There aren’t many creators that have been writing a single Big Two character for as long as Tony Isabella. Created as Isabella’s opus, grown out of his experience writing series like Luke Cage: Hero For Hire, Black Lightning has been a part of the DC stable since 1977 and in the intervening years he’s starred in Justice League of America, multiple iterations of the Outsiders, an origin miniseries, and two ongoing series, both written by Isabella.
Though these two runs have failed to achieve wide-spread fame, both are fantastic for their time of publication. Black Lightning vol. 2 #5 remains a personal favorite comic for me and the original series is an incredibly compelling Bronze Age adventure with a great arc. So, in addition to any chance for Jefferson Pierce to get some of the attention he deserves, seeing Isabella return to his classic character again, after twenty-two years was a huge rush for me. Isabella proved that he could more than survive the leap from ’78 to 1995, but how about from one millennium into the next?
As ever, Jeff comes up against Tobias Whale–well, sort of, we’ll get there–but the primary threat this month is a gang of teched out petty crooks called the Weathermen. Though they’re fun and illustrative enemies, they don’t exactly steal the show, leaving that burden on Black Lightning’s shoulders. Luckily, that’s one area in which this issue has very little to worry about.
Seemingly ignoring Black Lightning’s New 52 appearances, issue #1 of Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands gets back to the core of Jefferson Pierce, casting him as a dignified teacher and role model with a personable streak. Isabella, admittedly using some fairly simple writing tricks, gives readers a great insight into the man behind the mask and builds some pretty instantaneous affection for the character. Many of the issue’s best moments aren’t fight scenes and clever uses of electricity by Black Lightning, but character moments with Jefferson Pierce. Joking about his super suit, considering his relationship with his family, Isabella communicates why Jeff is a hero and what he brings to the table with grace and subtlety.
In costume, frequent references to Jeff’s day job communicate that he’s not above dad jokes, but they’re not terribly interesting or revealing. What works better is a reference to Cyborg teaching him a use for his powers. I love this moment because it establishes how worldly Black Lightning is.
One thing that the New 52 Black Lightning really lost was the sense of weight that came with Jefferson’s age. Being a father and an authority figure meant something for Black Lightning, it communicated the responsibility on his shoulders, and it gave him an increasingly unique niche in an eternally under forty superhero landscape. Though it’s unclear exactly how old our protagonist is, this series brings that back.
It also just throws you into a number of relationships. You probably don’t know who Tommi Calavito is and there’s a decent chance that you don’t recognize the name Red Bee. On one hand, that’s really cool. Giving Black Lightning these connections provides readers with something to latch onto, a world that feels lived in. On the other hand, it’s a lot to take in, even for someone who’s read a lot of Black Lightning. Isabella doesn’t give any hint that we’re not supposed to recognize these characters and that can muddle the pacing of the issue.
We also get one good scene with our real antagonist, Tobias Whale. In what would be a fascinating and highly controversial move if people really cared about Tobias Whale, Isabella seemingly kills off his creation off screen, only to replace him with a new model. Isabella promptly lays out why you should love and fear this new version of the classic villain, replacing the uncomfortable ‘albino African-American’ shorthand with a much more intimidating and modern look.
The presence of the Great White Whale provides an immediately relatable conflict for the scene and his replacement’s sheer presence and fascinating family dynamics make this an introduction to remember. But while it’s not uncommon to employ The Worf Effect, even in a scene as engaging as this, it’s rarely a good strategy in this nostalgia-laden industry to kill off a character to hype their successor. Despite the incredible draw of the character, a slew of Moby Dick references doesn’t yet justify creating, what I suppose is technically, a legacy character instead of just expanding Black Lightning’s rogue’s gallery. Especially given the ambiguity regarding Black Lightning’s history and cities of origin, there’s also a surprising amount of coincidence at play here.
And though Whale’s power and criminal cleverness sets up an intriguing challenge for Black Lightning to solve in coming months, it also means that both hero and villain are lacking in regards to a hook for this issue. The initial attraction therefore falls to the plot. Eagerly billed as “A HERO for today’s headlines” on the cover, the political content of Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands #1 is at once impressive in its lack of moralistic simplicity and distressing in its lack of focus. To be honest, it feels like that plural in “headlines” is almost too accurate as the series fails to lock in any one issue that it truly wants to tackle. The title points to the Weathermen and the proliferation of guns and mass shootings, but the story fails to play this up, instead providing a smattering of references to the increased militarization of the police and recognition of racism within law enforcement.
One thing that’s pretty cool is that Isabella neither makes every cop an avowed neo-nazi nor does he let the department off the hook. It’s nice to see a sensitive issue like this addressed from a systemic perspective rather than represented by an easy enemy. Despite this, I still think there’s a lack of direction in its writing that leaves the issue feeling like a Very Special Episode without necessarily saying much yet. Certainly this is a serious issue, but much of this content is explicitly told to the reader and manipulated by outside forces, rather than organically developing from tension that is evident in the writing. Without a more focused through line, these references, no matter how well intentioned or smartly handled, feel like an excuse to tell this story rather than a reason to. Perhaps subsequent issues will pull things into perspective but, for the moment, we’re left in-between.
At first glance, the art appears to be precisely what you’d expect. It’s technically strong, both in anatomy and storytelling, without much individuality; a safe choice. However, before long the cracks in that perception begin to show. Clayton Henry’s art certainly has that attractively generic quality at points, but, rather often, a more personal artist peaks through.
The most obvious instances are in moments of action and movement. Needing to convey force, Henry’s drawing morphs, taking on an exaggerated geometric quality that recalls Humberto Ramos. Combined with simply, but explosive layouts, Henry quickly proves himself a dynamic penciller. Henry’s very active sensibilities prove a surprisingly good match for Isabella’s more traditionally focused scripting. The result is action scenes that combine modern polish with the simple strength of Bronze Age design.
Henry’s grasp of facial anatomy is also a big point in his corner. From the very exaggerated example of Tobias Whale, to more ordinary faces, characters are given a refreshing specificity through their facial features and expressions. Admittedly, for all the times that this is one of the book’s strengths, there are a few places where faces in backgrounds or displaying extreme emotion slip into oddity, but, for the most part, the fine detailing on each character’s face humanizes them, supporting the best elements of Isabella’s script.
At the meeting point of these two facets is another aesthetic, combining the cartoonish geometry of the prior with the simple iconic look of the latter. This look appears rarely, usually only for a single page or even panel, but I think it points to where Henry’s abilities are best utilized. The main result is a synthesis of strengths that eschews the somewhat forgettable house-style that weighs the issue down.
That said, the sheer number of different looks within the issue can be distracting and there are a couple of noticeable anatomical oddities that can weaken the look of otherwise lovely pages.
With Cold Dead Hands #1 Black Lightning returns to what made him great, but fails to convincingly move beyond that. Having Tony Isabella back is a real blessing and, for any criticisms I had of this issue, you can’t deny that he hasn’t lost his touch for his signature creation. The issue is hamstrung by a political message that lacks either purpose, bite, or the room to grow, and one worries that the opening issue is cleverer than it is satisfying.
Nonetheless, it makes a convincing case for the character and does the hard work of setting up the miniseries. If Cold Dead Hands can shift into high gear next month and clarify its social commentary, this might just be the first step towards Black Lightning getting the respect and appreciation he deserves.