Secret Origins #26: Black Lightning and Miss America

Ryan Daly and guest Luke Jaconetti discuss the origin of Black Lightning from Secret Origins #26. Then, Al Gerding returns to help cover the origin of Miss America.

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“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) written and performed by Neil Daly.

Additional music: “Guy Love” by Zach Braff and Donald Faison; “American Woman” by The Guess Who; “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack.

Thanks for listening!

27 responses to “Secret Origins #26: Black Lightning and Miss America

  1. Great to have you back Al! I’m glad you decided to throw Ryan a bone and have him join you on this one.

    Black Lightning is one of those characters I only know by name, and I think it was mainly a few Justice League themed College Humor sketches that I know him from. I kind of filed him away in my brain under “70s Stuff,” though it sounds like that might have been doing him a disservice (even though he’s clearly a product of the times he was created in.)

    But let’s get to the real thing we all want to talk about… Miss America’s skirt! Magical is an understatement. Looking at the cover my first thought was “are you guy’s sure that’s a skirt? It’s so damn short and clingy I think it would have to be hot pants length shorts with frilly edges. But nope, it’s a skirt. So add “not flashing everybody within a 1000 yards” to her insane list of powers. Though I find it odd that you guys thought she was overpowered. I mean, she is still a woman. Clearly that’s a HUGE starting handicap to anything other than home making. This suite of powers was obviously the only way to overcome her natural inclinations, otherwise she’d have tried to stop those Nazi sympathizers by baking cookies at them.

  2. Useless trivia: I once had a radio show that had “Here she is… Miss America” as its complete non sequitur of a theme song. I eventually changed it to something Doctor Who related.

    Black Lightning: Always great to hear Luke on one of these, despite is misguided love of the Outsiders, though of course, loving Black Lightning isn’t misguided at ALL (only loving character SPAWNED in an Outsiders book). Not sure that I have much to add, but I’ll rubber-stamp the original series and the Year One series as quality comics.

    The Guess Who?’s American Woman: Without a doubt the biggest Canadian hit over in the States, which is ironic, really. Musical intro would have taken me right into the second part of the podcast if I didn’t have to make dinner and race to an improv event. I’ll be back, sir!

  3. Yay, SO is back!

    I dunno, I dig the cover. I know I’m partial to Kevin Nowlan, but I think the poses are cool and, well, MA is hot. Plus I love the SO covers when the heroes are together.

    Interesting that Greg Books did a tribute to Aparo on the splash page for the BL origin, esp. since Aparo was not involved in the character’s creation!

    I had no idea Miss America was such a wonky character. I really only know her from the appearances in All Star Squadron and some text piece that said she was considered to be WW’s replacement in the revised JLA origin. So close to the brass ring!

    As usual, nice episode all around. Greatest exit theme music ever!

  4. I think Brooks was channeling Aparo in about every panel we see Jefferson Pierce in. I remember as a kid assuming this WAS Aparo, with a different inker! The rest of the story doesn’t look a thing like Aparo, but the Pierce drawings, and some of those in Black Lightning in action look like they were traced from Outsiders comics.

    I think I first encountered Black Lightning in a Detective back-up, or maybe it was in The Brave and the Bold? Either way, it was a Batman comic, so when he showed up as an Outsider, it made perfect sense to me.

    I never thought about how many of the elements of BL’s costume cited as “dated” are also seen in Dick Grayson’s original Nightwing costume. Hmmmm…

    Great to hear Luke on the show. His thoughts on Shawn Engel struck a nerve in me again. Still doesn’t seem right, and I didn’t know the guy like many of you all did.

    I’ll also associate Miss America with my beloved All-Star Squadron #31-32. I’m not sure I ever cared for her subbing for the Golden Age WW in the JSA, but then, I guess even Roy waffled on that. I appreciate Al’s hard-sell on the character, and his enthusiasm was infectious, but I think this MAY have been a case where Roy should have just started from scratch with a new origin. With only a handful of GA appearances, there ain’t much to be beholden to. And it’s just plain nuts.

