Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Black Lightning: Year One #1

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009
By: Thom Young

Jen Van Meter
Cully Hamner (p&i) and Laura Martin (colors)
DC Comics
Jefferson Pierce moves back to the 'hood, where a criminal gang known as The 100 has taken over and poisoned the community. He aims to change all that, but he sleeps uneasily--and in his dreams gives off electric sparks.

Shawn Hill:

Kurt Taylor Lane:

Hartley Holmberg:

Thom Young:

Shawn Hill

There's not a lot in Black Lightning: Year One to hold my interest. The title character is in the Spider-Man mold of urban heroes; in fact he's often felt much more like a Marvel character than a DC one. He was a product of the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s--just like Luke Cage, after all.

Blaxploitation stories pit either urban vigilantes or unrepentant criminals against either mobsters or a corrupt police force, and Jen Van Meter has decided to frame this story by stranding Pierce and his family as a vulnerable oasis of morality in an urban desert filled with vipers. Even when he tries to do right, Pierce does wrong--at least in this tragic first issue.

Tragedy can easily fall into cliché, at least insofar as superhero origins go--and we certainly don't get any message with this installment as clear as the one concerning great power coming with great responsibility. Instead, I'm left wondering why a middle-class family capable of producing doctors, teachers, and lawyers hasn't moved out of this rough ghetto long ago. Doing so would solve a lot of their problems, and take them out of the line of fire. Instead, Pierce has returned to his home town in order to face the gang that rules the school, the 100--but he seems woefully unprepared when they start to step it up.

Hamner's art and Laura Martin's always expressive colors are the best part of this issue. Even though Hamner's bright, subtly cartoonish figures don't lend themselves to the tragic form, Martin's impressionistic color schemes do their best to darken the mood in the scenes of greatest tension and drama.

The random sparking is frustrating, too, as we really aren’t yet given the “secret powers” part of the origin--though he already seems to have the electrical energy. Why is he pretending it doesn't exist? That's another genre cliché, one that a character as long-running as this should have already overcome.

If this series is the reset button for the character, it's going to need more innovation to go with the solid visuals.

Kurt Taylor Lane:

Not being one hundred percent familiar with the title character, I was still interested in Black Lightning: Year One just for the “Year One” label itself. I haven’t been disappointed with the “Year One” efforts that I have read so far, and I was looking forward to learning more about Jefferson Pierce. What I got instead was a cookie cutter story about the troubles of intercity life and the struggles of one man trying to change the system and reach the kids.

Halfway into the book, I could already see the writing on the wall. No matter how I wanted to squint my eyes and read it differently, it was the same message as before. It all really falls into a formula that’s very recognizable--from the Pierce family arriving in Suicide Slum to the standard reunion with a family friend, Peter Gambi, telling Pierce that so much has changed in the neighborhood.

While Jefferson and family unload their moving van, two youths from the area steal a box each and run--almost egging Jefferson on. I found this scenario extremely unrealistic. Yes, I understand it’s a superhero comic book--a genre in which such unrealistic things as people flying around and shooting homemade webs from their wrists are par for the course--but if you’re going to try to present a situation like a decaying urban section of a major city, then this was the wrong way to go about it.

I live fifteen minutes from two major cities, one north and one south of me. Based on having spent 5+ years and countless nights in the northern city, the depiction of inner-city life in Black Lightning: Year One just seems a little romanticized and unlikely. It reminded me of how the majority of Hollywood puts their spin on what they think inner city life looks and feels like while television shows like Law and Order and The Wire present a more accurate picture.

While I found more examples of this unrealistic depiction of inner city life in the comic, I also found one small point of interest that struck home with me. On the first day of school for Pierce as the principal of Garfield High, a student sets fire to the lobby. Pierces asks a student named Earl, whom he had met earlier after chasing him for stealing one of his family’s moving boxes, for help rescuing people trapped inside the school.

After helping, Earl is later found dead in the same lobby--provoking feelings of the “No Snitching” ethic some gangs live by, where talking to or helping any authority is frowned upon. That’s a big part of the neighborhood near mine, so I could identify with that way of life here.

I mentioned that the whole story of “one person out to shape and mold the kids” is a little tired, but I will give credit where it’s due. I appreciated the calm level that Pierce maintained throughout. From the family confrontation he has once he gets back home, to the boxes being stolen, to the fire being set at his high school and the mismanagement of the incident by the firefighters--everything seemed consistent and level without coming off completely cheesy.

It’s possible that I had unrealistic standards for this book. After all, this was the first issue, and I don’t feel it’s fair to completely judge the series based on just one chapter. I can wait until the next issue until I completely trash this series.

Hartley Holmberg

I've been a fan of Black Lightning since I was a wee-lad in the late 70s--first noticing him in DC house ads then following him over in the original Batman and the Outsiders series. I loved it when they made him part of Luthor’s cabinet when Lex was President, and I'm thrilled to read such a fine first issue covering his first year as Black Lightning.

