James interviewed Luke Cage’s showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, covering Coker’s comic book influences, the importance of world-building and somewhat less plausibly, a future Visionaries movie.
(Note: anyone who knows John Byrne’s Alpha Flight inside out might get a spoiler for Luke Cage Episode 7, but we’ll take a chance on that being a relatively small number of you.)
Hi, I’m James for Den of Geek.
Hey, I was reading a piece on your site the other day that said Luke Cage maybe falls into some of the tropes that superhero shows have. And you know, that was a big challenge for us, to keep it in that genre and be original.
On one hand, being a geek I want to tell the best comic book story possible, as someone who came up on Claremont & Miller’s Wolverine as well as stuff like God Loves, Man Kills and even Kraven’s Last Hunt which is probably my favourite Spider-Man story. Believe it or not, John Byrne’s Alpha Flight was one of the biggest influences on the twist we have in episode 7 – the fact that you could do that, it rocked my world when I read it back in the day. People sometimes say because it’s comic books it can’t be serious drama, but if you’re a long-term reader of comics you know darn well some of the best storytelling comes from this.
That’s one of the things we wanted to do with the show, hit those kind of notes – but then having worked on Ray Donovan and being a fan of very serious drama, I really though that it was important that we also crafted a show that could compete against anything out there on Netflix or anywhere else. And that’s what I really hope we’ve done, gotten the balance of both superhero and drama.
It surprises me how often you see comics storylines turning up in genre TV, like Dark Phoenix Saga gets retold again and again, and Days of Future Past in Heroes – it’s like there’s a club of people who learnt from those stories and then broadcast the themes and ideas to a wider audience than the comics necessarily reached.
That’s the thing about TV, it gives you so much time to tell your story, it’s comparable to comics. When you talk about Dark Phoenix and the Hellfire Club – to develop and tell those stories correctly would just be so good.
Instead of trying to cram them into a two-hour movie…
Exactly. I mean sometimes that criticism can get on your nerves because the movies are the movies, but I would love to really see those stories given some real time to develop.
You must be really enjoying having your own Marvel toys to play with then.
Oh my god, are you kidding me? It’s like I finally get to prove my mother wrong! Reading comic books was actually quite a lucrative career move. It’s a dream doing this, it really is.
It’s interesting then, I’ve spoken to the actors already and they’ve all said they were advised not to read the comics, so did that come from you?
No! Not me. Though I get why they’ve heard that. It’s that sometimes using them as a guide means you can become very literal, and it ties you so close to a property that you lose the ability to step back and change things. When you step out of one medium to another it changes. The perfect example, because I’m also a huge JK Rowling fan, is the Harry Potter movies. I’ve read all the books and you notice the first two movies that Chris Columbus did, he was almost so afraid to not change anything that he literally filmed conversations word-for-word, and the fans were like “Come on…”.
So when Alfonso Cuaron took over the third movie and got a bit looser with it – not making departures, but let it breathe a little – that’s when they took off. And my hope with Luke Cage was that I’d stay close to the source material but let it breathe and take some chances. The audience doesn’t want to see a direct translation. They think they do, but if you give them one they’ll call it stiff and wooden.
The interesting thing to me is that you’ve got characters created as part of blaxploitation who you then have to bring into a modern context, so it’d be hard to do a literal translation anyway.
Right. For me, it was important that we not look at the 70s iteration with disdain. We didn’t want it to be like Austin Powers. I mean of course we preserved the Sweet Christmas of it all, but at the same time we wanted it to be a modern character. We’re not ashamed of our blaxploitation past. We relish in it. But we took the parts that still apply to modern times.
And obviously you’ve got New York to play with, which was the centre of Marvel’s comics – especially in the 60s and 70s when the writers and artists were for the most part living there while making them. So I’m intrigued by the way you’ve created this sort of romantic version of Harlem which harks back to how it was in the 70s, but also has modern issues to deal with.
It’s kind of a mix of the Harlem that used to be and bits that still exist. It’s a Harlem that people who live there recognise. And that was important to me – to try and make Harlem feel like a real place and then inject superheroes into it – not a theme park. The way I see it is like a hip-hop western. You’ve got the mysterious man with no name, who’s reluctant to do anything… things happen and he decides he can’t sit back.
From the first trailer there’s no walking away from how you’ve added a very modern political dimension to the story, so I’m interested to know whether that was something you were actively keen to do with the character, or whether you just felt it would’ve been inauthentic to have avoided it.
Well, if you’re a black person in America, it’s really hard to avoid being black. And what I mean is that the reality of your cultural history, regardless of whether or not you talk about it, it’s there. I wanted Luke Cage to very much be an African American superhero rather than a superhero that happens to be black. I felt it was important to give him that cultural grounding, but also show that it doesn’t make him an obtuse or one-sided character. I wanted to show that he can be literary and sensitive, and funny, you know, in addition to kicking a lot of ass.
I wanted the nuance you rarely used to see in the modern Black experience before shows like Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Insecure. It’s kind of a renaissance, because blackness isn’t one thing, it’s a lot of different aspects. The fact that Guy Ritchie is a different writer-director than Julian Fellowes. They’re both still British, but there’s nuance. What happens sometimes when you have black storytellers is that they try to make it like “This is THE black experience” whereas I wanted to make sure Luke Cage was diverse in its complexities portraying Black America.
So you’ve got Misty Knight in there who’s a big addition to the series and canon, what was the thinking behind adding her to the kind of Netflix canon?
It was mostly just like “here’s the chance to use a cool character.” The same way that Claire Temple was interesting in Daredevil, here’s a chance to give Luke a new foil with her own rich storyline. The great thing about Simone Missick is that she so embodies the role the same way Mike embodies Luke Cage. There are times when it’s almost like the Misty Knight show, and she gets her moments to shine.
And finally, just to do some quick rumour-busting, I saw on your IMDb page that you’re involved with a Visionaries movie which seems like a super-obscure property to be looking at. What’s the story behind that?
Okay, so I was part of the Hasbro writers room with Brian Vaughan, and Joe Robert Cole and Nicole Perlman and all the other writers, there were about 12 of us. We all discussed how we could turn the various Hasbro properties into movies. Technically was I part of Visionaries? Well, we all talked about all of them – but we were all individually assigned different movies. Which I did I cannot disclose, because the only company more secretive than either Marvel or Netflix is Hasbro. I’m just lucky that I get to make money playing with toys and comic books. It’s just the best job in the world!
Cheo Hodari Coker, thank you very much!
Marvel’s Luke Cage arrives on Netflix on Friday the 30th of September.