    I do recall reading about Roy wanting to bring in Moon Girl to replace the GA Wonder Woman. She was co-created by Sheldon Moldoff, who had worked on the JSA via the Hawkman feature, so it kind of made sense. She was created by Bill Gaines and company as competition for Wonder Woman, but eventually, her title succumb to the declining sales most super hero titles faced in the late 40s. The title actually morphed into something like “A Moon, A Girl and a Romance” or something like that. Siskoid and co. mentioned it on an early episode of The Lonely Hearts Romance podcast. I guess DC’s “sibling” relationship with EC may have been the door Thomas hoped to go through to get her into the DCU, but it just didn’t pan out.

    Great to have SO back! I really missed it during the break!


  5. Hurray for the end of The end of The winter hiatus. So glad to have this podcast back up and running!

    I am also very partial to Nowlan so I love the cover. Miss America is gorgeous. And Black Lightning looks like Bruno Mars! Uptown funk!

    I agree that the Lightning art is very evocative of Aparo, and looks much less noir than Brooks looked on the Crimson mini.

    Somewhere in my youth I picked up Black Lightning #1, most likely at a yard sale. As a little kid, I was floored by the dead teen on the basketball hoop. This wasn’t a super slugfest ending. This felt real, about as real as comics could be for me back then. That image stuck with me as powerful and it still is today.

    As for Miss America, that story is like a drug trip. As much as I love her look and her ‘any power I need to end the story’ skill set, I’ll take Golden Age Fury 9 times out of 10.

    Glad this show is back!

    1. “I am also very partial to Nowlan so I love the cover. Miss America is gorgeous. And Black Lightning looks like Bruno Mars! Uptown funk!”

      Now I am picturing BL telling an incredulous Batman “Don’t believe me? Just watch!” as he takes out a group of bad guys…

      “Jefferson Pierce gonna give it to ya!”

  6. That’s Miss America done. She had a second (third?) act with the modern Freedom Fighters, but she was one of those characters I couldn’t figure out why she got a Secret Origins and then a Who’s Who entry (in ’88) and then basically faded away. I was happy for the Golden Age characters (and the more obscure the better), but it feels like Roy Thomas had a lot of plans, or was pitching a lot of stuff, but nothing came of it.

    Count me among the Nowlan fans who like this cover!

  7. Welcome back, Ryan!

    So, that cover; all I can say is that Miss America makes Phantom Lady seem demure! I like Nowlan’s art and the figures are good; but, I don’t know why the brick was was included, as the figures don’t seem to inhabit their environment. They just seem the be floating there.

    It’s interesting that everyone see Jim Aparo in Greg Brooks’ artwork (I do to); but, I also see some Joe Staton. It’s more on certain figures and panels; but, it’s there.

    I first encountered Black Lightning in the DC house ads, where you saw the afro wig, with the mask attached. If there is one thing that disappoints me in this story is that we don’t see the wig-mask. I didn’t actually read a Black Lightning story until he had a guest appearance in Justice League of America, where he turns down membership. After that, it was one of the World’s Finest stories, until the Outsiders. However, the 90s series was the first that I read regularly; and, an excellent series it was. Too bad DC and Isabella ended up at odds (again), as he was really cooking on that book; some of his best writing.

    Isabella is a vastly under-rated writer, as he didn’t have a ton of high profile runs and tended more to cult books; plus, the editorial fights. His writing did a lot to turn Mike Gustovich’s Justice Machine from a nice idea into a decent series. He had one of the few memorable Ghost Rider runs and his Shadow War of the Hawkman is a cult favorite. Of course, It, The Living Colossus goes without saying….

    Brooks’ artwork is good; but it would have been so great to see Trevor Von Eden on this, just to have the original team on the origin story.

    One comment, from the perspective of someone who lived through the Bronze Age, in regards to Luke’s points about the era; there was a big movement towards diversity in comics, in that late 70s period. It wasn’t unique, as there was a similar movement on tv. You get a lot of that on tv shows, like Room 222 or the Norman Lear shows, as well as on things like Happy Days. Both in comics and tv you have a lot of liberal writers who wanted to make some points about brotherhood and erasing stereotypes. Some succeeded better than others, while a few too many came across as patronizing and reeking of tokenism. To me, I find that the Bronze Age was a little better at creating real characters, compared to some efforts in recent eras. Now, it often seems like the mandate is to include racial diversity for the sake of having non-white characters, rather than creating compelling non-white characters.

