Diversity is a loaded word when it comes to the four-color world of comic books and superheroes. For some, it’s an eye-rolling attempt at political correctness to force characters of different colors and religious and sexual persuasions into stories that supposedly don’t need them. Others see it as cynical money grab by tone-deaf publishers, namely DC and Marvel, to improve sales by enticing noob readers into buying books with characters who look like them on the covers. Me, I see it as strips of the quilt that has made up my reading material in and out of comics since I foolishly ripped the pages out of a copy of Charlotte’s Web my mother gave me when I was seven to make paper airplanes. I don’t need to be able to relate to a character before I pick up a book no matter the genre because I’m just as likely to be the last survivor of the planet Krypton as I am the reincarnated soul of a bloodthirsty mercenary sent back to Earth as a spawn of Hell. So just make sure the yarn holds my attention and I’ll judge it on its own merits. However, when I do find a character I see some of myself in, I’m hooked for life. Heroes and a few villains like Easy Rawlins, Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Nino Brown, and Black Manta. But when I saw Black Lightning, the protector of Suicide Slum, on the cover of a Justice League of America comic in 1979, I said that’s me.
Let’s get the basics out-of-the-way. Black Lightning is a superhero in the DC Comics pantheon who debuted in 1977 in his own comic book, the first for an African-American character by that publisher. He was created by respected writer Tony Isabella and brought to visual life by under-appreciated artist, Trevor Von Eeden, who was one of the still too few Black creators in mainstream comics. Black Lightning is schoolteacher and former gold medal winning Olympic decathlete Jefferson Pierce, who took up his electrifying costumed identity after one of his students, a rising basketball star, was killed by the drug cartel the 100, led by the deranged Tobias Whale, who looks like an albino Lavell Crawford. His first series was short-lived, a victim of the infamous DC Comics Implosion of 1978 before publication of its 12th issue. The company-wide axing also cost exciting new characters like Firestorm and Shade, the Changing Man their solo books, along with stalwarts like Aquaman and the original Teen Titans.
Cancellation isn’t death in comics though. Hell, death isn’t even death in comics, so it wasn’t long before BL was doing the guest-star and back-up feature circuit in a number of the surviving DC books like Worlds Finest, Detective Comics and the JLA two-parter I discovered him in where, in no uncertain terms, he told Superman he wasn’t going to join the team because of the bunch of jive turkeys already in it. Yeah, he said that in those exact words on the cover. Even as a green nine year-old, I had to roll my eyes at that one. I still put down my forty cents and bought the book though.
DIGRESSION: That’s right, a regular comic was forty cents when I started buying them back in the late 70’s with double-sized anniversary issues being anywhere from seventy-five cents to a buck depending on if it had ads or not.
Despite the faux-jive dialogue Gerry Conway had come out of Lightning’s mouth in that story, it was the hero’s look as rendered by Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin and the back story that kept me interested. BL’s original costume style is like something lifted from an Earth, Wind, and Fire album cover circa 1976 with some P-funk sprinkled on it. It was electric blue with gold highlights with a blousy shirt opened down to his navel, blue swashbuckler boots, and a combo afro wig and mask. That was wild even for the Seventies but I liked it and other than the afro part of the mask I still do. I’ve never bought comic books to see the heroes run around in stuff I have in my closet. If you’re going to go out there to fight crime and right wrongs, then say it wit’ ya chest and let ‘em know who you are.
Well, don’t let ‘em know everything about you because the only things Jefferson Pierce had in common with his hood hero alter-ego was his skin color and a desire to help his community in the Suicide Slum section of Superman’s home of Metropolis. I always thought it was kind of ironic that Black Lightning fought crime in the ghetto part of the gleaming city where Kal-El hung his cape because there was a stark dichotomy between the two heroes. My friends used to tell me that the fact Superman let a part of his city be overrun with drugs and rats was proof that he was nothing but a chump in blue and red pantyhose, more interested in getting his ego stroked by Lois Lane and Lana Lang than helping the people on the ground. I countered by telling them the problems in a place like Suicide Slum needed more than some space-god to come down in the hood to melt guns with heat vision and build affordable housing. The root cause of inequality would still be there after he flew off to stop a volcano in Borneo.
Superman has always been cool with me but I look at him as more an exemplar than a savior. He’s not on whatever the main DCU Earth is at the moment to save humanity every time it is about to stub its collective big toe. He serves as a model of what the people of his adopted home can be if they and, by extension, we the readers and viewers reach inward to save ourselves. By all means, go knock the spit out of Toyman’s latest giant robot stomping on downtown Metropolis, Supes, but leave the heavy lifting of correcting structural inequity to the more grounded heroes like Black Lightning.
As an adult I’ve debated with fellow comic readers, including some credentialed academics, who have said Black characters who debuted in mainstream American comics during and after the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement like BL, the Falcon and Luke Cage are reductive stereotypes in that they’re allowed by editorial to only protect their turf or be the not too bright or powerful sidekick of a more well-known white hero. I have to agree with that up to a point because even Tony Isabella has said that Black Lightning has been written as Batman’s bitch too often. Even though BL was originally preoccupied with protecting his hood from Tobias Whale and the 100, I never felt he couldn’t save the whole world by himself if the story called for it. Black Lightning has never saved the Multiverse because he never had to, but he could if needed.
The JLA book that introduced me to BL showed me not just what he was capable of but what even someone like me raised in North Philly and South Georgia could be too. A man, a Black man, who could have sold out and lived off his fame from being a victorious Olympian but chose to come back to the tough streets he was raised on by a single mother like I was, not to crack the heads of junkies and drug dealers, but to fill the heads of his students with knowledge as a teacher is capable of great feats indeed. Competent, caring educators were needed just as much in the 70’s and 80’s as they are today but reading Black Lightning’s stories over the years across the DCU in books like The Brave and the Bold, The Oustsiders Infinite Crisis, and eventually as a member of the same Justice League he blew off twenty-five years earlier showed me in an admittedly outrageous manner that a kid from the hood could be positively influenced by a fictional creation almost as much as an engaged instructor could help a kid be whatever he or she could conceive.
Sure, I may have had that brainstorm reading biographies of my real-life heroes and idols like Paul Robeson or Gordon Parks but they never had fly costumes or called down the electrified funk like Black Lightning did.
As a voracious reader and somewhat of a writer, the only agenda I respect is the primacy of the story. I’m well aware now as an adult that loaded term diversity is all about the almighty dollar/euro/yuan/dinar when used by multinational media conglomerates but as a child I didn’t know that. As a naïve child, I didn’t see BL as a social experiment or a calculated grab to get my four dimes, I just saw him as a hero, a superhero just as dynamic and powerful and poised as Superman or the Flash and he was my color. I wasn’t as jaded then as I am now because if I was I probably would have spun the rack away from that trite Justice League issue and instead bought the Marvel Team-Up I saw where Spider-man joined forces with Nick Fury to fight the Silver Samurai. If Nick Fury had been Black back in ’79, I probably would have but Black Lightning was just as Black then as he is today, so I know I made the right choice. Knock on wood, maybe there are other kids out there looking for their own heroes from the four-color world. I hope they come across independent titles like Midnight Tigers, Will Power, and Static to read and enjoy them as much as the mainstream titles, not because the heroes look or don’t look like them, but just because the stories are damn good.