Written by Tony Isabella
Art by Clayton Henry, Pete Pantazis, and Josh Reed
Edited by Harvey Richards and Jim Chadwick
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: January 3, 2017

I used the sledgehammer on Bush, I don’t bother with the rapier. […] I like moving in and really hurting them. I don’t like this let’s be cute and let’s be clever. I like smashing them, it’s the only way to take care of them.

– George Carlin, Countdown With Keith Olbermann 10/23/2007


It’s just short of a year since Deathstroke #11 and just over two since Batman #44, and the emergent strain of a new kind of racial justice focused social realism at DC Comics is only getting brighter and bolder.

One of the most exciting things about Tony Isabella returning to his creation Black Lightning to pen a politically charged story about institutionalized racism and its deadly consequences is that there’s a broad body of recent work to consider it within: most immediately Deathstroke #11 and Batman #44 at DC and The American Way from Vertigo, but also Nighthawk from Marvel, Black from Black Mask, and even, to a certain extent, the Artists Against Police Brutality anthology from Rosarium.

Having a number of  mainstream comics addressing the plague of unarmed Black men, women, and children being killed during police interactions and while in police custody means that we can begin to examine the nuances of those portrayals in the context of 2017 marking the third year in a row that police have killed over a thousand people in the United States.

What strikes me the most about Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands in this context is that, beyond it having far more room to breathe as a six-issue mini-series than Batman and Deathstroke’s one-offs, is that it portrays Jefferson Pierce as a central, connected member of a loving community of color doing its damnedest to stand in solidarity against the forces trying to shred it to pieces. It’s a stark difference from the chaotic dysfunction of Priest’s Chicago or Snyder’s utterly degraded Gotham.

Isabella’s Pierce and his community are a kind of inverse of David F. Walker’s conception of Nighthawk and his relationship to Chicago that, once Black Lightning wraps, will most likely allow the two series to be seen as opposite sides of the same coin. Walker’s Nighthawk is an alienated loner deeply informed by Bruce Wayne waging a bloody one-man war to reclaim a community that has more or less already been destroyed. Isabella’s Pierce is a high school teacher dedicated to harm reduction and de-escalation in a community standing firm against the onslaught.

It’s a complementary opposition that carries through to the artwork of both series. Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain turned in Hype Williams worthy neon drenched, blood soaked tableaus laden with callbacks to WWE wrestling and sneaker culture, creating a context for cathartic violence as a response to the very real forces of white supremacy arrayed against Kyle in Nighthawk.

By contrast, Clayton Henry and Pete Pantazis downplay the blood and stick to natural lighting to deliver a clean, mid to late 00s house style that makes Black Lightning the literally lightest and most aesthetically accessible mainstream superhero comic to tackle these issues head on, especially compared to Jock and Lee Loughridge’s sharp edged, desaturated Gotham in Batman #44 or the oppressive, impressionistic gloom of Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Chicago in Deathstroke #11.

These are seemingly minute, but important creative choices that deeply inform a series that is shaping up to be far more accessible than its predecessors to the youth and teens that have increasingly had to navigate conversations with their parents and teachers about the exact same scenarios that Isabella and Henry have been weaving into the series, most disturbingly this issue with the near complete massacre of a black family due to an avalanche of malicious, sloppy, fearful, and above all, racist policing.

While all the comics under consideration in this review are valuable and much needed perspectives on the deadliest facets of the contemporary Black condition, careful attention to how these comics — many of which are executed by majority white creative teams for a majority white audience — can be seen as contributing to the spectacle of Black death despite best intentions.

It’s a precipice that I don’t believe that Isabella and Henry, nor any other creators named here, have crossed yet. But it’s one that deserves to be recognized and contemplated at the close of a year that saw deep fault lines emerge in the comics community over Howard Chaykin’s withdrawn cover for The Divided States of Hysteria #3 featuring a gruesome, racist hate crime and the fine arts world similarly erupted over a painting of Emmett Till’s corpse by a white artist showcased at the Whitney Biennial.

Isabella’s focus on Jefferson’s position in the community and the special detail he’s paid to portraying his vision of Cleveland’s Brick City as a community being drained of resources that closes the gap through solidarity and generosity is a key part of why I believe that Black Lightning hasn’t crossed the line into exploitation of Black pain as a salve for white, liberal guilt. Isabella is careful to balance the racial violence and tension that Jefferson intervenes in with not only the awakening of his students to prejudice through art in the classroom, but the simple joys of superhero fiction.

This issue is particularly notable as far as the latter is concerned, as the source of the weapons, and the technology behind Jefferson’s suit, is revealed to be Durlan, a deep cut that winds its way back to Legion of Super-Heroes lore. The reveal that Jefferson’s tailor is a shapeshifting alien who named themselves after Sailor Moon is exactly the kind of goofy levity that a series as generally heavy as Black Lightning needs, especially since I’ve been desperately starved for Sailor Moon references since Babs Tarr left Batgirl and Marvel ended Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat.

