Saturday, November 04, 2017

Black Lightning, White Knight

The first issue of a new, six-part Black Lightning miniseries came out this week, perhaps the most significant element of it being that it is written by the character's co-creator, Tony Isabella. That is pretty significant given that Isabella and DC Comics haven't been on the best of terms in a very long time, but they seem to have finally gotten on the same page regarding Black Lightning, just ahead of an in-development Black Lightning TV show. That's good; I hope everything worked out to Isabella's satisfaction, and that it continues to be an agreement he's happy with. DC doesn't exactly have the greatest track record in terms of not going out of their way to be dicks to creators who have gifted them with extremely valuable intellectual property decades ago, you know...?

I found a few things about the first issue a little ponderous. First and foremost is, of course, its very existence: I'm not entirely sure what the point of comic book miniseries is anymore in the age of almost instant trade collection. It's one thing if it's a big, status quo-altering event miniseries like Marvel's Secret Empire or DC's Dark Nights: Metal, where fans feel a pressure to read it just to keep up with what's going on, but for a character-specific, quasi-canonical series like this? I have a hard time imagining that Black Lightning has a big enough fan base to make publishing a six-issue, $3.99-a-pop minseries worthwhile (I suppose the idea is to have a trade collection available to sell when the TV show comes out, of course, and maybe DC wanted it to be something newer than Jen Van Meter, Cully Hamner and company's not-so-bad 2014 Black Lightning: Year One (although according to Amazon, it looks like a new volume of that is slated for January, so I guess DC wants multiple, contradictory Black Lightning trades in print, for some reason?). Or perhaps soliciting new Black Lightning work from Isabella was part of their negotiations to patch things up.

The second thing is the weird title: Black Lighting: Cold Dead Hands. I'm not sure why on Earth they would attach a phrase associated with late actor-turned-NRA spokesman Charlton Heston's defense of his right to have whatever the fuck kinds of guns he wanted for whatever reasons, but maybe it will become apparent in future issues. There are some firearms in here, but they are, of course, of the alien tech variety. The police threaten and take shots at BL a few times, and there is some not-so-subtle references to police attitudes towards black men in the issue, but that's about it for gun-related content in the issue.

The third (and rather frustrating) thing is where this fits in with DC's fluid--and growing more fluid?--continuity. I know they already introduced Black Lightning into the post-Flashpoint, rebooted New 52 continuity. That was in the extremely short-lived DC Universe Presents series--you may have already forgotten that existed--in which Marc Andreyko, Robson Rocha, Oclair Albert and others introduced him alongside Blue Devil (Black and Blue--get it?).
He had a cameo or two in the pages of Justice League, too*. I'm not entirely sure if this Black Lightning is meant to be the same one or...what. Like most comics readers, I didn't read a single issue of DC Universe Presents, so I don't know for sure. Isabella has his BL referring in narration to a move he learned from Cyborg, the fact that The Flash told him he kept his costume in his ring (Huh...does New 52 Barry Allen do that...?) and, most weirdly of all, he mentions a character I never heard of, and says that character was defeated by The Red Bee. The Red Bee! A Golden Age character, The Red Bee shouldn't exist at all at present in the DC Universe, should he...?

Regardless, it seems that this version of Black Lightning is at once new, being an unknown element in the new city he's operating in, but also extremely experienced, with a variety of applications for his powers. And he and the book refer to things that have happened before in the past, like another Tobias Whale who isn't the real Tobias Whale.

Anyway, this is yet another example of a worst-of-both-worlds DC comic vis-à-vis continuity, in which the work tries to take advantage of the shared universe and its many characters, concepts and previous stories that originated on the other side of a reboot specifically designed to sever all of that very connective tissue and start fresh. The book it reminded me the most of was the recent Ragman relaunch, another limited series re-introducing a character that was previously introduced into the current continuity, and in such a way to make me wonder which story is meant to be canonical, if they contradict one another so sharply).

Black Lightning is a character I actually have a fair degree of fondness for, although I always found a few aspects of the character problematic. They were exactly the sorts of things that could have--and should have--been fixed in a reboot, but neither has been. At least, not entirely.

One is the costume, which for all its iterations rarely features black-colored lightning bolts on it anywhere. Same goes for this one. There is some black in the costume, and there are some lightning bolt shapes, but those are blue and yellow (The two blue lightning bolts one either side of his chest do frame the black in the middle as a kind of black-colored lightning bolt, or at least a portion of it, extending from his neck to his waist, but it's missing the tip of the lightning bolt shape).

