Fair warning, I’m writing this review from memory, as I’ve sent all my books back to Australia. I’m also in a loud cafe filled with hipsters and old people. I know this book has been out for years, but it’s in my head after GeekGirlCon because I re-read it before sending it back to Australia.
So, Black Lightning: Year One. I think it’s one of the first (of the very few) books by Jen Van Meter that I’ve read. I’ll apologise in advance for not even mentioning the art – Cully Hammer does a very good job but that isn’t what grabbed me at all about this book.
The trade starts on a very strong note. The first issue is powerful: instead of focusing on the origins and how the hero gains his powers, Van Meter instead focuses on themes of returning home, righting wrongs, and the frustration Jefferson Pierce feels as he looks at the neglect of “Suicide Slums”. She conveys the guilt and helplessness Jefferson feels through his stories about leaving the Slums as he goes on to his scholarships and career. She describes the creation of a hero in a relatively understated way, rather than an overblown biopic on how a young dude gets bitten by a spider. This is the story of a grown up man who has found his way, worked out how to fight and overcome the systemic battles others still face. It’s refreshing from that perspective.
The second issue was so hard hitting, I maybe had a bit of a cry. The scenes where Clark Kent visits the Garfield High School, the blunt, matter-of-fact responses to the poverty within the community, and the differences in outlook – Superman’s perceived helplessness in the face of such is a heartbreaking metaphor.
Unfortunately, the mysteries around the 100 Gang that are trying to destroy Pierce and his school quickly reveal themselves to be both supernatural and standard comic book silliness. As the plot ‘thickens’ to reveal the mysterious sources behind the gang’s power, and the major villain is realised, the themes are neglected in favour of a conspiracy and mystery adventure that is more about proving Black Lightning’s relevance and place in the DCU than anything else.
Maybe Van Meter was trying to connect Black Lightning into the wider DC universe, but it felt almost a cop-out. Perhaps it was a way to gain a more definite resolution: the trouble with the sort of realistic and complicated issues that the comic touches on, I suspect, is that there is no way to bring them to a satisfying conclusion that fully engages these themes. Instead, we bring in the supervillain with his secret cult and master plan. Out come the typical betrayer and epic battle tropes. This isn’t to say it isn’t done well and with respect to the setup created, but it is quite clumsy and shoehorned in comparison, and leaves the whole piece feeling hurried.
I’m sounding pretty harsh, which I don’t mean to be. Certainly, while it is a flawed trade, the problems aren’t around Meter’s handling of race and life in low socio-economic areas. They instead come from the plot following comic-book tropes which, really, is a pretty minor issue to have with a book firmly placed in the superhero pulp genre.
From memory, these Year One stories were an attempt at giving lesser known characters cohesive origin stories and exposure. I’d say Black Lightning: Year One does a pretty good job of that aim on top of how it delves into the issues around Garfield High School. Definitely worth buying.