More importantly, this issue is shipping the same week as Batman and the Signal #1, Duke Thomas’ long awaited debut as a solo hero. What’s imperative is that even if Black Lightning’s creative team have shored up the bleak, violent realism of their subject matter with lighter elements, is that there are options for Black representation beyond misery and violence. As Terrence lays out in his review of the debut issue, Batman and the Signal digs into Duke’s otherness within the Bat-family by blending his meta-human status with his race, but the fanciful elements of that otherness make it just relatable enough to its intended readership without plunging into the full depths of what it means to be a young Black man deemed dangerous in urban America. Batman and the Signal is explicitly about daylight, hope, and empowerment.

Which is a key illustration of why we need depictions of Black pain and grief of the kind evoked in Black Lightning #3 to be tempered by not just Batman and the Signal, but a wide spectrum of perspectives on the Black experience from Bingo Love and Black Panther to Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and the forthcoming Archival Quality. If comics as a medium wants to assert that Black Lives Matter, it means that we have to recognize that they matter far outside the context of when they end violently, that we enable and support Black cartoonists bringing their full selves to their work, whatever that entails.

What’s truly remarkable to me about this issue in particular is how much studied, granular verisimilitude Isabella was able to condense into a single panel, let alone the entire issue. The first panel of the third page depicts the shooting death of Rick Simmons, described by Jefferson’s narration as a local bodega owner. The narration of that panel describes the pattern of targeted harassment by a police officer named “Sessions” whose repeated arrests of Simmons, each ending with charges dropped, lead to his intentional criminalization and what placed him where he was on the day that he was fatally shot in the back running from a police car while handcuffed to protect his children.

Beyond the unmistakable call out of current US Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, referencing his directive to prosecutors telling them to seek the maximum possible sentences, the series of events that lead to Simmons’ criminalization is patterned after the absolutely real strategies that go into policing communities of color exposed by the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent demonstrations.

What the panel doesn’t quite get to is that this is a strategy exploited by police departments like Ferguson’s as a means of generating income for the local government off the backs of an impoverished community of color, and that this strategy resulted in an average of three warrants issued per household for a population that is 67% Black, a segment of said population that accounts for 97% of the arrests between 2012-2014.

Even so, it’s a key example of the intricacy of Isabella’s writing and how deeply its shored up by real world examples. The brutal, unnecessary shooting deaths of Simmons and his wife in the opening pages of the issue might seem like hyperbolic exaggerations to some, but anyone who’s familiar with the deaths of Freddie Grey, Sandra Bland, or Quintonio LeGrier is well aware that the only fanciful element of the scenario is the supervillain who began the chain of events that lead to the shooting.

Isabella has been incredibly deliberate in the way that he’s plotted out the interactions between police and civilians since the first issue, making Jefferson’s inner monologue a space to talk through the finer points of the consequences of racism and racist policing, particularly the hero’s musings on trigger bias in issue #2 after deciding that calling the police on a white drug dealer operating at his high school was the smartest and safest course of action.

It’s a concept central to this issue, which, as the cover suggests, is constructed entirely around the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot dead by police while playing with a toy gun in Isabella’s hometown of Cleveland, where the comic is set. What becomes clear this issue, especially given that Rice is named explicitly, is that the entire conceit of the Durlan weapons, typically referred to as “science fiction guns” prior to this issue’s reveal, was in service to this moment. Tamir Rice’s death is the axis around which this entire mini-series is constructed.

Isabella takes great pains to make the audience aware that everyone from the police to Black Lightning himself are well aware that the “science fiction” gun that the children at the center of the issue ran away with out of pure fear is completely unusable and thus pose no threat to anyone, despite the fact that the story spirals towards a situation in which they will almost certainly be shot dead.

Black Lightning ultimately saves them, but this is the furthest thing from an eye-rollingly naive story where a superhero intervenes to solve a real world social ill. In the moments after Jefferson stops the SWAT team bullets that would have killed the children, the “reasonable” officer on the scene makes it clear to him that his choices are to either surrender or flee because the officer’s colleagues are itching to shoot Jefferson out of fear, hatred, or some combination of both. It’s a disturbingly timely portrayal of the perils of militarized policing, given that the LAPD made an arrest in the case of a fatal shooting in Kansas stemming from a notorious GamerGate tactic known as “swatting” days before the issue hit stands.

Ultimately, Black Lightning #3 is an intricately and powerfully constructed depiction of a kind of routine racialized violence that we need to dedicate ourselves to minimizing and eventually eradicating both in real life and in fiction to make way for the full and unapologetic flowering of Black America.

The Verdict: 10/10

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