Luke Cage Returns… with CTE?

Marvel’s Overdrawn at the Creativity Bank

Luke Cage is coming back to the comics. Harlem’s hero has been breaking it down on Netflix and his series has continued to inspire interest in Cage and his world. Despite his much lamented series, written by the brilliant David Walker ending prematurely after ten action-packed issues, Marvel has decided to go back to the well with a new creative team. Luke Cage #1 which will go on sale Aug. 15th will be written by Anthony Del Col and drawn by Jahnoy Lindsay. This paragraph will be the nicest thing I will have to say in this entire essay, so you might want to buckle up.

The Answer-Man climb upon his soapbox…

Hey writers over at Marvel, when you need to start talking about what is possible with your characters, you might want to talk to a doctor first. Lacking the time to see a doctor, you should definitely consider asking for a second opinion. Maybe you should be checking in with your continuity team (oh, you don’t have those any more) or looking at your fan community (that you are no longer listening to) or maybe hiring writers who know more about the characters than your next set appear to.

Let me be clear: Giving Luke Cage chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a mistake, and given the physical nature of his powers in the Marvel Universe as they have been described canonically, should be quite impossible.

I have made an exhaustive effort to understand your characters and their physiologies. From Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton to Luke Cage’s steel-hardened physiology, I can assure you, I recognize how your characters live and breath and why.

One of your upcoming storylines is talking about something which shouldn’t be possible given the nature of the disease. Your writers have decided that Luke Cage, a recipient of an expanded attempt at the super-soldier serum, a serum which increased his strength, durability, resistance to injury and increased his regenerative capacity, but somehow has not managed to prevent him from acquiring a disease which comes from injuries to the brain, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In Luke Cage #1 (2017) it is explained that Noah Burstein’s work reverses degenerative nerve diseases!

Before we can complete this essay, we need to establish medically, what CTE is and why it shouldn’t be a problem for our hero.

What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma takes place as the brain is jostled inside the skull due to external shocks to the head as the brain sloshes violently around in the skull thanks to outside force and blunt trauma.

Currently our best understanding of CTE says that this trauma causes a protein called Tau which forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. In normal Humans, nerve tissue such as brain cells and spinal cord nerves do not regenerate and are not replaced over time, unlike most other cells in the body.

The number of nerve cells you have when you’re an adult, is relatively speaking, all you will ever have, which is why nerve damage is so devastating. It doesn’t heal, it isn’t replaced and cannot currently be stimulated artificially to do so.

CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a problem because it symptoms are beginning to show up in the lives of major athletes, soldiers returning from war, and now that we are becoming aware of what to look for, we are seeing the psychological symptoms in the lives of our children who are engaging in hard-hitting sports.

Here in lies the problem with CTE: Scientifically speaking, we lack the ability to diagnose it clinically in living people. Right now, we diagnose the disease postmortem, by looking at slices of brain material and cell atrophy caused by the disease. We cannot look at their brains until we are doing an autopsy so we are forced to look their quality of life before death, their symptoms, their lifestyle, their behaviors and coupled with a study of their brain tissue, to determine if a person has actually experienced chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

In the real world, the supposition of brain damage, CTE and football is becoming incontrovertible and is likely to become a culture-affecting event in the next ten to twenty years. If there can be a causal link determined between sports and CTE (which is still being argued) it has the potential to upset a multi-billion dollar sports industry, at the very least. This makes CTE a relevant, topical and important story element to be covered by comics and it is thankfully free of any political animus, as well.

But you see, writers at Marvel, here’s where you go wrong. Yes, CTE in athletes is quite a disturbing topic. And yes, we should write about it, and yes, many of the people suffering from it are people of color, but Luke Cage is the wrong character for this.

Earth-616 Luke Cage’s powers protect him from ever being able to be injured sufficiently to allow CTE to be a problem.

Why not Luke Cage?

For the same reason you wouldn’t have these other characters get it. Here’s a list of characters who COULD have CTE but wouldn’t given the physical parameters set by the Marvel Universe: Captain America, US Agent, the Winter SoldierDeadpool, Wonder Man, Wolverine, SpiderMan, Hulk, Abomination, Sasquatch, or a host of other heroes of a similar nature. What do all of these characters have in common?

They all have a regenerative factor, a cellular process which defies the normal wear and tear on cells in their bodies, allowing them to not only replace damaged tissue but repair and replace even tissues normally not considered repairable such as nerve tissues. Such regenerative factors would eliminate any overall nerve destruction, plaque buildup or nerve tissue degeneration in such characters.

Luke’s transformation was another attempt on a super-serum which we are told  was “an electro-biochemical system for stimulating Human cell regeneration. If successful it could counter the damage of any disease, perhaps even aging.” (See the panel from Hero for Hire #1 above).

We have to assume the treatment worked improving his resistance to injury and giving him the capacity for cellular regeneration as per Doctor Burstein’s expectation. If it hadn’t, Luke’s lifestyle would have lead to his death long before now. Luke has been absorbing hits from the likes of Iron Fist, Prince Namor, the Thing, and even the Hulk over the length of his career.

