The Netflix series Luke Cage premiered to overwhelmingly positive reviews in the fall of last year. The idea of a black, bulletproof superhero in a hoodie resonated with audiences even before the episodes dropped, and the showrunners did an excellent job of updating the character from his 1970s blaxploitation origins. The Netflix series was especially notable for its overarching antagonist, who broke with many of the usual comic book villain tropes. Mariah Dillard is a polished, intelligent politician who’s determined to bring “positive change” to her community -- but only if that positive change lines her pockets.
However, if you’ve never read the comics, you probably have no idea that the print basis for Mariah’s character was completely different. The Marvel Cinematic Universe character is practically unrecognizable when compared to “Black Mariah,” which was her name in the comics. (They give a nod to this during the show when Cottonmouth calls his cousin “Black Mariah,” which she does not appreciate.) Black Mariah was steeped in offensive stereotypes, while the Mariah of the television show is more humanized and complex.
The changes are so extensive that her character was completely transformed by the time she appeared on TV screens. Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Black Mariah.
15 She first appeared as head of the Rat Pack in Hero for Hire #5
Politics were the last thing on Black Mariah’s mind. When readers were first introduced to her in 1973, she was the formidable leader of a gang called the Rat Pack. Their M.O. was pretty simple: they rode around the city in a stolen ambulance and picked up the bodies of rich people who had just been killed. Then they searched them for whatever valuables were on their person -- jewelry, cash, you name it. They’d also steal keys to rob homes or offices before police could close them up. Her central motivation, of course, was always cash.
Black Mariah and Luke Cage first cross paths when the Rat Pack picks up the body of a man called Frank Jenks. Luke was at the scene of the crime, and Jenks’ widow hires Luke to find his body. He takes the job free of charge and heads after the Rat Pack. When he finds their hideout, Black Mariah puts up a surprising fight, and she almost escapes in a speedboat. However, Luke eventually captures her and turns her and the Rat Pack in to the police.
14 She speaks only in slang
Forget about MCU Mariah’s backstory, which tells us that she was sent away as a child to receive a fancy education. We usually see her code switch throughout the show; she goes between peppering her words with slang and speaking the Queen’s English. Her dialogue shifts based on whether she’s performing for cameras or speaking to someone close to her.
Comic Black Mariah doesn’t have any linguistic flexibility. She speaks only in slang. On the surface, this might not be such a bad thing -- after all, most of us speak in slang every day -- but her dialogue was poorly based off of slang specific to the black community. There’s a way to do that well, but you won’t find it in her early appearances in the comics. These are the first lines she ever speaks, in Hero for Hire #5: “Only ‘cause dere’s profits to be et, Little Carl! Ol’ Mariah’d never cause you young’uns any grief!”
Luke Cage had his fair share of cringey dialogue (come on, no one actually says "Sweet Christmas"), but it’s clear that the writers took even less care with Black Mariah’s dialogue.
13 She weighs 400 pounds
Black Mariah is human through and through, and she doesn’t have any special powers. The only physical advantage that she has is her size. She weighs 400 pounds, which she makes sure to use in fights. In fact, in her first encounter with Luke, he’s hesitant to hit her because she’s a woman. He has to get over that pretty quickly when he realizes how strong of a punch she packs.
Although the character's weight has stayed constant over multiple comics, the way she’s been drawn has changed. In her first appearance, it’s pretty clear that she was drawn to shock and disgust. Her face is constantly drawn back in a snarl, she has teeth the size of her nose, and her body is drawn without any grace at all. She’s heavy regardless of the artist who drew her, though she gained a bit more dignity in later issues. Instead of her weight being a cause for disgust, it’s just part of her appearance.
12 She distributes the drug Acid Z after getting out of prison
After Luke Cage thwarts her ambulance operation, Black Mariah is sent off to prison. Of course, she’s not there forever, and she’s soon back on the streets. Since her ambulance operation was busted, she has to find a new hustle. Anything legal is obviously out, so instead, she turns to the drug trade. Before long, she’s the head honcho of a new operation. She returns in Power Man and Iron Fist #88.
In the issue, Black Mariah is selling a drug called “Acid Z.” The drug is so strong that its users start to lose their grip on reality, and in extreme cases, they even become suicidal. It’s marketed as a designer drug that a lot of young people start doing. The problem is that the latest shipment was accidentally made even more toxic. Luke first finds out about it when he comes to the Gem Theater to find people strung out on Acid Z.
By this point in time, Black Mariah’s visuals were a little more dignified, and the way she climbed the ranks of the New York drug scene also showed that she had a mind for business.
11 She's based out of Harlem, but she also lived in Chinatown
In Marvel comics, the city of New York is often like its own character. Spider-Man, Daredevil, Doctor Strange -- many Marvel heroes have their own corners of New York that are explored throughout the pages of the comics. Even though Black Mariah is one of the villains, we still get a glimpse into where she spends her time in New York City. Where she lives is part of how the Marvel team built her character.
