Today, Taylor and Spencer are discussing Cage! 1, originally released October 5th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Taylor: Somewhere in my internet wanderings I read an article about the evolution of American cartoon design. In the article (which totally eludes me now despite many internet searches), the author makes the claim that the design of characters in American animation has gradually moved away from the influence of major animation houses over time. Looking at this evolution in pictures, I could see characters going from more detailed to symbolic and abstract in their design. With these ideas still rolling around in my brain, I read Cage! 1 and was delighted by the radical design of the characters and setting. Eschewing traditional styles in favor of his own unique brand, Genndy Tartakovsky has created a comic that is totally unique yet somehow familiar.
Cage! really is a bizarre trip back into the funky 70s. Luke Cage is a man who fights crime with a flare and zest for life that it seems few can match. One day, his girlfriend Misty Knight goes missing along with all of the others heroes in New York. Startled by his lady’s disappearance, Cage goes in search of her but instead finds a bunch of villains waiting to beat him up. With no other heroes to lend him a hand, Cage is knocked unconscious and becomes the owner of an uncertain fate.
While the plot of this issue isn’t anything too different, Cage himself certainly is. Luke is a man of supreme confidence who loves busting crime and is loved by the community. His spirit is indomitable and his enthusiasm for life is infectious. After busting some bank robbers on skates, Cage meets some of the local youth for a pickup game of basketball that perhaps he’s just a little too excited for.
Without a moment’s hesitation he dunks the ball, breaking the rim and ruining the game for the kids. Perpetrated by anyone else this would seem cruel, but Cage’s evident enthusiasm for the sport makes his hijinks seem alright. What I love about this moment is that Cage tackles it the exact same way he tackles crime – unrestrained, joyfully, and brimming with physical confidence. Just by looking at this page I feel a bit more buoyant, infected by the nuclear reactor energy that burns within Cage’s chest. To read a story that follows Cage is to know a special sort of joy.
This upbeat attitude isn’t the only thing that makes Cage! unique. Writer and artist Genndy Tartakovsky has created a world that is unquestionably his, primarily through character design. On the spectrum of realistic to symbolic, most superhero titles coming out of Marvel bend towards the former. Tartakovsky, who many fans know through his animated endeavors such as Samurai Jack, the Powerpuff Girls, and Dexter’s Lab, on the other hand isn’t afraid to draw characters in his distinct style. Cage of course is the primary example of this, but check out the design for Cyclops.
Cyclops’ chunky design is something fans of any Cartoon Network show in the past 15 years will recognize. Cyclops’ body can roughly be broken into a set of cylinders of rectangles that make up his torso, head, and thighs. From there the details of his physique are fleshed out with details — mouth, fingers, and the like — but the sense that he is a character literally assembled from a mess of parts remains constant. This type of character design has become common in the American animation of the past several years and Tartakovsky can rightfully claim his influence upon the medium. However, when it comes to Marvel, this type of design is different and fun. It takes something incredibly familiar and puts a new, fun spin on the whole thing just by daring to draw people a bit differently.
It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Tartakovsky’s artwork is just a gimmick. Throughout the issue I was surprised at how well his drawing animated movement on the page. Take, for example, these panels of Cage on both the receiving and sending end of punches.
The exaggerated range of these punches as well as the outsized fists landing the blows makes the punches seem all the more real and forceful. Even though they are drawn in a style reminiscent of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I feel each blow all the more powerfully because the action and violence of the punch is being highlighted. Similarly, when Cage makes his escape you can see the struggle as he lunges his body up to running speed. I adore how you can draw a perfectly diagonal line from his foot to his elbow in this last panel. This strong line points off panel and towards the next panel – basically as far away from the action as you can get. This not only suggests movement, but also the desperation Cage must feel if a man as tough as himself has to retreat.
Spencer, I had a blast reading this issue, what about you? Tartakovsky’s style is familiar to me because of his previous animated work, yet it feels fresh to me here in comic book form. Does it do the same for you? Also, Cage is hilarious. What’s your favorite with him from this issue?
Spencer: Oh Taylor, writing this piece is breaking my heart, because I’m not nearly as enamored with Cage! as you are. It’s rough, because not only am I harshing your buzz, but because I’m a huge fan of Tartakovsky’s work myself; I was pretty much obsessed with Dexter’s Lab as a kid, to the point where I owned (and still own) the musical tie-in album. I really wanted to love this issue, but there’s a lot about Cage! that just doesn’t work for me.
