Marvel breaks the Colour Barrier
In 1972, Marvel debuted Hero for Hire, the first comic book ever to feature a black super-hero. It was the story of a wrongfully convicted and imprisoned angry black man named Lucas, who would be used as a guinea pig for a dangerous experiment in exchange for a chance at early parole. While Dr. Burstein, the brains behind the experiment, believed in Cage’s innocence, a prison guard named Rackham did not.
In fact, the guard was so blinded by his own racist views, that he tampered with the experiment in the hopes of killing Cage, but helped grant him his super strength and toughness instead.
Our hero would escape from prison, and kill the fascist guard Rackham in self-defense. Lucas would assume the name of “Luke” Cage and the nom de guerre of Power Man. His super-hero costume would include a ridiculously thick chain, that was intented to “symbolize his strife”.
One step forward…. Five steps backs
While Marvel blazed the path for black hero-centric books, it also perpetuated the stereotype of the angry, jive-talking, “chained”, jail-familiar black man – for whom Luke Cage was a poster-boy. He was Marvel’s first mercenary hero too – doing good deeds for cash – hence the book’s title “Hero for Hire”.
Marvel’s only saving grace with Hero for Hire was that the title did not follow the comics blaxploitation super-hero trend, that saw the word “Black” as part of the heroes or villains nom de guerre, a la Black Panther, Black Goliath and others.
DC Comics… Five long years later
In 1977, DC Comics launched its first super-hero title featuring a black protagonist While the title-hero’s back story wasn’t as stereotypical as his 1970s contemporaries, his nom de guerre was ridiculously blaxploitative.
Black Lightning was the story of Jefferson Pierce. A smart and athletic black man who was raised by his mother after his father was murdered – an unknown gunman (at the time) killed Pierce’s father while he was working at a grocery store, bread-winning for his young family.
Jefferson propelled himself from ghetto upbringing in Metropolis’ Suicide Slum – Metropolis being the home of the comic industry’s first super-hero, Superman – to become a two-time Olympic Decathlete and Kent State University educated high school teacher in New Carthage.
He returned to the Suicide Slum for his mother’s funeral and was infuriated that nothing had changed. It was still an impoverished, crime-dominated ghetto. He decided to move back to Metropolis and teach at his old alma mater, Garfield High School (GHS).
Justice, like lightning
Early in his tenure teaching at GHS, Jefferson removed a drug dealer from school premises and embarrassed three crooks affiliated with the crime syndicate known as The 100. However, in typical tit-for-tat fashion, his good deed would not go unpunished. In retaliation, for being embarrassed by a school teacher, a gunman killed one of Jefferson’s students leaving the corpse on display at GHS.
A distraught, and angry, Pierce would don a super-hero costume by close-family-friend, and tailor, Paul Gambi (later revealed to be his father’s killer), and become a symbol for the kids growing up in Suicide Slum. Gambi quoted poet Thomas Randolph as the inspiration for the “Black Lightning costume, “Justice, like lightning should ever appear to some mean hope; And to other men fear.”
Jefferson donned the costume and wore an energy-belt that would allow him to manifest lightning bolts. Thus the legend was born… Black Lightning had arrived.
However, in the typical ’70s blaxploitation fashion, his nom de guerre was horrible, and he wore an big-hair wig and adopted a jive-slang when in costume.
So, while Black Lightning’s back story was somewhat more hopeful and atypical, his hero affectations were woefully stereotypical.
Years, like lightning
Over the course of the next twenty-seven odd years, Black Lightning would be blessed and cursed, as would his scribe-creator Tony Isabella.
The Black Lightning series that debuted in 1977 would last 11 issues and was canceled as part of DC’s “Implosion” in 1978.
The character would live on in back-pages of World’s Finest Comics and Detective Comics, before the 1983 debut of Batman and the Outsiders, a team for which was as a founding member.
I always found it interesting that the Black Lightning series that ended in 1978, had the title-character turn down a membership invitation from the Justice League of America (JLA) and the Batman and the Outsiders series that debuted in 1983 started off with Batman quitting the JLA.
Black Lightning’s official affiliation with the Outsiders would last for five years, after which he became an occasional guest star through various iterations of the Outsiders comics franchise.
In 1995, Black Lightning re-debuted as an ongoing series for DC, to critical and commercial success, with Tony Isabella surprisingly at the helm. However, because all good things must come to an end, due to creative differences, Tony left the series with issue #8. The series would sputter and finally end five months later with “lucky” issue #13.
Snubbed by a Super Friend or Fiend?
The popular 1970s/80s televised cartoon Super Friends added a black man with lightning powers to its team, but it would be a new made-for-TV hero called Black Vulcan, not Black Lightning. This appears to have been a way for the cartoon’s producers to avoid paying creator Tony Isabella royalties, with DC watching from the sides and seemingly doing nothing to advocate for creators’ rights.
It was also interesting that the Super Friends creators were absent-minded about character of Black Vulcan who would have either a V-neck or turtle-neck costume within episode or even episode-to-episode. Sadly, the character was nothing more than an attempt to make DC’s white TV team extreme more culturally diverse – a good goal with horrible delivery.
As an aside, the Super Friends would also add other culturally-sensitive and insensitive heroes to the TV-team: Native American hero Apache Chief and Japanese hero Samurai – neither nom de guerre focusing on the hero’s power, but on ethnicity, in stereotypical fashion.
