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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where each week I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past.
Just over a week ago, we reported that Greg Berlanti, the producer behind such popular CW TV super-hero series as “Arrow”, “Supergirl”, “The Flash” and “Legends of Tomorrow”, will be producing a new pilot for Fox starring DC’s long-time supporting hero Black Lightning. The series, if picked up, will be run by the team of Salim and Mara Brock Akil, with Berlanti and his producing partner Sarah Schechter acting as executive producers alongside the Akils. Black Lightning would join “Gotham” and “Lucifer” as part of Fox’s DC Comics-inspired lineup.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, here’s the set up of the series:
The hourlong drama will center on Jefferson Pierce, who hung up his suit and his secret identity years ago. However, with a daughter hell-bent on justice and a star student being recruited by a local gang, he’ll be pulled back into the fight as the wanted vigilante and DC legend Black Lightning.
But, who is Black Lightning, and what’s his place in the history of comics? Let’s find out.
Lightning Strikes – Black Lightning Vol 1, World’s Finest #260 (1977-1980)
Like much of American popular culture of the 1970s, comics struggled to connect with the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and struggled even more to connect to the growing importance and vocality of the Civil Rights movement and African-American culture movement. By the mid to late-1970s, both Marvel and DC were trying to create black super-heroes that could resonate with black readers. Marvel had struck first with Black Panther in the 1960s, continued with the Falcon and then had successes with both Blade and Luke Cage, aka Power Man. DC had been slower on the uptake, with their initial stab resulting really only in John Stewart, the alternate Green Lantern to Hal Jordan, who appeared only occasionally.
In 1977, DC was beginning a massive push at creating new and different titles. They approached writer Tony Isabella, who for Marvel had written Luke Cage’s book as well as co-creating Black Goliath, to help them craft a new black super-hero. Isabella had already had the idea for Black Lightning, and set about refining the character alongside artist Trevor Von Eeden, one of the few African-Americans working own comics at the time.
Isabella and Von Eeden created Jefferson Pierce, a former Olympic decathlete who is working as a schoolteacher in Metropolis’ Suicide Slum. When a student is killed by a drug cartel, he dons a special belt that grants him electrical abilities and becomes Black Lightning, vowing to keep the neighbourhood safe. Isabella and Von Eeden created one of the best and most unsung books of the DC Explosion, with the storyline of Black Lightning’s battle against the drug cartel led by Tobias Whale stretching out over 8 issues, a rarity in the Bronze Age. And though the series is rife with the blaxploitation “street-talk” that mars so much of any black-focused book of the period (particularly as most were written by white people), part of the character’s personality is artificial, an act devised by Pierce to both conceal his identity and make him appear more formidable.
Then in 1978, the DC Implosion happened. The winter of 1977 saw sales steadily fall, as a brutal winter hampered distribution and sales, combined with the rampant inflation and economic malaise afflicting America at the time. With costs rising and sales dramatically dropping, DC had to mercilessly curtail its line. Not only were new titles/characters like Black Lightning, Firestorm and Shade, the Changing Man axed, but established titles such as “The Teen Titans,” “Batman Family,” and “Aquaman” folded as well.
Black Lightning, at this point written by Dennis O’Neil, was abruptly canceled with issue #11 in 1978. The story intended for #12, which had been completed, wasn’t published until 1980 in an issue of “World’s Finest” (though a lucky few got their hands on an ashcan comic in 1978 called “Canceled Comics Cavalcade” which featured the story. If you have that, you’re sitting on a valuable issue, by the way).
After a long period where Tony Isabella had an ongoing and nasty feud with DC Comics over a variety of issues which prevented his work from being reprinted in collected form, the current DC management of Geoff Johns and Dan DiDio reached out to Isabella. Here’s Isabella’s story of what happened next from his blog:
Geoff wanted to talk about Black Lightning and my dissatisfaction with my decades-unpleasant relationship with DC Comics. Just as I always have, Geoff sees a lot of potential in my finest creation. It’s a potential the previous DC management clearly never saw. We talked about what it would take to make things right between me and DC so that Geoff could, in good conscience, consider developing the character in this bigger-than-1976-or-even-1995 new comics world.
That conversation will remain private for now. Let’s just call it a good start. It was the first time in two decades a DC executive didn’t speak to me like I was a child or insane.
