I was very pleased to see that the ever-useful Bleeding Cool website (see bibliography below) ran with a brief article last month, about the new Netflix series of Marvel Comic’s Luke Cage that echoed my own concerns. As one of the first things that struck me too, on watching the first episode of the show was that, yes, where was Billy Graham’s name in the list of creator acknowledgements over the opening credits?
It’s certainly been a long-established tradition that creators working in corporate situations often have to struggle to get any kind of justice over their role in a creative capacity, especially when a character becomes very successful. Ask Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s family about their struggles throughout the middle of the 20th century with DC publishing, as both writer and artists struggled in penury whilst the company mounted multi-million dollar films such as Superman – The Movie (Donner 1978) to exploit their property, ‘Superman’.
Maybe consult the internet and have look for ‘Jack Kirby’, ‘Marvel’ and ‘lawsuit’ to see just how badly a key creator can be treated whilst a corporation trades off their ideas and concepts. And indeed very recently Marvel have continued to fumble the ball when it comes to credit allocation. As Wallace Wood, arguably one of the finest artists of the 1950s and 1960s in American comics, received no listing in the credits at all for the Netflix/Marvel/ABC/Disney show, Daredevil (2014- to date). Despite his being tasked back in 1964 to overhaul ‘Daredevil’s original sprightly yellow and red outfit (as drawn by Jack Kirby and Bill Everett) which undoubtedly belonged more in the wrestling ring than it did in the rainy night-time streets of Manhattan. That iconic red suit (admittedly today, downplayed and somewhat adapted) has now become cemented within the very image of the character since then. And yet, to this day, Wood’s efforts still go unrecognised (Mithra, 2009).
In this particular case of ‘Luke Cage’, there’s a (fairly pedestrian) argument about creation and inception that exists already. But I agree with the esteemed Rich Johnston here entirely when he states that: “Given the level of his contribution to the gritty appeal of the comic, as well has having a hand in its writing, pencilling and inking, it seems odd for him to be the missing name from the Netflix credits” (2016). Absolutely. Of course the creative processes in such a situation (which happened over forty years ago now remember), can be muddled, subject to various agenda-driven narratives and also largely dependent on the veracity of memory and the often fragmented individual perspectives of those involved. But one can’t help feeling that Graham deserves more, as his name is now so embedded within the ‘Luke Cage’ myth itself.
(Below) Billy Graham – Marvel artist.
‘Luke Cage’ is similar to many of the Marvel creations that emerged at the beginning of the 1970s, in that he was quickly brought in to capitalize on larger cultural trends, with perhaps little regard to issues of longevity. This was a common practice as Marvel, as the firm began creatively expanding into new areas. These areas included the horror genre, (after the relaxation of the Comics Code in the 1970s) with a range of black and white magazines aimed at an older audience and the activation of horror characters re-fashioned into weekly titles like Tomb of Dracula (1972), Werewolf By Night (1972) etc., awkward proto-feminist strips like Night Nurse (1972) and The Claws of the Cat (1972), ‘alternative’ titles like Howard the Duck (1973) and even embracing the mid-decade ‘Kung- Fu’ fad with The Master of Kung Fu (1973) and Iron Fist (1974) (Howe, 2012). All of this movement was underpinned by, not just a company growing in cultural prominence and emboldened by a marked increase in sales reach, but also that its staff were now becoming less populated with older hands and that Marvel were now gradually becoming more reliant on younger, fresh, politicized and comics-literate talent recruited from conventions and the underground ‘comix’ scene of the period. This was a move that mirrored exactly what was going in the film industry in ‘New Hollywood’ of the time, as the business shifted from older, tried and trusted perspectives to newer, more radical ones.
Taking over the book from issue five, in January 1973, as Luke Cage, Hero For Hire’s main writer was Steve Englehart. He confirmed in the introduction to a recent Marvel Masterwork reprint collection that: “I can tell there was never any doubt as to why Luke Cage, Hero for Hire came into existence. Marvel’s corporate stance was pro-human rights, and Marvel’s corporate bottom line was that it wanted some of that genre money” (p. ii, 2015). By this he meant that not only were Marvel hoping to read the more progressively political times but also they were hoping to extend on the gains made by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee back in 1966, with the introduction of their ‘Black Panther’/T’Challa character in Fantastic Four 52.
In this particular case, however, ‘Cage’ was an unashamed cash-in on the Blaxploitation moment that had been galvinized by the success of films like Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (Van Peebles – 1971), Shaft (Parks Jnr., 1971) and (latterly) the slightly more comic-book-like, Superfly (Parks Jnr., 1972). As a living embodiment of post-Civil Rights Black American cynicism, private detective ‘John Shaft’ and his ilk registered, as Donald Bogle said: “the fundamental dissatisfaction of a dispossessed people” and also marked the key moment where Black actors and creative personnel used tried and tested Hollywood genres to tell essentially ‘Black’ stories (p. 242, 1998) & (Isserman and Kazin, 2000).
