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Magic had been replaced by space science and monsters had been replaced by aliens.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

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. day everyone!

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Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders and in honor of the day I’m also going to post the video to his famous “I have a Dream” speech, which I highly encourage you to watch since it is one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.

Fun fact: the man was also a huge Star Trek fan.

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He was such a huge fan that he personally begged Nichelle Nichols to keep her iconic role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the show.

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Don’t believe me?  The Washington Post can do a better job of explaining it than I can.

Anyway, another tradition that this blog has for Martin Luther King Jr. Day is talking about black representation in the comic book industry.  Today I thought it would be nice to talk about the first black comic book character to star in his own solo comic book series: Lobo.

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Origin and Career

The character made his debut in his own self titled series in December of 1965.

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The comic was published by a company called Dell Comics, which had survived the comic book crash of the 1950’s by publishing Disney licensed comics and grew to become the largest comic book publisher of the 1960’s.

He was created by writer and Dell Comics editor Don Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico.  Both of them were white men from Minneapolis and Brooklyn respectively and thought that having a black cowboy as the main character of a series might be a good sales hook to lure interested readers.

Since the comic was published two years after King’s famous speech and in the middle of the American Civil Rights movement  I can see the logic.

The story itself starts off at the very end of the Civil War, where it is revealed that the main character fought for the Union and is happy to finally be free.

Unfortunately, the unit is attacked by a bunch of Confederate soldiers who haven’t heard that the war is over.  The main character is fed up with the violence and decides to move West to start a new life for himself.  He becomes a cattle drover on a ranch where he is framed for murder and decides to become a vigilante and hunt down other criminals.  His trademark is a gold coin with a wolf’s head on it, which is where he gets his name since “Lobo” is Spanish for wolf.

His name is never revealed and his race is never brought up as a point of contention.  He’s a good and capable man who just happens to be black.

Now, believe it or not, this story does have some basis in historical fact.  There were black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War,

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many people did move out west in an attempt to start a new life after the war and there were black cowboys such as Nat Love who worked in the West as cattle drivers.

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So we have a publishing company at the height of its power, with a character based in a genre that was doing really well at the time and steeped in historical fact, coupled with a good creative team telling a story about a black man in the middle of one of the most progressive and forward looking eras in American history.

What could possibly go wrong?

So what happened?

The series was cancelled due to poor sales numbers.  Basically, how the industry worked back then was that publishers would print a certain number of copies of a book and sell it to retailers who would mark up the price and sell it to the public.  Any copies that weren’t sold would have their covers cut off and returned to the publisher.

After publishing the first issue of Lobo comic book retailers returned over 90% of the copies that Dell Comics had shipped out.

It’s worth mentioning that this is not the case with comic book distribution today since the distribution industry doesn’t allow returns and is dominated by a singe company called Diamond Distributors,

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but that is another story.

While there is not official explanation for the crappy sales numbers it’s probably safe to assume that a comic book with a gun wielding black man on the cover in 1960’s America probably didn’t go over very well with the majority of the American comic book buying public, who just so happened to be white.
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Still, it was a well written, well drawn character with some serious and well meaning effort behind his creation and while we may never grace the cover of another comic book ever again, his position in the annuls of comic book history is assured as the first African American solo comic book character.

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Golden Age Showcase; Nelvana of the Northern Lights

Canada.  From what I’ve heard it’s a pretty nice place.

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As an American I may not know a whole lot about our neighbor to the north aside from hockey, poutine, curling, Celine Dion, hockey, maple syrup, universal healthcare, hockey, Justin Bieber, Molson, and hockey, but I do know that Canada has a respectable place in comic book history as the home of Marvel’s greatest cash cow…I mean greatest bad asses: Wolverine.

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and to all the people complaining about me not bringing up Alpha Flight,

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they came out after Wolverine.  But don’t worry, they factor into this article later.

But Wolverine wasn’t the first Canadian superhero.  Everyone’s favorite hairy man with foot long murder knives in his hands was first published in 1974 and it turns out that Canada had been in the comic book publishing business since the Golden Age.

Today we’re going to talk about Canada’s first true superhero: Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

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Origin and Career

Nelvana of the Northern Lights made her first appearance in Triumph Adventure Comics #1 which was published by Hillborough Studios in August of 1941.

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She was created by Canadian comic artist Adrian Dingle,

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who was inspired by stories told by Canadian painter Frank Johnston.

