Justice, like lightning
Should ever appear
To some men hope,
And to other men fear!

Paraphrasing a poem by Thomas Randolph, Jefferson Pierce penned those prophetic lines as a student in the Metropolis neighborhood known as Suicide Slum. A gifted athlete and scholar, Pierce could have escaped the bad side of town after finding success as an Olympic decathlete and winning a gold medal. Instead, he earned a degree and returned to Garfield High School as a teacher, hoping he could inspire the next generation to follow his example.

Pierce would prove successful, but not in the way he wanted. After forcibly removing a drug dealer from the school grounds, one of his students joined him in fighting back when the drug dealer returned with muscle from The 100the criminal gang that ran most of Suicide Slum. That student died later that same nighta warning to Pierce and anyone else who had any bright ideas about fighting back.

Thinking of the poem from his youth, Pierce resolved to keep fighting but in a way that would protect his students from harm. Donning a costume and wig provided by his foster father, tailor Paul Gambi, as well as a special belt that generated a force-field that repelled bullets and gave him a shocking touch, Pierce, as Black Lightning, vowed to rid his neighborhood of The 100 and anyone else who threatened his students.

Black Lightning is a notable character for many reasons. In addition to being the first black superhero to headline his own comic at DC Comics, he was the first black superhero born of a working-class background. Writer Tony Isabella discussed this point in his introduction to this volume, while discussing the history of Black Lightning in specific, black characters in comics in general, and the need for a character like Jefferson Pierce.

Until Jefferson Pierce, all the most famous black superheroes were, in Isabella’s words, “all foreign or street with little middle ground.” Shockingly Jefferson Pierce was the first black superhero who was depicted as having a day job and a secret identity, rather than being a full-time trouble-shooter like Luke Cage or Misty Knight. Isabella’s essay is a thoughtful read and makes this volume well worth reading even ignoring the comics.

Of course we can’t ignore the comics, which have aged surprisingly well over the past forty years. The only sour note in the writing is the occasional bit of “jive turkey” slang, yet even that works as the language is an affectation Jefferson adopts so no one will connect Black Lightning to the more articulate Jefferson Pierce. There’s also a slight oddity in the final two stories, written by Dennis O’Neil, which are focused on the one-shot characters Black Lightning is helping rather than Jefferson Pierce himself. The stories aren’t bad but O’Neil is far preachier in how he tackles social issues than Isabella and the lack of subtlety between their styles is like night or day.

The artwork is uniformly fantastic. Both Trevor Von Eeden and Mike Nasser do an amazing job of translating Isabella and O’Neil’s scripts into visual action. The only oddity to the artwork is that DC Comics didn’t see fit to correct the coloring mistakes from the original comics that depict Black Lightning with white skin in a few stray panels!

This volume is rated 12+ for teen audiences and that rating is a fair one. There’s no objectionable content given that these stories were originally written to meet the Comics Code Authority guidelines of the late 1970s. There is discussion of drug use but nothing is depicted. People are shot and die, but there’s no blood or gore amid the action. There’s no sexual content and no language stronger than “damn”. I dare say that more sophisticated tweens might be able to handle this volume without issue.

Black Lightning, vol. 1
by Tony Isabella and Dennis O’Neil
Art by Trevor Von Eeden and Michael O’Neil
ISBN: 9781401260712
DC Comics, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

  • Matt

    | He/Him Librarian

    Reviewer

    A librarian with over 10 years experience in public and academic settings, Matthew Morrison has been blogging about comic books for nearly as long as they’ve had a word for it.  Over the past two decades, he has written regular columns, commentary, parodies and reviews for such websites and blogs as Fanzing, 411 Mania, Screen Rant and Comics Nexus.  He has served as an Expert in Residence for a seminar on Graphic Novels and Comics for Youth and Adults at the University of North Texas and has given several lectures on the history of comics, manga and cosplay culture at libraries and comic conventions around the country. In addition to his work for No Flying No Tights, he is the Contributing Editor of Kabooooom.com and maintains a personal blog at MyGeekyGeekyWays.com.

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