(Below) Richard Roundtree as ‘John Shaft’ from the 1971 film, ‘Shaft’.
It is clear, though, from a raft of testimonies posted over a number of years, that the prime authors of ‘Luke Cage’ are undoubtedly then-editor in chief at Marvel, Roy Thomas, staff writer Archie Goodwin and staff artist, John Romita Snr. Between them, these three men concocted a hyper-extended take of Richard Roundtree’s ‘Shaft’ character, here fitted with a garish comic friendly costume of yellow shirt, blue/black pants and as adorned, in a supposedly ironic, gesture of reclamation, with chains, bracelets and a tiara (…really!). All of which was designed to jump off the page and attract the passing reader and thus hopefully standing out from the other raft of titles nestling in the spinner racks that month.
From there, Goodwin and Marvel mainstay artist, George Tuska, were then tasked with fleshing this simple image into an ongoing bi-monthly narrative. Reordering ‘Captain America’s 1940s origin of scientific enhancement and then substituting ‘army service’ for ‘prison’ within that, as befitting a grittier, post-Countercultural version of the superhero archetype. This was to be a character conceived as a less-grand version of that particular heroic ideal. Ideally ‘Cage’ would be working at a lower level of visibility in the interconnected Marvel universe than say,’ The Hulk’ or ‘The Avengers’, for example.
(Below): Carl Lucas or the soon-to-be ‘Luke Cage’ from Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1: March 1972. Drawn by George Tuska and inked by Billy Graham.
Tuska’s highly distinctive hunched and frozen-in-motion figures, worked effectively enough from Romita’s original template. And certainly anyone who had been following his work on the Iron Man (1968-1998) series at that time, can attest that the layouts, postures, faces and body-shapes are very easily discernible as his. But what separated this artwork from the slicker, more polished efforts of Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Gil Kane et al, that adorned many of Marvel’s big sellers, was Billy Graham’s distinctive heavy inking strokes. This style had also clearly had evolved by Englehart’s arrival into an aesthetic which became, in fact, highly unique to Luke Cage, Hero For Fire and benefitted the narrative intent entirely.
Billy Graham’s own back story is strangely underworked, despite being one of the few African-American artists operating in mainstream comics at that time. Admittedly much of his early efforts were crudely realized for the period. Especially as he cut his teeth on James Warren’s horror magazines, contributing to the first ever issue of Vampirella (1969) and supplying throwaway anthology strips for Eerie and Creepy (1970-1971). There is a marked evolution in this work, though, but little to set him apart from many of the other artists contributing in the field at that time. His career came to a relatively early end at Marvel, as he didn’t produce any more artwork for them after 1985 and after periods of inactivity on a freelance basis moved into acting and stunt work. But at least Graham contributed to undoubtedly some of Marvel’s more innovative works, along with the writer, Don McGregor, on Sabre (1982-1984) and the (groundbreaking) arc of ‘The Panther’s Rage’ for Jungle Action (1974-1976).
(Below) Glut, D. & Graham, B. (Writer & Artist). (1969). ‘Death Boat’. In Vampirella, 1(1), 15.
Looking at the strips today, although Tuska was still the main penciller on the strip up until issue twelve of Hero For Hire, his style had been all-but subsumed by Graham’s. His imprint seemed to be relegated to shapes, layouts and the odd facial expression and character design. So going by this trajectory it doesn’t appear accidental that by September of 1973 it was Graham who was now being credited with ‘complete art’, no longer being relegated to sharing the duties with the older, more experienced artist (p. 3, 1973). As his rougher, looser approach soon dominated’ this meant that the strip began to appear less polished and, yes in truth, a little inconsistent overall. Though notably his raw, scratchier outlines and (slightly clumsier) take on physiognomy, human profiles and perspective didn’t actually detract from the strip at all, but in truth actually enhanced it. This rougher style lent the narrative a necessary, more immediate energetic feel that implied a stylistic kinship with the alternative and underground comics of that period. This in itself was useful in terms of product differentiation from the more traditional superhero strips that were still running parallel with the book and it also separated Luke Cage, Hero For Hire from the crowd.
(Below) Englehart, S., Isabella, T. & Graham, B. (Writer and Artists). (December 1973). ‘Retribution Part Two’. Luke Cage – Hero For Hire, 15(1).
This also signified that Marvel were now forging ahead and away from the previous decade’s template, signposting Luke Cage, Hero For Hire’s status as a more contemporary story. One could also argue that Graham’s work may not have been celebrated at the time but it certainly chimed with the mood of the 1970s at Marvel, in very much the same manner as other ‘Bronze Age’ artists like Gray Morrow, Frank Brunner, Barry Windsor-Smith and Jim Starlin et al.