There are a couple of things to note about this comic.  For starters, the cover is in black and white and you’ve probably never heard of Hillsborough Studios.  That’s because the publisher was created by Dingle and two others to create something resembling what we would call an independent publisher today.  The reason why the comic is in black and white is to cut down on costs, partially because it was a small operation, partially due to the lack of resources thanks to the war effort, and partially due to the fact that the Canadian comic book market wasn’t very large at the time.

Nelvana would turn out to be Dingle’s greatest and most lasting success.

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For starters, she was one of the first comic book heroines ever published.  She wasn’t the first, but she beat out Wonder Woman by three months.  However, she was the first truly Canadian superhero and she was a member and protector of the Inuit people,

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and you could make the argument that this makes her one of the first Native American superheroes ever published (someone correct me in the comments if I’m wrong).

Nelvana is a demigoddess, the child of a human mother and a god named Koliak who was the king of the Northern Lights.

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Her powers were pretty fitting for a demi god.  She could fly, turn herself invisible, travel at the speed of light along the Norther Lights, and could summon a heat ray that could melt through almost anything.

Also, she had a brother named Tanero.

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What makes Tanero interesting is that he couldn’t be seen by white men, he had to turn into a dog whenever they were present.  Thankfully, her brother/household pet proved to be useful as a noble steed Nelvana could ride on.

That’s not weird at all.

In her first seven stories, Nelvana and her brother protected the Inuit people from all kinds of threats from slavers to Nazi agents, thus fulfilling the standard “Golden Age hero kicks Nazi butt” quota.

After seven issues, Dingle took his creation to a company called Bell Features, which allowed Nelvana to add some color to her adventures.

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Her stories took a left turn into crazy awesomeness after that.  Now instead of just Nazis and gangsters, Nelvana fought aliens and mad scientists with death rays.

While her enemies became crazier, Nelvana became a bit more grounded.  She adopted the civilian persona Alana North and gave up a good portion of her mystic origin to become the standard spy smasher super heroine that the real life war effort called for.

Fun side note: did you know that the Nazis actually landed on Canadian soil during the war?  They established a weather station on Newfoundland in 1943 and used it to determine weather patterns in Europe for the rest of the war.

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So it turns out that Alana North would have had an actual job on her hands and that threats of invasion weren’t that far off.

So what happened?

While Nelvana was able to hold her own and become a Canadian symbol during the war, she and her publisher could not survive the glut of American comics that flooded the Canadian market when trade restrictions were lifted after the war.  Nelvana had her last appearance in 1947 and Bell Features ceased publication in 1953.

Thankfully, despite her short history, Nelvana’s story actually gets a happy ending.  While she didn’t last very long, her impact on Canadian identity and culture lives on to this day.

The Canadian animation company Nelvana Limited is named after her.

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They bought the rights to the character in 1971 and currently share said rights with Library and Archives Canada.

And for those of you who are upset that I didn’t talk about the Canadian super team Alpha Flight don’t worry, it turns out that Nelvana is actually the mother of one of the team members: Snowbird.

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But the best part of the story is that reprints of her old stories are actually being published to this very day!  In 2013 comic book historian Hope Nicholson launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint six of Nelvana’s old stories and bring them to a modern audience.

The campaign made its goal in five days and the project is currently being published through IDW.

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Nelvana of the Northern Lights deserves a special place in comic book history as one of the first, and most powerful super heroines in comic books.  While she got left by the wayside due to the limitations of the Canadian comic book industry, she proved that great superheroes don’t have to be American to be popular.

I like to think she was the Canadian version of Superman, a heroine who inspired thousands of other creatives to imagine and create superheroes of their own.

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Golden Age Showcase: Mister Mind and the Monster Society of Evil

So the Justice League movie came out this weekend.

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I haven’t seen it, I probably will despite the negative reviews, and I think I’ll use this opportunity to talk about super hero team ups.

The idea of superheroes teaming up to fight evil together is nothing new in comics.  The very first time it happened was in All Star Comics #3 in 1940 when the Justice Society of America was formed.

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Super hero team ups like this can happen for a couple of reasons.  In the case of the JSA above and the original Luke Cage and Iron Fist books,

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it was a successful attempt at saving the characters from poor sales numbers.  In the case of the modern day Avengers,

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It was a reward for the fans for watching the movies and making the MCU into the most successful franchise of all time.

But it’s not just superheroes that have been brought together, the bad guys get their team ups too.

While one of the most famous examples has to be DC’s Suicide Squad,

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today I want to talk about the first super villain team up in comic book history: The Monster Society of Evil.