I may as well start with my biggest complaint first.
This entire sequence just makes me dizzy. Ever hear of a “Big Lipped Alligator Moment”? It’s a moment in a story that comes out of nowhere, has zero context or relation to what came before it, and has no bearing on the plot once it’s over. Ho mama, is Cyclops’ random tantrum here the mother of all Big Lipped Alligator Moments.
To be honest, being a “BLAM” alone isn’t a crime — being “random” is a perfectly valid, if surprisingly tricky, style of humor — but for it to work, the joke needs to land, and I don’t think this one does. I’m not really even sure what the joke is — that Cyclops has been driven insane by the loss of his love? There’s even an editor’s note here which I assume is meant to clarify the situation, but only complicates it; does this mean that there was an actual plot in the comics about Misty Knight moving into Jean Grey’s apartment after she turned into Dark Phoenix? What an arcane bit of trivia to base a joke around, especially one that is so otherwise out of place in the issue. It’s not just the sudden unexplained arrival of the X-Men that’s out of place, but the very tone of the joke; it turns an otherwise generally broad and cartoony story into a comic book parody for two pages, and the two tones just do not mix. They’re very different kinds of humor.
Another frustrating aspect of this scene: all the heroes besides Cage are supposed to have vanished. It’s already been established, it’s reestablished three pages after this scene, and just one page prior to this Cage even specifically mentions “crazy mutants” as some of the heroes who’ve disappeared. So what are the X-Men doing showing up to attack Cage?! I understand that Cage!‘s “plot” is mostly just an excuse to move from one comedy or action sequence to another, but even so, you’ve got to respect your basic premise, or else everything around it just falls apart. Here Tartakovsky betrays his premise to tell a quick (and baffling) joke, and it’s a disheartening choice.
With that in mind, I’ve got to wonder how much anything else in this issue really matters. Is Tartakovsky actually building to anything? Will we ever see Cage’s “fan club” of enemies again, or is their only purpose to allow Tartakovsky to cram another action sequence into this issue? My faith is rattled, guys.
The more I write about Cage!, the more I realize that I may be approaching it all wrong. You can’t really think of it as a comic book, because in a lot of ways it isn’t — it’s a cartoon, and a kid’s one at that. Tartakovsky doesn’t really care about plot or characterization, just style, action, and jokes. The thing is, the best jokes are based in character, and I’m not sure Cage! ever tells strong enough jokes for it to be worth forsaking that aspect. For example, I found that basketball joke Taylor posted more mean-spirited than funny, and it feels like a joke that stems more from Tartakovsky simply wanting to tell a joke than from any natural aspect of Cage’s personality. It’s the only moment where Cage displays that kind of wild enthusiasm — throughout the rest of the issue he’s angry, quick-witted, or grumpy, but never ever that giddy or filled with joy. Man, I guess Taylor and I are gonna have to agree to disagree in that respect.
Whatever qualms I may have with the humor, though, I’ve got to admit that Cage! 1 kinda kills it when it comes to style and action. Tartakovsky’s got the 70’s aesthetic down pat — I love the roller-blading thieves who open the issue — and his faces are absolutely riotous. You could totally ignore the text and get your money’s worth just by looking at the faces in each panel; in fact, it may be the best way to read this issue.
And again, while I may not be all that hyped for the story Tartakovsky’s telling, his actual visual storytelling chops are aces. Taylor’s already highlighted many of Tartakovsky’s strengths, but there was one more sequence I wanted to point out.
Twice on this page Tartakovsky uses a really fun three-panel technique, the symmetry of which I love. In the first instance, the camera takes Black Mariah’s perspective and creates a sense of momentum by moving closer and closer to Cage. In the second, the camera instead stays steady, and the sense of momentum is created by Mariah moving closer to the camera. They’re just really clever, well-executed shots, and this issue is littered with similar sequences.
So I guess if you look at Cage! as a Genndy Tartakovsky art-book, it’s a flying success. Seriously, if you’re a fan of Tartakovsky’s work at all, it may be worth picking up this comic just to check out the art alone. Otherwise, it’s a much greater risk, as Taylor and I’s drastically different takes can attest to.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?