Graham’s omission from the Luke Cage Netflix show is troubling though. He may not have been the instigator of the character but he certainly was, as Rich Johnston pointed out, responsible for co-creating one of the show’s primary villains, ‘Black Mariah’ (first debuted in issue 5 in January 1973 and played in the TV series by Alfre Woodard). He also, (as Englehart noted), grew to become a large part of the ongoing creative process that shaped ‘Cage’ into the figure that we now know today. For as Tuska’s presence receded over that first year on the strip as part of a larger workload at Marvel, Billy Graham’s influence grew further than just artistic duties.
(Below) ‘Black Mariah’ Dillard: Englehart, S., Tuska, G. & Graham, B. (Writer & Artists). (January 1973). Hero For Hire, 5(1).
Englehart said: “As I learned my craft and got deeper into the characters, I was reminded that I was not black and that I was writing the only black man with his own book. So Billy started talking…as I had been working directly with George but not with Billy” (p. ii, 2015). As the inker and co-artist, Graham’s role was often overlooked as part of the Marvel industrial process – which prioritized writer and artist. He continues: “…pretty soon Billy was co-plotter of the series…Billy had strong ideas on how a guy like ‘Cage’ might move through that, and I thought Billy had the right to be heard more clearly. So I heard him, and he heard me” (p. ii, 2015). This gesture alone points to that sense of connection and authenticity that ‘Luke Cage’ absolutely needed if he was going to survive longer than many of the other 1970s experiments at the company.
So arguably Graham’s role was pivotal here in maintaining a sense of not just artistic cohesion but also of narrative consistency. The (similarly neglected) Steve Englehart and Billy Graham are undoubtedly the architects of the ‘Luke Cage’ construct that Netflix showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker was so (rightly) keen to explicitly acknowledge in the fourth episode of this current TV series in ‘Step in the Arena’ and in the Stryker and Cage face-off (set very knowingly) in a Harlem theatre, ‘Blowin’ Up the Spot’ (in the eighth story in the series). Both of which seem ripped straight from the pages of that initial sixteen issue run. Without Graham’s perhaps unquantifiable but certainly all-important input as part of the Tuska/Goodwin/Englehart process, neither event would be embedded so firmly within the ‘Luke Cage’ myth (as they so undoubtedly are).
(Below) Coker, C. H. (Writer/Producer). (2016). ‘Step in the Arena’. Luke Cage [Television Series]. US: Netflix/Marvel/Disney.
That today ‘Luke Cage’ is every inch the kind of ‘badasssss’ that Melvin Van Peebles may well have approved of is of course down to a raft of co-creators, evolutions and incremental industry-led additions. That’s basically how on-going corporate creative production tends to work. Especially in the comic book industry where one character can indeed have many parents. It’s also way too simplistic to reductively cite ‘race’ as a factor for Graham’s omission here. In truth a line has to be drawn somewhere and arguably, in very cold terms, Thomas, Goodwin and Tuska deserve to get their names listed in there. Their concepts have undoubtedly underpinned this series. It just would have been more satisfying if Netflix and Marvel could have been inclusive in paying tribute to the foundation that Englehart, Graham (and also the great Tony Isabella, for several issues) supplied, and then allowed fans a chance to celebrate Graham’s undoubted contribution to ‘Luke Cage’ in a more unambiguous fashion. Then maybe that gesture could then lead them onto McGregor and Graham’s ‘The Panther’s Rage’ saga in Jungle Action of the mid-1970s…now there was a series….
Dr. Van Norris is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Media and Animation History and Theory at the University of Portsmouth, Hampshire, England.
He has contributed various articles and chapters to a range of published works, his current book: ‘British Television Animation 1997-2010: Drawing on Comic Tradition’ is available now through Palgrave.
Bogle, D. (1988). Blacks in American Film – Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Garland.
Goodwin, A., Englehart, S., Tuska, G. & Graham, B. (2015). Luke Cage, Hero For Hire: Marvel Masterworks Volume One. US: Marvel.
Hodari Coker, C. (Producer/Writer). (2016). Luke Cage [Television Series]. US: Netflix/Disney/ABC/Marvel.
Howe, S. (2012). Marvel Comics -The Untold Story. US: Harper.
Isserman, M. & Kazin, M. (2000). America Divided – The Civil War of the 1960s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnston, R. (October 17th, 2016). Billy Graham, Missing From Netflix’s Luke Cage Credits?. Bleeding Cool, http://www.bleedingcool.com/2016/10/17/billy-graham-missing-from-netflixs-luke-cage-credits/.
Mithra, K. (2009), The Man Without Fear – Writers. http://www.manwithoutfear.com/daredevil-writers.shtml.