One of my major disappointments was that DC had never reprinted my Black Lightning work. Indeed, the former management took pains to insure it wouldn’t be reprinted. When I realized DC was planning no celebration of Lightning’s 25th anniversary, I asked if they would lease me reprint rights to publish a collection of my stories. The then-management of the company laughed in my face.
Within a short time, Geoff and Dan DiDio were talking to me about reprinting my Black Lightning work. DC had the right to publish the collections whether I approved or not, but Geoff and Dan brought me into the loop. They wanted to do books I liked.
The volume collecting the entire run of the first Black Lightning series is available wherever comics can be ordered, including Amazon.
Outsider (1983 – 1988)
From this point on, Black Lightning kept on popping up as a guest-star in various DC Comics, notably refusing membership in the Justice League. But frankly, he wasn’t being used too often or too effectively. But he’d soon find the spotlight agin, even if this time he’d have to share it.
1983’s “The Brave and the Bold #200” was a celebratory issue for the Batman-led title. It featured, as an insert story, the debut of a new super-team led by the Dark Knight called the Outsiders. Batman had recently become estranged from the Justice League, feeling they weren’t reacting to real-world problems proactively enough. And so, he formed a new team of Outsiders, and one of the founding members was Black Lightning.
The series, created by writer Mike W. Barr and artist Jim Aparo, was a kind of companion piece to DC’s hit Teen Titans book. A series that approached team story-telling in the more soap operatic and complex style that Marvel’s X-Men had made the gold standard of the era. Both the Titans and the Outsiders tackled more adult issues and themes, alongside interpersonal relationships and conflicts. The writing of Barr is accompanied by the stellar artwork of Aparo, one of the seminal Batman artists of the era, and later by Alan Davis.
The team was popular enough to expand to two titles for a time before finally coming to a close in 1988. Though the team has been resurrected a number of times with different line-ups and concepts attached, arguably these series have never quite matched the impact or resonance with fans of the original series, though at least one version came close.
Currently a hardcover volume collecting the first adventures of Batman and the Outsiders is scheduled for release in February of 2017.
Lightning Strikes Twice (Black Lightning Vol 2, 1994)
Tony Isabella returned to the character in 1994, with a new solo series that found Pierce in a new costume and a new town, Brick City. Much like his original series, the new volume saw Black Lightning back in the inner-city school system and encountering the social ills that plagued those areas at the time. Drugs was still a central component, but the contemporary problem of gang wars, drive-by shootings, and metal detectors in schools were added into the mix. Paired again with an artist of color, Eddy Newell, Isabella started off strong. The series saw Pierce encounter complex themes, as well as confront a growing feeling of inadequacy to solve the social problem plaguing Brick City.
But Isabella’s issues with DC hadn’t improved, and before the first issue had been published, he’d been fired from the book. But even with only eight issues in the can, Isabella’s run proved excellent. Issue #4’s climax was a dramatic school shooting where Pierce was seriously wounded and a fellow teacher was killed. The following issue saw Pierce dealing with his colleague’s death and the impact of it on the man’s loved ones, all of it leading to Pierce’s rededication to being Black Lightning.
The series limped along after Isabella had been taken off, but it never really caught on, even with the acclaim garnered by his short run. On his blog, Isabella hopes that good sales on the initial Black Lightning trade will mean that this second series might be collected a some point. And that would be a treat.
The Modern Age
Since the 1990s, Black Lightning has popped up here and there. He’s got his fans, and occasionally he’s been used very well. He was appointed Secretary of Education during the period Lex Luthor was president in the early 2000s. And he made memorable appearances in both “Green Arrow” and during the “Infinite Crisis” miniseries.
He eventually became a part of the Justice League during writer Brad Meltzer‘s run with artist Ed Benes. By this point, the character was kind of an elder statesman of the super-hero set. His time with the League coincided with lots of membership fluctuation and would never be considered a classic period. However, it was during the late 1990s and 2000s that he became the progenitor of a family of heroes, with his daughters Anissa and Jennifer both becoming heroes in their own right. Pierce would wind up working with Justice Society for a time, helping to train a new generation of heroes. He also starred in an excellent “Final Crisis” tie-in called “Submit,” written by Grant Morrison.
Many of these appearances can be found wherever DC Comics are sold, including on digital platforms.
With the dawn of the New 52, Black Lightning has been largely absent, his main appearance being a team-up with the Blue Devil. But with a possible new series boosting his profile, and his long history as one of DC’s strongest heroes of color, Black Lightning won’t be out of the spotlight for long.