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

Last week, I began looking at some of Black Lightning’s appearances in comics between the cancellation of the first volume his own title (in 1978) and his regular appearances in Batman and the Outsiders (1983) in order to analyze the representation of recently introduced black superheroes in DC Comics and their interactions with more established heroes. I wanted to consider the degree that these clumsy stories focusing on his race might be capacious enough to allow for productive engagement through a resistant reading practice by fans seeking a way to rehabilitate such a representation.

While “Encounter with a Dark Avenger” from World’s Finest Comics #256 (May 1979) showed little opportunity for the kind of reading I am interested in—what with writer Denny O’Neil’s insistence on racial repartee as a form of humor—and only highlighted the degree to which blackness is a novelty in the genre, the two-part story appearing in Justice League of America #173 (December 1979) and #174 (January 1980) provides more chances to consider how Black Lightning’s interaction with the superhero mainstream serve as a site for critiquing the framework of white supremacy that holds up the genre, and imagining an independent and strong-willed black character who is aware of its capricious ideology.

It probably bears noting that suspicion of the dominant culture and a desire to avoid its legal and cultural authorities is usually depicted as a moral failing in superhero comic books. While most cases might not be as egregious as the infamous example of the introduction of Tyroc and black-separatist island nation of Marzal in Superboy, Starring the Legion of Superheroes #216 (April 1976), there is nevertheless an assimilationist bent to notions of racial harmony and togetherness that maintains white dominance and expresses a fundamental belief in white innocence.

In this light, Black Lightning’s take-no-shit attitude is something to be admired, not a flaw to be overcome in the name of white-serving narratives of racial togetherness. The stories appearing in these two issues of JLA can be read as Black Lightning explaining this—twice!—to well-intentioned, but no less patronizing, members of the Justice League. “The Testing of a Hero” and “A Plague of Monsters” were written by Gerry Conway, with the former with same penciler as the aforementioned World’s Finest Comics story (Dick Dillin), but with Frank McLaughlin on inks. Both stories work to establish Black Lightning as a willing outsider, who purposefully chooses to not work within the established institutions of the superhero world, and rejects an offer to join the JLA prompted by member Green Arrow.

Before getting to into the interiors, I want to spend a moment with the cover of Justice League of America #173 (by Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano). I think is meant to be played for laughs—what with Black Lightning’s refusal and calling the nameless characters in the background a “jive bunch of turkeys”—but it is also indicative of the very attitude I see as positively informing the whole story. We can’t know yet who these other would-be members of the JLA might be, but we recognize them, as BL does, as also-rans. Before we even open the comic book, the cover suggests a strong tension in the politics at play. The image seems to say that the recruitment of these nobodies is a consequence of the affirmative policies of inclusion that have led to Black Lightning’s invitation—evoking the common claims that diversity hires lead to under-qualified staffing. Simultaneously, however, Black Lightning’s refusal asserts his sense of self-worth, and a moral rejection of the patronizing attitude common to Superman and other establishment characters. Later, if we return to the cover having learned who these other supposed recruits really are, suddenly BL’s accusation is even more impactful. If joining means having to accept the attitudes of the current membership, then he’d prefer not to. His turning down the offer makes sense, given how he is treated. Nevertheless, while riffing on the interior story, like so many superhero comic books, this cover misrepresents its events.

JLA #173 opens with the assembled team secretly observing Black Lightning in action from a rooftop. Superman, Zatanna, Flash, Green Lantern and Green Arrow praise his skill to each other and discuss his possible membership, GA explaining “He’s what we need troops. Cool, smart, brave and black!” The Flash objects to the suggestion the team recruit “a token Black,” and accuses Green Arrow of trying “[too] hard to be Mister Liberal,” and thus refuses to take Oliver Queen’s word for Black Lightning’s qualifications. It is then that Superman suggests an examination. Of course, Black Lightning himself does not agree to being tested. He doesn’t even know that he is being considered for membership. Nevertheless, League members take it upon themselves to dress up as villains with corny names like Primak and Human Starburst, and attack the poor guy as he’s on his way home from a long night superheroing, hoping to catch some shut eye before his day job as a high school teacher begins.

