Striking Back: Black Lightning and Reading Race (part one)

Soon after posting my essay on Black Lightning, “Black Lightning Always Strikes Twice: Double-Consciousness as Super Power” on The Middle Spaces, Noah Berlatsky asked me to cross-post it on The Hooded Utilitarian. Not long after that, he posted his own essay on the character, looking at Black Lightning’s appearances in Batman and the Outsiders a few years after the cancellation of the original book. I had wondered if the subject of race was handled with  greater reflection and nuance in later books featuring the character, and Berlatsky made it pretty clear that this was not the case in his essay, “Black Lightning in Chains,” which he’d go on to reprint in Your Favorite Superhero Sucks (which I reviewed here).

Batman and the Outsiders #10 (May 1984)

There was an interesting conversation in the comments of Berlatsky’s post, however, in which Qiana Whitted raised the question about the standard by which we judge these comics and their handling of complex issues like race. She writes, “Not to excuse poor or insensitive storytelling, but I’m just wondering what is our criteria for judgment. It can’t just be that we are looking for Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in comics form.” She cites Adilfu Nama’s SuperBlack (2011), and his assertion therein that readers are “attuned to the small progressive measures and nuances throughout the evolution of black superheroes, even when the story as a whole seems to fall flat.” Hers is a good question, and as a scholar I am fascinated with reader engagement and resistant reading practices that empower Nama’s view. In the comments, I responded that readers are “also aware that the ‘forwardness’ of those steps is often meaningless in the context of a larger incoherent approach to representation that unfortunately reflects a broader ambivalence with depictions of people of color…[T]aking the time to carefully read these [comics] and hold them to a high standard…has to do with teasing out what works or could work [and what clearly doesn’t].”

I stand by that answer and remain obsessed with this question of a reader-constructed trajectory that takes advantage of the openness of superhero serial narratives to revision, reframing, and regeneration in order to imagine better and more ideal versions of our favorite characters, while simultaneously highlighting how that very work indicates the ongoing limits of racial representation. This work also provides ample evidence for my frequent claim that the burden of continuity and the desire to make every previous iteration of a character “fit” weighs especially heavily on characters of color who have to deal with multiplicitous portrayals as racial caricatures. As long-time readers of superhero comics know, however much the characters and stories may change, the gravity of maintaining a sense of continuity always pulls them back towards a status quo. Legacy—Marvel’s latest in its long line of “soft reboots,”—for example, in which old versions of characters return to team-up with new versions and so-called legacy numbering puts new books in sequence with old titles, seems like just another iteration of that impetus.

It has been three and a half years since the posts and responses I mentioned above first hit the internet, but I have continued to think about them, and even made a point of hunting down not only the issue of Batman and the Outsiders Berlatsky wrote about, but the issues that led up to it, including DC Comics Presents #16 (December 1979) wherein the event that precipitates the action in the BATO story arc takes place. I wanted to read them for myself and see if, like I suggest above, that there may be some sign of what might work for the character, and how the story fails him, or if Berlatsky is right, and there is nothing here worth pursuing, except to suggest (again) what I have written about before: there is no progress we can count on.

What I discovered was that while Berlatsky is right about Black Lightning’s role in Batman and the Outsiders—his “blackness function[ing] as an almost, but not conscious theme, instantly and insistently deferred and repressed”—this is a distinct shift from how his race was handled in his appearances in comics between the solo series of the 1970s and his being part of the Outsiders in the 1980s. The appearances of Black Lightning I found between the 1978 cancellation in Black Lightning volume one and his regular gig in BATO (starting in 1983) reinforce how contact between Black Lightning as a marginal figure in the DC universe and more mainstream characters is shaped by a post-Civil Rights discourse on race common to 1970s popular culture that sought to deflate the power of racist rhetoric through humor and satire, or warn of the dangers of so-called reverse racism by going “too far.” While, unfortunately, such approaches have the power to recapitulate racist ideas, looking back at the clumsy way the comic books stories themselves explicitly address race, can also provide a site for imagining a productive racial consciousness for black characters, by considering these stories not just as the product of clueless white creators, but examples of how black characters would have to navigate the white supremacy of their superheroic societies.