The case for him having CTE is easily made. But his regeneration factor which allows him to withstand and recover from injury would also protect his nervous system including his brain from any long-term conditions like CTE. Without such protective capacities, Luke’s career should have been about five years long. This would have been the same protective feature which keeps Captain America, US Agent, and Spider-Man who have also taken similar blows to the head, from having the same problems.

But here is the most salient point. Luke Cage’s claim to fame is his steel-hard skin and nigh-invulnerability. When he is taken down, brute force is almost never the way it happens and if it is, the force has to be incredible. Even when struck with the Iron Fist, knocked across a street, into another building which subsequently collapsed upon him, he wasn’t even knocked unconscious by this event. His physical resilience is astonishing.

Cage’s powers were designed on a super-soldier serum along the same lines as Captain America, and gives Cage all the same kinds of physical prowess as Captain America and a number of abilities the Captain does not have. Cage has a regenerative factor, making him capable of regenerating from injury at a far faster rate than normal humans. And given the nature of the regeneration, it makes sense, his nervous system is included in this.

Normally, we acknowledge Human nerve cells do not regenerate. But in the case of most metahumans who take the kind of damage dealt out by the superheroic lifestyle, it is almost a requirement for them to have an enhanced healing factor of one sort or another or most would have taken a lethal injury years ago, been paralyzed or died.

For them to withstand the injuries they do, most fighting metas need a degree of durability far greater than normal and the ability to recover from injuries far beyond that norm, or they would be crippled in short order.

Cage would have been crippled the first time he was struck by by the Iron Fist technique. Such a powerful concussive injury should have been sufficient to break and destroy both, bones and tissues at every level. There was force sufficient to destroy most of Cage’s cells outright, before the building fell on him.

Luke’s steel-hard cellular resistance is not just an issue of his flesh but his muscles, bones and other organs as well. It has to. Otherwise, Luke would have died that very day, from the force of Iron Fist’s blow. Cage has absorbed blows, falls and bombs, all with equal aplomb.

Marvel writers, it’s your comic and you are going to do what you want with your characters. But let me be the first to say: Fans will not like it this idea. I have already surveyed a number of them. Not one thinks this is a good or even reasonable idea.

If your goal is to sell comics, taking a character whose main (and for many years) singular claim to fame is his steel-hard body and nigh-invulnerability, and then tell your readers he will develop a life-threatening disease, based on tissue injuries he is unable to acquire is problematic at best.

Anyone remember Darwin from First Class? (yes this guy promptly turning to ash above).  A supposed super-mutant whose power was the mutant power of super-adaptability, the ability to transform his body under any circumstance and survive the threat. Theoretically, nothing should have been able to harm him for long. Yet, like many Black characters in comics and on screen, he was the only mutant to die in the movie. I attribute his death and vulnerability to a cultural blindness by White writers who consider Black characters disposable.

It is a common trope for Black characters, particularly Black superheroes to be crippled or disabled over the course of their stories, even when such ideas don’t make any sense at all. See: Geordi LaForge, MANTIS, Cyborg, Silhouette to name just a few. This is a trope so common, no one should even consider using it. Giving Luke Cage CTE is a form of crippling, never doubt that for a minute.

Clinically Speaking…

Given that there are plenty of heroes in the Marvel Universe who are not Black, lack steel-hard skin, tougher organs and cellular regeneration, CTE should be FAR more likely among that population than it is to the recipients of the super-soldier or mutant regeneration set.

Human characters like the Punisher, Daredevil, the Kingpin, Black Cat, Silver Sable, Hawkeye, Electra and Iron Man have all suffered repeated physical traumas sufficient to cause them to all have some stages of CTE and lack a regenerative factor to protect them. Iron Man should be a walking add for CTE given the pressures his suit exerts whenever he uses it at Mach speeds.

Daredevil, who is beaten within an inch of his life every two to five years, is the prime candidate in the Human category of characters who would be perfect for CTE. Lacking any significant regenerative ability he would be ideal to discuss the effects of CTE, the mood swings, the impulsiveness, the impaired judgment, the memory loss and behavioral issues associated with CTE. Matt Murdock has always shown a number of these traits already and such a decent into madness and suffering would be par for the course in his life.

Cynically Speaking…

Now the cynic in me would say the only reason you are doing this is to goose sales, trying to capitalize on the momentary fame of Luke Cage on television, but in my opinion, you can’t get there from here.

You want to improve sales? Get writers who understand the character. Get writers who understand your Universe. Stop interfering with writers who are trying to rebuild your characters with a box of personality scraps from the seventies. (See the aforementioned David Walker.)

If you spent less time handicapping the character (and his writer), if you spent less time depending on fanboy’s ideas of what made for a good Luke Cage, the character might have actually picked up some traction and begun to sell. Get a great writer. Get a great artist. Spend some time and effort on the character. Advertise the hell out of it. Use social media to promote it. Stick with it until it moves. Just like you do all of your other white characters.

You want the hard truth? You wrote yourselves into a corner by having Luke retire. Superheroes don’t retire. And if they do, it’s because they survived a career as a superhero. They don’t sit down at the moment when their character is at his peak of recognition and decide to walk away. I mean you can tell yourselves that, but no one reading comics is going to accept it. 

