Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"Black Lighting" TV review

Black Lighting is a very good TV show from the CW network. It is well written, directed and acted, convincingly portraying the drama of a retired-crimefighter-turned-high-school-principal who turns back to his life of vigilantism when the growth of local organized crime threatens his daughters.

Now that I got the capsulized description out of the way, here is where I put a personal spin on this.

It was 1977 (I think). Reggie, Thurman, Sparky, and Billy were leading the Yankees to their first world series in decades. Elvis had just died. The Bronx was burning, but the battles of the Civil Rights movement appeared to be pretty much won, as far as I could tell. Just about everywhere you looked, whatever group or classification you looked at included a black person, even if it was one of the first back people in that group or classification. This included comic book superheroes. And comic books had just gone up in price to 30 cents.

A year or two earlier the Legion of Superheroes had been confronted by Tyroc, the first black superhero in the 30th century, but now here was one who fought crime in today's inner city! And he had his own comic book!

Written by Tony Isabella and drawn by 18-year-old Trevor Von Eeden, the story told of  Jefferson Pierce, a former Olympic athlete returning to his high school to begin his new job as a teacher, only to discover that the 100, a ruthless crime organization run by a giant albino named Tobias Whale (a thinly disguised rip-off of Marvel's Kingpin), had taken over the Metropolis inner-city ghetto known as Suicide Slum.

To battle this menace, his old friend, a tailor, made him a suit with a belt that gave him electrical powers. He wore a loose-fitting shirt that was open to the navel with a high collar and a mask built onto...wait for it...a fake afro!

(At least that was how I remembered it. A quick visit to the Wikipedia entry tells me that some things were a little different than I remember, but we this is the personal part of the review, after all.)

At the time, I was attending Manhattan Country School, a small private school aggressively engineered for diversity and founded under principles espoused by such great men as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and John Lennon. In this environment, I thought that anything "black" was cool, and since superheroes were cool, black superheroes were the coolest! I collected every issue of this exciting new comic, cut up the covers into Colorforms (like I did with all my comics), and then taped them all together into one large book (This being the first comic of which I was aware of getting the very first issue and I wanted to collect the whole story). I took red and blue pens and colored in the red and blue colors on some of the pages to make them brighter and even used a black ball-point pen to ink over the lines in some of the pages to make them darker. I read that collection over and over again, and practically knew it by heart.

I missed some of the issues after number five or six, and never really found out how the story ended. I do remember the old tailor having some sort of mystery, perhaps in organized crime, and he got killed or something, and the hero's powers (the ability to send an electrical charge through metal or project an electrical force-field around him that could deflect bullets from his belt) getting more and more augmented as the story went on, which was starting to concern the hero. I also remember that he was accused of killing someone, which he did not do, making him a fugitive from the law. This was about par for the course at the time, I thought, as Spider-Man, Batman, and Captain America were fugitives from the law for crimes they did not commit in comics I owned at the time.

Eventually his book was cancelled, and I next saw him in an issue of the "DC Dollar Comic" World's Finest in which he was actually working with Tobias Whale to bring down the 100. One thing I noticed about all successive artists of Black lightning after Trevor Von Eeden was that none of them got the shirt right. All the other artists made it fit his body skin-tight, with but some blousing of the sleeves. Black Lightning was supposed to have a loose-fitting shirt! Like a pirate! It was the 1970's! It was cool! Between that and the fake afro he had a sense of realism and being fashionably with the times.

As the hero, Jefferson Pierce put on a more "street" persona than he had in his civilian identity. He was tougher and spoke with more of the contemporary dialect and slang than did the stuffy schoolteacher (though to be fair, Jefferson Pierce did slam a drug dealer's face into a wall). In one story he used a bit of science to defeat a particular villain's powers, and even said "bet you didn't expect a STREET superhero to be SMART, did you?"