    Thank you for using the classic version of “American Woman,” not the Lenny Kravitz version. I get enough of that on my local radio station (ugh!!!!!)

    Miss America is another case of Roy Thomas using SO to promote his other books. Quite frankly, this character would never had appeared here if Thomas hadn’t of been using her, to retcon Fury’s background. As it is, I don’t understand why Thomas even bothers with the original origin. He showcases how Golden Age it was, with magical trappings, then proceeds to undermine it with what really happened. If he wanted to update it, it just seems like a better idea to just start from scratch. As it is, this seems more than a little similar to what Alan Moore did in Miracleman, not too long before this issue.

    Grant Miehn’s art is fine, though a bit understated. I get the feeling he was overwhelmed by Thomas’ script. His Manhunter was okay, but kind of bland, compared to Doug Rice. He had a brief stint, before that, at Dark Horse, on Mark Verheiden’s The American. That was following Chris Warner, who was also more dominant. Miehn never seemed to find an A-game, until the DC Impact line book, The Legend of the SHIELD. He did a great job there, on one of the central books of the line. Here, he mostly captures the period and delivers the odd goings on with some sense of realism, even the wonky stuff; but, it looks kind of average, for DC of the period.

    One thing the story leaves out is that FBI agent Jeff Healey would retire, de-age, lose his sight, and start a blues band, that would play at roadhouses, with chicken wire cages around the stage.

    My question in all of this, why didn’t we get origins of Magno, Neon the Unknown, and the Red Bee? Come on Roy, you latched onto Miss America but you left those guys as cannon fodder? If you can’t see the potential of a guy in a head scarf or one who can talk to bees, you just aren’t trying!

  8. First off, major thanks to Ryan for having me on and giving me a chance to talk about Black Lightning.

    Secondly, big thanks to the kind words here in the comments.

    @Siskoid, I figured you would be okay with BL more than his Outsider cohorts. And considering it was BL that brought me into the Outsiders, I think it at least does some to flesh out my Outsiders fandom origins.

    @Anj, this is a shoot — I read BL #1 when I was in my 20s and the basketball hoop scene shocked me as well. I did not expect it, especially not in a DC comic for a character whom, at the time, most online fans simply ran down as “oh isn’t this old thing silly.” It’s so clear what Isabella is shooting for in that story, and of all of the titles cancelled in the DC Implosion, Black Lightning is the one which I lament the most. (Also on the list is Steel, and the kinda-but-not-exactly-Implosion title Beowulf.)

    @Jeff, I agree with your point about increasing “diversity” in the Bronze Age versus today. Besides BL, I also defend Luke Cage (a character I got into initially because of Same Name Syndrome, but grew to love because his curmudgeonly attitude lines up with mine to a very real degree) and Shang Chi as characters who fit the mold of “good characters who are of Color” rather than “non-white characters.” Of course, the Milestone characters also fit into this category, as well as Black Panther, naturally.

    This show was a heck of a lot of fun and I am glad it’s back! Can’t wait to hear more, Ryan!

  9. 1) I’ll be glad when The Fire & Water Podcast Network is more popular so I don’t have to look for it at the bottom of page 2 in Google search results when I actually typed out “The Fire & Water Podcast Network” in full in the search bar.

    2) I’ll continue to leave comments on Firestorm Fan for as long as I can on relevant podcasts since that page has a direct comment link.

    3) At least now I can start commenting to Black Canary related podcasts within the same month they’re released, presumably. I’m actually on my desktop right now, so I haven’t tested with my tablet yet.