Cully Hamner has been a great and innovative artist right from his days doing Green Lantern: Mosaic and Firearm (Malibu Comics-Ultraverse) in the early 1990s to his short run during the first year of the most recent Blue Beetle (sigh, R.I.P. Blue Beetle series, I'll miss buying those trade paperbacks). Hamner’s work is nothing short of stellar here on Black Lightning: Year One.

He brings a depth of emotion and realism to the page with just the perfect amount of exaggeration. Street punks looks like street punks, not like stereotyped clichés. It’s the actions of the antagonists that mark them as "bad guys," not a stereotypically “bad” outward appearance.

As for Jen Van Meter, this lady’s great!

To me the coolest thing about Black Lightning wasn't that he could shoot lightning from his hands, but that he was a teacher and an Olympic Gold medalist. It’s doesn't require much suspension of disbelief to imagine a high School principal/Olympic gold medalist having the smarts and physical capabilities to handle the job of fighting crime. Adding the lightning powers just makes it that much easier to believe in.

The story, as narrated by Jefferson Pierce’s wife, is touching and hits home in a compelling and realistic manner. We all need hope, and we all need someone to look up to who sets the right example. The worse the circumstance, the bigger the man needs to be.

Jefferson Pierce is that man, and Van Meter has shown in this opening issue that she’s the perfect writer for the tale of Black Lightning: Year One by shining a light on the harsh realities of the low income "Suicide Slum" section of Metropolis without resorting to typical and trivial clichés and stereotypes.

I can hardly praise this book enough as it’s everything I could have hoped for and more.
It starts off with a bang and ends with one as well, and even has a great chase sequence!

Great pacing and action, fantastic characterization, wonderfully expressive art, and the resurrection of one of DC's most underused characters!

I can't wait for #2!

Thom Young:

As I read this first issue of Black Lightning: Year One, I often had the feeling that I was reading a week’s worth of Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or for Worse” newspaper strips--a comic that depicts, with verisimilitude sweetened with a dash of sentimentality, the hardships, friendships, and kinships of a Canadian family.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging Johnston’s “For Better or for Worse.” It’s a well-written and well-drawn strip that succeeds in exactly what it sets out to do: Depict the hardships, friendships, and kinships of a Canadian family with verisimilitude sweetened with a dash of sentimentality.

I suppose if I had entered into Black Lightning: Year One #1 expecting to see the hardships, friendships, and kinships of “The Pierce Family in Suicide Slum” depicted with verisimilitude sweetened with a dash of sentimentality, then I might have enjoyed this issue a great deal more than I did. However, I was expecting an update of the original Black Lightning series from 1977.

Yet, in some ways, Jen Van Meter and Cully Hamner did give us an updated version of Isabella and Von Eeden’s first issue--albeit as re-imagined from the perspective of Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or for Worse.” It’s kind of an odd pairing, but not one that’s not necessarily incompatible.

There are some parts of the first issue of the original Black Lightning series from 1977 that I remember quite well. It came out in January of that year--a week or so after Christmas. I was living in Pleasanton, California at the time, and I used to ride my bike to a 7-11 store three miles from my house to buy comics each Friday. The temperate climate in the Livermore Valley usually permitted me to do this year-round, though I would coerce my mother to drive me if the weather was bad.

I don’t recall if I rode my bike that Friday or if my mother drove me, but I do know that in addition to the first issue of Black Lightning I picked up Justice League of America #141--Steve Englehart’s third issue and the second part of his story that connected Jack Kirby’s Manhunters to the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians of the Universe.

It was an exciting time to be reading comics, and I have fond memories of all of the comics that I bought during that era. In particular, I remember my reaction after reading the first issue of Black Lightning. I was absolutely 100 percent certain that I had just read the first issue of a new character who would one day be considered as iconic as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man (they were the real “Trinity” in 1976-77, all others were second-string superheroes).

Well, you can tell what a fine evaluator of comic books I was 32 years ago. The series lasted only 11 issues--one more than Isabella lasted as writer. It was canceled as part of the infamous DC Implosion of 1978.

By the time of its cancellation, I don’t recall still being of the opinion that Black Lightning was going to be the next great superhero icon. Nevertheless, I was sad to see the series go--along with two other personal favorites of mine at the time: Steve Gerber and Michael Golden’s Mister Miracle (following Englehart and Marshall Rogers) and Steve Ditko’s Shade, the Changing Man.

It was a sad time to be reading comics, and I have unpleasant memories of all of the comics that were canceled during that era. I’ve no doubt Lynn Johnston (and perhaps even Jen Van Meter) could do a good job of depicting my downheartedness of that year in which my family moved halfway across the country from Pleasanton, California to Overland Park, Kansas--sweetened, of course, with a dash of sentimentality.