[from Justice League of America #173 (Dec 1979), art by Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin)

In an example of the clueless expectations of the genre, no one considers that physically and psychologically attacking a person to test their mettle is not a way to win their trust. Furthermore, the fact that the JLA tests his anger and “how [he’d] react when pushed to the limit” also reinforces how his race remains their primary means of evaluating him. The narrative is written with the assumption that Black Lightning has a chip on his shoulder and an anger problem. As the narration reminds us when he is out of his league fighting the super-speedster Flash (in disguise as the Trans-Visible Man): “You don’t laugh at a man who’s been fighting for dignity most of his life: you might make him mad…Very mad. But anger is no substitute for strategy and tactics, and…Black Lightning learns that lesson painfully…” The narration is explicitly telling us that Black Lightning is driven to such anger he can’t defeat the disguised Flash, despite the Flash’s overwhelming superpowers probably having a lot to do with it. The JLA move him on to fight someone else, instead—Green Arrow in the guise of the Swashbuckler—whom BL not only defeats but nearly strangles before stopping himself. But the failure against Trans-Visible Man is never mentioned again. In fact, Superman claims Black Lightning “passed with flying colors!” Maybe giving him a foe he could not beat part of the test? It is not explained. I guess, “almost surrender[ing] to his anger,” but not quite going through strangling Green Arrow, is better than they expected from the “emotional” black hero “pushed to the edge.”

Black Lightning rejects the offer of membership (the first time). Justice League of America #173 (Dec 1979)

His performance according to whatever metric they may or may not have doesn’t matter to Black Lightning though. Despite, not calling out the Justice League on their entitlement and abuse of power in taking it upon themselves to secretly test him, BL is still written with enough presence of mind to reject the offer. “[T]his hero has got enough work right here in Suicide Slum. I can’t go flashin’ off with you guys.” As was clear in his cancelled series, and to his credit, Black Lightning’s focus is on his own community, and he can’t let a prestigious offer from the JLA distract him from the reason he took up the superhero mantle in the first place: making a positive impact on Suicide Slum. Black Lightning adds, “You just better find yourself another boy!” as he turns to leave, and I love the indictment of the superhero hierarchy and patronizing attitude in that one comment. Yes, it is much more likely that this is another example of the chip on Black Lightning’s shoulder, but only a reader who does not question the assumption of white supremacy at the foundation of the JLA’s approach would think that. Though, let’s be real, that’s probably most of them.

Still, in case you need some further evidence of different standards for membership based on race in the pre-Crisis era, consider that (white at the time) Firestorm was invited to join the JLA just a few issues later (#179 – June 1980) without any sort of test, secret or otherwise, just Superman vouching for him.

It is possible, however, that Firestorm reaped the benefit of the JLA’s mistake in recruitment methods, as they’d learned something by then. Green Arrow wonders aloud if they made Black Lightning mad with their “dumb test” (finally considering that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea), but Superman replies “Some people just don’t work well with groups.” At least he didn’t say “those people,” I guess. And yet, it doesn’t matter what the white characters are thinking about Black Lightning in that moment of rejection. The book might be focused on them, and they might be its heroes, but as I said in last week’s post, keeping in mind how the narrative context frames its focus as heroic, can help us as readers to shift and disrupt that focus. Reading against the grain like this, resists the notion that we must accept the JLA’s choices as inviolate. It provides a framework for imagining a black superhero who refuses to participate in the maintenance of white supremacy by rejecting their notions of success and prestige in the superhero community that requires he ignore his own. The irony, of course, is that in being written this way—refusing to be a part of the flagship property—Black Lightning is also assured to not attain the commercial popularity of the other DC characters. But let’s not get too hung up on that tension, given the fact that even getting to be a part of the JLA 25 years later does not guarantee such success, or at least—as the late Dwayne McDuffie once explained in defining the “Rule of Three”—not for more than one or two black characters at a time.

It seems that, with rare exceptions, in order for a black character to have any success in the superhero market, they must not focus on their own communities. In 1978, Suicide Slum was not a popular enough setting to save Black Lightning from being discontinued, and almost 40 years later, a focus on Harlem doomed Marvel’s Black Panther and the Crew to even quicker cancellation. Any degree to which Black Lightning’s popularity and prestige (or that of any black superheroes) increases is proportionate to his distance from the black community. Individual stories or limited series might bring them back to their social or cultural origins (like X-Men’s Storm in “Life-Death II”), but any continued success requires returning to the fold of the white hero mainstream. (This was essentially the conclusion of my essay “Black Communities of the 30th Century” that I wrote for Apex Magazine back in 2014).