    Before I begin my rant, I mostly liked Greg Brook’s art in this issue. I don’t know what exactly he was doing here, but the obvious cribbing of the distinctive cartooning styles of Jim Aparo and Trevor Von Eeden for main characters they were associated with juxtaposed against a coarser closer to the artist’s own on secondary characters was the best part of the story. I also loved the final panel beat, possibly the coolest thing Black Lightning has ever done. Even as late as 1988, I think putting a black man and a scantily clad white woman on the cover of a comic book sold on the newsstand in North America was subversive. It’s one of my least favorite Kevin Nowlan covers ever, but it’s still drawn by Kevin Nowlan, which automatically makes it better than most Secret Origins covers, at least. I like it better the more I look at it, because the details are better than the sum of its parts, and the Black Lightning figure looks better isolated from the rest (as is the case on the header image from his Wikipedia page.)

    I have no use for Black Lightning. Black Panther debuted eleven years earlier by single-handedly defeating the entire Fantastic Four, had his first solo strips six years earlier battling Doctor Doom, and had been headlining a solo title for four years before Jefferson Pierce showed up. Luke Cage, Marvel’s version of contemporary African-American film and novel star Shaft, released the forty-second issue of his solo series the month Black Lightning released his first issue of a whopping eleven total. If you combined the total number of books under the title of “Black Lightning,” you would have about two-thirds of the run of one volume of Shadowman, an African-American character you probably forgot existed until I just reminded you. As you guys mentioned, but I mean to reframe it in the worst possible way, Black Lightning was DC’s typical clueless mayonnaise on whitebread version of a Marvel blaxploitation character produced years after that was even a thing anymore (hence Luke teaming up with Iron Fist after the chop-sockey fad wound down to last for another nine years as a duo.)

    I grew up in a barrio, so I was effectively a minority in my neighborhood, and white boys like me had to hang tight with everybody who wasn’t Latino. Most of my best friends up until junior high were black and comic book fans, which meant we disproportionately favored Marvel’s black heroes (including G.I. Joe thanks to Stalker & Roadblock) in our collecting. As a comic book retailer, I found that this was not an uncommon story, as black fans a decade or more older than me could only find themselves in Marvel Comics, since all DC had to offer was Teen Titans. Admittedly, they looked on Black Lightning more favorably than I ever did, but we still busted on him for his lame costume and afro-mask, and it’s not like he was a going concern most of the time. I don’t remember ever selling anyone a back issue of Outsiders, except maybe out of a quarter bin.

    I did collect the first few issues of the ’90s series when they were coming out, because the house ads and his new costume were tight (I still have the Total Justice figure.) However, I dropped the book pretty quick, for the same reason I passed on the recently solicited trade– Tony Isabella. He seems like a nice enough guy and I’ve enjoyed some of his work, especially on Hawkman, but I frankly think he’s a cancer on Black Lightning. It’s funny, because he was in a war of words with Trevor Von Eeden, who claimed the lion’s share of the credit for the character’s creation. To me, from the visuals to the powers to the stories, Black Lightning would be best served getting the Julie Schwartz treatment– chucking everything but the name and starting over from scratch. Except I’m not sure if the name is worth keeping. Black Vulcan has a better power set, a more impressive look, and wider audience recognition thanks to Super Friends. Isabella may have struck a blow for creator rights, but he did not help “the cause” by exerting them in such a way that DC avoided utilizing the character. Further, Isabella’s stories were weak and Jefferson Pierce’s abilities and adversaries were relatively small scale, so really, why bother propping up an early and ongoing failure that’s also a legal headache? Cyborg’s a more viable character anyway.

    I’ve owned a good chunk of Secret Origins for years, but I’ve often read the comics for the first time specifically to follow along with the podcast. This story though is a re-visitation, and I still think it stinks. It’s hard to watch Pierce beat up that dealer through 20/20 hindsight in today’s environment, when he would immediately be fired, jailed, and sued to oblivion, but I doubt that would have flown during the early eighties anti-drug craze or really even in the early ’70s. Then we get Earl Clifford and his girl looking like extras from Grease menaced by 1930s mobsters, all because Pierce excerpted his dunderheaded vigilante justice on a low level dealer. It’s not safe to assume Frank Miller was inspired by Tobias Whale to use Kingpin during his Daredevil run, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he did it better regardless.