Below, I want to look at the first of two examples of the use of Black Lightning by two different white writers (with the same white art team) that I think demonstrate a range of possibility for productive engagement with the representation of a black superhero, even if ultimately, both are doomed to recapitulate the assumption of white supremacy baked into the genre. I will look at the second (from a two-part story in Justice League of America) next week.

World’s Finest Comics #256 (May 1979)

For those who haven’t read the earlier essay, or hasn’t read Black Lightning’s comics, he is Jefferson Pierce, former Olympic athlete and current high school teacher, who dons the guise of superhero to protect the people of his Metropolis neighborhood—Suicide Slum—from those that’d prey on them. Given his “respectable” civilian life, Pierce chooses to don an afro wig and affect an exaggerated “street” persona when fighting crime. The character was the star of DC Comics first solo comic book title to feature a black character, but the bimonthly book was cancelled after only 11 issues as part of DC’s 1978 implosion.

The earliest post-Black Lightning vol. 1 appearance I got my hands on was World’s Finest Comics #256 (May 1979), where, in one of the many back-up stories to the feature involving Superman and Batman battling a Kryptonian werewolf freed from the Phantom Zone, readers are treated to the first meeting between Black Lightning and the irrepressible Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow. I mention the feature story only because I think the placement of the Black Lightning story among more typical and presumable “apolitical” superhero fare serves to normalize the racial attitudes present within it.

From title onward, the Denny O’Neil penned “Encounter with a Dark Avenger” (pencils and inks by Dick Dillin and Frank Chiaramonte) makes Black Lightning’s race central to the story in an explicit and awkward way. In it, Green Arrow makes his way to Metropolis following a lead on some organized crime that is too “small-time” for the likes of Green Lantern or Superman. It also turns out to be a trap laid by Tobias Whale—DC’s ivory-skinned cetaceous answer to Marvel’s Kingpin—meant to set Green Arrow and Black Lightning against each other, leaving them vulnerable to his traps. Meeting on the grounds of “Aquatic Estates,” the two heroes are willing to oblige both the villain’s plan and the well-worn trope of newly-acquainted heroes fighting due to a stubborn misunderstanding.  Thinking Green Arrow is one of Whale’s guards, Black Lightning jumps to the attack, but their racialized repartee is much more interesting than their physical fracas.

Black Lighting and Green Arrow meet for the first time (from World’s Finest Comics #256, May 1979 – art by Dillin and Chiaramonte)

From the moment Black Lightning comes swinging over the jungle gym of the estate playground, Oliver Queen is making “colorful” remarks, starting with “Aren’t you a bit old to be playing on the jungle bars?” The phrase “jungle bars” is awkward, and I have to wonder if O’Neil tripped over “monkey bars” in writing the script, wanting to avoid “monkey,” but keeping the no less troublesome “jungle.” It would be easy to chalk this up as coincidence, but even leaving aside the many choices of playground equipment that were available to use in the fight scene—why not the swings, or a slide, or a seesaw?—it is the job of both writer and editor to consider the connotations of the various elements of the scene. The fact that the fight immediately moves beyond the playground—no other equipment is even pictured, why is there even a playground on the estate of a corpulent crime boss?—makes me think, however, that the “jungle bars” were included specifically to allow for the fraught comment. But why get hung up on that one instance when the rest of their banter makes it even more explicit? From jungle bars and basketball jokes, Black Lightning’s dialog moves to “Lemme do a tap dance upside your head,” to which Green Arrow responds “It kills me to admit this…but you do seem to have a great sense of rhythm!”  The clause about it killing him to admit it, adds the necessary disclaimer that this is joking banter, divorced from racialized intent, but no less eye-roll worthy. Are readers really meant to believe that the “rhythm” comment is merely an observation with no racial context? Doubtful.

Black Lightning sarcastically affecting a servile demeanor.

