In this exclusive preview at DC Comics' Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, writer Tony Isabella and artist Clayton Henry share how the upcoming CW series influenced this new book.
In 2018, Black Lightning, DC Comics’ first black superhero, will make his way to the small screen in a CW series, executive produced by super-producer Greg Berlanti and starring Cress Williams (Friday Night Lights) as the titular hero. Before that happens, however, the hero also known as Jefferson Pierce is returning in his own comic book series written by the man who created him.
EW has an exclusive preview at DC Comics’ Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, which hits stands Wednesday. This new six-issue miniseries pairs writer Tony Isabella, who created the electrokinetic superhero back in 1977 with Trevor Von Eden, with artist Clayton Henry (Harbinger) for a story that features an updated version of Black Lightning and promises to tackle social issues.
In issue #1, we meet a Jefferson Pierce who is 28 years old – the youngest he’s ever been portrayed — has moved back to Cleveland to teach at a high school, and is fighting crime again. Unlike the TV show, this version of Jefferson doesn’t have two daughters. However, Black Lightning isn’t the only character who receives an update. His archenemy Tobias Whale, who was typically depicted as a heavyset albino, now has an athletic build and is no longer albino, but he’s still causing trouble for both Black Lightning and the city.
With this series, Isabella and Henry hope to create a thought-provoking story that also entertains and increases Black Lightning’s profile even more.
“I wanna see Black Lightning lifted to where I’ve always felt he should be in the DC pantheon, which is right up there with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman,” Isabella tells EW, with Henry adding, “There’s more to this than just superhero vs. super-villains, and whether a reader agrees 100 percent with how Black Lightning feels on certain social issues, maybe you can at least understand the subject matter a little more.”
Read on below for a preview at the first few pages of the new miniseries and to hear Isabella and Henry’s thoughts on their new series and the upcoming TV show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I would like to start with Tony. How does it feel to be returning to the character after so long?
TONY ISABELLA: I’ve always said that Black Lightning is my favorite character and I will write Black Lightning stories until they pry the keyboard from my cold dead hands. This is the third time I’m writing Black Lightning and every time I’ve tried to do it somewhat differently while keeping the core values of the character. This new series, Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, is the most different from any of the other Black Lightning series I’ve done.
Why was this the right time for you and Clayton to team up on a new Black Lightning miniseries?
ISABELLA: I never call it a miniseries. To me, it’s a six-issue series because I hope to do more. DC reached out to me a few years back. We started talking. We were all on the same page in terms of how important this character is, and when they gave me the opportunity to come back to him and pretty much do whatever I wanted, I signed up immediately.
CLAYTON HENRY: DC reached out me about the book through an email. It was perfect timing. I was actually working for a company just before DC sent me the email, and I was looking to make a move, and out of nowhere I got an email from Jim Chadwick asking me if I’d like to work on it, When they said it was Black Lightning, starting with the #1 issue, it just sounded very exciting to me.
Clayton, what attracted you to drawing a new Black Lightning book?
HENRY: I didn’t know that much about the character. I actually had to do a tad bit of research. To be honest with you, I don’t read a lot of comics. I’ve always been into the comics for the artwork, so I didn’t know much about it other than the name was familiar. I know it’s an important character as far as when he first came out, he was one of the few black characters to have his own book. When I heard about the subject matter — a lot of social issues that would be intertwined in this story — that only made me want to do it so much more because it feels even more important.
What social issues are you planning on tackling in this book?
ISABELLA: My idea for the series was, “Real world problems in a superhero universe.” So, we’re dealing with gun violence, but, of course, in a superhero world that gets invaded every other week, this is super weapons. We’re dealing with police violence. We’re dealing with crime. We’re dealing with education. We’re dealing with racism. All of those are part of the story. They enrich the story without making the comic books all about the issues.
When we pick up with the story, where do we find Jefferson Pierce?
ISABELLA: In this version of Black Lightning, he’s younger than he’s ever been before. We’re not following all of the steps of the previous continuity. He’s not been Black Lightning for a couple of years because he moved back to Cleveland with his father, who was dying, so that they could reconnect with their family. When the series opens, his father has recently passed, Jeff’s getting ready to teach at a high school in Cleveland’s inner city, and he’s just getting ready to come back as Black Lightning.
