BHOC: BLACK LIGHTNING #4

I had seen the ads for the new BLACK LIGHTNING series running in DC comics for months before it’s debut–DC really put some marketing muscle behind its launch. However, the first actual issue of the title I would encounter was this one, issue #4, which I bought at my local 7-11. This wasn’t an irregular situation; in particular new DC titles wouldn’t get carried at my local outlet until they’d been around for awhile (a situation that forced me to rely on the good will of my friend Israel Litwack to read NEW TEEN TITANS when it came out, the book only showing up in one specific candy store in his neighborhood for it’s first year-and-a half.)

It’s probably worth relating in this discussion that, as a child growing up in suburban Long Island, I had little-to-no contact with people of color on any sort of regular basis. There was all of one student in my grade school who was black; his name was Alonzo Cook, a fact that I remember only because he was so unique in my experience. Thus, for good or ill, probably the latter, my impression of the black experience was very much formed early on by television, film and comic books like this one. It wouldn’t be until my family moved to Delaware when I was 15 that I’d find myself in the company of multiple African-Americans and get a sense as to what they were really like.

It’s also probably worth noting that writer Tony Isabella created Black Lightning as a replacement for another stillborn series called the Black Bomber, penned by writer Robert Kanigher. Kanigher’s tone-deaf conception was of a racist Archie Bunker-esque Vietnam veteran who had been dosed with an experimental form of Agent Orange while he was in the service, and who would turn, unbeknownst even to himself, into a black super hero who wore a costume reminiscent of a basketball uniform. There was more to it, but when Isabella was handed the materials and asked to salvage the strip, he responded that there was no way to salvage it, and instead he started from scratch and came up withJefferson Pierce.

Having been trained in comic book writing at Marvel, Isabella applied those lessons to Black Lightning. He pulled from across DC continuity for his cast, his antagonists and his background–picking up such diverse elements as the underworld gang the 100, brother of the tailor who manufactured costumes for the Flash’s rogues gallery, Peter Gambi, and Inspector Henderson from the Superman radio show and 1950s TV series. He created his own version of the Kingpin in Tobias Whale, a similarly massive underworld crime boss who also had a preference for cigarette holders. 

I have to say, I really enjoyed this issue of BLACK LIGHTNING, and I would continue to buy the book up to the point where it stopped showing up at my local outlets a few issues later. This issue opens with Lightning in a running battle with the Metropolis police, who consider him a vigilante. Lightning can’t figure out how the cops and the 100 know whenever he’s coming, but when he finds Jimmy Olsen among the officers attacking him, he figures he has a pretty good idea. He kicks Jimmy around a little bit, not really buying his protests of innocence, before making his escape. Watching this, Tobias Whale is ready to unleash a new player onto the scene.

This new player, the Cyclotronic Man is actually a reworking of an obscure one-shot Batman villain from the 1960s, Bag O’ Bones. But now he’s a human reactor, and the 100 have financed his recovery in the hopes that he can kill Superman for them. Black Lightning will just be a bonus. In order to lure the man of Steel into the open, Cyclotronic Man grabs Jimmy Olsen up off the street, flying around the city skies with him. When schoolteacher Jefferson Pierce becomes aware of the situation, he dons his combination afro-mask and his electromagnetic belt and heads out to rescue Olsen. I have to say, I know that it’s stupid as all get-out, but I though that afro-mask thing was pretty cool as a kid, and regretted it when they did away with it.

Lightning manages to crash the Cyclotronic man and Jimmy down onto a nearby rooftop, but in the ensuing struggle, he nearly falls off himself, and is saved in turn by Jimmy. This puts the both of them into Cyclotronic Man’s hands, and he brutally flings Jimmy headfirst into a smokestack before slowly pushing Lightning himself once more off the edge of the roof. But Lightning is able to use the electromagnetic belt whose force-field protects him from bullets to reverse the charge on the field surrounding him, and he’s thus immediately attracted to the Cyclotronic Man, clobbering him.

With the villain down, Lightning goes to help the unconscious and badly hurt Jimmy Olsen. But then, in a scene unfortunately spoiled by the issue’s cover a voice rings out behind him, and he turns to be confronted by an angry Superman, who tells him that if Jimmy is hurt, he’s going to take Black Lightning apart. And so, with this dire turn of events, this issue is To Be Continued. As I said at the start, I thought it was a good read, I liked the idea of a new player in the DC Universe, and I was a convert to the series, at least for as long as I was able to get it.

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