Tony Isabella returns to Black Lightning with “Cold Dead Hands”

“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 1 cover

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.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 pg 14

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.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 3 pg 17

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.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 4 pg 6

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 5 cover

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.

Comic book reviews: Uncanny Avengers #1-5

One of the few Marvel Comics titles I am currently following is Uncanny Avengers.  For years now, I have wanted to see a book that established some sort of ties between the Avengers and X-Men teams.  It never made sense to me that Captain America, who fought against the Nazis during World War II and who witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust, would just stand idly by while mutants were persecuted.  I’d always hoped that at some point Cap would actively recruit mutants to join the Avengers and publicly speak out in support of acceptance for the mutant community.

Uncanny Avengers #1
Uncanny Avengers #1

In the aftermath of the recent Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, we finally see Cap taking steps in this direction.  We are told that, following the events of AvX, fear & hatred towards mutants is at an all-time high.  This spurs Cap to form an “Avengers Unity Division” that demonstrates humans and mutants working side-by-side to protect the Earth.  He approaches long-time X-Factor leader Havok to head up the team.

While Havok and Cap are busy organizing this new Avengers squad, the Red Skull resurfaces.  He steals the body of Professor Xavier, who died during AvX.  The Skull somehow succeeds in implanting Xavier’s brain into his own, gaining the Professor’s formidable telepathic powers.  The Skull then sets out to ignite a race war between humans and mutants.  Following in his mentor Hitler’s footsteps, the Skull identifies a vulnerable minority who can be used as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills, in this case mutants instead of Jews.  The Skull utilizes his stolen telepathy to magnify bigotry against mutants, hoping to rally humanity to his side.

Just as I have wanted to see more of a connection between the Avengers and X-Men, so too have I long hoped that the Red Skull would one day become a major foe of the entire Avengers, not just Captain America.  And given his bigoted nature, I’m surprised that the Skull never really had any major encounters with the X-Men.  So I certainly appreciated the set-up of the first four issues of Uncanny Avengers, pitting an all-star line-up of Avengers and X-Men against the Red Skull and his bizarre lackeys, the so-called “S-Men.”

It is an interesting concept, having the Red Skull gain the awesomely powerful mental abilities of Professor Xavier.  On more than one occasion it has been shown that Xavier had the ability to affect literally millions of other minds.  However, he was a very principled individual, and usually refused to use his abilities for selfish ends.  Even so, on occasion Xavier did use his mental powers in morally questionable acts.  So, the question arises, what would then happen if those same abilities were gained by someone with no moral scruples, a man considered the human embodiment of evil, the Red Skull?  Scary thought, isn’t it?

It's a Red Skull kind of world.
It’s a Red Skull kind of world.

On writing duties for Uncanny Avengers is Rick Remender.  I’ve been a fan of his past independent work, such as Black Heart Billy, Crawl Space: XXXombies, and Sea of Red.  I haven’t really been following much of his material at Marvel.  Uncanny Avengers is certainly an interesting blending of traditional superhero action and Remender’s bizarre sensibilities.  In particular, having the Red Skull graft Xavier’s brain to his own stands out as a very Remender-ish twist. The oddball S-Men also are quite characteristic of his style.

One complaint I did have concerning the first four issues is that they did seem rather padded out.  The opening arc with the Red Skull might perhaps have worked better as a more tightly plotted three part story.

Issue #5 was an improvement as, in the days after the Skull’s attack, the Avengers Unity Division work to properly organize.  There is quite a lot of tension going on between the various members, and Remender does a good job examining these conflicts.

Havok is supposed to be the leader of this team, yet already we have seen his opinions and strategies being questioned by Captain America, the very man who appointed him.  At times Cap has a tendency to take charge uninvited, and it will be interesting to see how the dynamic between him and Havok plays out in future issues.

Okay, so who's in charge here, anyway?
Okay, so who’s in charge here, anyway?

There’s also a great deal of tension between Rogue and the Scarlet Witch.  Rogue blames Wanda for previously having tried to de-power mutant-kind, an act that set in motion a series of events which eventually led indirectly to Xavier’s death.  Rogue sees the Witch as a potential menace waiting to explode.  One of the main reasons why Rogue is sticking around is to keep an eye on the Witch, in case she eventually needs to be taken down.  This is an interesting reversal of status, because years ago Rogue was the outsider and one-time enemy with out-of-control powers who was reluctantly accepted by a suspicious X-Men team who kept a wary eye on her.  One would think Rogue, knowing what it is like to be in that position, would realize the hypocrisy of distrusting Wanda.  But, of course, that’s the thing about people: they are flawed & inconsistent like that.

The art on the first four issues is courtesy of John Cassaday.  He is a very talented artist who does amazing work.  The problem is he is also quite slow.  That resulted in a few delays in these issues coming out.  From what I understand, going forward Cassaday is sticking around as the cover artist, but the interior art will be handled by Daniel Acuna.

I liked the guest art team of Olivier Coipel & Mark Morales on issue #5.  Coipel previously penciled the main Avengers book about a decade ago.  I really enjoyed his work back then on the “Red Zone” arc which featured, yep, the Red Skull.  It’s too bad the Skull wasn’t in this issue, because I’d have liked to have seen Coipel draw him again.  Perhaps in a future issue?  As for Morales, he is an inker who has done consistently good, solid work in the past on such artists as Jim Cheung, Steve McNiven, and Leinil Francis Yu.  He seems to be well paired with Coipel here.  If Acuna needs someone to spot him on a future issue, I hope that editor Tom Brevoort will call in Coipel & Morales again.

The one thing I don’t like about Uncanny Avengers is the price tag.  Yep, four bucks is a bit steep.  Okay, yeah, I don’t mind as much having to fork over $3.99 for something published by Image or IDW or Dark Horse.  Those guys are smaller publishers, so they have to charge more to pay the bills.  But Marvel is owned by Disney, and this is one of their flagship titles.  They really do not need to be asking that extra dollar in order to turn a profit.  That is why I buy so little from Marvel nowadays, that $3.99 price they have on so many of their titles.

Uncanny Avengers is the exception, because I really like Remender’s writing, I definitely enjoy the characters he’s using, and I really want to see where this series goes.  I reached the end of issue #5 and thought to myself “Damn it, what happens next? Oh, hell, I actually have to wait a month to find out? Damn!”  I guess that’s the mark of a good book.