HENRY: That might be the setting where he is in his life, but Tony actually threw me in the deep end and we started with action right off the bat. So, there’s like a big double page spread shortly after the first issue opens up.
ISABELLA: One of the things I’m really loving about Clayton’s work is that he can handle the superhero stuff, which is a necessity for this type of book, but he handles the human stuff well — the interaction between the characters — because there’s a lot of people stuff in these issues. To me, that’s just as important as any of the action, and Clayton nails it on both ends.
Clayton, in reading the script, what did you pick up as the tone Tony was going for?
HENRY: Starting way back with the design of the character, it’s similar to stuff we’ve seen before, where it’s a mild-mannered guy during his civilian life, but he also has to look strong enough to put on a suit and face extraordinary criminals. As far as the tone, he’s sort of conflicted because he very much wants to help his city, but some of the city’s law enforcement doesn’t understand him, and also Black Lightning, once in awhile, I wouldn’t say he’s judgmental, but he’s weary of how the police will perceive him. So, we have all these things going on within one scene where he’s fighting criminals [who are] dangerous to everybody and then he kind of has to worry, “OK, there are cops coming. Do I have to worry about them, too? Are they going to perceive me as the bad guy here?” He’s got all of that going on, so it’s a lot of emotions to deal with. In the same scene, he’ll be fighting a criminal, and then he’ll have to protect the police, and then he might get shot at by the police. It’s all happening one panel after the other. So, it’s tough to juggle all of that.
In addition to Jeff being younger than he’s usually portrayed, the other big design change is Tobias Whale. Can you walk me through your decision to also change up Tobias’ look after so many years?
ISABELLA: On my end, when I first created Tobias Whale back in 1976, he was basically my version of a Marvel character called the Kingpin, because Marvel had made the Kingpin soft and I wanted that type of villain but very cruel and merciless. Now, I’m doing a new Black Lightning and I thought we needed a new Tobias Whale as well, that we didn’t have to use the same visual. My instructions were basically LeBron James’ body with the head of an old Dick Tracy villain — the brow is not so tall. That’s what we gave Clayton and Clayton gave us this really imposing, scary Tobias Whale.
HENRY: It was interesting. I remember one of the notes Tony had when we were designing him. I guess he didn’t know if I watched sports or not, so he asked, “Have you ever seen LeBron James?” I was like, “I live in Miami. I’ve seen LeBron James.” Which I thought was weird because LeBron and Cleveland and Miami and the whole thing. Yeah, I just went off of what they told me about that because I wasn’t familiar with the character beforehand.
This book debuts ahead of the new TV show. Have either of you had a chance to take a look at the series to see what they’re doing with the character there?
ISABELLA: In my case, early on DC asked me to write a paper on Black Lightning’s core values, which was given to Salim and Mara Brock Akil. I’ve had phone conferences with Salim and Mara. DC flew me to Burbank to meet with the writers. What I’ve discovered is that everybody working on the Black Lightning TV series knows that the comics are the source material, they love comic books, and while they’re certainly adding things to translate it to TV, it all comes back to the comic books. Both the comic book and the TV series are working with the same core values for the character.
HENRY: When I was designing the character (this is maybe even weeks before I started drawing from a script), they sent me images of what the TV show design would look like. It looks great, but I’d be insane to want to draw that every page. So, we had to sort of base a design [off of it that] I could draw panel after panel without absolutely wanting to pull out my hair. It was based on the television design, which I guess in turn was based on the comics to begin with anyway, and then we basically came full circle and simplified the design for comics again.
Tony, in that paper, what did you say were the core values of the character?
ISABELLA: Jefferson Pierce — and I always think of Jefferson Pierce being the real person. Black Lightning is a guise he takes on — is a reluctant hero. Given his druthers, he would be very content being a great teacher, working with kids, helping them succeed, helping them get the foundation for good lives, but he’s a responsible man, a man of faith, and knowing he has these powers and that there are menaces out there far beyond the scope of a school teacher, he reluctantly puts on the suit to also help his city and community as Black Lightning. That’s the core value. He’s a very moral man who would rather not be this vigilante, but does so because there’s a need for him.
Can you give us one last tease about the new series?
ISABELLA:We have a surprise ending at the end of the first issue that I didn’t see coming until I was writing the page before that last page. That’s something I love about the freedom I’m being given by DC; I love when the ending surprises me.
Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands #1 hits stands Wednesday.