As Green Arrow and Black Lightning continue their fight, the snaps keep coming. GA calls Black Lightning “uppity” and Black Lightning puts on an exaggerated deferential black slave act when joking that he is “up from the watermelon patch to battle crime an’ in-justice. . .yassah!” It is as cringeworthy as it sounds.

But we as readers know it is all supposed to be in good humor. When the misunderstanding is cleared up and things get serious, they team up to finish infiltrating the grounds of Tobias Whale’s estate. In fact, Black Lightning goes from parrying racial slurs to calling Green Arrow “brother,” even though GA still insists on (affectionately, I guess?) calling Black Lightning, “Blacky.”

In the context of 21st century America, looking back, it is easy to dismiss this story as funny because of the obvious cluelessness of it. It is mad corny. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that corniness does make it funny, but we can’t let our mocking laughter blind us to how this approach to race in superhero comics still exists. In many ways—as in the ways Alejandro Jimenez pointed out in his guest post on Miles Morales—race remains a novelty in superhero comics, a motif to play with while keeping whiteness centered. The irony of using such racialized language as a signal of enlightenment can be hard to wrap your head around these days, but it is important to keep in mind how the Civil Rights movement made race a viable topic in the public discourse in a way it was not before. This kind of talk was an unforeseeable result of that opportunity.

The racialized nature of the Green Arrow and Black Lightning’s exchange is not uncommon to the post-Civil Rights 1970s, wherein racial humor was often considered subversive and ironic, and distinct from actual racist outcomes and bigoted feelings. In some ways, it is even valorized as a positive result of Civil Rights fights: somehow the sting has gone out of the language of belittlement and oppression, and now white people are freed to make use of it in jocular solidarity with black people. The 1970s sit-com, All in the Family, is probably the most mainstream example of this. It featured the buffoonish bigot Archie Bunker, who was given free rein to espouse a range of ugly beliefs and attitudes presumably to make their absurdities apparent, but also in pursuit of big laughs.

While the show rarely failed to make sure Archie was an obvious racist clown, and often gave his  liberal-minded daughter and son-in-law (Gloria and Mike) the last word, the effort to make Archie the target of humor also humanized him in a way that transformed him into the “loveable bigot” archetype. Throughout the 13 combined seasons of All in the Family and Archie Bunker’s Place, the figure of Archie Bunker softened through revealing more about his troubled upbringing, his deep love for his wife and daughter (though that never stopped him from verbally abusing the former), through awkward encounters with black celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr, and Reggie Jackson, and a touching relationship with drag queen Beverly LaSalle. Rather than keep the pressure on bigoted ideas, however, the show for all its good intentions, mostly served to suggest that we need to tolerate and accept bigots, that they might still have good hearts, and that we can all get a good laugh at their expense in the meantime. When the connection between Bunker’s bigoted beliefs and the possibility of actual anti-black violence would surface—as when Archie discovers the civic group that recruits him for his views is actually the KKK—the show is sure to draw him back from the precipice, and make sure we know there is a line he won’t cross. We are reminded that for all his talk of “coons,” Archie is still a “good guy” at heart.

The tension in this kind of humor is its willingness—as a form of progressive politics—to make fun of those who so blatantly defy the polite ideal of evading talk of race, while simultaneously using its own progressive intention as justification for racial humor. Even back when the show first aired in 1971, however, some critics were forced to ask at whose expense was such humor really enjoyed?

