Black Lightning in the 1990s

Black Lightning, the DC Comics superhero created by Tony Isabella and first published in 1977, will be appearing in an upcoming television series to air on The CW.  I looked at the first Black Lightning series in a previous blog.  Today I’m examining the character’s return to headlining status in 1995.  Once again written by Tony Isabella, this new Black Lightning series features artwork by Eddy Newell.  Inking the first two issues is Ron McCain.

Black Lightning v2 1 cover

Black Lightning, aka Jefferson Pierce, teacher and Olympic gold medalist, has relocated to “The Brick City,” an impoverished area within an unnamed city in the Great Lakes region.  Once again Pierce is hoping that he will be able to make a difference in the lives of inner city teens.  By day he seeks to educate them at Carver High School; by night in his costumed alter ego he attempts to defeat the drug-dealing gangs that have infested the Brick City.

Jeff’s twin tasks are literally herculean in nature.  With the gang culture having permeated the Brick City, its youths are in constant danger.  For many the gangs and the drugs they peddle are all too tempting, a seemingly easy escape from the overwhelming poverty & despair of the Brick City.  Even those who manage to avoid drug use or a life of crime are unsafe, constantly in danger of getting caught in the crossfire of the Brick City’s rampant gang warfare.

Isabella demonstrates the harsh realities of the Brick City through the character of Lamar.  An intelligent young man from a good family, Lamar has genuine potential, and Jeff seeks to guide him towards a better future.  Unfortunately Lamar had accidentally offended the Royal Family, the largest street gang in the Brick City.  Twice threatened with death for his supposed “disrespect,” Lamar is approached by Strapper, a member of the Home Crew, rivals of the Royals.  Lamar really doesn’t want to join the Home Crew, but he does so anyway, because he believes that without their protection the Royals will succeed in killing him next time.

Black Lightning v2 2 pg 14

In my look at the original Black Lightning series, I lamented that the then-common 17 page length of comic books in the late 1970s meant that Isabella had little room to explore Jeff’s personal life.  With an expanded length of 24 pages afforded him in volume two, Isabella has ample room to delve into Jeff’s relationships with his students, his co-workers, his neighbors in the Brick City, and his ex-wife Lynn.  Isabella does excellent work developing Jeff, his supporting cast, and his adversaries in these stories, as well as setting up several interesting subplots.

Probably the strongest story of this run is “Blowed Away” in issue #5.  Jeff is in the hospital, in intensive care, having been seriously injured in an attack by the Royals.  His ailment is as much spiritual as physical, as he despairs over the lives he has failed to save, and his inability to ever make a lasting impact against the crime and poverty he has been fighting for so long.

Isabella’s writing for “Blowed Away” is very introspective and moving.  The insights into Jeff’s personality and emotions are deep and genuine.  It is clear that Isabella has given a great deal of thought to the development of the character.

The art by Eddy Newell on Black Lightning deserves special praise.  Newell is an amazing artist whose work I had enjoyed since I first saw it a few years earlier on issues of The Twilight Zone published by Now Comics.  He does stunning work on Black Lightning.  The first four issues are genuinely gritty and atmospheric, yet also full of subtle characterization.  However with issue #5, “Blowed Away,” Newell excels even further, creating incredible storytelling and illustration to complement Isabella’s script.  Newell vividly illuminated the hospitalized Jeff Pierce’s mourning and existential despair.

Black Lightning v2 5 pg 7

Following on from “Blowed Away” is a three issue arc that sees Black Lightning forced to reluctantly work alongside the vigilante Gangbuster.  Lightning’s old enemy Tobias Whale has allied himself with the Royal Family, and they seek to ignite a brutal gang war in the Brick City, with the intention of swooping in afterwards to seize complete control of the drug market.  Lightning and Gangbuster narrowly manage to prevent the conflict, but Jeff’s relief is mitigated by the fact that the Brick City remains a powder keg, and by the knowledge that the Whale, his most implacable foe, remains waiting in the wings, the gangster’s voracious ambition and cruelty unchecked.

It is unfortunate that Isabella’s run on Black Lightning volume two was abruptly cut short.  Due to problems with an editor at DC, his last issue was #8.  Recently re-reading these issues, reaching the end of his last one was genuinely disappointing.  Isabella did incredible work on his eight issues, and I would have loved to have seen what happened next, with Jeff, with the war against Tobias Whale and the Royals, and with the great members of the supporting cast that had been introduced, especially Lamar, who after issue #8 finds himself on the outs with the Home Crew and facing a very uncertain future.

Black Lightning volume two lasted five more issues with another writer at the helm.  It’s difficult to say if Isabella’s departure played a part in the cancellation.  In 1996 the comic book industry was having  a lot of problems overall, and a large number of other titles were also getting axed.  Nevertheless, even if Black Lightning would have been cancelled no matter what, I still would have liked to have seen Isabella on board until the end.

Black Lightning Kwanzaa pg 1

Fortunately Isabella did have another opportunity to write Black Lightning in late 1997.  He was reunited with Newell on “Twas the Night Before Kwanzaa” which appeared in the anthology special DC Universe Holiday Bash II.  Once again Isabella crafted a great story, and the black & white artwork by Newell was beautiful.

Black Lightning volume two has not been reprinted in a trade paperback collection yet.  Hopefully the upcoming television series will motivate DC to rectify this oversight.  If not, then I encourage everyone to seek out these books in the back issue bins or online.  The stories by Tony Isabella and the artwork by Eddy Newell are spectacular.

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