I enjoyed that comic. I liked the idea of black superheroes so much, I even created a team of them! There was Black Goliath, a professional boxer whose wife was an insect-inspired superhero (I forget the name). The Spark was a rip-off of Marvel's Electro, the Zinger was a speedster, and there was another character who had a suit like that hero in the Legion of Super Heroes whose who wears a helmet with a face-sized visor. I even drew the first page of a Black Goliath story, in which he was a boxer whose trainer was telling him he needed to hit harder. He then spotted a drug dealer in an alley and punched him in the stomach. I got as far as the trainer starting to tell him something, and yes, this was a rip-off of the first appearance of Jefferson Pierce at his the high school. And yes, I was inspired a bit by the movie Rocky, and yes, Marvel Comics already had their own Black Goliath, What do you want? I was ten!

So when I saw that there was going to be a Black Lighting show on TV, I had to watch it, and had to review it. So I wrote what you see above, saved it, then set it aside for a day as I went to work, went back to it, wrote a whole review about the show, bus somehow it failed to save, and when my laptop shut down for an update, everything I wrote was gone. So here we go again...

The show takes place some years after whatever the DC TV Universe equivilates to the story in the comics that I read. He is older, has two teenage daughters, has been married and divorced, and has been principal of a suburban, minority-neighborhood high school long enough to have an "understanding" with the local gangs, that his school was of limits. And he is bald and bearded.

His superhero identity has been "retired" and is even referred to as an "addiction." His powers appear to be within himself, rather than coming solely from his suit. When he does return to crimefighting, the old tailor gives him an updated costume; a bulky, armored affair with neon lightning bolts, goggles, and the now-ubiquitous superhero voice modulator. When he fights, he avoids killing people by his own hand, but he seems to have no compunction against using a bad guy as a human shield and letting other people's bullets kill him. And there is no fake afro.

I didn't mind the advancing age and family developments. I could see how having children might mellow him out from a ruthless vigilante to a realpolitik community man. But I missed the silk shirt, the lithe, athletic movements, and the fake afro.

I did appreciate the effort taken to give the characters "realistic" dialogue within the framework of TV standards and practices. Certain words and uses of grammar that are more often heard in the black community flowed naturally from the actors' mouths without a big deal being made of it. This sense of naturalism was welcome to this liberal-guilt-ridden child of the 1970's. It felt like the effort was taken to represent a realistic dialect without descending into stereotype.

There are also some dramatic elements I find interesting and worthy of bringing to TV, such as the choices faced by young people between fun and responsibility, the battle Jefferson Pierce faces, not against crime, but against his own urges to fight crime as a superhero, which is interpreted as an addition by his ex-wife, and how he tries to convince her (and himself?) that it is not.

I had a much more nuanced review of the show in my original version, but it has faded with time from my memory. Also, I have been cast in a play recently (ironically the play is being produced by a Black church in Brooklyn and is about the slave trade in early America) and rehearsals take away from my TV-watching time. But I could not get out of this review without sharing this picture:

This is a picture of Richard Roundtree and Victoria Principal from the 1974 movie "Earthquake." I have a hard time not thinking that this outfit may have inspired the costume design for Black Lighting just a little bit ;) There is some discussion about it at Comic Book Resources. However, the proverbial horse's mouth says otherwise. Tony Isabella himself says so in his blog, which is quoted in this thorough article about the whole backstory behind Black Lightning and includes a bunch of developmental sketches of the hero.Apparently Trevor Von Eeden never saw the movie, and developmental sketches show a variety of designs that show more influence from Marvel's Power Man. Still, the similarity is amazing!

So, like many TV and movie adaptations of superhero comics, there are changes from the original, and some aspects of the original that I liked are completely different, but there is enough of the original intact that I do recognize the original in this new version. As a TV show, it creates enough interest beyond simply being the first black comic book superhero adaptation on TV (not he first black superhero show on TV, that would have been M.A.N.T.I.S, I think) that it is worth watching.

And finally, I give you this from Saturday night live, the best representaton of Black Lighning's costume ever on TV:

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