At first, her base was Harlem, similar to Luke Cage himself. As leader of the Rat Pack, she spent most of her time in this neighborhood of the city. However, after she’s released from prison, she shifts her operations to Chinatown instead. If you’ve watched the new Iron Fist show, you’ll understand why that neighborhood of New York is important. In fact, living in Chinatown is part of what leads her to work with a different Marvel villain, one from the past of a different hero...
10 She worked with Iron Fist’s nemesis Scimitar
Since Black Mariah joined a new criminal business after prison, she also needed a new team of people around her. She definitely upgraded -- instead of lackeys that are easily knocked out by Luke Cage, she employed Iron Fist’s enemy Scimitar.
As you can probably guess by his name, Scimitar is a master of swords. In a way, he’s the exact opposite of Luke Cage; instead of being a hero for hire, he’s a mercenary for hire. In an earlier comic, he’s hired by a sorcerer named Master Khan to take out the heroic martial artist for good. (Of course, he fails.) After that, Iron Fist and Scimitar are often at each other's throats, since the latter has a habit of reappearing like a bad penny. No doubt Black Mariah thought employing him would be a foolproof way to ensure that her operation continued, as she’d be able to sit back and let him do all of the fighting for her. Unfortunately for her, it wasn’t meant to last.
9 Luke Cage and Iron Fist took down her drug empire
When D.W. Griffith -- Luke’s longtime friend -- gets a hold of some Acid Z, shutting down Black Mariah’s drug ring becomes personal to the Heroes for Hire. Luke and Iron Fist work together in this comic book series, and they decide to divide and conquer. Luke heads off to try to track down D.W. and make sure he doesn’t take the drug, while Iron Fist leaves to shut down the drug ring in Chinatown.
Iron Fist fights off the guards easily, only to find out that Black Mariah and Scimitar are the masterminds behind the whole operation. He fights off Scimitar, but together, Black Mariah and Scimitar almost finish him off. Luke, unable to find his friend, comes to help Iron Fist just in time -- he catches his pal after Black Mariah throws him out of a window. Luke and Iron Fist chase after Black Mariah and Scimitar and are able to stop them as a team. With that, Black Mariah’s second criminal enterprise comes to an end.
8 Poisoned needles are her weapon of choice
Even though she can use her weight as a significant advantage when fighting, she still needs to use a weapon to really seal the deal. Although she uses a gun in her first appearance, by the time she reappears as a drug pusher, she’s changed her game up. Instead, her weapon is hidden in plain sight. The tips of her knitting needles are covered in poison. The poison is strong enough to incapacitate a superhero and probably kill your average Joe. It’s an interesting character choice, since knitting needles are considered to be super feminine -- not exactly the aesthetic the artists were going for with Black Mariah.
As Iron Fist and Scimitar fight just before Luke Cage arrives, Black Mariah can be seen knitting in the background. Iron Fist successfully subdues Scimitar, but he wasn’t counting on Black Mariah actually being an opponent. He doesn’t fight her, which gives her an opening to stab him with one of the needles. He’s stunned just long enough for her to give him a good punch and really take him out.
7 She and Cottonmouth aren’t related in the comics
In the show, the relationship between Mariah and Cottonmouth is a big part of what drives their motivations. The two are cousins, both raised by their crime boss grandmother. While Mariah was sent off to be educated (and escape the sexual harassment of her uncle), Cottonmouth was groomed to take over the family crime business. As adults, the two work together in separate spheres -- the NYC underworld and political arena -- until Cottonmouth implies that Mariah actually welcomed their uncle’s advances all those years ago. No one knows how to hurt you like your family does, which we saw in more ways than one. Mariah snaps after he says that, pushing him out of a window and bludgeoning him to death.
All of that is from the imagination of the show’s writers, because they’re not even related in the comics. If Black Mariah has any living family, they’re never mentioned in the comic books. She exists as an entity all her own, with the exception of the various gangs she belongs to, of course.
6 Her name comes from a paddy wagon nickname
The name “Black Mariah” isn’t just a reference to her race, though it can also be read that way. The real story behind her name is linked to the first criminal enterprise she ran, back in the Hero for Hire comic. She is named after a nickname for a paddy wagon, or police van. Police vans, of course, were used to transport prisoners from one place to another, just like Black Mariah hijacks ambulances to cart her stolen dead bodies.
Another name for a police wagon in the early 1800s was a “Black Maria.” No one’s quite sure where the name came from -- especially since not all of the vans were black -- but it stuck for decades. It’s still used today in parts of the U.K. It’s implied that Black Mariah came up with the name herself after hearing people calling paddy wagons Black Marias. It was also her idea to use the ambulances in the first place, probably after hearing that conversation.
