Comic book showcase: Black Lightning

So I just watched the season premiere of CW’s Black Lightning yesterday.

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It’s pretty good.  The effects were great, the character dynamics were well thought out and have a lot of potential, and it pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to dealing with the…well let’s be polite and say “strained” relationship between black Americans and the police.

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By all accounts the CW has another hit on their hands and it looks like Black Lightning is here to stay, so let’s look at his origins and see what’s changed and if the show can learn anything from the comics.

Origin and Career

Black Lightning was created in 1977, a few decades after the Golden Age of Comics and the favorite time period of this blog.  This is going to require a little explanation.

It’s widely believed that the Golden Age of Comics ended in 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4 and the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash.

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This brought along the Silver Age of Comics, a time period that was known for comics that focused on a more sci fi and technological oriented appeal.

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Magic had been replaced by space science and monsters had been replaced by aliens.

This was also the time when Marvel Comics came into the world as the comic book company we all know and love today.  A little known creator named Stan Lee decided to create a super hero family that traveled across time and space to defeat strange and fantastic threats.

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It did pretty well and helped kick off the Marvel Universe that we all know and love today.

However, by the 1970’s things were changing again, and comics were moving out of the high concept science fantasy of the Silver Age.  Times were changing.  There were protests,

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racial violence,

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and there was a general sense of doom and gloom.

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Yes, the 1970’s were a unique and special time that we will never have to live through again.

The great thing about these changing times was that in the comic book industry restrictions on what comic books could be talk about were becoming looser and looser, and in 1970 we entered a time that comic book historians called “The Bronze Age of Comics”.

This was a time where comic books got darker and edgier, talking about issues like drugs,

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not shying away from violence,

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and launching an explosion of black superheroes.  Luke Cage is probably the most famous and successful of these heroes.

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Anyway, DC had a problem in the 1970’s, Marvel was growing too fast and taking away a huge portion of their business.  So DC decided to try and beat Marvel by flooding the market with a slew of new titles.  One of these titles was going to be DC’s first black superhero and they eventually decided to publish….the Black Bomber.

The Black Bomber was supposed to be a white bigot who hated black people, but thanks to an accident he gained the ability to turn into a black superhero when under duress.

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This is the only picture I could find of him.  The only other reference he got in a comic book was a small reference in a Justice League of America comic written by Dwayne McDuffie.

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Yeah, this was probably not a good idea.

So what convinced the editors at DC to change their mind?  Why one of the writers of Luke Cage of course!

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The guy on the right is Tony Isabella, one of the early writers of Luke Cage.  DC had hired Tony to create their first black superhero and in 1977 he partnered with artist Trevor Von Eden,

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to create Black Lightning.

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Black Lightning’s real name is Jefferson Pierce.  He actually grew up in the poorest part of Metropolis known as Suicide Slum.  After becoming a highly successful athlete an scholar he returned home and he used a newly created power belt that helped him shoot bolts of electricity to clean up the streets of drug dealers and gang members.

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Where was Superman in all of this?  Probably saving Earth from aliens but whatever.

Black Lightning did initially play up a lot of stereotypes that were prevalent among the black community in the 1970’s.  His costume and accent were over the top and almost comical but his intentions were good and he proved himself to be a respectable hero in his own right, gaining the trust of Superman and several other figures in the city in his battle against the gang that had made Suicide Slum their home, a group called The 100 and led by a large man known as Tobias Whale.

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Aside from changing the location, the show appears to be pretty loyal to the comics.  Granted, in his early appearances Black Lightning isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, but that would come later.

So what happened?

Unfortunately the individual series for the character only lasted 11 issues.  While DC had high hopes in regaining its market share by flooding the market with new comics, it didn’t work out so well due to rising printing costs, the 1977 blizzard, and an awful economic recession.  A year later the company cancelled 40% of its titles in an event known as the “DC Implosion”.

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Black Lightning survived, although he would only show up in other books for the next couple of years.  In 1983, he joined a group called the Outsiders, a group of superheroes led by Batman and featured mostly new characters like Katana and Geo-Force.

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So yes, the idea that Batman is everything is nothing new.

In 1989 it was revealed that his powers weren’t the result of his power belt, but they were actually derived from a genetic abnormality known as the “Metagene”, a plot point that has been used throughout the DC universe as the source of power for a large number of their heroes.

DC’s first black superhero would get another crack at a solo series in 1995, and they even brought back Tony Isabella to do the writing.

