EP0021: Black Lightning Year One (Review)

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A look at Jan Van Meter’s 21st Century updated take on Black Lightning’s origin story.

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“Justice like lightning should ever appear, to some men hope, to other men fear.” We’re taking a look at Black Lightning, Year One, coming up next.

Black Lightning was created by Tony Isabella in 1977. Black Lightning, Year One was published in 2009 and is a modern updating of Black Lightning’s origin stories. The reason this was done is that he was introduced prior to Crisis on Infinite Earth where the DC Universe could be rebooted, and its continuity simplified so that that would never happen again. And about twenty-five years later they had to do it again.

The original origin story from the 1970s really worked pretty well for the most part. The story was that Jefferson Pierce, a gold medal Olympian, returned to his old high school – Garfield High in a suicide slum in Metropolis – to serve as a high school teacher; and the murder of one of his students leads him to become Black Lightning and to take on the 100, the evil gang that dominates his city. 2009 Update changes some things. First, rather than coming in as a teacher he arrives as the principal. In some ways I think this is kind of a nod to Lean on Me where Morgan Freeman plays Joe Clarke, a principal who comes to restore order to a troubled school.

In the original story Pierce was divorced and his ex-wife showed up working at the same school he was at, and she is in the school and frequently ignored until finally they become friends and happily divorced as was the big trend in the 1970s, the cultural push for people to become divorced, be good friends and have it all be very socially acceptable. This not really being a thing in 2009 he is actually still married to his wife Lynn and they have one child and another child’s quickly on the way. But Jeff’s decision to become Black Lightning creates a lot of friction in his marriage, ending up with her leaving him though not getting divorced. She doesn’t come off particularly well in the exchange but there’s actually a reason for it, and it’s probably the book’s most clever innovation.

And what makes a good retelling of an origin story stand out from one that is a bit weak, a good retelling will take a look at some element of the story that wasn’t explained or fleshed out and flesh it out and provide a remarkable twist that fills in a hole that a writer in a previous age hadn’t thought of. And writer Jen Van Meter really does that here. When you think about it a key problem with the original story of Suicide Slum called Southside here in Year One is the idea that there is a portion of Metropolis that is overrun with crime, and that Superman doesn’t do anything about it.

When you think about it the idea then is that Superman is not addressing the problems with crime in this neighborhood unlike crime in other parts of Metropolis, because he doesn’t really care about black people. I’m sure that is not what Tony Isabella was going for. He was used to dealing with Marvel characters, and Marvel characters do not generally have as much power or scope as Superman. There’s a reason Spider-Man doesn’t fight crime in Harlem as a practice, because his main area is Manhattan and Queens, and he cannot fly everywhere in the city. Superman is different and the original take on this leaves the impression that there’s a portion of Metropolis that Superman is ignoring even as he flies all over the world and universe to fight crime elsewhere.

And Van Meter does something clever and introduces an evil mystical force into the equation as the key cause behind this. And as most people know, Superman does not have powers against magic; and in the books it’s referenced that Superman is weakened inside the Suicide Slum. This also offers a better explanation for Talia al Ghul presence. She’s a fairly major player in Batman’s book as the daughter of Ra’as al Ghul, and her showing up in the early issues of the 1970s Black Lightning book wasn’t fully justified, but in Year One it makes total sense, and it also gives weight to this idea of this evil mystic force. It’s also just this unusual acknowledgement of an evil spiritual presence behind the apparent villains you’re finding. It’s a very different thing for DC and I actually really like the way that it works, it feels a lot more true to life in many other portrayals so I’ll say well done on that.

He also makes some very interesting supporting characters. I particularly liked Jefferson’s brother-in-law who’s got troubles with the law and is in with a mob, and he makes a pretty interesting supporting character, in addition to Peter Giambi who was in the original book. The art is also pretty good and well drawn. It really makes this whole area of Southside come alive. Probably the odd thing about the book when I was reading it, and I found something distracting when I was looking at Black Lightning, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. And then I realized it: the modern-day Black Lightning looks a lot like Static from the cartoon series Static Shock. Not so with the 70s version as the 70s version wore a ‘fro, but in his Black Lightning identity the Year One version has natural hair just like Static. And they have the same key colours in their costumes, and both use electric-based powers.

Now I don’t think that the artist for this book ripped off Static, but this does kind of make me wonder if the people who created Static Shock were thinking of Black Lightning as they drew him, and drew a 90s version of Black Lightning which makes the characters look very similar. Overall though this is a good, solid book. It’s a great Year One story just because it manages to take the original story, not ruin it and add elements that make it work even better. Even though the new edition of this book has the actor from the Black Lightning TV series on the cover, this doesn’t have a whole lot to do with that series – other than some of the changes that are made in Year One are implemented in the TV series. You don’t have to be a fan of the TV show to enjoy this.

Overall I’ll give Black Lightning a rating of Classy. Check out Black Lightning, Year One. That’s all for now. If you do have a comment email it to me: classycomicsguy@gmail.com. Check me out on the web classycomicsguy.com and follow me on Twitter @classycomicsguy. From Boise, Idaho this is your host, Adam Graham, signing off.

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