Thursday, March 10, 2016

Basic Mystery, Mysterious Character: Luke Cage: Noir Is Interesting.

The Good: Interesting character, Good story, Fresh-feeling artwork
The Bad: Artwork does not make everything very clear, Very simple story, Genre issues
The Basics: A very basic conspiracy mystery set in 1950s Harlem, Luke Cage: Noir is not quite enough to get me into the protagonist.

I will openly admit that I am a latecomer to the party for Luke Cage fandom. In fact, I'm not sure I'm a fan of the character of Luke Cage. In all my reading of Marvel Comics books, I have rarely encountered Luke Cage (before today). Instead, Cage has been an occasional background character in books that I picked up in my study of Daredevil, like Shadowland: Blood On The Streets (reviewed here!). Most of what I know of Cage comes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, through his appearances in the first season of Jessica Jones (reviewed here!). I decided, whatwith the next big Netflix series being devoted to the character, I should give a Luke Cage book a chance. I picked up Luke Cage: Noir for that purpose.

Luke Cage: Noir is part of the Marvel Comics concept series of Noir books that reimagined many of the iconic heroes in period, noir, settings. Luke Cage: Noir is the second in the series I've read, behind Daredevil: Noir (reviewed here!), which I generally recall liking. I liked Luke Cage: Noir, but it was not enough to sell me on being interesting in the character of Luke Cage and it was a tough book to want to go back to re-read ever.

Opening with the day Luke Cage gets out of prison, the Power Man returns to Harlem where he tries to put his life in order. A trip to the barber shop informs him that his old friend Stryker is now running things in Harlem and Cage visits him at his club. There, Stryker informs Cage that his love, Josephine, died in a fire while he was in the joint and Cage is a bit rattled. He does not stay down long, though, as he is almost immediately approached by the wealthy Randall Banticoff. Banticoff wants to hire Cage to look into the murder of his wife and, on the promise that Banticoff can get his record completely expunged, Cage agrees.

It does not take long for Luke Cage to realize that the case is anything but what it seems. Inspecting the Banticoff woman's corpse, Cage finds it bloated, suggesting to him that the time of death was much earlier than it was reported. Cage also digs up Josephine's grave and discovers it empty, which puts him in the crosshairs of his old nemesis, Tombstone. Luke Cage quickly realizes that the apparent death of Josephine and the murder of Daisy Banticoff are pieces of a larger puzzle, which he is a part of. In unraveling the mystery, Luke Cage takes his first steps toward being Harlem's new hero.

Luke Cage: Noir suffers most, when it does, from being short and being bound to the genre it is part of. Mysteries are a tough sell for me as a genre for two reasons: 1. the generally replay poorly and 2. Especially in comic books, mysteries seldom give enough information for the reader to play the role of the detective, thus forcing an exceptional amount of exposition that has the danger of appearing to come out of left field for the reader. There is nothing that Luke Cage: Noir can do about the first issue; it is a murder mystery and while there might be value in going through a second time to see if one missed any of the clues, but once the reader knows "whodunit," it is hard to muster up the enthusiasm to do that.

The second problem, however, is one that Luke Cage: Noir definitely suffers from and while the stylized art in the book certainly creates an excellent mood and sense of time, place and noir-ishness, it also muddies up the narrative in problematic ways. The book contains a number of abrupt flashbacks that are not instantly clear, as Luke Cage, Tombstone, and Stryker have no real defining differences based on their ages in the present and ten years prior. As a result, the reader is left very much in the dark about the full nature of the incident that sent Cage to prison - he snapped, hit a white cop and Tombstone intervened to stop him - and how that relates to the mystery with Banticott. And while there are some clues vaguely peppered early on, they are not even rendered in a useful way that could allow the reader to keep pace with Luke Cage's investigation, much less beat him to the correct answer before the reveal.

That said, Luke Cage: Noir has a strong sense of time and place and the intricacy of the conspiracy that Luke Cage finds himself embroiled in is enjoyable to read. It is, however, noir pulp, rather than a strong character-driven story that most readers would want it to be.

For other Marvel Comics works, please check out my reviews of:
Deadpool Classics, Volume 1
She-Hulk:Law And Disorder
House Of M


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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