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Unfortunately, history has a nasty way of repeating itself and the series was cancelled after 13 issues.

Black Lightning has continued to exist in the DC universe as a hero making appearances in other books.  At one point, Lex Luthor actually made him Secretary of Education when he was elected President of the United States.

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But let’s not delve too much into the fact that a comic book company had a corrupt businessman elected to the Presidency, that’s just too unrealistic.

He would also get a family and two children to look after.  Their names were Anissa and Jennifer Pierce and they have been a staple of Black Lightning’s identity ever since.

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Even though he’s never had much of a solo career, Black Lightning is a capable and talented hero with a great backstory and plenty of potential.

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He is a teacher, a mentor, and a very capable role model for everyone in the DC universe but most importantly of all…he has the respect and attention of Batman.

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I think this CW show is going to be awesome.

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Golden Age Showcase: Spy Smasher

Sigh, so we can all agree that these last couple of months have been pretty crappy right?

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I’m not going to go into any great detail on this matter, you can watch the news for that, but I will say that if the heroes that I write about in this blog were alive and around today…I’d think they would be very disappointed.

I thought this would be a good place to put the picture of Captain America punching Hitler, but I thought this one would be more apropos.

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Thank you Superman.

The sad truth is that the reality of the situation is, and always has been, complicated.  While these comic books were created to provide a morale boost to the men and women fighting against fascism,

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fascism had a very real presence in America since it became a thing.

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Yes, those are swastikas next to the American flag and a picture of George Washington.  This is a picture from 1938 at a Nazi rally in New York.  This was a thing right up to the point where we started fighting the Nazis.

One of the things that we’ve been seeing in a lot of these Golden Age comics are superheroes who don’t go off to Europe to fight the Nazis, they find plenty of them here.  While there was a war to fight across the ocean a comic book hero could always find a spy ring, saboteurs, or enemy agents hiding around with plans to disable the war effort.

Maybe the heroes saw that there were other threats that were much closer to home, or maybe they just wanted to save money on air travel.

Either way, let’s dive into some escapism and talk about a hero who held down the home front against the scourge of Nazi spies: the eloquently named Spy Smasher.

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Origin and Career

Spy Smasher was first published by Fawcett Comics and was created by Bill Parker and C.C Beck, the two men who originally created Captain Marvel.

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The hero made his first appearance in Whiz Comics #2 in February of 1940, an issue that was actually the first issue of the Whiz Comics title and has one of the most iconic covers in comic book history.

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The story starts off with a literal bang, someone is sabotaging American military vessels.

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Wait, $20 million dollars for an aircraft carrier?  What a bargain!

Naturally this worries a lot of very powerful men in Washington, and one man decides to share potentially dangerous information with his daughter and fiancee.

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Nazi spies in America?  Preposterous!

Meanwhile, the spies themselves have been busy and decide to steal plans for a mine laying ship, only to be foiled by the timely arrival of the Spy Smasher.  They are led by a fairly creepy individual known as “The Mask”.

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The hero manages to pursue the villains in his Gyrosub.  This is a vehicle that serves as a helicopter, an airplane, speedboat, a submarine, and a completely ridiculous looking vehicle.

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Eat your heart out Batmobile!

Long story short, the hero winds up defeating the spies, even though the main villain escapes.

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The day is saved and the plans are returned.

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In a fairly ballsy move, the creators didn’t reveal the identity of the Spy Smasher in the first issue.  In fact, they didn’t reveal the secret identity of the Spy Smasher for most of his stories.  Sure, it may have been a clever marketing ploy, but even children would have thought it was weird that Spy Smasher and Alan Armstrong were never in the same panel together, and how Alan disappeared whenever there was trouble, or how Spy Smasher had a strange fascination with the woman who was Alan’s fiancee.

Spy Smasher was Alan Armstrong is what I’m trying to say.

It turned out that Spy Smasher’s battles with his arch nemesis the Mask turned him into a pretty popular hero.  He was so popular that he actually had a crossover with Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #16 where he turned evil and tries to hypnotize the hero into doing his bidding.

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But it’s okay because it turned out that it had all been a ploy by the Mask to hypnotize and brainwash the now dead Mask to do his bidding.

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Spy Smasher continued to have a career after the war, although he did change his name to Crime Smasher to fit with the times.

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So what happened?

Alan Armstrong remained a popular staple of Fawcett Comics, right up to the point where they were forced to stop publishing comics in 1953 after losing a lawsuit to DC Comics that claimed they had ripped off Superman.