Gerry Conway’s writing of Black Lighting, however, is definitely better than O’Neil’s. While “jive talk” is still part of how Black Lightning differentiates his identities, Conway makes sure to include a panel signaling to unfamiliar readers that this is something of a performance and that Jefferson Pierce has the typical concerns about his job (mimeographing a history test he’s to give his students the next day) along with his jive-talking superhero life. The story definitely makes sure to give BL what depth it can in such a short space, given that he is just a guest in the book for a couple of issues. A more ideal characterization of Black Lightning would avoid the problems of a conscious performance of a black stereotype, however, and embrace the notion of code-switching. While in the late-70s code-switching­—switching among dialects, styles or registers—did not have a positive connotation, a better understanding of the options available to people who practice sociolinguistic flexibility has slowly worked to resist the notion of the inauthenticity of such practitioners.

Black Lightning considering his identities (from Justice League of America #174, January 1980)

Since these are comic books, this pre-Crisis version of Black Lightning also provides a visual reminder of this code-switching in the form of his afro-mask. When fighting crime, Jefferson Pierce dons a wig that is connected to his domino mask and covers his trimmed natural. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Afro was a political symbol of black pride that rejected assimilationist ideas. Since mainstream comics are often three to seven years behind the cultural zeitgeist (remember Disco Dazzler?), the ‘fro seems like an appropriate accoutrement for Black Lightning’s style as a superhero operating on his own terms and dedicated to helping his own community. Or perhaps the hairstyle is just a necessary signal in the imagination of white writers (original series artist, African-American Trevor Von Eeden, thought it was an “odd” choice). The more conservative closely-cropped hairstyle Pierce wears in his civilian identity could never be mistaken for what Black Lightning wears, and some find the way the visual distinction is made troubling. In “Bare Chests, Silver Tiaras, and Removable Afros,” Blair Davis (in The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art) likens the afro-mask to scalped head, which is “more unnerving given how individual panels of the 1970s series [and in BL’s other appearances] often seem to show Pierce holding it aloft like a kind of trophy” (203). Looked at this way, the afro-mask does objectify blackness in a creepy and even evocatively violent way.

In Justice League of America #174, Conway adds another scene of Jefferson Pierce in his civilian life, or rather in a kind of liminal zone between his identities, considering if he should abandon one of them in favor of the other as he tiredly undresses and prepares to go to sleep for a couple of hours before having to get to work. The scene includes a panel like the one Davis describes, Dillin draws Pierce holding his afro-mask aloft. When a report comes over the radio of more trouble, he decides to put his Black Lightning costume back on, thinking “For the time being you have to be both!”  While the pressures and limits of having two identities is nothing new to the superhero genre, Black Lightning’s racial identity has the potential to have a more poignant and relatable take on the trope. The feeling of being between worlds is not an uncommon one for people of color traversing the dominant culture while wanting to maintain a connection to their own. Davis’s view of the afro disguise as a hyper-signifier of an ethnic identity that can be literally put on and taken off is a legitimate one. It certainly risks oversimplifying an individual relationship to multiple mutually constitutive identities. What remains unexamined, however, is the degree to which the explicit endorsement of notions of black power are incompatible with his civilian life and role within a mainstream institution (public education) that in large part serves to recapitulate ideological limits on black liberation in an American hegemonic context. Seen this way, the Black Lightning identity, especially when he rejects being a part of the superhero elite, represents an attempt at liberation on his own terms by manipulating those limits through the expectations of whites.

How are we to read Black Lightning’s suggestion that the law would be applied equally? Sarcastically? (Justice League of America #173)

There is one other scene in Justice League of America #173, however, that is worth briefly discussing before we move on to the next issue. In it, Black Lightning is having coffee at Metropolis Police headquarter with Inspector Henderson, a white cop (and part of the supporting cast of the Superman family leading back to the 1940 radio show). The inspector warns BL about the possibility of the city council passing a new law against vigilantes, but the hero is unconcerned. He replies, “Any law that’s gonna affect this boy’ll also hafta affect Superman…and no way that gonna happen in this town” (emphasis his). This seems a little too optimistic if taken at face value, but read in the light of the history of unequal enforcement of laws in America across racial lines, it feels more like Black Lightning is throwing some shade at the hypocrisy. I haven’t read Superman comics of the period, but I doubt Henderson felt the need to give that warning to the Man of Steel. The reality is, as Black Lightning should know, that such a law does not have to affect Superman. It is only as applicable as the police and prosecutors are willing and able to equally enforce it. Black Lightning can’t imagine that law being applied to Superman, but we as readers can well imagine it being used against Black Lightning, and he is reminding us by bringing up the comparison. The experience of being a superhero, with criminals, with civilians, with police, and with colleagues, is always framed by race.

