If you’ve been part of an online conversation about Luke Cage in the last few years—or, chances are, even further back—you’ve seen the image: Dr. Doom yelling at Cage, only to have the hero call him “honey” and demand money that the techno-despot owes him. I’ve hated that panel... but I’ve loved it, too.
A few weeks ago, I rounded up more than a dozen sequences from Luke Cage’s publishing history and wrote about how they helped shape an aggregate personality for the Marvel hero. One comment thread wondered why I didn’t include the exchange with Doom.
“Where’s my money, honey?” has pissed me off for years. The panels from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #9 often appear out of context, a way of highlighting Cage as a goofy 1970s artifact. While there is a bold sort of audacity in the scene that’s impossible to ignore, it’s a concise exemplar of everything that made me wince about Luke Cage as a young black comics enthusiast. Doom’s arch dialect and use of the word “paltry” makes it clear that he thinks Cage is someone beneath his class; Cage talks jive and wants his money.
The uncomfortable part about the crazy black man line is that it can be read as a stand-in for readers’ or creators’ opinions on Cage. The character was conceived as Marvel’s homegrown answer to blaxploitation heroes like Shaft, Truck Turner, and Dolemite. In his earliest days, the people writing and drawing Cage—with the exception of inker Billy Graham—were all white men and their work on the superstrong hero had him talking in a laughable argot that was supposed to be read as street slang. The heavy emphasis on slang undermines well-meaning attempts to render Cage as a three-dimensional character and jivey outbursts soon became the character’s calling card.
When Cage showed up somewhere, you just knew he was going to blurt out something weird and wince-inducing. It made him into a comic-relief stereotype, the sassy black hero who charged for crimefighting. The fact that Cage was a fly in the Marvel superhero buttermilk made things even worse. Is this what Marvel creators thought black folks acted like?
Taken in context, “Where’s my money, honey?” isn’t quite as annoying. The two-part story in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #8-9 is written by Steve Englehart, with art by George Tuska, Billy Graham, D. Vladimer, and Stan G. Things kick off when a Latverian functionary hires Cage to track down thieves who’d absconded with his boss’ secrets.
I love a lot of Englehart’s work, which at its best features great prose stylings and his runs on Captain America, Dr. Strange, and the Defenders were filled with brash experimentalism that stretched the boundaries of what superhero comics could do. But the late writer’s trippy output sometimes stumbled when walking the tightrope between earnestness and slapstick. Those thieves that Cage was hired to hunt? They were self-aware robots rebelling against Doom who had disguised themselves as black people.
When Doom walks out on his bill, Englehart’s purpose in pitting the title character against one of Marvel’s top bad guys is clear: he’s trying to juxtapose the street-smart bulletproof brawler with an aristocratic evil genius.
Even after he storms Doom’s castle, the metal-masked megalomaniac doesn’t treat the hero as a legitimate threat.
The turnaround in this story ultimately buttresses one of the best aspects of Cage as a character. He’s a man of principle who holds himself to his word and expects others to do the same. It might mean busting into the Fantastic Four’s headquarters and borrowing a craft that can fly to Europe in an hour, but he’s not going to let anyone—even Dr. Doom—walk all over him. Other heroes like, say, Spider-Man would be happy to walk away from a near-death encounter with crazy killer robots, count it as a win, and go on with their lives. Not Cage. The end result is a great character moment achieved in clunky fashion.
But the reason I still grit my teeth when the “Where’s my money, honey?” panels show up in a tweet or status update is that it’s all too easy to strip away the context and character building from the sequence and make it a punchline. And it makes him seem like a broke-down ghetto superdude all too obsessed with money, which rubs up against way too many stereotypes. Some of my favorite Luke Cage interpretations lean heavily on humor but, in those moments, he’s not the joke. He’s laughing at the inequities of the world and doing his best to let them bounce off of him, like so many harmless bullets.