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While Captain Marvel would go on to have a pretty successful career (he’s called Shazam! now due to copyright issues) Spy Smasher fell by the wayside.  I guess when there are just no more spies to smash you don’t really have a future.  Why they didn’t decide to use him to hunt Soviet spies is beyond me.

Spy Smasher would go on to have a limited career, barely used but not forgotten.  One of his most notable appearances was in the excellent tv show Justice League Unlimited where he appeared in the opening of the episode “Patriot Act”,

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and in Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey series she introduced a character named Katarina Armstrong, a highly skilled global anti terrorism agent with a costume that was heavily inspired by the original Spy Smasher.

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While she looks like Spy Smasher and has his last name, any potential relationship the two may have had is not revealed.

In many ways Spy Smasher had the same career trajectory that a lot of Golden Age superheroes had.  He was popular in the 1940’s and while he fell by the wayside after the comics industry crashed, he was fondly remembered by those who knew and would go on to be an influence for the superheroes of the future.

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If you ask me it’s a crying shame that nobody uses him any more, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind coming out of retirement to fight a few more Nazi spies on American soil.

Golden Age Showcase #3: Miss Victory

Quickly, without thinking name the first patriotic superhero.  This is what you were thinking right?

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Yes if the Golden Age of superheroes is known for one thing it’s the fact that most of it took place during a little world event known as World War 2.  America’s superheroes rose the occasion and so many of them took on Hitler and the other Axis powers that if they had all been real then we would have won the war in no time.

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But believe it or not there was another patriotic hero, one who wasn’t afraid to buck tradition or assumed gender roles that the 1940’s had placed on American culture, one who used her incredible strength and invulnerability to not only help America beat back the Axis powers but to open a unholy beat down on American officials who she deemed corrupt and incapable of doing their jobs: Miss Victory.

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Origin and career:

Miss Victory debuted as a side story in Captain Fearless #1 in August, 1941.  In keeping with wartime comic tradition it shows someone beating Nazis to pulp.

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It should be noted that she predates Wonder Woman by about four months making her one of the first super heroines in comics, although not the first.   In terms of origin Miss Victory doesn’t have one, she just appears in the comic and it is simply assumed she has super strength and invulnerability (hey, it was a simpler time back than).

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Her real name was Joan Wayne, a stenographer (fancy word for someone who writes down conversations) working for the government.  However, instead of simply contenting herself with beating back Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo she decided that it wasn’t enough and turned her attention towards corrupt and deceitful American politicians and law makers (corruption and lies in American government? THAT’S never a problem)  and holy hell was she dedicated to her work.

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Yes Miss Victory wasn’t just a Nazi hunter, she was also a champion of social justice.  As a quick side note, social commentary is another thing that the Golden Age of superheroes was known for.  Superman’s first appearance had him save a man from Death Row, stop a wife beater, and tackle political corruption, it’s just that it quickly took a back seat to Nazi punching.

So what happened?

Miss Victory continued to star in her own short stories in the back of Captain Fearless comics until the comic was discontinued in 1946.  Post war America had little use for patriotic themed heroes and her publisher, Helnit Publishing, had been bought by Holyoke Publishing (it should be noted that Holyoke was no shrinking violet publishing house.  They are responsible for the creation of the Blue Beetle and one of their original artists, Carmine Infantino, was instrumental in creating the modern day Flash) and she was cut to save money.

However, Miss Victory had a much longer career than most of the Golden Age gems we’ve talked about and she would eventually have something even rarer: a resurrection.

In 1984 writer Bill Black and artist Mark Heike resurrected Miss Victory and gave her a new team, the Femforce, which was one of the first all female superhero groups ever created.  The comic was published by AC comics, a company that was founded in 1969 and made a name for itself bringing Golden Age superheroes into the modern era.  Her look was updated.

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and she was given a back story.  In this version she was still alive for WW2 but secretly developed a serum called V-47 to help boost the strength and endurance of American troops.  Sadly, it only worked for her but thanks to the serum she now had super strength, invulnerability, and radically slowed aging which explains why someone who is over 70 years old can look like that.

Now you may be wondering where this particular title went.  The answer is that it’s still going.  AC Comics is still around and you can actually purchase recent Femforce comics on their website.  It just goes to show that when you have a staunch defender of liberty and freedom like Miss Victory it’s almost impossible to make it go away.