The story for “A Plague of Monsters” (in JLA #174) is pretty straightforward superhero fare for the time—Mad scientists and monsters—but Conway does his best to keep Black Lightning’s presence relevant. The debate among members of the League about Black Lightning’s membership and the soundness of testing him continues. Green Arrow is at his wokest here. He not only regrets the test, but he seems to begin to realize how the very notion of testing Black Lightning marginalizes the African-American hero regardless of the result. When Superman asks him “You don’t seriously believe that Flash and Green Lantern and I wanted Lightning to reject us…Do you?” Green Arrow voices something close to what I said above about it not mattering what the white characters think of Black Lightning. He replies, “What you wanted doesn’t mean diddly, Supes…I’m just countin’ results.” Good on you, Ollie! There is hope (given the right writer) that you’ll learn something yet. While Conway or O’Neil, or really any other mainstream writer of the time (and probably through today) would be hard pressed to actually articulate it clearly through a character’s dialog, racist systems often function specifically because of the lack of conscious intentions, not only despite them, thus leaving people in the dominant culture with psychologically soothing effects of white innocence.

Green Arrow realizing that results matter more than intentions (Justice League of America #174, January 1980)

It should be noted that, while “white innocence” is most commonly defined as white people believing they bear no responsibility for the actions of their ancestors and the role of those crimes in establishing and maintaining the system they still benefit from, I think it also includes a form of deniability the dominant culture puts to use in all contemporary interracial interactions and in considering the unequal results of their current institutions, and that includes superhero teams.

Despite the promise of these conversations, issue #174 course corrects back towards the superhero comic norm of oversimplifying notions of racial harmony and equality, by feeling the need to remind readers that there really are unreasonable black people in our society who are “just as bad” as any bigot. (Again, check out the introduction of Tyroc in Legion of Superheroes for the worst example of this). I guess when you can write a black character to have superpowers, you can make sure than any one example has the kind of destructive power a whole white supremacist society has and leverages daily. You see, the villain of the issue is the Regulator! A black mad scientist who was pushed over the edge when his plan to build a machine to control vermin and help clean up “the ghetto” was laughed at. Now he uses that machine to exact vengeance! “All who have oppressed the poor, all who have denied us our rightful place – – they shall die!” He overcomes his former colleagues at S.T.A.R. Labs (one of whom is also black) and commands rats and roaches into a “mutation chamber,” making them into actual monsters. He then sets them loose on the city. When confronted by Black Lightning, the Regulator names race in a way that marks him as outside the bounds of the superheroic hegemony. He embodies the fearful figure of the black radical in the white imagination. The fact that he controls vermin actually serves to associate him and those he advocates for with such “dirty” creatures. Furthermore, his invention—an actual practical attempt to use the super-science of the superhero genre to address an urban concern—is what drove him mad. He is a foil for Black Lightning. His presence helps move the hero back towards the ideologically acceptable position of respectability. The Regulator says to Lightning, “You’re black, like me — and you call them innocent? They’re the ravagers of the poor! The oppressors. The victimizers!” The unnamed “they,” of course, are “white people,” though I think the comic could not go so far as to articulate that position clearly. The ambiguity of the “they” allows for the accusations to never be connected to white society, while maintaining a sense of how extreme is the Regulator’s position. Black Lightning points out to the Regulator that the people he claims to want to help are the first ones being killed by his monstrous vermin. The weight of the patronizing position that Blacks destroy their own neighborhoods in their vociferous reaction to oppression—thus making them foolish at best and deserving of their treatment at worst—hangs heavy over the scene. The most generous interpretation of the Regulator is that he is a well-meaning bungler overcome with the kind of rage Black Lighting feels but did not give in to when fighting the unbeatable Trans-Visible Man in the previous issue. The fact that the conservative and ungenerous Flash is the one who plays the foe that BL can’t beat resonates for me as I read the story. In that moment, he represents a slippery ideological force that makes Black Lightning increasingly angry and frustrated and then seeks to use that reaction against him. The Flash even seems to be enjoying his role in beating Black Lightning. It makes sense, in this context, that BL would adjust his strategy, change the scope of what signifies victory, and not let the dominant culture define him.

