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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Black Lightning: Year One

Writer: Jen Van Meter
Artist: Cully Hamner
Colourist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Publisher: DC

What's it about?
Metropolis' Southside is a slum. Ignored by police, run by gangs (well, one gang), even Superman doesn't touch the area - he says his powers don't work there, but that's no comfort to the residents. From a once promising upcoming middle class neighbourhood, the place has sunk to the point that the locals and the rest of Metropolis call it Suicide Slum.

Back to this troubled neighbourhood comes Jefferson Pierce, superstar high school principal with a track record of turning around five schools in ten years – and a secret. A year ago, he started having serious nightmares, and at the same time something started manifesting in his body; electricity and sparks that scorched the bedsheets and frightened his wife. They both hoped the return home to his family, and to help the community where he grew up would help to ease these problems.

But Suicide Slum needs more than a new principal for Garfield High School.

This is the story of the origin of Black Lightning. Not how he got his superpowers, that happened off panel and before the events of the book, and aren't even explained. Jefferson Pierce is just in possession of 'metagene' making him the DC equivalent of a mutant, but without the civil rights metaphor. The subject of race relations in this book are completely literal. Instead, it's the story of how Jefferson Pierce learned to use his powers as another way of helping his family and neighbours, at the same time never forgetting his purpose as an inspirational principal.

What's good about it?
This is a very underrated book – Jan ven Meter is an amazing writer, who deals brilliantly with all the miriad of threads she works through the book. This isn't a story just about a man, it's about a family and a community, and she tells the story through a number of protagonists; the narrative voice in each of the six issues belongs to a different character, starting with Jefferson's wife Lynn, and moving through Clark Kent, a family friend Peter Gambi, finally ending with Jefferson himself.
This has everything I want from a Year One. It understands and demonstrates why Jefferson does what he does – not why he has the powers but why he dons a suit. He's already proven himself a 'hero' before the events in the story, as a teacher and a community leader, so the story instead focuses on the journey of the community gathering around Black Lightning and the inspiration he generates. One of my favourite stories is that of a Trey Creer, a student at Garfield who starts the book torching the Principal's office and ends up a supporter of Black Lightning, trusted with his secret identity, as is everyone important in Jefferson's life. Later he'll be an Outsider (capital O), but in Suicide Slum he's not an outsider, he's a man working with his family and his friends.
Then there's the little details that I love in Year Ones: the references to future continuity and many guest stars. Clark Kent is a major character and Talia Al Ghul shows up in the middle. Jefferson's daughter Anissa, especially, runs through the book as a nine year old girl who loves and idolises her father, with only a one panel visual clue as to her own superpowers.
Anissa Pierce will grow up to be Thunder - a superhero and member of the Outsiders with the ability to control her density, including being able to make herself heavy enough to break the floor beneath her.
The art, of course, is superlative, but I will talk about that later.

What's bad about it?
Sometimes it can get a bit confusing, following the story on the panel and at the same time reading the reflections of the issue's narrative voice in the narration boxes. The art and speech shows one linear story, but the narrator for the issue talks at a different pace and sometimes about something unconnected. This sometimes works, but sometimes I used lost one of the threads and had to double back to find out what I was reading about.
What's the art like?
Cully Hamner is one of the highest calibre artists working at DC; he has the ability to give each of his characters individuality and expression with remarkably few lines. Every single one of the people he draws is instantly recognisable and capable of a deep complex range of emotion.

He's equally skilled at action scenes, making movement seem as effortless as he makes expression, with a few clear, strong lines that convey much more than other 'hyperrealistic' artists. Hamner's style was made for comics, and it shines in every panel. The colours by Laura Martin are bright, strong and bold, and a perfect complement to Hamner's art.
The book is alive with the energy that Van Meter and Hamner breathe into the story. It really doesn't matter if you know anything about Black Lightning or his family, this is a great introduction to the character.

Other Information
ISBN: 1848565410
Price: £14.99
Black Lightning's other eponymous series have not been collected in trade. His most frequent appearances recently have been in the Outsiders title, of which his daughter Alissa is a member. The collected trades start with Looking for Trouble.  We reviewed the series here.

Jen Van Meter is the writer of the independent title Hopeless Savages and has also written a mini-series for Marvel: Amazing Spider-Man Presents: Black Cat. This is another stand alone story that you don't need to know a thing about the character to follow.

Cully Hamner was the artist on the fantastic Warren Ellis-penned book Red - recently adapted into a movie that had very little to do with the book. He's also worked on the excellent Blue Beetle series (start with Road Trip) and The Question: Pipeline, the latter written by Jen's husband, Greg Rucka.


  1. Thank you so much for this excellent review.

  2. I still need to get my hands on a copy of this book.
    Always liked Lightning, he should have had his own title over Mr. Terrific ("New 52"-relaunch thingie), Terrific's powers and type of character make him much more of a valuable team player than character for a solo title..

  3. I was googling for reviews after reading this (picked up issues 1-6 in the quarter bin a while ago) and was very impressed by your review! You have an unassuming style but you cover more bases and convey more info than most wordier, self-impressed reviewers (the most infamous example being how most reviewers barely even mention the art). I also agree with your criticism. I'll definitely be following this blog now. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you! That's a really nice thing to say :)