RETRO REVIEW: Black Lightning #1 (April 1977)

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Or – “Justice, Like Lightning, Should Ever Appear, One If By Land, Two If By Sea…”

The Bronze Age of comics brought the winds of change, and though Luke Cage, John Stewart, T’Challa and others preceded him, Jefferson Pierce was DC’s first African-American headline character… Is his first swingin’ 70’s appearance Dy-No-MITE, or will this issue be a jive turkey?

BLACK LIGHTNING #1
Writer: Tony Isabella
Penciler: Trevor von Eeden
Inker: Frank Springer
Colorist: Liz Berube
Letterer: P. G. Lisa
Editor: Jack C. Harris
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 30 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $12.00

Previously, in Black Lightning:  In the Silver Age, there pretty much wasn’t any such thing as diversity in comic books (except, oddly enough, for the fully segregated squads of Sergeants Rock & Fury, featuring Jackie Johnson and Gabe Jones.)  But even by 1977 there still weren’t all that many non-white faces in the comic book world.  The first African-American/Black character to headline his own book was Charlton Dell Comics’ Lobo, who ran for two issues, and Luke Cage/Power Man had his own book starting in ’72.  Storm was around, and the Black Panther, and there was that one issue of Lois Lane which is almost certainly destined for a future Retro Review.  So, when DC made the monumental decision to create their first black headliner and give him his own book, it was a watershed moment (especially given the mess that was the introduction of Legion of Super-Heroes member Tyroc a year or two earlier.)

The problem came, however, when the Powers That Be decided the hero should be a white bigot who magically transforms into the form of a super-powered streetwise black man.  The concept was that he was a Viet Nam vet who had been used as a guinea pig in experiments to find a way to “blend into the jungle.”  It was about as tasteful as it sounds, according to writer Tony Isabella, who managed to convince the higher-ups to give him a shot at creating something a bit less…  I think the word would probably have to be “stupid.” This is that story.

Things open in the middle of a big fight (something that was pretty radical for the times, I might add) as Black Lightning faces down drug-dealer Joey Toledo, a minor pusher in the employ of a secret cabal known as “The 100.”  The very first words spoken by our hero include the word “turkey,” but thankfully not the word “jive,” and it’s clear from his thoughts (in one of the earliest examples I’ve found of Wolverine-style caption-boxes rather than the more common thought bubbles more indicative of the time period) that there’s more to Black Lightning than street smarts and big hair…

“They call me Black Lightning, Toledo…  And I’m giving you one chance to reclaim your soul from the 100!”  Tony Isabella knows how to play dramatic, and the art team (a young Trevor Von Eeden and a restrained Frank Springer) give BL a gravitas and threatening aspect that you might not have thought possible of a man in an open shirt with a white domino mask and enormous ‘fro.  Black Lightning gives Toledo 24 hours to give him the information on where his product comes from, then returns home to consider his first mission…

Can it be that street-smart Black Lightning is really book-smart teacher Jefferson Pierce?  Well, yeah, it kinda can…  I figured you knew that already, even if first-time readers of this story are discovering it the long way.  We see Pierce’s first day back at Garfield High School, a day in which he meets his students, his new principal, and tosses a drug pusher out of the halls.  He even gets to bond with one of his students, when the kid (a star basketball player named Earl) gets involved in a second confrontation with Joey Toledo’s drug dealing scuzzballs…

I really admire how Isabella crafted this issue, with its multiple time-tracks, and the introduction of the REAL villain behind the minor drug mule.  (It’s not the Kingpin, by the way, but we won’t find out the truth about Tobias Whale until a future issue.)  Toledo offers to gun down the new teacher, but Whale realizes that this will just give the people a martyr to rally behind.  Instead, the White Whale sends out his goons to neutralize Jefferson Pierce, to break the idealistic young teacher’s spirit.  The next morning, Pierce arrives at work to find a panicky secretary beckoning him.  “You’ve got to come to the gym,” she cries.  “They left him in the gym!”

Returning to his old friend Peter Gambi, Jeff is crushed by the realization that his actions led to poor Earl’s murder.  Gambi, however, isn’t ready to write off Suicide Slum OR Jefferson Pierce that quickly.  Reminding Pierce of his mother’s idealism, Gambi decides to help Jeff take action against the 100 without there being a way to trace his actions, a second identity that will thwart any attempts at personal retribution.  “These streets…  The kids… They need a SYMBOL!”

This moment cycles back into the opening story, as Black Lightning takes to the streets in a one-man war against the poison being fed to his students, and leads him into conflict with Joey Toledo, blah blah blah fishcakes.  As the minutes and hours tick by, Black Lightning is lost in thought, until the midnight hour finally approaches…

That, by the way, is the first clear view of Black Lightning’s ingenious mask/hairpiece, a bit of brilliance that keeps most anyone from recognizing mild-mannered Jefferson Pierce.  The bit about Gambi’s brother is a hidden continuity gem, as Peter’s brother Paul is also a tailor in Central City, and was responsible for the costumes (and some of the gadgetry) used by the Flash’s Rogue’s Gallery.  Next issue, we would find Black Lightning using a special belt that surrounded him with a force shield and allowed him to throw bolts of electricity, but that portion of the origin isn’t as critical to the hero as what we’ve read this time.  I really enjoy this issue’s balance of action and character, serving as a good example of how to use decompression to the benefit of the story and protagonist, instead of as an excuse to fill out the trade.  There’s a certain kind of dignity, an underlying nobility to Black Lightning that not all heroes (especially not all heroes of the 1970s) are able to pull off, and his place in comics history seems well-earned by this issue.  Later retcons would get rid of the power belt, the force-shield powers, the 70’s couture and the jive-talking, but Black Lightning #1 serves as a crystal clear example of how to launch a new character, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall.  It’s kind of a shame that the DC Imposion of 1978 would temporarily torpedo his burgeoning career a few issues down the line…

Rating: ★★★★☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  It seems like the Big Two have forgotten how to do a first issue that’s actually a First Issue.  What #1’s do the job of introducing the hero and their world the best?