Thursday, February 18, 2010

Black Lightning. DC Wakes Up and Smells the Marketplace!

Tony Isabella, the man who brought you Luke Cage, gave DC comics one of my all-time favorite Black superheroes. Black Lightning.

Black Lightning is Jefferson Pierce, an Olympic gold-medalist who returns home to his old neighborhood on Metropolis' South Side- Suicide Slum.

Okay, I know the 70's comics were all about addressing real-world social issues, but you're telling me there's a neighborhood in Superman's home town that's SO BAD it's called "Suicide Slum" ? Hell, in the early 60's, Superman would have built clean, pretty, low-income housing on his day off and found jobs for everyone who lived in them. Of course, I guess it wasn't possible for Superman to tackle the problems of Black folks in the 1960's, as the Silver Age DC Superman comics didn't have any black folks for him to help...

Anyway, back to Black Lightning. So, in a combo of Welcome Back , Kotter and Walking Tall, Pierce (who has just accepted a job as a High School principal) returns home to find that there's a crime problem in his old neighborhood. An organized crime outfit called "The 100" have set up a drug ring on the South Side. And it looks like the 100 have a little help from a crooked politician, Tobias Whale (A freaky-looking, morbidly obese African-American albino who's kinda like The Kingpin crossed with Moby Dick).

So, of course Pierce gets his Family Friend, tailor Pete Gambini, to whip him up some disco threads -with a built-in electro-shock weapon- and takes it to the streets as Black Lightning.

At some point, with no real explanation (current retcon's aside) Jeff Pierce himself has the power to make lightning, not his costume.

Sadly, Black Lightning's series only lasted 11 issues. The first ten were written by Tony Isabella, with the final issue being written by Denny O'Neil. After his series was cancelled, Black Lightning was added to the line-up of The Outsiders, alongside Metamorpho.


  1. One historical note, which I'm sure you already know: Suicide Slum was of course the home of the Newsboy Legion, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in 1942. In different stories over the years, Suicide Slum was supposedly located in Central City, York City, and New York City…and when Kirby returned to DC in 1971, Suicide Slum was said to be in Metropolis to facilitate the Newsboy Legion joining forces with Superman and Jimmy Olsen. So Tony Isabella was just honoring established continuity from a few years earlier.

    Also, the whole thing about Superman not demolishing and rebuilding a slum neighborhood: there was at least one Superman story from 1970 or 71 dealing with why that wouldn't have been a good idea. In fact, it was a general recurring theme in stories from that era. If Superman just gives people everything and fixes all their messes, they'll never be forced to figure out why they happened and never learn to do better themselves. It's a bit unfashionable now, maybe, but there's still something to it...

  2. RAB: Oh, I realize that the idea of SUperman fixing everyone's problems was impractical and out of fashion by 1977. But this is Silver Age Gold. And while I have had to travel into the future of the Bronze Age to do Black History Month, I still like to interject a little Silver Age "logic" where it applies.

    Yeah, the logical questioning of the ramifications of Superman's simply fixing all our problems IS a common theme in the 70's. I think the best exploration on that theme may be MArk Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme, which is chilling for the earnest beliefs of the superheroes that they are helping.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. "Of course, I guess it wasn't possible for Superman to tackle the problems of Black folks in the 1960's, as the Silver Age DC Superman comics didn't have any black folks for him to help..." - I loved this. It made me laugh & shiver a little too. The same kind of shiver I get when I look at a fondly-remembered Legion Of Super-Heroes comic & notice how terribly white most everyone is.

  4. colsmi: and Jim Shooter tried twice to introduce a black Legionnaire in the late Sixties, both times being overruled by the editorial department. Possibly the same folks who fought Nelson Bridwell over the racially-mixed lineup of his Secret Six. Nelson dug in his heels and won that battle, but young Shooter wasn't so lucky...

  5. BTW, Black Lightning no longer needed his external power supply after the gene bomb went off in Invasion, I believe.

  6. We lost Black Lightning but gained Black Vulcan.