As Emily Nussbaum, TV writer for the New Yorker explained in her 2014 reflection on the show, “By giving bigotry a human face, [Norman] Lear [(the show’s creator)] believed, his show could help liberate American TV viewers. He hoped that audiences would embrace Archie but reject his beliefs,” but in coming to see Bunker as “one of them” many Americans revealed themselves to be what Nussbaum calls “bad fans.” Viewers for whom the satire and nuance is lost. The show becomes for those kinds of fans, the source for off-color jokes not “meant” to be bigoted (at best), or (at worst) a pleasurable confirmation of a bigoted worldview. There is a reason why the term “Archie Bunker Voters” exists, and it is not because they are left-leaning TV viewers who enjoy seeing a bigot taken down a peg. Instead, the term describes Archie Bunker as normalized citizen: working class white male racist, sexist, xenophobe, homophobe, who is not very smart, but somehow good at heart and well-meaning. We are to believe that any racist results of their attitudes are to be excused as a product of “economic anxiety,” not racist ideology. Suddenly, Bunker’s bigotry becomes immaterial to evaluating him, and in the case of some fans, it becomes just another set of opinions to consider, since they sound so much like their own (even if they’ve never had the guts to say them aloud).

But there is no satire or nuance in “Encounter with a Dark Avenger.” By virtue of Green Arrow’s placement as the hero of the story, seeing his rhetoric as acceptable is not a misprision. Maybe what comics like these need are “good fans.” Readers willing to ask what is gained in representing superhero Green Arrow casually partaking in this racialized language and having Black Lightning playfully banter back? I can only imagine that O’Neil, having written Green Arrow as something of a radical leftist in the seminal Green Lantern/Green Arrow series of the early 1970s, wanted to demonstrate that Oliver Queen was down enough to make such comments without coming off as a racist himself. He is the 1979 equivalent of Michael Scott insisting on doing a Chris Rock routine on The Office. And, in case there is doubt that O’Neil was trying to cash in Green Arrow’s credit for being a good guy, we need only see another O’Neil-penned Black Lighting story in World’s Finest Comics #260 (January 1980), wherein BL reacts to being called a “black idiot” by Doctor Polaris with humor, but being sure to let him know just what he sounds like. In other words, what we have in “Dark Avenger” is a fantasy of the white racial imagination where intent defines impact, and BL isn’t going to mind, because the genre ensures they will end up buddies, and/or BL will remain a marginal figure. Furthermore, nothing Green Arrow says is that bad compared to the options available in the range of racial slurs. But maybe that isn’t any better…

Doctor Polaris calls Black Lightning a “black idiot!” in World’s Finest Comics #260 (January 1980) – art by Netzer and Coletta

In Laura Z. Hobson’s 1971 essay in the New York Times responding to All in the Family’s popularity, she argues that for all the claims that All in the Family’s honest airing of bigotry’s absurdities undermining racism’s power, the tempered racist language actually does the opposite. In softening the language—using “Hebe” instead of “kike,” or “spade” instead of the n-word, for example—the show is making bigotry more not less palatable. Furthermore, to some degree, it even makes bigoted language more palatable to the object of those colorful slurs: people who’d balk at being called the n-word, but might snicker at “jungle bunny,” because it is just so damn stupid. The racialized language and race itself becomes a novelty, a carefully framed use of taboo words and attitudes to attract prurient interest, not promote social justice.

Heck, I am not even wholly convinced by Hobson’s critique, because her claim that Bunker would be less loveable if he used the n-word might not even be the case for a lot of people. Some years back I re-watched 1971’s The French Connection, which won the Oscar for Best Picture and for which Gene Hackman won for Best Actor in a Lead Role, and I was blown away by how casually the white protagonist uses the n-word. A violently racist cop is not only the film’s hero, but the American Film Institute’s 2003 list of all-time best movie heroes included Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle. I am not arguing that The French Connection is necessarily a bad film because of this (it does have one the best car chase scenes in the history of cinema), but that narratives have the power to compress the distance between hero and anti-hero until it becomes impossible to make the distinction. (I’m looking at you Breaking Bad). It takes a critically-engaged reader to resist the natural-feeling frame that whomever a story focuses on and humanizes must be the hero, and thus is actually heroic.

