“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn.” – Rod Serling
I am very pleased to see writer Tony Isabella back on his signature creation, Black Lightning. Jefferson Pierce, schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, was the first African American character to headline a solo book published by DC Comics. Isabella previously chronicled Black Lightning’s adventures in the late 1970s, and again in the mid 1990s. This new six issue miniseries Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is the first opportunity Isabella has had to return to Jefferson Pierce’s world in 20 years. It was well worth the wait.
Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is actually something of a reboot to the character’s mythos. All of the reality-altering events to have taken place in the DCU over the past two decades have provided Isabella with a chance to give Black Lightning a bit of a fresh start, keeping some elements of Jeff’s back story intact, revising and/or jettisoning others.
Jeff, as seen in Cold Dead Hands, has been a costumed hero for only a few years. He is relatively young, and still single. Jeff is teaching at John Malvin High School, located in a predominantly black area of his hometown Cleveland. An idealist who wants to make a genuine difference in his community, Jeff has made it his mission to help his teenage students achieve not just an education, but to also set aside hate & violence.
Jeff also works closely with Detective Tommi Colvalito, who he has known since they were children, and who he fondly refers to as “my sister from another mister.” I was appreciative of the fact that Isabella established right off the bat that Tommi knows that Jeff is Black Lightning, avoiding the clichéd scenario of a hero’s close friend unknowingly pursuing them in their costumed identity.
The story opens shortly after the death of Jeff’s father, a veteran journalist. Jeff has scarcely had an opportunity to mourn his father’s passing when a violent crime spree begins to engulf Cleveland. Gangs armed with high-tech weapons are carrying out hold-ups across the city.
Jeff in his guise of Black Lightning attempts to stop this rash of robberies, a task made more difficult by the racial tensions inflaming the city, and by the fact that certain members of the police department resent that a black vigilante is, in their minds, upstaging them. Matters are made even worse when Black Lightning is framed for murder by Tobias Whale, the mysterious crime lord responsible for arming the gangs.
In Black Lightning volume two, Isabella had Jeff describe Tobias Whale as “the single most evil human being I’ve ever known… an insidious and ruthless predator.” Those remain the defining characteristics of the Whale in this new continuity. Having scoured the country for technology left over in the wake of various failed alien invasions, the Whale has had his technicians reverse engineer the recovered artifacts, producing a lethal arsenal of “sci-fi guns.”
Tobias Whale is a monster obsessed solely with the acquisition of wealth and power. He is willing to sacrifice anyone, even the members of his own family, to achieve his dreams of avarice. Tobias explains to Black Lighting his vicious plan to flood first the city, and then the entire country, with the alien weapons…
“The frightened citizens will want to arm themselves against these guns, legally or otherwise. The NRA will demand the guns be available to all, and their toadies in Congress will agree. The gun manufacturers will spend millions, maybe billions, to make that happen. Eventually a great many of those millions will make their way to me. Once I lease my designs to those gun manufacturers, I will become richer and more powerful than entire nations.”
In addition to utilizing this miniseries to touch upon the epidemic of gun violence in America, Isabella also casts his gaze at the tragic rash of police shootings of unarmed black men, something that I do not believe has been examined anywhere near as closely as it ought to be.
As a white male, I cannot imagine what it is to be black in this country. I simply cannot know what it must be like as a black man to walk down the street, knowing that any minute you might get shot and killed by a cop because you happened to be holding a wallet, or a cell phone, or a metal pipe, in your hands that was somehow mistaken for a gun, or because you were wearing a hoodie, or because you were moving in a “furtive” manner, and so on. And I cannot conceive of the outrage and disgust that a black person must feel, witnessing again and again and again cops who have shot and killed unarmed black men getting off with, at most, a slap on the wrist.
Isabella is very concerned with the toxic effects of fear and bigotry on people, and upon society as a whole. Us versus them, white versus black, cop versus civilian… fear plays a significant role in all of these exchanges. And of course there will always be individuals such as Tobias Whale who will take every opportunity to fuel and exploit those fears for their own personal benefit.
The classic The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is alluded to throughout this miniseries, with Jeff’s class staging a school play which is a thinly-veiled version of Rod Serling’s story. At one point Assistant Principal Lynn Stewart tells Jeff that that another teacher has disparagingly referred to the school play as “SJW Theater,” and I chuckled.
Despite the manner in which some comic book fans have recently utilized the term Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative, the fact remains that for much of the history of comic books numerous creators have utilized the medium to advocate for progressive causes, and to rail against injustice. Isabella has certainly been doing that for his entire career, and via his invocation of The Twilight Zone reminds us that Rod Serling was also doing so in one of the most popular television series of the 1960s.
Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very political work, blunt and honest in its addressing of the issues and crises of racism, gun violence, and the unchecked excesses of the police. I am appreciative of the fact that DC Comics gave Isabella carte blanche to write about these controversial issues.
The main artist on Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is Clayton Henry. He does good, solid work. It is flashy, but at the same time solidly rendered. I previously enjoyed Henry’s work on various titles for Marvel over the past decade and a half, so it’s nice to see him teamed with Isabella on this miniseries.
Also contributing to Cold Dead Hands is the underrated Yvel Guichet, who is the co-artist on issue #s 4-6. Guichet is an underrated artist who has been in the biz since the early 1990s. I fondly recall his early work for Valiant, and I’ve also enjoyed his more recent assignments at DC.
Additionally, the talented Ken Lashley drew the cover for issue #5, as well as a variant cover for the first issue. Mark Morales inks Henry’s covers for #1, #2 and #4.
I think it’s worth noting that Isabella, the creator of the Black Lightning character, is white, but he has often worked with black artists. That is especially the case on Black Lightning. Trevor Von Eeden (the penciler on the original series), Eddy Newell (the artist on volume two), Clayton Henry, Yvel Guichet and Ken Lashley are all black. Isabella has always strived to make Jefferson Pierce an authentically African-American character, and I think it’s wonderful that a significant part of that has involved collaborating with artists of color.
Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very effective miniseries, with passionate and insightful writing from Tony Isabella. He does a fine job both in developing his characters and in broaching important issues facing American society. His writing is complemented by dynamic work from talented artists.
I hope that Isabella will once again have an opportunity to return to Jefferson Piece in the near future, either to recount his continuing adventures, or to explore his origins in this new continuity.
April 30th Update: It was great meeting Tony Isabella yesterday at the East Coast Comicon at the Meadowlands Exhibition Center. Of course I asked him to autograph my copy of Cold Dead Hands #1. I recommend checking out Isabella’s most recent Bloggy Thing installment for some behind-the-scenes info on the miniseries.