Black Lightning #1, February 1995, DC Comics
writer: Tony Isabella
penciller: Eddy Newell
inker: Ron McCain
colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
letterer: Albert de Guzman
assistant editor: Keri Kowalski
editors: Brian Augustyn, Mike Carlin, & Pat Garrahy
Black Lightning is a comic book of contradictions. Racially epithets aside, the very title implies a contrast of darkness and light, of an electric interlude in an otherwise barren, depressing gloom. Further, consider the backdrop of this issue – an urban wasteland that houses a desperate majority, the frequent subject of scrutinizing news coverage, yet ruled by a small but powerful band of drug lords, who could be easily defeated by either their community or the media if their assertions of intimidation didn’t fuel their delusions of grandeur. Finally, there’s Black Lightning himself, a hero that has admittedly worked side by side with Superman and Batman, that is an active member of the Outsiders, yet who acts as a mystery in his own neighborhood, a force of nature unrecognized by his targets until it’s too late. These characteristics are familiar in any comic book context – a colorful name, the shroud of urban myth, the noble motivations – but Black Lightning combines them in a redundant but compelling context. Again, it’s a comic book of contradictions.
For all intents and purposes, we shouldn’t like Black Lightning, especially this first issue of his “contemporary” re-launch. A decade too late to justify a fresh, post-Crisis continuity, five years too late to respond relevantly to the ‘80s’ “War on Drugs,” Black Lightning merely utilizes all of those conventions of superheroism to tell a story we’ve all heard before. Jeff Pierce is a hard-working teacher that helps the elderly and attends church every Sunday morning – the epitome of meekness, if he didn’t moonlight as an electricity-wielding force against the drug trade. His nemeses are jive-talking crack dealers, and their dialogue is as awkward on paper as it would sound in real life, if “urban youth” still actually talked like that: “You crazy mutha! We got two hundred grand in cash, coke, and name-brand appliances stashed in this crib, an’ about a dozen homeboys who’ll smoke your spandex butt just to break up the day!” Perhaps these gangsters are really former Chronos henchmen, transported from the late ‘70s and trapped in a modern ghetto. Seriously, even Pierce’s red and blue costume begs to be mocked by villain and reader alike . . .
. . . but we cannot help but ride the Lightning. Sure, Black Lightning hasn’t successfully carried his own title for any significant amount of time, and his only influence in the mainstream media is best summed up by the old “Funeral for Superman” SNL skit starring Sinbad (a clip worth finding if it’s on the web somewhere). Still, the character has remained a staple in the DC Universe since his inception in the ‘70s, fighting in the Outsiders and appearing in various titles, including Grant Morrison’s JLA, most notably as the guy that powered the projectors that enabled the population of Earth to defeat the Maggedon war machine. Even now, Black Lightning is becoming an active and pivotal member in the latest incarnation of the Justice League, and of all of the black heroes in DC’s stable, something about Pierce’s role in that title drives the reader to believe he deserves the opportunity most. Perhaps therein lies the secret to Black Lightning’s success; while most black heroes wear their race on their sleeve, only to lose its relevance when their popularity is secured (I’m looking at you, John Stewart Green Lantern!), Black Lightning has always worn his identity on his sleeve. For all of the cosmic threats he has stared in the eye alongside his fellow heroes, this issue proves that his first priority has always been the safety of the kids in his neighborhood. Like a bolt of lightning across a stormy night sky, Black Lightning embodies hope in a world where supermen defeat alien despots and mad scientists on a daily basis, but can’t free their kids from the grip of drugs and violence. Contradictions, indeed.
Isabella’s love for his old character is contagious, and Newell’s art, though too sketchy at times, exudes a vibrancy as shocking as its material. Obviously, this review is intended to join the others in my Black History Month themed posts, but Black Lightning also stands apart as the first superhero title of the series, and his creators instill an integrity such a distinction deserves. This comic depicts three types of black stereotypes: the youthful criminal element, the older, helpless citizens caught in the crossfire and too confused by modern times to combat it, and someone willing to defend them both against themselves. Although Black Lightning is a one-man force in this issue, he tells one of his wide-eyed targets, “Welcome to the Revolution.” Revolutions are rarely solo missions; Black Lightning is summoning his very community to fight alongside him, to fight for their future. So, while this series is effectively a relaunch, Mr. Pierce is trying to teach us – lightning shouldn’t have to strike twice.