Don’t take my claims here to be a complete dismissal of humor around race. Humor can be a powerful tool in combating bigotry, and has definitely been a balm for a wide variety of marginalized peoples throughout history. The blows to both human dignity and physical well-being that those kinds of remarks can cause do not necessarily make racism always fall outside the bounds of comedy, but as readers we must consider who is making the joke at whose expense, and who is laughing, and why. Comedy itself, when good, is also multivalent, in that it can evince a range of distinct feelings in its handling of sensitive subjects. Even comedians of color are not exempt in considering the impact of their jokes on their audience. I felt great sympathy for Dave Chapelle when he walked away from his Comedy Central show after suddenly noticing something in the tone of white laughter that made him second guess the effect of his material on his growing white audience. As he said to Oprah, “I want to make sure I am dancing not shuffling.” (I have to say, however, I feel significantly less sympathy about the transantagonism in his new material). Unfortunately, O’Neil seem to be making Black Lightning shuffle in this story.

Conversely, it is moments like the above where I root for Black Lightning to let whitey have it. (World’s Finest Comics #256)

I kept this in mind as I read the story in World’s Finest Comics #256. Imagining a Black Lightning independent of how he is depicted and able to put his double-consciousness to work in navigating superhero society. As I pointed out in my first essay on Black Lightning, his most compelling aspect in those early days was his conscious manipulation of black identity in the construction of his superhero persona. He purposefully played with the expectation of the Blaxploitation hero as a blind for his civilian life as a teacher and civic leader. In this anthology comic book (and in others in which Black Lightning appeared as a guest in this period) with truncated stories and focus on team-ups of multiple characters, there is less space to develop a more well-rounded Jefferson Pierce. He is reduced even further to a stereotype, what with his frequent recourse to call people “jive turkeys!” As Superman can never let us forget he is super, Black Lightning cannot be written in this era in any way but to remind us he is black, or at least what black must be according to the white imagination. For better or worse, Black Lightning’s performance of stereotypical blackness is a defense mechanism, or at least we as readers must keep that in mind, even if the uneven writing frequently reduces him to only that stereotype.

Furthermore, given the capriciousness of white supremacy, Jefferson Pierce knows that a black person can have even their most innocuous words and actions turned into evidence of a threat, so I think of him as cagey, picking his battles in a world where he actually has the superhuman powers often ascribed to everyday black men to justify state violence against them.

I mentioned before that the two stories featuring Black Lighting that I want to examine here provide a range for productive engagement with representations of black characters in superhero comics. Even at best, a story like “Encounter with a Dark Avenger” represents the low end of that range. A willing and generous reader might feel some pity for Black Lightning, who has to accept Green Lantern’s racialized banter and being characterized as impulsive and reckless. The fact that the two superheroes end up saving each other’s lives from Tobias Whale’s traps is supposed to clean the slate between them, but those kind of superhero ethics do little to dismantle the stratified racial system Black Lightning must resist, but is not allowed to name. The interpersonal cannot ameliorate the institutional.

In a call-out box on the back cover of World’s Finest Comics #256 a caption asks, “Who is the arch-criminal who causes the emerald archer to battle the human dynamo!?” Sure, the technical answer is Tobias Whale, though the tropes of the superhero genre is also an acceptable answer, but if the question being asked were why is their fight framed as it is, the answer is white supremacy in the form of clueless liberality.

In part two of this post, I’ll be looking at a story published a few months after World’s Finest Comics #256, that while still problematic, is capacious enough to reward the kind of resistant engagement I prefer, even if ultimately, it equates explicitly identifying white supremacy in the DC Universe with wanton destruction that also harms people of color.  Come back next week to check it out.


4 thoughts on “Striking Back: Black Lightning and Reading Race (part one)

  1. Great stuff. I’m reading Batman and the Outsiders now via the Showcase and in the first issue Batman calls upon Pierce to pose as Lucius Fox’s brother to rescue him from Markovia, because, as Batman puts it, “I certainly couldn’t pose as his brother!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of these days I will get my hands on those first few issues of BATO. I am interested in the details of how BL’s loss of power/confidence is depicted.

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. Pingback: Striking Back: Black Lightning and Reading Race (part two) | The Middle Spaces

  3. Pingback: “Am I Black Enough For You?” The Respectability of CW’s Black Lightning | The Middle Spaces

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