The other is the name of the character. It is cool-sounding name, and works great for a character introduced in 1977, when blaxploitation was a film genre of the only very recent past. But in the 21st century? Especially if we're meant to believe Jefferson Pierce got his electricity powers within the last few years--hell, during the Obama administration:? Why is he calling himself "Black" anything, instead of, I don't know, Lightning Man...?

My solution was to give him black-colored lighting, so he could plausibly use the name, while it would refer to his power, rather than his race. Said lightning could either be literally black, or perhaps a purplish color, like that of the "black" light that emanates from black lights.

Well, no dice. Black Lightning is still shooting electric blue lightning.

So looking at the dude, it really seems like he should be named Blue Lightning. Unless you are going by the color of his skin, which, in 2017, isn't really the way we should be naming our superheroes. I don't know though, this is Isabella's first chance to write his 40-year-old creation in a long time; perhaps he will get to why Black Lightning is called "Black Lightning" in the remaining 100-pages or so of the story.

Despite what likely reads like a lot of complaining and nitpicking, I actually thought this was a surprisingly solid first issue. As a native northeast Ohian who now resides a half-hour from the city, I am obviously excited to see the series is set in Cleveland, where it appears that Jefferson Pierce is going to be the new resident superhero (Isabella, by the way, is a Cleveland native). There are some mentions of Cleveland-specific details, but I don't know that pencil artist Clayton Henry necessarily nailed down the look and feel of the city. That said, I'm curious to read it--well, in trade someday--for the location alone. I mean, it's not going to be as Cleveland a comic book as, say, anything Harvey Pekar ever wrote, but it is and will be fun to see the city filtered through a corporate comics lens.

I thought the costume was pretty decent...Black Lightning has certainly worn worse ones over the years. I think the essential design is okay--even if I prefer black lightning bolts in there somewhere instead of blue ones, and I think the costume that Jefferson Pierce and I designed in the early days of this blog in the previously linked-to post is better--and its only really major flaw is the "functional" look, including seams and padding and armor. (Oh, and the dumb-looking visor, which looks a lot different on the inside of the comic.) This, of course, is the problem with pretty much every post-Flashpoint costume in the DC Universe.

Henry's a strong artist though. While the work is not so dynamic or stylized or original that this is a comic book that one needs to read for the art alone, the storytelling is strong and there's nothing wrong with any of the panels on any of the pages.

Aside from the name-dropping mentioned earlier, and how unmoored this feels in the shared setting, the writing is fine.

All in all, I thought the first issue turned out a lot better than I feared it might.

I would feel weird recommending a book I myself wouldn't buy, but if you like the character and don't mind dropping $3.99 on a single issue knowing it will be collected in a few months time, well, I guess you should buy this.

I have now read the first two issues of Batman: White Knight, Sean Gordon Murphy's Elseworlds-style miniseries in which The Joker breaks good and it seems to be that Batman is gradually being set up as the bad guy.

Murphy is an excellent artist, and it was his artwork more than the concept that attracted me to the pages (I know he's written comics before too, but this is the first of them I've read). He is playing with some very interesting ideas here--in fact, I would say some of them go beyond interesting, and are compelling and, in some cases, relevant.

There's the metatextual criticism that the way in which The Joker has been treated as both a criminal and a person with mental health problems in Batman narratives doesn't make any sense; there's the idea of the wealthy monetizing Gotham City's crime and profiting from Batman's war on it; there's the idea of Batman as an attack dog for the one-percent (a modern-day take on the superhero-as-fascist theme); there's the idea of the police department's tolerance and encouragement of Batman is a form of police brutality and a violation of the justice system.

This week's issue, in which a Batman: The Animated Series-inspired Harley Quinn shows up to defend the cured-and-reformed Joker from a Suicide Squad movie-inspired Harley Quinn was interesting; Murphy's take was the reason the two Harleys are so different is that they are actually entirely different women; The Joker was just too crazy and obsessed with Batman to ever even notice the change.

Something about the series didn't quite feel right to me as I was reading it though, and, at this point, it is more of a feeling than something I am positive I can identify and articulate, but, by the end of the second issue, I think I might have a pretty decent idea of what it is.

In the solicitation text and promotion of the book, it seems like an easy enough, elevator-pitch of an Elseworlds comic: What if...The Joker were the good guy, and Batman were the bad guy? The thing is, that's not quite what it is. Although it might slowly be heading in that direction, it hasn't arrived there yet by the end of the first 40 or so pages. At the start of the book, Batman is quite clearly in his good guy role, and Murphy even provides him with a pretty plausible explanation for acting slightly more unhinged than usual.

