Luke Cage might be the best Marvel-Netflix show to date. The series is dense with raw energy and black history, and like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, isn't beholden to Luke's comic-book legacy, which began in 1972. Luke Cage plucks touchstones from the character's 44-year history and, in many ways, comments on just how much he's changed since his debut (eagle-eyed fans will spot a nod to his original outlandish costume in Episode 4).
To make sure you pick up on all the references and fully appreciate how the show brings the invulnerable, super-strong Hero Occasionally Known as Power Man into 2016, here are eight comics to pick up pre-binge.
Power Man and Iron Fist Epic Collection, Vol. 1
I'm not recommending a collection of Luke Cage's earliest stories, which you can find in Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, Vol. 1. They're a product of their era, undercut by white writers' ham-fisted attempts at black slang. In 1972, Luke was a painfully obvious and inauthentic attempt to tap into the popularity of blaxploitation -- a genre that has its own set of issues.
Power Man and Iron Fist Epic Collection, Vol. 1, which pairs Luke up with Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, collates comics from 1978 to1986 that won't make you roll your eyes. While both characters are products of two distinct 1970s genres, they work well as a pair. Their friendship is authentic, and their dynamic is iconic. We'll eventually see this on the small screen: Netflix plans to bring Luke and Danny together (along with Daredevil and Jessica Jones) in 2017's The Defenders.
Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 1
Luke's origins are so explicitly tied to blaxploitation that he can be a difficult character to modernize realistically. Thankfully, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos' Alias drops the ostentatious costume and black slang, and radically redefines Luke as a charismatic hero, similar to Mike Colter on Jessica Jones. The relationship between Luke and Jessica, which began in this run, became as essential a factor for the character as his friendship with Danny Rand.
For the love of all that is holy, avoid the gratuitous, offensive, and downright bad Cage from 2002. Instead, pick up this early-1990s installment, which involves Luke Cage in Chicago. This run is very, very '90s -- at one point, Luke fights a villain named "Hardcore." The book's pleasures come from a willingness to move through a variety of unexpected genres: Cage goes from morally ambiguous crime-solving, where our hero seems mostly guided by a paycheck, to fantastical superhero by the end, leaving logical room for the Fantastic Four to show up.
Luke Cage Noir
There is a lot of talk about how Luke Cage feels more like a 1970s crime drama than your average Marvel superhero adaptation. But while watching the first half of Season 1, my mind went to 1950s film noirs like Odds Against Tomorrow, starring Harry Belafonte, and No Way Out, which had Sidney Poitier. For those curious how Luke would play in a boldly noir setting, check out Luke Cage Noir from 2010, a run that loosely adapts his origin story to 1920s Prohibition-era Harlem. The art by Shawn Martinbrough is worth the price alone.
How will Luke play with Daredevil when they cross paths in The Defenders? Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's run on Daredevil, specifically the "Trial of the Century" arc, hints at the future. This is still a Daredevil story, so Luke isn't the main draw, but the arc fleshes out the dynamic between these two very different heroes.
Mighty Avengers (2013-2014)
In this 2013 run, Luke forms his own Avengers, wrangling underused heroes. You'll grow to love Luke, Blue Marvel, White Tiger, Falcon (aka Captain America), and Spectrum (a personal favorite of mine), thanks to writer Al Ewing's deft understanding of what makes them tick. An odd lineup proves to be a total delight when the ragtag crew offers pro bono superpowered assistance to New York during an attack by an ancient alien.
Jessica Jones: The Pulse
This list has a lot of Brian Michael Bendis, but trust me, that's a good thing. Bendis truly gets Luke. The Pulse isn't as hard-hitting as Alias, which is the price of incorporating Luke and Jessica into the broader Marvel universe (a major point in the story involves Jones' investigation leading to the unmasking of Spider-Man's foe, the Green Goblin), but more personal events, like the birth of Luke and Jones' daughter, Danielle, add new layers to their relationship.
Power Man and Iron Fist, Vol. 1 (2016)
Luke Cage and Danny Rand reunited this year, and this volume stands apart as one of the few times Luke has been brought to life by black comic-book artists. In the new run, writer David F. Walker twists our expectations of these long-running characters and their friendship, and illustrator Sanford Greene provides buoyant and bright art. The book feels relevant without being heavy-handed, and it interweaves some unexpected minor villains into the mix, like Gamecock, who dresses as a chicken. The '70s were a weird time for comics.
Daughters of the Dragon
When we meet Mercedes "Misty" Knight in Luke Cage, she's a dedicated and highly intelligent detective whose work has her crossing paths with Luke more than she would like. But the Misty most know from the comics is the one you find in Daughters of the Dragon, where she and her master swordsman best friend, Colleen Wing, work as private detectives. In the comic, Misty has left her work as a cop behind, is a highly skilled martial artist, and has a badass bionic arm, thanks to Stark Industries. Reading this miniseries and looking at actress Simone Missick's great performance on Luke Cage will definitely have you clamoring for the character to get her own spinoff. If Punisher can get one after Daredevil Season 2, there's hope for more Misty.
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