… or, the Life Story of Black Lightning. ‘1972-1995: Jefferson Pierce’ is the official title of Book One of 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley’s DC Black Label project, which looks at the DC Universe through the eyes of the marginalised. Future issues will focus on Teen Titans Mal and Karen Duncan, Gotham cop Renee Montoya, Black Lightning’s Outsiders teammate Katana, and his daughter, Thunder.
But this opening story belongs to Jeff Pierce, Olympic athlete turned teacher turned superhero. Ridley echoes the format of the 1980s History of the DC Universe in eschewing word balloons for narrative text, but where the earlier project gave us snapshots of the DCU ‘from the dawn of time to the far-flung future’, Ridley focuses on one man in one era – the Seventies, when the Tony Isabella-created Black Lightning exploded onto the comics scene as the first Black character to headline a book at DC, to the Nineties.
Partnered with Ridley is Giuseppe Camuncoli, an artist whose work I’ve enjoyed on various DC specials and series. Freed from the demands of sequential art, he’s able to get extra creative with layouts, while always serving the narrative.
And what a narrative. Cards on the table, I’ve never been a big fan of the illustrated comic format – a Batman short here, an Adam Strange tale there, they were a bit of a slog to get through… even the classic History of the DCU is memorable more for George Perez’s compositions than Marv Wolfman’s story.
This, though, is different – by the end of the first page I was all in, captured by the voice Ridley gives Jeff, dazzled by the visuals of Camuncoli, finisher Andrea Cucchi and colour artist Joe Villarubbia. The alternating placement of panels and blocks of text – Steve Wands handles the typography – on the top half of the page makes it look like young Jeff is running from a horrific hall of mirrors. The figure directs the eye to the second half of the page, his shadow anticipating the pools of blood around Jeff’s father’s body. It’s a powerful statement of intent, one which the creative team more than follows through on.
The story is a familiar one to longtime readers – Jeff drags himself up through Metropolis’s ‘Suicide Slum’, gains glory on the athletics field and finds his calling as a teacher. But gangsters The 100 rule the streets, pushing drugs on kids, causing deaths by overdose, murdering anyone who gets in their way. Finding he has super powers, the newlywed Jeff decides to fight back, but being a teacher by day and vigilante by night takes a heavy toll on family life.
And while an intelligent man, this is something he doesn’t see coming – as the years pass, and the ‘New Age’ of heroes dawns, Jeff is quick to psychoanalyse the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern John Stewart, and judge them harshly. He’s even one to correct the grammar of his wife Lynn. But Jeff doesn’t take a breath from his crusade for long enough to see he’s every bit as obsessed as the Batman. And because we’re in his head, hearing things from Jeff’s point of view, we may be just a few steps ahead of him in seeing the bigger picture.
Ridley is pretty true to events as depicted in DC’s Bronze Age – Black Lightning’s first encounters with Superman and the JLA, for example – but tweaks the perspective slightly. So Superman floats imperiously over him when they first meet in Black Lightning #5 – which the Man of Steel didn’t, apart from, possibly, on beginner artist Trevor Von Eeden’s splash – is he hovering, or could inker Vince Colletta simply not be bothered to add the texture to the rooftop that would make it clear both heroes are standing on the same level? But Superman was undeniably heavy handed, dickish, really.
And while Black Lightning didn’t tell the JLA that if they wanted someone to be their ‘boy’, maybe they should try John Stewart, that would have been fair; the ‘World’s Greatest Superheroes’ were appallingly condescending to him in JLA #173, seeing Black Lightning’s skin before they see the man. And we learn that he was already unimpressed by their focusing solely on ‘nebulous threats’, ignoring ordinary people, whether on the city’s toughest streets or tangled in 1979’s hostage crisis.
Occasional things such as the timing of Supergirl’s public debut in relation to Black Lightning’s are tweaked slightly, but this isn’t a book that should be beholden to any particular version of DC continuity – it’s more about the bigger truths, and I’m OK with a bit of fudging when it gives us a new angle on a character as beloved as Kara Zor-El.
It’s not a big focus of the story, but Ridley makes it clear Jeff is a Christian, which makes sense, given his background, but it’s not something I recall being mentioned previously. I’m glad Ridley puts it out there, because too few superheroes are shown to have faith; it adds another layer to Jeff.
I read this book – which was edited by Mark Doyle, Andy Khouri and Amadeo Turturro – just last night, so there’s not been time enough for the story to properly percolate through what passes for my brain. But words and pictures made an immediate impression, and I wanted to get a few thoughts down before life gets in the way. I think Jefferson Pierce would understand.