    Then the story feels the need to murder Clifford in a particularly realistic and gruesome fashion, and I. Am. Done. That’s the problem with “realistic” comics. I can accept a lot of fantastic elements in fantasy, but the more you ground a story in reality, the more I expect you to adhere to the rules of our common existence. You expect me to believe this kid’s head opened like a melon in the street, and then the guilty parties picked up his body, threw it in a trunk, drove him to a high school, broke in, and vandalized the gym while hoisting 150lbs.+ of literal dead weight 10+ feet off the ground and affixing it to a backboard just to “send a message?” These dudes are supposed to just stroll out afterward looking like Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield during “The Bonnie Situation” without police having them dead to rights swimming in physical evidence, or at least a neighborhood mob killing them for running down their star athlete? OH-OH-OHH! Aaaannnd, we get a pseudo-lynching of a black kid dangling from A BASKETBALL HOOP? Did a button pushing white guy conjure up this fetishistic, stereotypical imagery? Mmmmmyyyeeessss.

    I can’t say it gets worse from there, but it does maintain a proximal degree of badness. Peter Parker is a boy who learns a hard lesson in civil responsibility when an armed robber that he is under no obligation to imperil himself by interfering with as a part-time entertainer and student who ironically slays his beloved uncle. Meanwhile, Jefferson Pierce is an Olympic-level athlete and college educated professional being oriented in his new teaching position who takes it upon himself to assault a drug dealer as his first recourse in addressing a local drug problem that he has no authority over which results in the death of one of his students. 100% our “hero’s” fault. The same “hero” who is assigned a new name, costume and powers by some white dude he knows who merely gifts him everything extraordinary about him beyond his physical prowess. WHAT!?! THE!?! FUDGE!?! Oh but hey, don’t feel bad, because Mr. Black Lightning will up and fail to rescue his White Savior from being gunned down, just like he failed Earl Clifford, because all the young fanboys clamor for ineffectual lightweight heroes who manage Pyrrhic victories against the same few underwhelming villains issue after issue.

    I have no use for Black Lightning, because he’s part of the problem. He’s got a too on-the-nose name and a minstrel costume with generic quasi-powers who forces the JLA to go slumming for an issue so they can have a contrived argument about race before he refuses membership so nobody has to actually deal with the issues raised while still patting himself on the back. He operates at a lower level than most heroes with a fabricated quasi-realism that’s merely an excuse to recycle salacious urban blight tropes who is basically designed to fail (by conscious intention or otherwise) so that pundits can point out that black heroes don’t sell. But see, Spawn was a multi-media empire, because Spawn was a high quality commercial book for its time with a truly empowered African-American hero. Black Panther and Luke Cage never set any sales records, but they’re beloved, iconic black heroes with long and well regarded runs under their belts. And Black Lightning is stuffing shrimp down his pants at Superman’s funeral.

      1. I’m working on a series of Bloodlines: Outbreak podcasts spotlighting individual New Bloods. I clearly love comics, but hate myself.

    1. No, seriously, Frank. Say what you really feel.

      As far as Shadowman, I would say that minority characters who debuted in the 1990s have a substantially different context than those created in previous decades. One of my favorite characters who bowed in the 1990s is Icon, but it’s difficult to do a comparison of his debut series with Black Panther, Luke Cage, Black Lightning, etc. because of the vastly different market they were created for. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “difficult to do a comparison,” instead I should say “I will not be doing a comparison.”

      I would also like to mention another African-American Valiant character who is beloved by way more folks than Shadowman: Quantum, one half of Quantum & Woody. The current Valiant also has several other prominent non-white characters, including Livewire (technopath), Dr. Mirage (mystic), and Divinity (god, essentially).

      1. Luke, my point was that there were better representations of afrocentric super-heroism long before Black Lightning, and that he was a well-intentioned but overall dismal, compromised and unsuccessful addition propped up solely by being DC first’s short-lived lead offering. He’s DC’s version of Marvel’s version of Shaft years after they’d stopped making actual Shaft books & movies. Relative to the big two publishers, he’s one of the tokenest tokens to ever token. He’s the Hourman of black heroes. He doesn’t bring a lot to the table, but he was sitting at the table at the right time, so we’re stuck pretending he was “one of the greats” for all time.

