My Misspent Youth: Hero for Hire by Steve Englehart and George Tuska

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

The nineteen-seventies were a weird time, man. Freshly freed from the constraints of the strict content guidelines and emboldened by the surging influence of the counter-culture, American cinema pushed into edgy new territory, and practically every other form of visual storytelling followed suit. In particular, Marvel comic book creators took their cues from what was happening on big screens, especially as the publisher’s bullpen filled up with writers and artists who drew formative impressions from the revolutionary work of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and wanted to push the form to take the next step. That they increasingly viewed scruffy college kids rather than slingshot-toting youths as their target audience only heightened the sense of trippy daring.

The first issue of Hero for Hire was cover-dated June 1972, meaning it arrived in spinner racks less than a year after Shaft played in theaters coast to coast, effectively launching the blaxploitation cinematic subgenre. Whatever other goals they may have had in launching the series, Marvel was clearly looking to cash in on this suddenly flourishing interest in gritty urban adventures. In place of John Shaft, Marvel had Luke Cage, an ex-convict whose time in the slammer included experimentation that turned his skin impervious. His dialogue was peppered with obvious stand-ins for profanity and he generally operated with a slick swagger. As with any character infused with such idiosyncratic qualities, the real delight arose when he interacted with the rest of the Marvel Universe proper.

As the original title of Cage’s series implied, he developed a business model around his superpowers. It made it a little easier to get a story started. All it took was a new customer.

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In the case of this story, written by Steve Englehart and drawn by George Tuska, the mysterious benefactor who offered Cage a pair of matching Benjamins for his services is none other than the biggest bad guy in all of Marvel mythos. Demonstrating he may not have been much of a Daily Bugle reader, Cage wasn’t familiar with Dr. Doom before coming face to faceplate with him, leading to a completely rational reaction.

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Proving the capitalistic principle that all money spends the same, Cage decides that he’ll remain in the employ Dr. Doom, no matter his reputation. The mission isn’t that tough, after all: simply taking on some errant robots. The real problem arises when Cage delivers the invoice, discovering that Doom has a Trumpian aversion to paying his debts. The malevolent monarch jetted back to his home country of Lateveria with no intention of settling up with the yellow-shirted powerhouse. That injustice rankles Cage more than any other, leading him to seek out transport of his own from a certain quartet who’ve had their own share of tangles with Victor Von Doom.

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For no good reason, the Fantastic Four decide to go ahead and turn over one of their multi-million dollar, proprietary, rocket-based transport devices to this complete stranger with no known experience piloting such aircraft. Why not? Maybe it will keep Dr. Doom out of their hair for a few issues.

Once Cage gets to Latveria, he works his way through Doom’s castle until he encounters the despot himself, leading to maybe the most famed panel in the whole series.

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“Where’s my money, honey?” is, I think it’s safe to type, not a phrase used to address Dr. Doom in any previous Marvel comic. Luke Cage was a trailblazer in many, many ways.

Cage’s relentless battering of Doom’s armor leads to a malfunctioning of its underlying defenses, leaving the tyrant essentially defenseless when he’s suddenly attacked by a sentient orb known as the Faceless One (again, Marvel Comics in the seventies were nutso). In a continuing demonstration of Cage’s uniquely flexible moral code, he winds up defending the very supervillain he was battling moments earlier.

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Luke Cage announced his weight in pretty much every issue. It was practically a catch phrase.

Duly impressed and grateful, Dr. Doom fishes a pair of one hundred dollar bills out of the pocket of his cloak providing Cage with the only thanks he needs. Sweet Christmas, what an ending!

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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