Perfect 10: Black Lightning

Perfect 10 is a series of essential recommendations that fully encapsulate a comic character – 10 desert island picks of runs, single issues, arcs, etc – curated by Comfort Food Comics.

Black Lightning (1977-1978) #1 - Comics by comiXology
  1. Black Lightning Vol. 1 #1-8: By Tony Isabella, Trevor Von Eeden, Vince Coletta and more. The debut! This book isn’t perfect but it’s a wonderful attempt at creating a strong Black character that isnt a stereotype in 1977. DC’s original horrendous plan was to have a character named “The Black Bomber” who was a racist, bigot white man who could turn into a superpowered Black man in a basketball uniform. I’m not joking. Thankfully when writer Isabella came on to write this he urged them to drop all of that and let him come up with something new. So he created Jefferson Pierce, a former Olympic athlete that returns home to the aptly named Suicide Slums of Metropolis, to become a teacher and help make the streets a safer place. The usual stuff we’ve come to know about Jefferson, like his innate electric powers, don’t even factor in until the end here, as he starts wearing an electrically charged forcefield belt and just beats up on criminal gang The 100 for most of this story. But it’s a wonderful little blueprint for a strong character desperately needed in comics. This volume continues for a bit longer than these eight issues but this is the first major arc dealing with Pierce taking down The 100 and Tobias Whale, so I recommend it as a whole story. Issue 5 with Superman as a guest star, wherein we contrast Superman as a hero to the entire world and Black Lightning as a concentrated man on the streets of just this neighborhood, is particularly great.
Final Crisis: Submit - Comics by comiXology

2. Final Crisis: Submit: By Grant Morrison, Matthew Clark, Norm Rapmund, Richard Horie & Steve Wands. Black Lightning teams up with the Tattooed Man, Mark Richards and his family as they try desperately to stay alive in the crumbling reality of the DC Universe during Final Crisis. I remember in interviews Morrison really wanted to highlight Black Lightning and use it as a sort of springboard to make him more prominent. I’ll always admire that and appreciate this tie-in that Morrison himself wrote. What better hero to show the grounded, human fight against Darkseid’s Justifiers than the original man on the streets, Jefferson Pierce. It’s a bleak, powerful compare and contrast book between the Black, educated superhero Black Lightning and his family against the Black supervillain of the streets, Tattooed Man and his family.

3. Batman and the Outsiders/Adventures of the Outsiders #1-38, Annual #1-2: By Mike Barr, Jim Aparo, Alan Davis, Trevor Von Eeden and more. While every issue doesnt always include Black Lightning prominently, he’s always part of the story. I love this series. It starts as a Batman book that brings together a bunch of characters that hadnt been used in awhile and gave them all a new revitalized place in the DC Universe. Fresh, fun, quality stories that for the most part are all drawn by Jim Aparo, Alan Davis or Trevor Von Eeden – what’s not to love about that? This series gives Black Lightning a reason why he lost his electrical powers in prior stories and restores them, giving him a new lease on life as an enduring character. He has some great development and moments throughout this entire run as an integral team member. If you want to focus in on just good stories about him, Issues #9-10 focus on Jefferson and his past, Issue #21 has a short solo story where he fights the Ghetto Blaster (No, I’m not kidding).

4. Outsiders Vol. 1 #1-28, Annual #1: By Mike Barr, Jim Aparo and many more. The continuing adventures of The Outsiders! Just like the original series, this is the team we’ve come to know and love dealing with their own adventures, mostly without Batman. This is a really strong series with a ton of really fun, amazingly illustrated backup stories. Black Lightning again features in every story as a usual teammate. He gets the spotlight in Issues #9-13 which revolve around an adventure saving his ex-wife, Lynn Stewart-Pierce. He also has two great backup stories: One is in Issue #13 and the art is Steve Ditko inked by Jerry Ordway and the other is a fun little story in Issue #5 where Katana joins him for some Christmas shopping before hijinx ensue.

5. Scooby Doo Team Up #91-92: By Sholly Fisch, Dario Brizuela & Franco Riesco. Quite possibly the second greatest Black Lightning comic ever made. Jefferson Pierce brings in Mystery Inc. to talk to his students and they both witness a teen gang extension of The 100 cause trouble until a teen ghost gang also shows up. Being partly a Scooby Doo comic, there is far more to the story. This one is so great because it’s lovingly in on the joke and pokes fun at Black Lightning comics like the 70’s style costumes, that Jefferson should have two fully grown daughters but doesnt seem old at all, his dual identity as a teacher, and even has Mystery Inc dress up as super heroes, including a riff on the Black Bomber I mentioned before, with Scooby Doo becoming the Brown Bomber. Even though it’s all tongue in cheek humor, it also gives us a streamlined, satisfying take on the original Black Lightning series with The 100 and Tobias Whale featuring heavily. I’ll tell you right now, this is the best version of Tobias Whale. There’s just so much love and joy in this story for this great character and his small corner of DC Comics.

6. Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey: By Bryan Hill, Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz and more. This comic has no right to be as amazing as it is. This is a 1970’s martial art movie that takes the silliness of the Hong Kong Phooey cartoon and plays it straight with grim seriousness. Professor Prestro from Hong Kong Phooey has teamed up with DC villains Bronze Tiger and Cheshire to track down an ancient scroll that will give them the power of The God Fist. Black Lightning gets attacked by the villains and ends up going to Penry (Hong Kong Phooey), who is a master martial artist for help. They end up teaming up, along with Hong Kong Phooey character Rosemary to face off against all three villains for the fate of The God Fist, their souls, and the World itself. It’s everything you could ask for with a realistic team up of these two seventies originating properties. Shockingly good.