5 She was created by Steve Englehart
So who were the artistic minds behind Black Mariah? She was first drawn and illustrated by Billy Graham and George Tuska, but Steve Englehart is the one who created her character through dialogue. Englehart first got involved with Marvel Comics in his twenties and is also responsible for creating The Defenders series and the Valkyrie character. Throughout his time with Marvel, he wrote on The Avengers, Doctor Strange, The Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four. Fun fact: he also contributed to the script for Guardians of the Galaxy. His work is all over the Marvel canon.
When Black Mariah was updated in Power Man and Iron Fist #88, Dennis O’Neil was responsible for her improved dialogue. O’Neil spent most of his time with DC, but you can also catch some of his writing in issues of Doctor Strange, X-Men, and The Amazing Spider-Man. He’s also widely credited as the person who gave Optimus Prime his name.
4 She was updated for the Power Man and Iron Fist 2016 comic reboot
Black Mariah received one last, more recent update after she was reimagined for the 2016 reboot of the Power Man and Iron Fist comics. Although her character is still nothing like the Mariah of the show, her character design and dialogue work wonders to bring her into the 21st century. She’s kept her size -- it’s an identifying feature of her character -- but instead of being drawn as a Mammy-esque figure, she has curves and a shape. Her hair switches between afro puffs and cornrows, and she comes across as a human, not a poorly drawn caricature. The ‘Black’ is also dropped from her name, even though they reference it in her introduction. She can just be Mariah.
Readers first see her again when she's in prison for being a former gang leader, but in a different context than you’d expect based off of her previous stories. She’s not fighting or causing trouble...she’s in the library studying for her G.E.D. She’s still a villain, but a villain who’s more believable by today’s standards.
3 Her partner is “White Jennie”
While in prison, Mariah meets a woman named Jennie. This is really Jennifer Royce, who used to work as a secretary in New York City. She wasn’t just any secretary, though -- she had worked for Heroes for Hire, Inc., aka the detective agency run by Iron Fist and Luke Cage. She was sent to prison after her fingerprints were found on the gun used to kill her boyfriend Eugene Mason. Prison isn’t the greatest place for someone affiliated with superheroes, but she and Mariah form a solid partnership. Jennie helps Mariah study for her G.E.D., while Mariah helps Jennie find her place in the big house.
After both women were released, they stayed in contact. Iron Fist and Luke Cage meet up with Jennie once she gets out, and she asks them for help getting back a stolen necklace that had belonged to her grandmother. They agree to help her and bring the necklace to the house where she’s staying...only to find out that she’d actually tricked them into getting the SuperSoul Stone. White Jennie gives the necklace to Black Mariah, who plans on using it to start a brand new criminal empire.
2 She originally only appeared in 4 issues
Mariah’s character is so important on the show that it would be easy to assume that she was a central villain in the books, too. After all, on the show, she takes over as the main villain halfway through the season. Season one of Luke Cage isn’t just establishing Luke in the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- it’s also narrating Mariah’s origins as a villain. So she features often in the comics, too, right?
Not quite. Before the 2016 comic reboot, Black Mariah only appeared in four issues. If you really want to go back and experience her story for yourself, check out Hero for Hire #5, #8, and 10, and Power Man and Iron Fist #88. Those are the only four where you’ll catch a glimpse of Black Mariah. She also gets a mention in the 2012 Luke Cage origin comic, but that was it for her character until 2016.
Although she wasn’t a main antagonist of the comics, her MCU storyline is still promising.
1 She’s a member of a Pride crime gang
Black Mariah may not be running her own scam or drug ring from 2016 on, but she did find a way to join a new criminal gang. She becomes a member of Alex Wilder’s Pride, which consists of Black Mariah, Cottonmouth, Cockroach, and Gamecock, among others. Alex specifically tracked down old Harlem crime leaders to form his new Pride. His was just the latest in a long line of ‘Pride’ incarnations, however.
The original Pride -- basically a big supervillain team -- was based in Los Angeles, but it was defeated by none other than Tony Stark. The Pride was supposed to be passed on to the members’ children, but their children collectively decided, 'Nah, we’re good actually,' and ran away. Alex then tries to create “The New Pride,” but that attempt fails spectacularly and ends up in an accidental death. The gang that Mariah joins is one of attempt number three at supervillaining.
You know what they say...third time’s the charm?
What do you want to see from Mariah when she returns in season 2 of Luke Cage? Let us know in the comments.
The Defenders arrives on August 18th, with The Punisher coming later this year. Daredevil seasons 1 and 2, Jessica Jones season 1, Luke Cage season 1, and Iron Fist season 1 are now available on Netflix. Premiere dates for the next seasons of Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage have not yet been revealed.
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