The above Rich Buckler cover is something I didn’t get to see back in the 1970s. That’s because, like other books I’ve been covering here recently, I got BLACK LIGHTNING #1 in one of the bundles of coverless comics that my local Drug Store chain had begun to sell in lieu of their Big Bin of Slightly Older comics. Either way, though, I was excited to get it for two reasons. The first is that it was a DC titles, and like with the Big Bin before it, the bundles of coverless books tended to be virtually all Marvels. I’m guessing that there was some surplus of copies of BLACK LIGHTNING #1 that never reached the stands, either because it was a new title or because it featured a black super hero, or both. The second reason, of course, was that I’d already read a few issues of the title and I’d really liked them. DC had promoted this launch hard in house ads (using an image from an interior page rather than this cover, which is why I never saw it until much later) and so I was primed to seek it out as something important, even though it eluded me until this moment.
We probably need to preface this whole conversation with an acknowledgement that, for many decades, DC had an uncomfortable relationship with race. Apart from Jackie Johnson in the pages of the Sgt. Rock feature in OUR ARMY AT WAR, you would be hard-pressed to find any faces of color throughout the DC line at all until the 1970s–and even then, the depictions are all relatively uneasy and stereotypical at first. John Ridley’s recently concluded and masterful THE OTHER HISTORY OF THE DC UNIVERSE provides a survey of this era that’s well worth picking up. Suffice it to say that, while Marvel introduced the Black Panther in 1966 and the Falcon in 1969 and had Luke Cage headlining a title of his own in 1972, it wasn’t until BLACK LIGHTNING #1 that DC attempted to put forward an African-American super hero of their own on any sort of a regular basis. And the road getting there was not easy, and included some whitewashing (Joshua in TEEN TITANS and Ferro Lad in Legion of Super Heroes in ADVENTURE COMICS) and some tone-deafness (“I Am Curious…Black” in LOIS LANE, the initial proposed name for John Stewart in GREEN LANTERN, Lincoln Washington.) To say nothing of the precursor to BLACK LIGHTNING itself.
The Black Bomber was the creation of longtime DC writer and editor Robert Kanigher. I don’t think Bob was necessarily racist in his approach here, I simply don’t think he knew any better. But the concept for the series was that the Bomber was a white Vietnam veteran who was himself racist in an Archie Bunker kind of a way. While serving in the ‘Nam, he’d been exposed to an experimental new form of Agent Orange. And so now, whenever he got angry or outraged, he’d transform Hulk-style into a dark-skinned super hero who had no knowledge of his true identity–the Black Bomber. Though I’ve never seen it and I don’t know if any images still exist anywhere, the Black Bomber was going to wear a costume that I’ve heard described as looking like a basketball uniform. He would have a black girlfriend in his super heroic identity and another in his civilian white identity, and he’d be his own J. Jonah Jameson, always decrying the Bomber and other people of color, little realizing that he himself was the hero he was tearing down. Obviously, this was all a terrible idea, and one that never quite got enough traction to get published. But DC did sink a bunch of money into developing it.
At a certain point, DC approached new hire Tony Isabella with the Black Bomber material that had already been produced and wanted him to rework the strip and continue it, to change what needed to be changed in order to make it palatable. Isabella was horrified by what he had been given, and he told the DC editors that there was nothing salvageable within the existing material (Reportedly, he pointedly asked one DC bigwig whether they wanted their first black super hero book to star a white racist.) So instead, Isabella sat down to create an entirely new African-American super hero to take the Bomber’s place on the production schedule (the character was never used, but decades later Dwayne McDuffie did use his own only-slightly parody version, the Brown Bomber, in some issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE to make a point.) And ultimately, while it still had some unfortunate edges to it here and there, what Isabella came up with was pretty good.
Black Lightning was school teacher Jefferson Pierce, and when we first meet him in this issue, he’s already in costume, seeking out a killer working for The 100, the crime organization introduced by Kanigher in he Rose and the Thorn strip in LOIS LANE. Because BLACK LIGHTNING was set in Metropolis as well, but a part of the city that we’d seen very infrequently, the impoverished area. Pierce had been an Olympic athlete after he got out of Garfield High School, but now he was back Gabe Kotter style to attempt to lift up the next generation of students. But as we learn in an extended flashback after Black Lightning returns to the tailor shop of his friend and confidant Peter Gambi, the reach of the 100 extended even into the schools, and in standing up to a trio of crooks and pushers in the hall, Pierce had inadvertently put one of his kids in a bullseye, and the child wound up dead, crucified in the gym’s basketball court.
This is enough to drive Pierce to adopt the costumed identity of Black Lightning so that he can take the fight back to the 100 without endangering more of his students. Wearing a costume that included a fake afro attached to his mask and armed with a force-field belt that Gambi had cobbled together, Pierce adopted a streetwise persona as he began his crusade against those who were trapping his community in poverty and hopelessness. I don’t want to overlook the other part of the creative team here, artist Trevor Von Eeden. He was astonishingly only 16 years old when he began working on the strip, and was also one of the few artists of color doing work for DC at that point, although the doors to the industry were beginning to open in that regard. His work here is very accomplished, especially for an artist that young. A number of years later, he’d begin to experiment with a very cool new impressionistic style, one that garnered him a bunch of attention for a short time. But thereafter, he largely disappeared from the field apart from an occasional story here or there. Reportedly, Trevor wasn’t very well treated or respected by the DC editorial staff of the day, and so the world was deprived of what the full flowering of his talents might have been capable of.
Like most of the titles that were launched in the mid-1970s, BLACK LIGHTNING failed to capture enough of an audience, and it was discontinued after 11 issues. But the character has continued to be relevant within the DC pantheon over the years, often as a member of BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS. He’s best know today as the star of his own television series on the CW, part of the “Arrowverse” block of programming. For myself, after reading BLACK LIGHTNING #4-6 and then stumbling on this first issue and eventually #2, I didn’t see anything more of the character until he began appearing in a back-up series in WORLD’S FINEST some years later. But we’ll get to that eventually.