4 out of 5
Setting aside that this issue was a kinda-sorta bandwagon production – blaxploitation was a big thing at the time – and and a more critical discussion of the stereotypes directly and indirectly applied, Luke Cage’s origin issue, Hero for Hire #1, is definitely a solid piece of work. That it was written primarily to be part of a scene isn’t necessarily a detraction: plenty of Marvel work from the 70s was made simply to be part of some particular zeitgeist, and a lot of that stuff has endured; certainly, Cage has, plus, the tone of the book – at this point – is uniquely grounded in a way that even a good chunk of Marvel’s “adult” horror stuff wasn’t.
Carl Lucas is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit – although his backstory doesn’t shy from showing that his growing up on the streets certainly had him committing other crimes – and his outspoken, opprobrious nature has him at odds with not only the guards, but many of his fellow inmates as well: he’s constantly in and out of solitary; constantly in scuffles. A new warden and a prison physician bring an opportunity that might help his parole, by way of willful participation in some type of scientific experiment… which inevitably goes wrong, gifting Carl – rechristening himself as Luke Cage when he escapes in the wake of the experiment’s failure – with seemingly impervious skin.
While I can’t really speak to the realism of Archie Goodwin’s “baby” peppered dialogue, the patter, in general, flows really well, and maintains a terseness and tenseness while staying within comic code guidelines, and George Tuska’s heavy-handed art is a great match. We probably could’ve taken another issue to effectively set up the Hero for Hire concept – Lucas realizes he can earn money by performing superheroic feats – it’s a novel, thematic “working for yourself” way of establishing a format to look forward to; similarly, while Cage’s friend-turned-enemy from his past, Willis, is a smart way to automatically inject some emotional stakes for an inevitable showdown, building up to that could’ve used a whole issue, instead of a brief flashback and a coda. However, the goal here, presumably, was to give us an all-in-one origin issue and setup for a new strip, and the book does that very effectively, and still – with some modernization applied – reads like a valid #1 issue even today.