I no longer have that first issue of Black Lightning from 1977. It fell victim to the selling of my entire collection in 1980, and I never saw fit to buy that original series later as back issues. Nevertheless, despite not having read that issue in at least 30 years, there are three things that I still recall of it:
  • Jefferson Pierce wore a belt that generated a protective electromagnetic force field around him, and that allowed him to absorb, channel, and discharge electricity (i.e., “lightning”)--in other words, his powers were due to a gimmick and were not internalized.

  • Not only was Peter Gambi a friend of Jefferson Pierce, he also tailored the first Black Lightning costume--a trait that ran in the family as the story alluded to Peter Gambi being the brother of Paul Gambi, the Central City tailor who was the creator of the costumes for several members of the Flash's Rogues Gallery.

  • Tobias Whale was a large albino crime lord who was the head of The 100 (a Metropolis mafia organization that first appeared in 1970 in the Rose and the Thorn back-up stories that ran in Lois Lane). He ruled Suicide Slum with his large fists and impressive strength (as a sort of deformed albino version of Marvel Comic's Kingpin, Wilson Fisk).
Unfortunately, though it’s obvious that Van Meter must have read Isabella and Von Eeden’s first issue, those three points that I recall are not accurately reflected in Black Lightning: Year One. I guess one of the cosmic crises that the multiverse/universe has undergone since 1977 must have changed some of the details--probably when Superboy Prime was pounding on his crystal walls in Infinite Crisis: Secret Files.

Does it really matter to me that Jefferson Pierce is now being depicted as a mutant with bio-electrical powers instead of a man who had a really cool belt? No, it doesn’t--but I see no reason to change the original concept of the belt eventually affecting Pierce’s DNA (or whatever the pseudo-scientific explanation is) to the point where his bio-electrical powers became internalized.

I don’t recall who was supposed to have designed the original electromagnetic belt (perhaps Peter Gambi as well), but there would have been an opportunity in this new story to also bring in John Henry Irons, perhaps as a graduate student, as the co-designer of the belt. Ah well.

Does it matter to me that Van Meter doesn’t allude to Peter Gambi being the brother of Paul Gambi--created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino in 1963? No, it doesn’t--but a nod of acknowledgment would have been appreciated (though perhaps Van Meter doesn’t know about the Gambi Brothers).

Does it really bother me that Tobias Whale isn’t depicted as an albino Wilson Fisk in Black Lightning: Year One? Uhm, yeah, actually it does--especially since the traditional version of the character as imagined by Von Eeden in 1977 just appeared in the first issue of the new Vigilante miniseries by Marv Wolfman and Rick Leonardi.

For some reason, the character is depicted in this new Black Lightning series as an African American city councilman with normal skin pigmentation and really big teeth. I suppose the character as envisioned by Isabella and Von Eeden 32 years ago was an albino African American. I never really was clear about his ethnic heritage--just that he was an albino version of Wilson Fisk, and that he had some physical deformities (particularly his head).

Yeah, the name “Tobias Whale” was not all that clever either. Instead of being “the great, white whale, Moby Dick,” Isabella gave us a character who is “the great, white dick, Toby Whale.” Of course, no one called him “Toby”; you called him “Tobias” or “sir” if you valued your life.

Perhaps the depiction of Councilman Whale in Black Lightning: Year One as a man with normal skin pigmentation isn’t the fault of either Van Meter or Hamner (though Hamner’s drawing of the character on the political posters bears no resemblance to Von Eeden’s design). Perhaps colorist Laura Martin didn’t get the memo that she was to color Tobias Whale as an albino. I guess subsequent issues will tell. However, I won’t be around to see.

Even though I didn’t hate this issue. In these tough economic times (my company is laying off 20 percent of its workforce tomorrow, and I don’t know my fate), I can’t justify buying a comic book that I consider “average”--which is what this one is.

Van Meter did borrow some of the plot points from the first issue of the 1977 series. For instance, she retained the concept of Jefferson Pierce as a man dedicated to his community by returning to it as a reform-minded high school principal. He was sort of a black superhero version of Gabe Kotter from Welcome Back, Kotter, which DC actually was printing as a comic book adaptation at the time.

She and Hamner also kept that image (as I remember it looking 32 years ago) of the dead student who was strung up in the broken trophy case at the school--to serve as a warning to Pierce to not meddle in the affairs of The 100. The symbolism escaped me back then, but I get it now.

Isabella’s (and/or Von Eeden’s) decision of having The 100 deposit the student’s body as a “trophy” in the display case that presented Pierce’s athletic achievements from when he had been a student exceeded the type of symbolism that was found in most comic books of that era.

I no longer think Black Lightning is destined to become as iconic as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. In fact, I no longer think it’s possible for any newly created superhero to ever achieve that level of popularity; those days for the comic book industry are long gone. However, I do think it’s possible to tell a great Black Lightning origin story with emotional and intellectual resonance.

I also think it’s possible to tell a good Lynn Johnston-styled “For Better or for Worse” story about a reform-minded family moving back to their old neighborhood and working for urban renewal.

I’m just not convinced that the two can be the same story.

What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!