Thursday, May 24, 2018


My most important job today is preparing for Saintly Wife Barbara’s and my trip to northern Michigan and the Cherry Capital Comic Con, Friday, May 25, through Sunday, May 27 at the scenic Grand Traverse Resort, 100 Grand Traverse Village Blvd, Acme, Michigan. However, since I won’t be posting new bloggy things until we return/recover  from that event, I wanted to leave you with something special for the weekend.

A few years back, when DC Comics President & Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns reached out to me to begin the process of resolving the long-standing differences between the company and myself, he told me of his desire to do a Black Lightning TV series. It didn’t take long for DC and myself to realize that we would be working together again. It took a while to hammer out an agreement that both DC and I could live with, but that was never an adversarial process. Nor would DC and I wait for the final agreement to be signed before we began working together.

One of the first things Geoff asked me to do was share my thoughts on Black Lightning’s core values. I wrote the following about three years ago. It was never meant to be carved in stone. Indeed, my own thinking has changed somewhat since I wrote it. Still, it was the starting point for both the TV series and my critically-acclaimed Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands.

Here’s what I wrote...

If I had to choose the two most important elements that make Black Lightning and Jefferson Pierce, they would be:

He is a role model.

He is a teacher.

I wanted him to be a positive character. He could have his flaws, but they wouldn’t be melodramatic flaws. He might beat himself up a little when he failed to accomplish something or failed to save someone. In the later case, he never forgets anyone he has failed to save. His memories of them stay with him. He’s the kind of man who inspires people, something I tried to show in both of my runs on the series.

I wanted him to be a teacher because I wanted him to be familiar to every reader, young and old, who read his comics. Everyone has had teachers. The lucky ones have had teachers who inspired them to go beyond what they might have thought were their limits.

Those two core values necessitate that Black Lightning be an adult. A younger Black Lightning, even a college student Black Lightning, won’t have the life-experience to be these two things: role model and teacher. If I were rebooting the character, I’d make him 30 or so. Young enough to not seem ancient, old enough to know what he’s talking about.

Other traits:

Jefferson Pierce is a reluctant hero. He would rather not disguise his identity and fight crime in such a garish manner. But he knows he must use his power for the benefit of his community and, if it comes to it, the world. The street-level stories are where my heart has always been, but I recognize we may have to go to a more vast canvas to drive the character to greater success.
Jefferson Pierce is an orphan. His mother died shortly before Black Lightning #1 (1977). He has no living relatives. But, what he does have, is an intense desire to have a family. He will build families around himself wherever he goes. He did it as a teacher in Suicide Slum. He did it when he was a member of the Outsiders. He even did it in the Brick City, which was a neighborhood in Cleveland...which is where his second series took place even if I never called it by name. He is a family man.

Sidebar. The one regret I have about how I portrayed Jeff Pierce in the original series is that I made him a divorced man. I could’ve shown a strong black marriage, something that was almost unheard of in the comics of the 1970s. I know there’s an editorial theory that super-heroes can’t be married. But I also know that Black Lightning has often challenged the norms and that’s something that should be part of whatever is done with him.

Sidebar. By the way, I disagree with the whole non-married super-heroes thing. Portraying marriages adds a reality to the fantastic, which I think is necessary to telling super-hero stories to which readers can relate. I also think readers actually like to see the heroes happy from time to time. If we’ve done our jobs right, they love these heroes as much as we do.

Had I remained on the second Black Lightning series, I would have had Jeff and Lynn remarry and start a family. There is solid drama to be found in such relationships and that makes super-hero stories more than glorified video games.

Jefferson Pierce is a man of faith. I used to call him a Northern liberal Baptist. All of the faith, none of the bigotry. In a world where there are Kryptonians and Martians, element men and detective chimps, no rational human being would get bent out of shape because someone was gay or transgender or anything else. Jeff judges people on the content of their character and, because he’s a man of faith, he gives even bad people a chance to redeem themselves.

Sidebar. Religion is something comic books shy away from. I thought it was important to show Jeff going to church. Because religion is part of the lives of many of our readers and viewers. I might not be a church-goer, though I am the founder and pastor of the First Church of Godzilla on Facebook, but I recognize religion’s place, for good or otherwise, in our society. Just as characters of color like Black Lightning gave readers someone to relate to, religious characters can serve the same purpose.

So where could Black Lightning go?

As I’ve said, the street-level stories are where my heart is with this character, but that doesn’t mean and should never mean that’s all we do with the character. I think what we do with Jeff Pierce depends on the venue...though I think Lightning’s connection to the real world and his commentary on the real world should always be a part of his adventures.

In comic books, Black Lightning can be involved in different kinds of adventures. He should not be subservient to Batman, Superman or any other character. He should be able to inspire even members of the metahuman community, as he did with the Tattooed Man in a one-shot written by Grant Morrison a few years back. I could see him as a mentor to younger heroes.

In comic books and other media, there’s an opportunity to address the issues of inequality and injustice that exist in our own land. In the context of exciting stories.

If Black Lightning were to be, say, a Netflix series, you could go more street and more social relevance than you could in a different venue. Maybe even get a super-hero series some of the respect they deserve. I’m frustrated that the fine acting and writing on shows like The Flash and Arrow and Agent Carter and S.H.I.E.L.D. do not receive the recognition they are surely due.

If Black Lightning were to be a CW series, you would probably want to be a bit less heavy than in a Netflix series. I always tried to include supporting characters that could provide humor while also being effective allies of Jeff Pierce.

If Black Lightning were to be a movie, you would need to go bigger. But I think it would still be essential to make the real stuff as real as possible to make the fantastic stuff more believable. Ant-Man works because so much of it is real: the plight of an ex-con, the distrust of evil CEOs, the grief over lost love, the challenge of raising a child of divorce.

I am fully aware that comic books are different from TV shows are different from movies. I don’t expect such versions of my creation to be exactly as I envision them. But nothing I’ve ever done with Black Lightning was not thought out. Maybe I’m being immodest, but I think my work is an essential starting point for anything anyone does with the character.

I’m not mired in the past. I wrote Black Lightning in the 1970s. I didn’t him write him that way in the 1990s. I wouldn’t write him in 2015 the same way I wrote him in those decades. But I think Black Lightning and most heroes can remain fresh without sacrificing the core ideas and values which were part of their original concepts.

From the start, my dream has always been to see Black Lightning as the fourth member of a DC Big Four, alongside Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. Whether that is attainable or not, that should be the goal.

I hope this is useful to you, Geoff. I’m going to copy Dan on it as well. Please feel free to call on me if I can be of further service in these areas.

That’s what I wrote in 2015. I leave it to you to judge how close the TV series and my recent comic-book work follow the core values I set down in the above.

Enjoy your weekend. I’ll be back soon with more stuff.

© 2018 Tony Isabella

1 comment:

  1. I think you are correct in saying that the hero has to change with the times but keep a set of core values that make him the person. Ten years from now he will have a different set of circumstances in what every that future will hold. Well Done Tony! Continued success. Herb Kinney