Tuesday, December 1, 2020



It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these Black Lightning-centric bloggy things. Like many of you, I have been having a tough time wrapping my head around all the Black Lightning news that hit within a couple weeks.

The question I’m most asked lately is what I think of Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley’s The Other History of the DC Universe #1 featuring Black Lightning. It’s a fair question and one I won’t be answering today on account of I haven’t read the issue yet.

DC Comics didn’t send me an advance or any copy of this issue, not unexpected given their strained relationship with me. I will tell you this comic book is the first DC comic book with Black Lightning I have looked forward to since my Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands was collected in trade paperback.

From my friends at Stormwatch Comics in New Jersey, I have ordered Other History #1, as well as any subsequent issues which have been solicited. Since my comics fix is mailed to me twice a month, it’ll be another week or so before I read this comic. It’s been difficult to avoid spoilers.

Ridley has been kind to me in several interviews on this project.I’m flattered to learn my writing inspired him to become a writer. My work, Black Lightning in particular, has inspired many readers over the decades. Some have become teachers with one specifically choosing to work in inner-city schools. Some have become involved with political and social organizations. Some have even gotten into the comic book industry, though, given my own career, I’m not sure I did those readers any favors.

However, Ridley is wrong when he assumes the white guy who created Black Lightning did not realize he was inspiring Ridley. Okay, it’s true I had no idea that one of my readers would grow up to become the screenwriter of Twelve Years a Slave, but I very deliberately set out to reach young readers, especially young Black readers.

When I was a teenager growing up in Cleveland, and the city of my youth was seriously segregated, I started a comic-book club at the Cudell Recreation Center on Detroit Avenue on the west side of the city. It was through this club that I met my first Black friends. It wasn’t until recently that Bruce, Dennis and Leroy learned how meeting them set the arc of my comics career.

Diversity was not part of my everyday language when I was a teen. I just thought it was unfair that there weren’t more Black heroes for my Black friends. I promised myself that, if I were fortunate enough to work in the comics industry, I would do my best to work on and create characters of color.

At Marvel, I worked on Luke Cage, the Falcon and the Living Mummy, not that it was readily apparent that the last hero was Black. I turned scientist Bill Foster into Black Goliath, though I wanted to call him Giant-Man and was overruled on that. I created Misty Knight as a partner for Iron Fist. All of these fine characters were stepping stones to my creation of Black Lightning.

When I moved from Marvel to DC, I was given two completed scripts of a planned new hero called the Black Bomber. This character was a white racist who’d taken part in chemical camouflage experiments intended to allow him to better blend in to the jungles of Vietnam. No, really.

The effects of the experiments didn’t kick in until the soldier was discharged from the military and again living in the United States. Then, in times of stress, the white racist would turn into a Black super-hero. Neither identity was aware of the other. Both of them had girlfriends who witnessed the transformations and said nothing. No, really.

In each of the two scripts, the white racist in his white racist identity rescued people who he couldn’t see clearly. In both cases, he had risked his life to rescue a Black person. In both cases, he wasn’t happy about this. To quote what he said after rescuing a child in a baby carriage, “You mean I risked my life for a jungle bunny?” No, really.  

The cherry on top of this shit sundae was the hero’s costume. Which looked like a basketball uniform. No, really.

DC Comics wanted me to “punch up” the two existing scripts and take over the writing with the third issue. I declined. I told them that these were the most offensive scripts I had ever read in my four years in the comics industry. I told them they could not possibly publish these scripts.

My DC bosses were aghast. What did I mean they couldn’t publish a couple of scripts they had paid for?

I responded that, if they published those terrible scripts, their offices would be set upon by a mob wielding pitchforks and torches. They asked how I could know this. I told them I’d be leading that mob. This was one of the proudest moments of my career.

How often does one get to truly put their principles ahead of their well-being? At the time I was declining this gig, I was just about as broke as I’ve ever been in my life. I had no income to speak of. I would have been homeless save for the kindness of friends who let me stay with them. I mostly ate at McDonald’s because it was cheap and just filling enough to keep me going. Yet here I was risking my perhaps only chance of gainful employment in the comics industry because it was the right thing to do. Every time some asshole tries to troll me because of my devotion to Black Lightning and my quest to keep my creation consistent with his core values, I laugh because I know those jerks would never have done what I did. Morally vacant cowards.

It took me somewhere between seven and ten days to convince DC that I was right about this. But I had to boil it down to something the all-white hierarchy could understand:

“Do you actually want your first headline Black super-hero to be a white racist?”

They had never thought about it that way. I was given two or three weeks to create a new Black super-hero.

I created Jefferson Pierce and his world before I came up with his super-hero identity. I wanted him to be someone kids could relate to, so I made him a teacher. Every kid knows what a teacher does. If they’re lucky, they have one like Jefferson Pierce.

I made him an award-winning Olympic athlete, so he would have the physical abilities to battle street-level crime. I wanted that to be his home because down-to-earth stories have always been where my creative heart lives. Though it was never revealed in my stories, I even knew why Pierce didn’t get rich from his athletic victories. In my mind, he was one of the Black champions who raised the Black Power fist on the winners stand. That didn’t go over big with the establishment.

I had Jefferson return to teach at his former high school because I totally ripped that off from Welcome Back Kotter. I really loved that show before it went south too soon.

After I knew who Jefferson Pierce was, I could work on the super-heroic aspects of his life. Which is a story I’ve told before and which I will doubtless tell again. But this bloggy thing is getting long and I want to hit some other notes before I sign off.

Black Lightning got his start at the Graphic Arts Society meetings at the Cudell Recreation Center. I looked at my friends, recognized the inequities in comics and vowed to address those inequities. I like to think I did well in that regard.

If the Cudell Recreation Center sounds familiar to you, it should. It was there that young Tamir Rice was murdered by a police officer who shouldn’t have been a police officer. That badge-wearing killer had accomplices: the Cleveland Police Department who failed to do due diligence before they hired him; a partner with a long record of inappropriate violence; a city leadership that failed to make the murderer pay for his crime and a police union that defends him to this very day. What had been a place of fondest memories for me has become a source of rage I feel every day.

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, a reboot of sorts set in my home town of Cleveland, was inspired by the murder of Tamir Rice and the proliferation of increasingly deadly weapons in near every city in the United States. It was inspired by police departments who treat Black citizens with more distrust and violence that they do white citizens. It was inspired by all the things that create despair in our cities. It was inspired by the hope that things can change if we work at it as hard as did those who have worked for centuries to keep those inequalities in place.

Clearly, today’s bloggy thing did not address other Black Lightning news and views. We have the sad news that the great Black Lightning TV show will be ending after its now-filming fourth season. We have the happier news that the Painkiller character, originally created by myself and artist Eddy Newell, will be getting a back door pilot during this final season. I have more to discuss about the wretched Batman and the Outsiders title and DC’s general mishandling of my creation. And, of course, when I finally read it, I will doubtless have comments on The Other History of the DC Universe #1.

I hope to address all the above in the next week or two. Along with some non-Black Lightning related subjects.

Thanks for reading today’s bloggy thing. I will be back soon with more stuff. Always forward.

© 2020 Tony Isabella

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