It looks like these writers have just being given the reins, and just throwing ideas at a wall hoping for something to stick. This isn’t a bad idea. It’s the wrong character. All I see is Luke suffering, weakening and dying to no good purpose. I would like to think he would be able to be cured but no matter how smart heroes are in comic Universes, when an ordinary disease gets ahold of them, no amount of super genius seems sufficient.

We can travel to the stars, we can build super-armors capable of repelling Galactus, we can send Shuma-Gorath back to his dimensional lair, tentacles tucked beneath him, but get a little cancer and buddy, you are a dead man.

Be really clever…

What I most fear is another attempt at putting Cage into some overused variation of the Hero’s Journey. Don’t do that. I know the most common technique is to break a hero. You break him down and when he is at his lowest, you build him back up again.

Luke Cage has already been there. More than once. The reason comic companies can’t get readers invested in minority characters is they aren’t allowed to grow beyond their original premise. Luke Cage is fundamentally unchanged from his stereotypical, blaxploitation origins. He’s had power upgrades but those just made him stronger and more durable (and consequently LESS susceptible to CTE…)

What he needs is a change, the kind of change you get when you take a risk with the character, redefine the character, develop him in a way which hasn’t been done in a while. Giving Luke Cage, a man with invulnerable flesh and regenerative powers, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is not the way to develop the character. It does not build him up in the same way as it did when he became an Avenger (which was promptly taken from him by his so-called retirement.)

Worse, it becomes a story arc which will be shunned and ridiculed as a lazy premise by unimaginative writers, who fancy themselves more clever than they are. Your fans will chafe as the run is complete, recognize no one at Marvel has a clue as to what to do with the character and he will fade into comic oblivion. Luke will then make periodic appearances in Marvel events and then disappear again until the stink has worn off and we forget he ever had CTE (assuming he survives the experience). If he doesn’t no one will be surprised. Ask Captain Marvel.

Marvel has a history of this. Black Panther had an aneurysm which we haven’t heard about since that story arc ended. (Granted, he has had access to the Infinity Gauntlet, so he might have cured himself, just in case.) You killed James Rhodes for the feels in Civil War II, and Black Goliath in Civil War I. Please don’t do this again.

Thanos killing James Rhodes in Civil War II

If your writers want to impress me with how clever they can be, they should be looking to figure out how to expand Cage’s character without crippling him, first. That trope of the “crippled Black Man overcoming his handicap” went out of style with Geordi LaForge and his haircomb visual prosthetic.

No one wants to see Luke Cage in a wheelchair. Or Luke Cage throwing tantrums. Or Luke Cage behaving badly. Or taking unnecessary risks. Or beating his wife. Or using his superhuman powers irresponsibly. Or experiencing dementia. All potential symptoms of CTE before a person dies a sad lonely, often misdiagnosed death.

Let me be clear again: Black stereotypes including the Angry Black Man, the Raging Black Man, the Misunderstood Black Man, the Black Man from the Ghetto or the Black Ex-Con are all undesirable stereotypes. If you are using these as your primary character motivations in the year 2018, shame on you.

What made the previous Walker run such a great read to me was Cage’s liberation from his culturally-defined prison created by White writers who couldn’t imagine a Black man seeking a life beyond his stereotypes. Cage was an ex-con, but in Walker’s run, it did not define him. It broadened him. It made him compassionate. It gave him an understanding few of the more straight and narrow heroes don’t have of a life which ends in prison. He was a man who knew that sometimes what people need is a little hope.

I know your goal is probably to explore the idea of Cage’s mortality at some point but the symptoms of CTE are also part and parcel of the stereotype bag mentioned above and it isn’t going to be a good look. 

In summary: There are plenty of stories you could do with Luke Cage which don’t require crippling him to get us to care. Why the writers think this is the route to take makes me want to reset my OSHA counter back to “zero days since Marvel has said or promised something ridiculous.”

Giving Luke Cage, an nigh-invulnerable man, chronic traumatic encephalitis is just such an idea. Yes, I know it’s too late, you have already written the first two or three issues of this train wreck by now. I just wanted you to know how I felt about it.

I will be glad when White writers stop deciding the best thing they can do for Black characters is to break them. A low blow? Let me jog your memories.

Anyone remember Isaiah Bradley, the test subject for the super soldier serum, from Truth: Red, White and Black? His reward for being experimented on was to be sterilized with a degenerative brain condition leaving him with the mentality of a five year old without the ability to even speak. Culturally-speaking, neutering, lobotomizing and rendering him speechless is a damning statement if I ever heard one.

It was a bad look from a storytelling standpoint no matter how compelling a story it was. As a person of color familiar with the Tuskegee Experiments, I could only feel rage at the end of the series. But you had to know such a thing existed for it to have any meaning. I suspect most of the people reading that book had no idea why Bradley’s state at the end is so egregious and objectionable.

I’ve said enough. I’m starting to feel salty. At this point it looks like your writing team is overdrawn at the creativity bank. If you take this story in the direction I believe you intend, I promise you, this check is gonna bounce. Nuff said.

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