  10. I forgot to mention how the intrusion of Suicide Slum on Metropolis in the name of “realism” contributes to the misperception of Superman as an out of touch tool of the state, or how Batman formed a team out of people who rejected the JLA who proceeded to have watered down JLA style adventures differentiated mostly by how often punny themed teams, Kobra or Markovia turn up, but best to move on to Miss America.

    I don’t have much use for Miss America. Never read any of her original stories and she hasn’t done much in the DCU, so she comes across as one of the many vestigial Americana heroines who got shoehorned into the Golden Age Wonder Woman role Post-Crisis. As described, she sounds like a Fletcher Hanks character, which would fit many people’s definition of “overpowered.” I usually take that term as a euphemism for “under-imaginative” though. It’s all a matter of scale and tone, so if you’ve got a heroine who can transmute matter, you don’t have her battle common thugs. You can give her a limited reserve of her overwhelming power, which worked well enough in her SO story, or have her battle the Nazi equivalent of Uncle Sam and they can throw whole countries at one another like that Spectre cover with the demonic villain smashing him with the planet Earth. Don’t squeeze a size 13 foot into a size 6 shoe’s all.

    Having acknowledged the validity of the concept of Miss America, I can now be comfortable shrugging my shoulders at the character as presented in this issue. That costume is not appealing, and the stories as presented here aren’t compelling, but they’re inoffensive. I thought turning Lady Liberty into a mystical totem to the God-given glory of the U!S!A! was laying it on a bit thick, but it at least had Girl Power instead of painting Joan Dale as a delusional accident of all-male science. The good thing about this Roy Thomas script is that he gives a career overview instead of fixating on every detail of an ancient story or two, but the bad thing is it’s a Roy Thomas script that fixates on the minute set-up for another god-forsaken Roy Thomas comic nobody wanted to read then or now. The how you say El Buffoono Latino was unfortunate, and as always, Grant Miehm is a person who can draw a comic book that can be read by people without complication.

  11. It’s so good to have the show back, Ryan, and I hope you had a bit of a rest during the hiatus.

    That was a lovely tribute to Shawn Engel, thanks for that.

    The Kevin Nowlan cover is just lovely, a fine combination of grace and humour, and I like both costumes a lot.

    Great job Al and Luke, I love the knowledge and enthusiasm. I was with Black Lightning from the second issue of his book – DC debuts never seemed to reach the UK in the Seventies – and liked it as something different. His book felt like an extension of early Seventies Lois Lane, when she was curious (black), fought the 100 and hung out in Suicide Slum with pals Dave and Tina. The origin is a bit dull, he should have got his powers in an accident, not a tailor’s shop. Still, it gives him something to talk to Ragman about.

    It’s a shame Jeff didn’t join the JLA back when it was good, he would’ve been spared the Outsiders experience. I’d say the Nineties run was his best, in part because of the Eddy Newell art. I show a bit of it in this piece I did: The #5 stuff is just stunning. Oddly, Suicide Slum was dropped for ‘Brick City’.

    Miss America’s origin as it stood was so much better, completely wonky and of its time. Roy Thomas should have let it be. I adored Miss America in the Palmiotti/Gray Freedom Fighters – she’s overpowered, you say? Let’s give her more juice!

    @Frank, I’ve never read a Spawn comic, I didn’t even know he was black. Why on earth didn’t they call him Black Spawn…

    1. Being black was never a major point in Spawn, which was part of what made him great. The majority of his cast just happened to be black, and that mostly translated to the animated series and film (the whitewashing of Terry Fitzgerald aside, although they did make Violator a Latino, but then they also replaced Chapel with a white woman, because Rob Liefeld.)

  12. Martin, oh hell no. Spawn usually sucks as a thing to read. It was just very successful at being something Black Lightning was entirely unsuccessful at. I respect Spawn’s accomplishment in proving a best selling comic book and multimedia property could star a predominantly African-American cast.

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