Alternative takes on superheroes can be fun. I’ll never forget Superman Annual #6, which dared to ask a question that has troubled scholars for generations: What if Mowgli from The Jungle Book were actually the last survivor of Krypton? (Hint: the answer involves a cape made of tiger. Wear that with the Fantastic Mr. Fox tie, and you’ll be the most popular boy in school.)
But Luke Cage Noir is more than just a nifty narrative remix. Marvel’s Noir imprint places superheroes like Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Daredevil in a Dashiell Hammett universe of Prohibition, trenchcoats, and tough-guy gangsters. Next to those iconic characters, Luke Cage might look like the odd man out. A Harlemite ex-con with super-strength, Cage was one of the first African-American superheroes with his own monthly comic.
But he’s also a clear relic of the Blaxpoitation era, with a costume – metal headband, neon disco shirt – that reeks of the ’70s. The character’s had a far-reaching influence, but he’s felt archaic for decades.
Luke Cage Noir changes all that – in fact, it’s practically a complete artistic revival for the character. In this telling, Luke Cage gets out of Riker’s Island after serving several years on an assault charge: he beat up a white cop. When he returns to Harlem, the locals treat him like a folk hero, for reasons that only became clear later. He soon falls into a mystery. A wealthy white woman has been found dead in Harlem. Her husband, the impeccable-named Randall Banticoff, hires Cage to track down the murderer.
The ensuing plot has its fair share of detective-novel twists. There are empty coffins, untrustworthy friends, and soliloquizing criminals. There are generous heaps of overripe tough dialogue (“I got a buzz of your moll in the cooler.” “John Law and him were both dirtier than a pig after a mud bath.” My favorite: “I see some chippies that need some watering.”)
But there is also a definite feeling for Prohibition-era Harlem. Writers Mike Benson and Adam Glass create a fascinating atmosphere of repressed racial tension. Meanwhile, Artist Shawn Martinbrough’s drawings manage to suggest straightforward grit and a more world of shadow-drenched melodrama. There are also a few final-act revelations which more than deliver on the story’s twisty premise, and an ending that manages to simultaneously suggest Philip Roth and John Ford.
Of course, there’s also a sharp-toothed albino gangster with rock-hard skin, an exploding water tower, and a creative new use for embalming fluid. Luke Cage Noir feels like a just-right combo of superhero playfulness and mystery-thriller amorality. An entertaining, surprising read. B+