With a TV series based upon him in the works on The CW, Black Lightning’s star has never been higher. Yet despite being one of the most prominent Heroes of Color in American Comics, few fans know much about him and his complicated history.
It all began in 1977 when writer Tony Isabella – who had written Luke Cage for Marvel Comics – was brought in to create an African American hero to headline his own series for DC Comics. Enter gold-medal athlete turned inner-city teacher Jefferson Pierce. Born with the power to generate and control electricity around him, Jefferson repressed his powers until the day one of his students was killed by gang violence the police were reluctant to address. Inspired by a quote which said “Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to some men hope, to other men fear,”, Jefferson created his Black Lightning persona and began fighting the one-man war on crime his neighborhood needed to survive.
Tony Isabella’s relationship with DC Comics would wane and wax over the years, due to problems stemming from the rights to the character and Isabella’s belief that he was being treated unfairly due to his contract granting him a cut of any merchandise or licensing that came from the character. As a result, despite being used as a frequent guest star in other comics, Jefferson Pierce has only had his own comic twice and then never for longer than a year!
Isabella was also vocal in his disapproval when writer Judd Winick decided to create two super-powered daughters of Black Lightning for his own book, Outsiders. This occurred despite Jefferson Pierce having never been depicted as having children. Indeed, he once directly said that he would he’d give up his heroic life if kids entered the picture because it wouldn’t be responsible for him to risk leaving behind orphans.
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Thankfully, DC Comics CCO Geoff Johns approached Isabella about his past mistreatment and made amends. Not only did Isabella agree to write a character guide for the upcoming TV series but he agreed to come back and write a new Black Lightning mini-series that would reintroduce the character for modern audiences – a task which Cold Dead Hands accomplishes with style.
This first issue comfortably establishes Black Lightning’s status in the world of DC Rebirth. Fans of the classic character may wonder at changes like Jefferson Pierce now being based in Cleveland rather than the Suicide Slum neighborhood of Metropolis, but such modifications are merely cosmetic. The core of Jefferson’s character – an uncompromisingly moral man who believes in Power and Responsibility as immutable forces just as strongly as Peter Parker – remains untouched.
Even in this first chapter Isabella’s script is not afraid to tackle big issues like racism and police brutality but it does so without getting preachy about them. This issue also takes care in establishing Jefferson’s supporting cast, his arch-enemy Tobias Whale and Jefferson’s status as a peer of The Justice League, who has gotten personal training in being a better crime-fighter from Cyborg and Batman.
The artwork by Clayton Henry isn’t quite as strong as Isabella’s writing. There’s something oddly flat about Henry’s characters, who don’t seem quite as animated or vividly detailed as his backgrounds. It seems that in trying to streamline the appearances of his people, Henry may have gone too far in the other direction, crafting figures that look unnaturally smooth and undefined. Colorist Pete Pantazis deserves credit, however, for his use of a varied palette that utilizes a variety of colors and little details like the night sky in the inner city being a defused blue rather than pitch black.
Despite the minor imperfections in the art, those who are unfamiliar with Black Lightning will find this first issue of Cold Dead Hands to be a wonderful introduction to one of comics most underrated heroes. Fans of Isabella’s original comics will find it to be a welcome homecoming.
Written by The Critic The Internet Deserves, but not the one it needs right now…. Matt Morrison. He’s a smart-ass guardian. A sarcastic protector. A Snark Knight.