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Origin and Career

The Monster Society of Evil was a collection of super villains that were published by Fawcett Comics: the original creators of Captain Marvel.

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Captain Marvel was an interesting hero, mostly because for a brief period of history he was actually more popular than Superman.

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But we’re not here to talk about Captain Marvel, we’re here to talk about the bad guys and the devious mastermind that brought them together.

The Monster Society of Evil made its first appearance in Captain Marvel Adventures #22 in March of 1943.

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The story was drawn by the original Captain Marvel artist C.C Beck,

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and written by one of the most prolific Captain Marvel and Superman writers of all time: Otto Binder.

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The comic starts off with the mysterious and intimidating Mister Mind intercepting a broadcast about an Indian Princess who has a set of jewels that she wishes to donate to the Allied war effort.

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For starters, props to the villain for having a moon base and second, it’s amazing how just on the nose a bad guy named “Captain Nazi” can be.

Why is Mister Mind helping someone like Captain Nazi?  Because it’s evil of course!

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It turns out that there’s more to the princess’ jewels than  meets the eye, and that Captain Nazi is very good at disguises,

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even if his henchmen are idiots.

Captain Marvel manages to track down Captain Nazi, only to find that it was all a trap set up by Mister Mind.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Marvel Adventures #22

While the hero is able to take the villains out one by one, both sides manage to track down a second pearl and the villains make their getaway through the power of teamwork.

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The race to retrieve the pearls would go on for several issues, with Captain Marvel taki.  Interestingly, the mastermind behind the whole operation would continue to remain hidden for two more issues until Captain Marvel finally decides to take the fight to Mister Mind’s moon base.

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It’s a pretty awesome story, with Captain Marvel fighting robots,

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and squid men.

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The Captain decides to search as his alter ego, Billy Batson.  After brushing off an insignificant little worm he’s confronted by a giant of a man who appears to be the real Mister Mind.

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Our hero manages to defeat the villain with an epic headbutt!

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But it turns out that the giant wasn’t Mister Mind at all!

Not to worry though, they reveal the true identity of Mister Mind in the next issue.  You know that worm Batson brushed off of his shoulder?  Yep…that’s the criminal mastermind!

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Oh yes, that’s certainly the face of a criminal mastermind and genius.

Despite his small stature and lack of long range vision, Mister Mind is a capable villain with the ability to hypnotize creatures and humans to do his bidding.  So naturally he teams up with Hitler.

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Mister Mind turns out to be a very slippery nemesis for Captain Marvel and the two would continue their game of cat and mouse (worm and human just doesn’t have the same ring to it) for over twenty issues and ended in Captain Marvel Adventures #46 when he’s captured, tried, and executed via electric chair…

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somehow.

And that was the end of Mister Mind in the Golden Age of Comics, one of the smallest and most devious villains in all of comic books.

So what happened?

Sure the evil worm may have been killed, but we all know that death is but a revolving door in comics so he could have made a comeback.

Unfortunately that wouldn’t happen.  Fawcett stopped making comics in 1953 and DC wound up suing Fawcett for copyright infringement in one of the longest court cases in comic book history.

In 1972 DC Comics began publishing their own Captain Marvel stories under the title of SHAZAM! due to Marvel Comics snapping up the copyright to the name.

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Mister Mind would be reborn as a DC super villain in the second issue of the series where it was revealed that he had survived the electrocution and hypnotized a taxidermist into creating a fake corpse.

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The villainous worm would reform the Society of Evil to include some of the most powerful and deadly villains in the Captain Marvel franchise.

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This would continue until DC reset its entire universe in 1986 with the Crisis on Infinite Earths event and everything was reset.

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Mister Mind would wind up returning to the DC universe in the limited event series The Power of SHAZAM!, only this time he became a tad more…intimidating.

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This version of the villain was a member of a species from Venus and almost destroyed the Earth in a nuclear holocaust.

The worm would continue to be a nemesis of the Captain Marvel series and DC heroes as a whole.  His most recent appearance was in the company’s New 52 reboot, although the Society of Evil didn’t make an appearance.

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He has yet to appear in any recent DC comics.

Mister Mind is one of the most interesting comic book villains to ever come out of the Golden Age of Comics.  He was smart, capable, and evil to the core but needed to manipulate others to do his dirty work for him.  Outside of stalwarts like Lex Luthor and the Joker, Mister Mind has one of the longest and most successful careers of any comic book super villain and I would be very interested in seeing if DC decides to do anything with him in the future.

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