“Justice, like lightning, should ever appear?to some men hope, and to other men fear!” — Jefferson Pierce
I have always had a soft spot for writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden’s run on Black Lightning, in particular the first eight issues published from January 1977 to January 1978. At a time when DC Comics was seriously striving to take a more Marvel-like approach to their superhero continuity, tying the vast traditions, histories and current heroics together, Isabella and Von Eeden pushed the envelope a little further by introducing a new superhero on the scene, an intelligent, compassionate, and driven man who just happened to be African-American. Arguably more risky for DC at that time was awarding a new superhero his own book without any kind of a try-out, but Isabella had a strong, multi-layered opening story arc to unfold, one that was firmly integrated in the DC Universe, and which Isabella admittedly structured as an eight-part novel in comics form.
Olympic decathlon winner Jefferson Pierce had come home to Metropolis’ Lower East Side to begin work as a schoolteacher at Garfield High School. Pierce had returned to make a difference, to keep the students on the right track and out of trouble. Garfield High was located in a downtrodden area also known as Suicide Slum, where its criminal activities, including blatant drug pushing on campus, was ruled by The 100, a criminal organization that long-time DC readers would remember from the Rose and the Thorn back-up feature published several years before in Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane. Suicide Slum’s crime lord was Tobias Whale, a large albino who, indeed, looked like a whale and whose origins were shrouded in mystery. Caught in this ‘merciless grip of The 100,” the good people of the Lower East Side needed something more than just a role model for high school students. They needed a symbol, a heroic ideal, and Pierce had every intention of filling that role. But there would be tragic consequences.
In wake of the violent death of one of his students, Pierce became Black Lightning with help from tailor Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s long-time friend and father figure who was also brother of Paul Gambi, notorious tailor for The Flash’s Rogues Gallery. Pierce had designed an electro-magnetic belt that Peter’s brother constructed to BL’s specifications. That powerful weapon, along with Pierce’s well-honed athletic abilities, made Black Lightning’s crusade against The 100 a force to reckon with. It even raised the ire of Inspector Bill Henderson of the Metropolis Police Department, who did not approve of the mysterious masked man’s alleged vigilante methods.
As noble as his intentions were, Black Lightning’s quest to permanently cripple The 100 would not be easy. He would be framed for the murder of Joey Toledo, one of Whale’s subordinates; he would clash with such diverse and professional villains as Merlyn, The Cyclotronic Man, and Syonide; he would at one thrilling point be in direct conflict with that other resident superhero of Metropolis, Superman; he would learn the identity of the man who killed his father; as Pierce, he would cross paths with his ex-wife, Lynn Stewart; and all the while he would relentlessly pursue and battle Tobias Whale. The many supporting characters — Inspector Henderson, Lynn, Jimmy Olsen, Two-Bits Tanner (Lightning’s stoolie), Gambi, even Henderson’s son Andy — would play key roles, and Isabella kept the roster three-dimensional, never skimping on emotional drama even as the action roared. The story ends with a smile and one hard-earned victory for Jefferson Pierce. It’s a satisfying albeit bittersweet conclusion with an accomplished learning curve. Pierce has not only grown into Black Lightning, but more so into himself, and he can take pride in making a positive difference along the way.
Trevor Von Eeden was a newcomer at that time, all of seventeen-years-old but worthy of the artistic challenge. While Frank Springer’s inks in the first two issues are a little scratchy in places, Vince Colletta’s arrival as inker in Black Lightning #3 helped give Von Eeden’s pencils a more consistent flow; Colletta tightened, cleaned, and enhanced the young’s man work. Colletta is not well known for these kind of descriptions on other artists, but I’ve always admired how his embellishments complemented Von Eeden’s maturation in depicting the dark and unsettling atmosphere of the inner city.
As far as I know, Black Lightning’s first adventure, 136 pages and not one of them wasted, has never been collected in trade paperback form, which is a shame. It has historical merit, but more than that it’s a damn fine story, worthy of, like any good lightning display, striking twice.