If only the rest of it was as straightforward as the cover.
Author: Jen Van Meter
Artist: Cully Hamner
Letterer: Sal Cipriano
Colorist: Laura Martin
Editors: Rachel Gluckstern & Joan Hilty
This is the sixth and final chapter of Black Lightning’s origin story, and while this issue and the story as a whole was *good*, I have a major gripe with it that has detracted from my enjoyment of it. I admire Van Meter’s attempt at parallel storytelling, but damn those narrative caption boxes get annoying by the sixth time around. If you read the collected volume, do yourself a favour – read the caption boxes first from start to finish, then devote your attention to the rest of the story. Instead of hitting us up front with all of the exposition in one go, Van Meter has attempted to spread it evenly across each panel. The problem is, no real thought has been put into their distribution, and it’s impossible to maintain the narrative in your head in between dialogue. Van Meter expects the reader to keep one foot [brain] in the past and the other foot [brain] in the present during the first two-thirds of this issue. It just can’t be done. The backstory interrupts the story at hand and vice versa. Every single issue of this mini-series has been written in this fashion, and after six hits of it, I still find it a jarring experience and a clunky read.
What I believe Van Meter should have done was either begin with three issues of backstory followed by three issues of story (or even alternating between issues), or come up with an inventive way of putting all the exposition in one place. Hollis Mason’s “Under the Hood” biography in Watchmen springs to mind.
As soon as the exposition is done with and Black Lightning’s thinking about the events at hand, it’s smooth sailing. I just wished it was like that all the way through, which is why I recommend readers read the captions exclusively, and ignore them altogether on the second read-through.
Putting these issues aside (and you’re going to have to to enjoy it), the story is, at its core, a good one. In essence, this is the story of Jefferson Pierce the man returning to Suicide Slum to break the spirit of defeat and despair that has strangled his hometown. As the school principal, Pierce shows his students that they don’t need to accept mediocrity; that they don’t need to accept defeat. As Black Lightning, Pierce shows his fellow citizens that they do not need to accept injustice and corruption. This particular issue sees Black Lightning lead his students and the citizens in a final struggle against the corruption of their local government in league with the criminal organisation known as The One Hundred. More on that later.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy this story depends on a few things:
Are you interested in social reform?
Do you believe the world of comics needs [conceptually] stronger black superheroes?
Are you a young black person in need of a wholesome role model?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then Black Lightning is the strongest black role model you’re likely to find in superhero comics, and this book (along with Final Crisis: Submit and Final Crisis: Resist) is the best book I’ve read starring the character.
Artistically, Black Lightning: Year One is stylistically confident and cohesive across all six issues. Cully Hamner’s style is best described as classic American cartooning with a dab of gritty realism. It’s very well-drawn, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. One could argue for more realism given the gritty subject matter, but I think this style helps incorporate the more supernatural elements of the story.
The final battle, I’d have to admit, is a little anti-climactic. It felt as though Van Meter had run out of pages and needed to get it over with. Had the mystery behind The One Hundred been preserved until this final issue, I think the impact could have been a lot stronger (although the revelation itself is strange and probably requires at least two issues to get used to). That it all boiled down to superhero fisticuffs was also a little disappointing.
In case you couldn’t tell, I really did like this story deep down; there’s just a lot to look past in terms of execution. If you’re a patient soul (or the next Malcolm X), and the positives I’ve mentioned appeal to your sensibilities, then certainly pick up issues 1 through 6 or the inevitable trade paperback. If you’re a harsh bastard then save yourself the frustration and avoid.