continuously focusing on our favorites. In short, what started as an enjoyable diversion became dull (more for me than him) fairly quickly.

So last week, after the boy caught me rewatching episodes of Netflix Daredevil series, he abruptly switched gears and suggested that instead of Walking Dead, we should start a new game involving everybody’s favorite blind-attorney-turned-vigilante from Hell’s Kitchen. Now it could be just my own prejudices and personal predilections at play, but right away, I was more into our little no-rules RPG than I had been for a long while. Part of the reason was the freedom that came with playing only as one lead character, rather than trying to juggle a Michonne/Rick/Darryl combo, then needing to switch to play as Tyrese/Sasha/Carl when the scene shifted. I liked the focus, and my familiarity with the character was enough that I didn’t need dice or stats to know what my guy was capable of, what kind of damage he could inflict on which type of nemesis, and what his specific limitations were. And whether I was the quester or the gamemaster, I felt like I never ran out of options, and I could be a lot more creative than the “zombie/bad human attacks, kill zombie/bad human” status quo we’d been mired in. I think we both felt the change, because suddenly we were jumping up and acting out our fisticuffs and pitched supervillain beatdown campaigns. New York City was an instantly more exciting backdrop than the endless rural South, and I could be attacked by anyone from Tombstone to Elektra while receiving unexpected aid from the Punisher or SHIELD, or having a chance encounter with Spidey and Doc Ock.

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I think what really got my juices flowing more than anything was the simple narrative elegance of those classic Daredevil stories, and the endless options afforded by the Marvel Multiverse, and although he’s read and seen more Walking Dead than anything from Marvel, Ash was equally inspired in his yarn-spinning–the narrative twists he’s come up with have been smart, exciting and frequently hilarious. Not a lot of laughs as humanity dies off one by one, but when guys dress up in longjohns to prowl for crime, well, there should always be room for a good gag or seven. Rather than open-ended wandering through an apocalyptic wasteland with no end of danger, misery or suffering in sight, we get to indulge in boss fights with nigh-invulnerable mob goons in a cramped midtown alley or the Silver Samurai suddenly bursting from a shipping container on a fog-shrouded New York dock.

This is not to say that Daredevil is a better, more tightly constructed vessel for storytelling than Walking Dead (I shouldn’t have to say it because it’s just a simple, straightforward–and utterly subjective–factpinion). But there’s something to be said for the sense of mission, purpose, and the possibility for achieving a goal–stopping a bad guy, saving an innocent, getting through the night without killing anyone, even when/if they’ve more than earned it–beyond mere brute survival. My point being that all the problems I’ve had with that wildly popular zombie narrative on the screen seem to be so much an organic part of its overall structure that they couldn’t help but reassert themselves even when we had nothing holding us back but the limits of our own unrestricted imaginations.  Then again, maybe I was just dragging my own subconscious baggage with me into our gameplay.

Anyway whatever else happens, whether our next RPG is based on Mad Max or They Live, I just hope I’m not begging for Jon Bernthal’s character to die (when he joins season 2 of DD as the Punisher) the way I was for him to bite the big one when he played Shane on WD. Know what I mean?

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