The problematic “destroying their own neighborhoods” narrative is a strong suggestion in this scene when Black Lightning confronts The Regulator. (Justice League of America #174, January 1980)

The comic book doesn’t give the Regulator time to adjust his own strategy, however. The extremity of his position eclipses its reasonable root causes, and once again the genre frames anyone who seeks to use their superpowers to make a fundamental social and political change as a villain. Instead, soon after being confronted with his error by Black Lightning, the narrative makes sure to quickly clean up loose ends by having him slip and fall into a smokestack, and thus, his death.

The story ends as the first did, with Black Lightning declining the repeated offer of membership and declaring he works best on his own. Black Lighting may be repeating what Superman said about him not working well with groups, but somehow when BL says it he comes off as being diplomatic in the face of white power, rather than giving in to it. The Justice Leaguers who are there respect his choice, but notably there is almost a completely different set of heroes present than those that tested him in the previous issue. Superman, Flash, and Green Lantern are gone, instead Wonder Woman, Elongated Man and Batman join Green Arrow and Zatanna. It is not hard to see Superman, Green Lantern and the Flash as a more conservative old guard in this era of comics, but the comics would benefit from exploring that a little more explicitly. Sure, there is always a danger of overly didactic superhero comics, but if a comic book is already going to be didactic why not turn that focus on the invisibility of white supremacy in our notions of justice and respect by highlighting how our established heroes maintain and benefit from it?

Maybe the superhero genre works best when the heroes are literal social justice warriors struggling on the margins of their societies, trying to leverage their power against the inertia of social norms and conditions, and at odds with laws that hold up the status quo. Maybe any time superheroes become part of a hegemony that maintains that status quo through the illusion of change they actually cease to be heroic and move towards the fascistic. Maybe super-teams like the Justice League can only hope to co-opt characters like Black Lightning, or else be forced to turn against them. Maybe, as products of mass culture, superhero comics just cannot be subversive enough to depict an ideal struggle for justice. Maybe Qiana Whitted was right in her response to Noah Berlatsky’s post on Batman and the Outsiders #10, maybe holding these comics to that standard is too much to ask of these comics.

Ultimately, the Black Lightning of my heart exists independent of how he appears in these comics, even if my reading of his characterization in this era lays the foundation of how I’d like to imagine BL. In that way, my relationship to the character is not unlike the one I have to the Invisible Woman. The fact that eventually he would be a part of teams like the Outsiders and then a couple of iterations of the Justice League is only evidence that a character like him must be incorporated into the mainstream ideas of heroism and forced to abandon the cultural roots he was meant to represent. At least, if the character is to maintain a place of any kind in DC comics continuity and not becomes even more marginalized, if not a wholly forgotten. Black characters may be written to eventually forget that they can’t trust even the best intentions of Superman or Green Arrow or any of the flagship white superhero comic book characters, but many readers never do. This empowers them to read black (and other marginalized) characters as reacting to that knowledge whenever possible, even if the narratives themselves are always foreclosing those options, both through acquiescence to white supremacy and overly-broad assertions of progressiveness that time will eventually undermine.

Update: An earlier version of this post erroneously identified Frank Chiaramonte as the inker on Justice League of America #173. This has been corrected to reflect that it was indeed Frank McLaughlin who inked both issues.

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

  1. “Maybe the superhero genre works best when the heroes are literal social justice warriors struggling on the margins of their societies, trying to leverage their power against the inertia of social norms and conditions, and at odds with laws that hold up the status quo.”

    Suddenly I am reminded of the extremely vocal comic book fans on the internet who are rabidly gnashing their teeth and railing against “social justice warriors” who are somehow forcing Marvel and DC to address political & social controversies and create a more diverse line-up of heroic protagonists. I really wonder how many people actually think this is a bad thing. It’s amazingly difficult to tell, because a handful of anonymous yet loud people on the internet can come across as a much larger group than they actually are. Even if it is only a small section of fandom, it is still dispiriting that people who grew up reading about heroic characters who fervently fought for liberty and justice are now opposing actual efforts to make the superhero genre more diverse.

  2. Great, insightful read. Slight correction: Frank McLaughlin inked both chapters of Black Lightning’s JLA appearance.

  3. There was an article on a blog a few years back (can’t recall the name, unable to find it now) that talked similarly about John Stewart Green Lantern, and how some stories in the modern era turn the character back on his initial anti-establishment roots. Kind of proves your point that “that a character like him must be incorporated into the mainstream ideas of heroism and forced to abandon the cultural roots he was meant to represent”

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