The Current Controversy
Recently, Tony Isabella has come out swinging, takings swipes at DC for making Black Lightning a murderer in Green Arrow #31.
He vented his initial displeasure by stating that, At a time when I certainly didn’t need any more stuff to deal with comes the incredible news that DC Comics has published a story in which Black Lightning, the character I created for them back in the 1970s and revived to critical acclaim in the 1990s, commits a cold-blooded murder.
He followed, in the same column, by indicating that (there have only been) three black super-hero headliners in the entire history of DC Comics and now one of them, almost as a “we need a shock to end this issue” easy way out, has been turned into a cold-blooded murderer. That’s an egregious wrong that extends well beyond the wrongs done to the character and his creator.
Also, as reported at SBC, Tony Isabella has also entered the message board fray and criticized DC (again), and in particular current Green Arrow and Outsiders scribe Judd Winick, for making Black Lightning a killer AND becoming a (retroactively) presumably-out-of-wedlock single dad for a daughter who happens to be a founding member of the newest incarnation of the Outsiders.
In addition, Jefferson Pierce is also the Secretary of Education in the current DC Universe’s U.S. President, and uber-villain, Lex Luthor’s Cabinet.
The first black hero in DC to have his own title, reduced to working for the “baddest” villain in the DC Universe. Is this a metaphor for the presumed villainy of real-life U.S. President George W. Bush and presumed toadying of Secretary of State Colin Powell? I sure hope not.
The left invading comics, and the media? Say it ain’t so! I mean, its not like the newspapers with the highest circulation in the U.S. have a leftist bent, right?… Oh wait a second, they do.
Then, lets try this – is the most-watched nightly news cast produced by the uber-conservative Fox News Channel? Uh, sorry. Nope. The big 3 television networks still draw the most viewers for their presumably nightly “straight news” casts.
It is true that the conservative pundits, who actually don’t purport to tell the news, have a large viewership and listenership in TV and radio?
However, some folks still purport that the “news” media in the U.S. is conservative.
Do these folks actually watch the broadcasts purported to be straight news in U.S.? Do they even read a “news”-paper?
Entering the fray…
Ok, let’s get back on track…
My colleague Matt Morrison also chimed into the Black Lightning debate in a recent column, making the following comments:
Some have argued that Tony Isabella has no right to criticize how the character he created is used since DC owns it and that they have no need to ask him how the character is used. Technically, that is correct. However, DC has a history of allowing their creators to have some say over what is done with their creations when they are being used in another book. Neil Gaiman, for example, has been consulted on all the appearances of The Endless and other characters he created for “The Sandman”, such as Dream?s appearance in JLA #23. Also, DC has respected writer James Robinson?s desire to have Jack Knight “retired” in the wake of Starman #80.
Why the disparity? Because Sandman and Starman have very devoted fan bases and any misuse of the characters would inspire irritation not only in their creators but also in that fan base. Black Lightning, while undoubtedly the first major black superhero that DC ever had, has never had the same high level of name recognition or the huge following. Hence, there was no apparent danger in several creators using Pierce as a background character (don?t forget that he became Secretary of Education under President Luthor in the Superman books) and attempting to add something to the mythos to flesh him out. As DC has found out, however, there is apparently enough of a Black Lightning fan base out there to raise a big stink over the man who once retired rather than risk lives striking a man down in anger.
Still, it is my firm belief that the best course lies somewhere in the middle.
Its known that Matt and I have come out on different sides on previous issues, namely the recent portrayal of the current U.S. President in pages of JLA #83. We both thought it was a badly written comics and political story, but I found that it lacked perspective and showcased writer Joe Kelly’s naive view of the world. Matt, on the other hand, purported that that the idea of George W. Bush as a criminal is not so outrageous, nor implausible to many of the residents of Texas. Particularly the city of Arlington, my home town, where many people suffered at the hands of some very Lex Luthorish business deals that George W. Bush was a part of. Bush is not a saint, no question. Clinton had his Lex Luthorish business deals too, but I digress (again).
However, on the subject of Black Lightning we agree. There has to be a middle ground.
DC clearly owns the property, but many of its actions around it over the years seem ill-conceived. Do they have it out for Isabella? I’m not sure, but I’m not a big conspiracy theorist. I’m also not a big fan of how DC has addressed real” creator rights issues in the past, i.e. their treatment of the creators of Superman, and their respective estates.
However, the issue around Black Lightning is a bit different. DC doesn’t have to conform to the past laid out by Isabella, but why grossly tinker with it, KNOWING that the creator, and, more importantly, the character’s small, but vocal, FAN base would be upset?
Was the change in direction for Black Lightning a creative-based one, a principled one, a “let’s-irritate-Isabella salvo” by DC, or a poor storytelling choice?
Well, we all have our own opinions on the matter.
Mine is this – was Black Lightning’s murder of the man ultimately responsible for his daughter’s death necessary?
I think not.
It was done off-panel in a throwaway fashion that added nothing to the story. However, that’s just one person’s opinion on that particular ditty.
Do others think it was appropriate? Sure. Its a creative difference. A difference clearly between by Black Lightning creator Tony Isabella and current scribe of the character Judd Winick.
The Black Lightning character should be a major principled player in the DC Universe, not a sideshow attraction. Wake up DC!
The Reading Rack
Sorry folks. It appears that the exploits of Black Lightning have not been compiled in bound form either as trade paperback or hardcover.