The bundles of coverless comic books that had been stripped and were meant to have been pulped but instead were sold at a cut rate at my local drug store we’re virtually all Marvel titles. At that time, Marvel and DC were being handled by different distributors, albeit going through the same wholesalers ultimately. So whatever deal the drug store chain had cut, it was likely with somebody connected with Marvel’s distribution. That said, the occasional DC book did slip into the mix from time to time, including this one, the second issue of BLACK LIGHTNING. I had gotten the first issue in this same manner sometime earlier, and I have no idea what that means–possibly, BLACK LIGHTNING simply looked like a Marvel book to people, and so it got mixed in with the books sent back to Marvel’s distributor. Either way, the title had been heavily promoted in DC house ads but it had lousy, impossible distribution in my area–so I was glad to come by this issue. Before we move on, I have to say: that logo is enormous. It’s really eating up too much of the real estate at the tops of these covers.
As we’ve spoken about previously, BLACK LIGHTNING had something of a troubled birthing. Originally, once DC decided that they wanted to bring forth a new African-American super hero (something they didn’t really have at all in the mid-1970s) the first attempt, conceived by writer Robert Kanigher, was something called the Black Bomber. It was, to put it bluntly, offensive and unpublishable–which is what follow-up writer Tony Isabella told his editors when he was given the assignment of overhauling the Black Bomber material and completing it. Instead, Isabella offered up a completely different Black hero of his own devising: Jefferson Pierce, Olympic competitor and school teacher who would lead a double identity as the streetwise Black Lightning. Initially, Lightning was more of a Batman type of crimefighter, relying on a few gadgets (a force-field belt devised for him by family friend Peter Gambi.) But as the series developed, the belt’s powers became innate to Pierce, and expanded upon to give him some literal electrical abilities.
Isabella was joined in this endeavor by a very young Trevor Von Eeden, who was only 16 years old at the time he began working on BLACK LIGHTNING. But he was one of the very few African-American artists DC had in its employ at the time, and he evidenced a lot of potential–potential that he would grow into over time. Here, though, you can see him having to cut corners in places, such as on this double page spread. No doubt the pressure of having to produce an entire book on deadline month in and month out required more discipline than Von Eeden had yet developed in himself. The finish of the book was helped somewhat by inker Frank Springer, who was an established veteran. But there are a lot of sparse backgrounds and big open areas in this job that Springer just couldn’t do much about.
Isabella has learned his storytelling chops over at Marvel, and so he brought a distinctly Marvel-esque sensibility to BLACK LIGHTNING, in particular in how it interfaced with the rest of what wasn’t then quite a DC Universe. So Black Lightning operates in Suicide Slum, the nasty part of Metropolis established by Jack Kirby. His confidant Peter gambi is the brother of Paul Gambi, the tailor to the super villains. He’s taking on the criminal syndicate called the 100 who had bedeviled Lois Lane and Rose & the Thorn in the past. And in this issue, he brings in Merlyn, an archer and master assassin from an old JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA story, who was affiliated with the League of Assassins. This was Marvel continuity threading 101, but it gave BLACK LIGHTNING a texture not readily apparent in most of the rest of the DC line.
Oh, and where the League of Assassins is concerned, can Talia be far behind? She’s apparently an old associate of Peter Gambi’s–we were getting broad hints that there was a lot more to Gambi and his past than was apparent–and she had been sent to Suicide Slum to kill Merlyn for his past transgressions, having learned that the Archer had been retained by the 100 to eliminate Black Lightning. Much of this issue is built around framing flashbacks, expanding on some moments that happened in the first issue. In the present, however, Black Lightning is on the hunt for Joey Toledo, who had helped to set him up with the 100. He’s unaware that Merlyn has entered the game, and so he gets surprised and taken out after flattening Toledo and all of his hoods.
But it turns out that not only does Merlyn report only to the head of the 100, but he’s also one of those arrogant artistes who doesn’t want to despoil his art by slaying a defeated foe. So he gives Black Lightning a five minute head start before the hunt begins. Lightning, for his part, doesn’t need any five minutes, and immediately starts punching. And we get a nice (if sparse) action sequence in which Lightning is able to hold his own against Merlyn and eventually succeeds in knocking him out by catching him in the blast of one of his own explosive arrows, which Lightning is able to detonate in midair with a well-thrown makeshift javelin. Joey Toledo is amazed and terrified that Lightning has just taken out a guy who went toe-to-toe with the Justice League en masse.
But at this point, Talia appears, and attempt to finish Merlyn off for good, just as the archer comes to and in turn attempts to kill off Black Lightning with his last arrow. The end result is that his shot goes wild, finishing off Joey Toledo instead, and Merlyn is able to make good his escape while Lightning is busy keeping Talia from shooting him in the back as he jets away. The underlying question of the issue is the pull of violence that Pierce feels–he has no choice but to meet violence with violence as Black Lightning as more peaceful means simply do not get the job done. But he’s simultaneously concerned that he’s becoming too used to the violence, indeed, enjoying it. This conflict is what served to transform Pierce over the course of a number of issues from a vigilante into a more altruistic hero. Sadly, I would miss out on most of that journey, as this was the last issue of BLACK LIGHTNING that I was ever able to acquire during its original run.