7. “Explosion of the Soul” and “Animals” from Detective Comics #494-495: By J.M. DeMatteis, Gerald Forton, Gene D’Angelo, Bob LeRose, Albert De Guzman & Ben Oda. These ones really pack an emotional punch. DeMatteis has always been an incredible writer and it’s no different here as he gives such nuance and skill to these two short stories. Most Black Lightning stories up to this point have tried to tackle race, crime and living in poverty but usually they came off as corny or stereotypical, bordering on offensive. This really tackles the issues that young disenfranchised Black people have to deal with living in rough neighborhoods with no hopes. One deals with Jeff having to deal with a student who’s dead inside and a makeshift slum “Punisher” of sorts called the Slime Killer. The other one has Jeff organize a “Slum Olympics” but a teen gang kidnaps some girls and holds it hostage. A debate rages on in that story if these poor kids who have to live this hard life are worthy of redemption and forgiveness or should be condemned for their desperate actions. It’s such well written stuff. The art by Gerald Forton is amazing, with such realistic but expressive features for everybody and really fun action and movement for Black Lightning.

Black-Lightning-Vol.-2-1-13-1995-1996 ⋆ Atomic Junk Shop

8. Black Lightning Vol. 2 #1-8 & “Twas the Night Before Kwanzaa” from DC Universe Holiday Bash #2: By Tony Isabella, Eddie Newell, Ron McCain, Matt Hollingsworth, Albert De Guzman and more. This is by far the BEST and my most favorite Black Lightning material. Co creator Tony Isabella comes back to write the character in the 90’s after a decade plus time and moves him from the Suicide Slum of Metropolis to “Brick City” of Cleveland. Much of the usual BL stuff is still present, he’s still a teacher and he’s still out on the streets doing his best to stop gang violence, drug pushers and everything else. Isabella teams with artist Eddie Newell who is just so massively talented; giving us Black Lightning’s best ever costume and a rich and varied cast of supporting protagonists, antagonists, and a whole city of people that all look unique. Isabella says in the foreword to the recent collection of this run that he went and talked to and interviewed countless people in the real life part of Cleveland he based the “Brick City” on and it really shows as every character has an authentic voice brimming with diverse personalities. He describes it succinctly here in an interview:

It was a process in recreating Black Lightning because I was determined not to write him exactly as I had written him before. [I wanted a] grittier, more realistic series. And I spent a year in the inner cities of Cleveland, working with schools, with churches, with police officers. I tutored gang kids. I mean, I really immersed myself as much in that community as a white guy could with the hope of being able to portray it accurately.”

Newell takes these researched characters and settings that Isabella gives him and expands on it in the best way stylistically. His art transports you into the city. You feel like youre living there it’s so damn detailed and real. One of the best comics I’ve ever seen deal with inner city problems and human relationships in a believable way. Issue 5 is a real tour de force with Newell’s art sometimes being a GORGEOUS, stylized black and white, and other times in usual color. I am BLOWN AWAY by this material. This is one of those comics I’d give to anyone, even if they dont read comics, ESPECIALLY if they dont read comics, to show them how amazing this medium is and how powerful these stories can be. One of the best runs on a book ever and severely underrated, if you choose anything from this list to check out, make it this one. (NOTE: This series continues after Issue #8 but Isabella was removed from the book by a new Editor who wanted to unfairly replace him. The following material is quite bad.) Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 1: Lesser Gods (9781401291785):  Hill, Bryan, Soy, Dexter: Books

9. Detective Comics #983-987 & Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 3 #1-17, Annual #1: By Bryan Hill, Dexter Soy, Veronica Gandini, Clayton Cowles & more. This is a great modern day DC continuity Black Lightning material. Hill takes all the various retcons and reboots to the character done in the past decade or so and trims the fat to really get to the basics of what makes Jeff work so well. He then makes him the field leader of a new Outsiders team, which is where the man belongs. Sure, Batman is still funding and sending the team out like a strikeforce, but Jeff handles business as Batman’s appointed leader and it really is about time. We had an Outsiders book a few years back where Geo-Force and not Jeff led the team – madness! This book, including it’s backdoor pilot in Detective is focused on letting characters grow, develop and make their own choices and it’s so refreshing to read. Hill not only writes an amazing Black Lightning, but also excels at writing Cass Cain, Batman, Lady Shiva, Katan, Duke Thomas & Ra’s Al Ghul. It’s practically a book made for me with all those characters. It’s wonderful seeing Jeff’s relationships with Batman and Katana progress in such a charming, enjoyable way in this series. Soy does most of the art and really gives it a fresh, fun style with great costume and fashion touches throughout. I really recommend this one as it’s the first time Black Lightning gets his proper stature while being part of a larger group.

10. The Other History of the DC Universe: By John Ridley, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Andrea Cucchi & José Villarrubia. I am in awe of this book. An absolute master-class in writing Black Lightning. Dealing with every single racial issue and viewpoint so skillfully, Ridley also massages continuity to give us the strongest, best key parts of Black Lightning continuity that FOR THE FIRST TIME make sense and fit together beautifully. It’s not only a great DC Superhero comic it’s also a deeply important book that gives voice to the real life struggles of Black people and Black superheroes that aren’t the cookie cutter white male character. Using Jefferson’s voice to point out the meta commentary of the real life white old man domination of this industry and how it is infused into so many of its characters is so smart and so entertaining. It has stiff competition with BL Vol. 2 but this is arguably the greatest work to ever feature Black Lightning. While not a SCATHING work of revisionist history of this Universe, it is still an unafraid, biting, real take on these characters and more than anything a DEEPLY powerful love letter to Jefferson Pierce.

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