Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands #1
“Cold Dead Hands, Part One: Ready to Do It All Over”
Writer: Tony Isabella
Artist: Clayton Henry
Colors: Pete Pantazis
Letters: Josh Reed
Cover artists: Clayton Henry (regular)/Ken Lashley (variant)
Editors: Rob Levin, Harvey Richards & Jim Chadwick
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US
I took note of this comic book’s release this week because it marks a turning point in a creative relationship between DC Comics and a writer, Tony Isabella. The latter has been quite vocal over the years about his dissatisfaction with how the Black Lightning property has been handled in the decades since it debuted, and how he’s been treated as the character’s main creator. With a Black Lightning TV series set to begin next year and Isabella’s return to pen new BL comics, it’s clear the relationship has been repaired. The problem with such a backstory is that it sets an awfully high bar for a creator’s return to the notable character he crafted, so it begs the question: is the comic any good? I’ll be honest that I was expecting something different — something edgier and far more steeped in socio-political issues than it is. I was surprised to find a rather traditional super-hero comic, not nearly as dark as I anticipated. There’s actually an unexpected playfulness to the titular hero that was a bit of fun. Easily the best thing this comic has going for it is the artwork by Clayton Henry, whose crisp lines, paired with some popping colors, bring as much energy to the story as what we see pouring out of the protagonist’s fingertips.
Jefferson Pierce has moved from Metropolis to Cleveland, both to teach and to serve the citizens on the streets as the super-heroic Black Lightning. He quickly finds he’s needed, as the police are overwhelmed by a new gang dubbed the Weathermen. They’re clearly a bunch of young masked men who shouldn’t pose the problems they do, save for the fact they’re armed with advanced energy weapons. They’re definitely no threat to the new electrically empowered hero in town, but Black Lightning soon discovers his biggest challenge might lie in his relationship — or lack thereof — with the Cleveland Police Department.
Clayton Henry offers a lithe and upbeat interpretation of Black Lightning that’s great fun to watch in action. There were a couple of moments in the book in which Henry’s work reminded me more than a little of the style of the talented Patrick Olliffe, albeit with tighter lines. I also found that the brief scene featuring the villain’s enraged sister featured visuals that put me in mind of the styles of such artists as Phil Noto, Nick Dragotta and Chris Cross. I think what I appreciated as much as the convincing movements of the protagonist’s slender frame were his facial expressions. He’s not presented as intense an angry. We even see BL smiling and looking a bit surprised. I also enjoyed Pete Pantazis’s colors. He conveyed the energy of the the hero’s powers vibrantly, and several bold color choices against a usually dark backdrop helped to maintain a brighter tone throughout the comic.
I’m not surprised to see the more modern design for the character’s costume, especially given that appears to be the design we’ll see (or close to it) on TV in a couple of months. I have a lot of affection for the classic look of the 1970s, and a real appreciation of the tweaked update of it we saw from artist Cully Hamner a few years ago in Black Lightning: Year One. Mind you, given Henry’s take on the character, I think the sleeker costume works better here.
Setting the title character up in a new city is a signal that Isabella and/or DC wanted him to have something of a fresh start, or perhaps it’s to bring the property in line with the upcoming television incarnation. Isabella’s script certainly seems to point to an effort to make him more accessible, for this to serve as an introduction. There’s no reference to his time in Metropolis or Washington DC, but the dialogue also makes it clear he has connections to other DC heroes. The new supporting cast is established clearly and concisely without reporting to dialogue that’s overtly or distractingly expositional in tone. So with that in mind, I was surprised at how confusing the villain’s status is. It appears he’s the “real” Tobias Whale, with a reference to a nephew who appropriated that identity. Tobias Whale, o course, was Black Lightning’s archenemy in the 1970s and ’80s, the head of a crime organization known as the 100. But gone is that albino hulk of a man, and in his place is a leaner but still heavily muscled African American. It’s not clear if he’s still going by Tobias Whale, and I was a bit lost. Still, the Moby Dick-inspired names for his subordinates made for an interesting villain motif.
I was definitely expecting something different from this first of six issues. Honestly, I thought Isabella might dive headfirst into the Black Lives Matter movement, especially given some promotional information indicating that he’d be facing off against cops. While there’s some degree of the vigilante-versus-officer dynamic here, injustices that have made so many people leery of police in America aren’t really touched upon here. I also thought the issue of gun violence and control might come into play, given the subtitle of this limited series. It could be that sort of heavier subject matter is coming in subsequent issues; that remains to be seen. I find it difficult to begrudge the lighter tone of the book, though, as it rings a nostalgic bell. Honestly, there were things about this comic that reminded me a bit of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s newly launched run on Marvel’s Captain America title. This comic is appropriate for a wide range of ages, and part of me is glad we didn’t get a grim and gritty take on BL. Nevertheless, I found I was torn between the potential for gravitas and commentary here, and the fun energy and more traditional touch. 7/10
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