I think the thing that bothers me about the book is that it's unfocused in its story. That is, the best Elseworlds stories, and before them, "imaginary stories," can generally be boiled down into something very, very specific. Marvel's most historically prevalent version of this, the "What If...?" stories, actually makes that clear. The story should start from a clearly recognizable point or place, and then diverge in a way simple enough to be described in a single sentence; in the Marvel formulation, a single question.

The most influential and enduring of the alternate takes on Batman is, of course, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which basically just extrapolated a possible future for the character after a retirement. (It's not the fact that it's an alternate future for the character that made it what it was, of course, so much as the way the story was told.) After Brian Augustyn, Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell's "What if Batman was around to fight Jack The Ripper?" comic, 1991's Gotham By Gaslight, DC created their Elseworlds imprint. At that point, alternate takes on Batman came at an almost dizzying pace: What if Batman fought Dracula, and then became a vampire? What if Batman was a cowboy? What if Batman was a pirate? What if Batman was Frankenstein's monster? What if Batman was Green Lantern? What if Superman was Batman? And on and on.

I'm not saying all of these stories were great ones, but the better of them and their ilk were simple in their conception. White Knight, by contrast, doesn't start with a familiar place, and so when it comes to its defining deviation--The Joker going sane and becoming a heroic champion for Gotham City--it feels muddled amid all the other little deviations.

That became most apparent to me while reading this second issue, as its conclusion involves a gathering of Batman's rogue's gallery. Its make-up is essentially that of the villains who appeared in Batman: The Animated Series, something solidified by the presence of Baby-Doll, and even a pair of references to the "Almost Got 'Im" episode (That and the fact that none of the villains who appear didn't also appear on the cartoon show). They are all rather radically redesigned though, and while it's a bravura scene of design work, the fact remains that for all its suggestion of that particular Batman narrative, the series quite clearly isn't "What if The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series became a good guy...?"

Batman works with Nightwing and Batgirl; there is no Robin. There was a Robin, and he was Jason Todd. The Joker kidnapped him at some point and brutally tortured him, but Todd went missing, and no one knows where he is now (So he'll probably put in an appearance before the end of the series).

Mr. Freeze, who is working closely with Batman on a project, is here about two generations older than Bruce Wayne, and became Mr. Freeze sometime in the 1950s or so.

The Joker has a more-or-less definitive sounding origin. His real name is Jack Napier (as it was in the first Batman film), and rather than his appearance being the result of an accident at a chemical factory, it's make-up (as it was in...I don't know; the 1960s TV show, maybe? Or The Dark Knight...?).

That's a lot of little differences, but they add up. I think that is why something feels off about this comic series so far, and I wonder if this might have been an all-around stronger book had the starting point of Murphy's story were more rigorously worked-out at an earlier part of the development process.

Visually, it's a great comic so far. Underneath the pages, though? It leaves something to be desired.

*The Outsiders appeared very briefly during Grant Morrison's Batman, Inc and, more recently, in one of the lead-ins to Metal; I'm afraid in both cases I can't remember if Black Lightning was shown next to the other members of the Outsiders in either instance or not, though.


Jose Gregorio Bencomo Gomez said...

Yes, the Joker wore makeup in The Dark Knight, and you can see the makeup running thinner through the movie.

The main problem with White Knight is it's an Idiot Plot, that is, a plot that only works because all the major players behave like idiots.

Why does New! Harley suddenly start attacking and provoking the Joker, hoping to unlesh the homicidal maniac in him, when she knows that if she succeeds said maniac is most likely to try and kill her over that abuse? Because she's an idiot. Why doesn't Batman keep a watch on the Joker after he's released, like he tends to do with all paroled villains from the Golden Age to the Adam West show to Batman TAS? Because he's being an idiot. (And being distracted by Alfred's condition might be an excuse, except because he's still got enough time to attend social galas).

Why do all Gotham villains go to Joker's and then ACCEPT DRINKS FROM HIM, when it's clear they weren't thinking he'd be actually reformed? Because they are being idiots. Heck, even something like the rich scumbag conveniently forgetting about Bruce Wayne being orphaned by crime so he could deliver the token speech on crime as a business was also plot mandated idiocy in my opinion.

Peter said...

That Black Lightning post is my favorite and I think about it alot. He SHOULD have black colored lightning!

And Black Lightning was in the Outsiders lineup shown in DC Metal but not the one shown in Batman Inc.

K Tam said...

Sean Murphy also wrote & drew "Punk Rock Jesus" for Vertigo. It had a similar kind of satire, where in the future they found Jesus's DNA, cloned him, and now follow the clone's childhood in a Reality TV-show-esque kind of way. Great concept, beautiful pencils from Sean, enhanced by the fact that there weren't any colors -- just black & white ink.

It too became convoluted, and I jumped off halfway. Sick art though!