By Genndy Tartakovsky
Cage! #1 is the first installment of a four-part series from Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of hit TV shows Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack and is illustrated in his trademark style.
This book is more Tartakovsky than it is Marvel. This is a good thing. One week it’s an event. Then a tie in. Then a crossover. A constant need for dense continuity has seen most big two books lose a little individual artistic vision as uniformity takes over, a few exceptions withstanding, notably Black Panther and The Vision. Cage is 110% a singular vision. Were it not for its use of Marvel characters this could be, and often feels like, a creator-owned book and a good one at that. Tartakovksy’s selling point here is action. The television cartoons he created, Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, showcased that he’s a man who gets how to stage a good fight. With Samurai Jack in particular hosting some of the most dynamic and well choreographed battle scenes in television. The question before reading this book was ‘how would this talent translate into a medium lacking motion’. The answer is surprisingly well. So well it’s suspicious. As your eyes track from panel to panel it’s hard to believe this isn’t an animated feature. The page layouts are remarkable. It tracks with such ease that you don’t so much as read Cage! as you do drink it in.
Tartakovsky’s experience in storyboarding television shows is evident. His line work is so dynamic that fight scenes pop from the page. He draws in a way a storyboard artist might draw a scene intended for 3D. Luke’s punches come right out at the reader. He has an incredible gift for capturing depth. Despite the cartoonish nature of the world he draws, this gives it a realness. A more photo-realistic style might fail to capture because even though the world of Cage! does not intend to reflect our own in any way, it is a universe that is real to itself.
Cage!’s ace in its artistic deck is nostalgia. This is a celebration of all things blaxploitation and 70’s. This can, in some storytelling, feel a little too safe; luring people in with something they enjoy because of nostalgia before delivering little substance. How Cage! subverts this expectation is that the nostalgia is more celebratory than mocking. It is easy to do sly little digs about how goofy Luke’s classic costume seems to modern eyes. Cage! chooses instead to embrace it. Luke is drawn here in all his 70’s throwback detail, with Tartakovsky’s expressive cartoon style even highlighting the silliness of the costume instead of masking it.
On the story front, there is little to get your teeth into and this is where the book stumbles a little. As only a first issue it’s possible the meatier portions of the narrative are to come, but if this first issue is anything to go by it feels as though this mini series will be all about the visuals. There’s very little in the way of story. The reader is merely flung from set piece to set piece. It’s the comic equivalent of a blockbuster action film in that story and character development don’t matter as long as we get from fight scene to fight scene as fast as possible. Though a negative, it’s a minor one.
Where Cage! #1 is better than the aforementioned blockbusters it parallels narratively is that these big action scenes are not just mindless punch ups. They’re visually inventive, toying with form. Sound effects dominate pages. Panels tilt. Cage!‘s layout is bigger and more bombastic than your standard comic, reflecting something more in common with Andrew MaLean’s Head Lopper. On it’s opening page, Cage! #1 takes a moment to discuss the “bigness of the 70’s”, mentioning big collars and big shoes. This is more than a cute prologue, this is a mission statement. Cage! sets ITSELF up to be as big as possible. This is not a comic ashamed of being a comic. This is not a book that would prefer to be called a “graphic novel” or aims to reach the heights of high literature. This is a comic that embraces the big & brass nature of 70’s comics to create an experience that’s fun and trashy.
At times this means the book nears parody. At times it dances a little close to mocking the legacy of our favorite Hero For Hire (sorry Danny…) than celebrating it. It, thankfully, never falls all the way into this trap. Tartakovsky anchors it from this pitfall with rich, punchy dialogue that you can hear Mike Colter (the actor who played Luke Cage in the Netflix series) himself performing.
In many ways Cage! #1 sets up this four-part mini to be to Luke Cage what Batman ’66 was to Batman. Some will see it as mindless, campy fluff. Others will see it as glorious, visually inventive, fun. If you read comics for some trashy fun instead of Alan Moore-style heaviness, this is a book you need to check out.