Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands 1 Gets Political

by Drew Baumgartner

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

It’s remarkable how many comics fans claim their perceived politicization of superheroes is ruining the medium. It represents a profoundly ahistorical worldview that falls apart under even the lightest scrutiny. I’m not convinced any work of art could be apolitical, but superhero comics certainly aren’t — virtually every character, from Captain America to Superman, advanced very specific political opinions. More broadly, the relative cheapness of comics as a medium has long lent it to political advocacy. Comics have always been political. Superheroes have always been political. Readers may disagree with — or even resent — the political attitudes reflected in a given comic, but that a comic is political is not a valid reason to dismiss it. To me, the quality of a comic has everything to do with how clearly and effectively it makes its point — whether that point is political, emotional, or something else. Only looking at the first issue, it’s impossible to say exactly what point Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands will ultimately make, but this issue does suggest a rich array of political points it can choose from.

From the very first page, writer Tony Isabella and artist Clayton Henry are hinting at what those points might be. Just look at how they kick off the opening conflict.

Eye Phone

Starting off a superhero story with a fight scene is standard practice, but introducing it through phones in the hands of the nameless masses immediately makes us aware of how this fight is perceived. Black Lightning isn’t just saving the day, he’s doing it with millions of eyes on him.

That comes back in a big way at the issue’s end, when he’s publicly framed for killing a bunch of goons in cold blood — he’s under the scrutiny of anyone with a camera phone. Of course, the more potent political message is the way this scenario flips the script on the other camera phone videos we’re inundated with on a regular basis: of black men and women being killed and beaten by the police. It positions Black Lightning in an impossible place; vilified by the public and the police, leaving him no option but to run. “Superhero on the run” is a hell of a hook, and Isabella has carefully packed the powderkeg with issues of race and vigilantism that promises a story that few superheroes are equipped to tell. This is a miniseries to watch.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

3 comments on “Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands 1 Gets Political

  1. I agree that comics have always been political and no one will, or should, deny it but I would argue that it hasn’t been so commonplace within comics to the point of being able to name at least 12 to 22 titles, whether it be mainstream or indie, that has a daily cycle of story arcs whose sole purpose is to be a political commentary with no regards or very little regards to character and narrative development. And I think the best example of this is g willow wilson’s ongoing run on ms marvel, namely the one shot story of election night which teaches the reader about gerrymandering and telling readers to vote in local and national elections. Of course this was just a one shot to allow for a transition into the next story arc of damage per second(which is one of my favorite stories from this title along with army of one, mecca, and so far the ongoing story arc)but it was clearly just a polemic. Now in the case of black lightning, I enjoyed it and can’t wait for the next issue but I did find this issue to lack logic when it came to the police. In a world full of superheroes, you would expect the police officers to thankful for saving their life when a huge chunk of debris is falling down on them and is manuvered out of their way from a hero not get uppitity and draw their guns on the hero that makes no sense in a world full of superheroes, they even made hint to cyborg and the flash so why would they act like that. And please don’t say out of fear of him because issues we have irl has nothing to do with police fearing black men and women and, in my opinion, has everything to do with the individual’s mental capabilities and health. Meaning that some police officers don’t have the mental prowess to assess a situation and make a logical decision or being stressed out and emotionally uncapable(incapable? Idk) to be working. And the idea that it’s “them or us” is completely absurd, if this is the case for all cops their would be a case of police brutality every 30 minutes, this is just a hyberpole but come on. This would’ve been a great introductory issue for me if the scenes during the wake, or whatever it was I forgot, didn’t make suck blanket statements about the police force. But as I said I still enjoyed it.

    • Man, I think I disagree with just about every single one of your points. People claim that mainstream comics weren’t always this political, but I think what they actually mean is that they agreed with the politics enough to not notice them. Like, could you actually name a comic run that isn’t political? I sincerely don’t think there is one. Moreover, I think suggesting that the political points supersede character motivations and narrative development is being profoundly narrow-minded. We live in a world where just about every action is considered “political” by someone, regardless of what it means to the people actually doing it. This is obviously true of fictional characters, too.

      I really think calling that issue of Ms. Marvel a polemic is a stretch. It was a public service announcement, to be sure, so I could see being bored by its moralizing, but in terms of political content, it’s about as offensive as “drugs are bad/don’t do drugs.” Again, I can see an issue of Spider-Man or Green Arrow hitting that point in a trite way, but that doesn’t make it polemical.

      As for the “lack of logic when it came to the police,” I really feel like the connections to the rest of the DC universe only make it more believable. I mean, Gotham City has a famously corrupt police department, full of officers on the take from various criminal entities. If we can accept that premise (the only premise where Batman would need to take up vigilantism as opposed to funding the GCPD/becoming a cop) without seeing its depiction of police corruption as an indictment of all cops, I really don’t see why this one should be any different. Tommi isn’t talking about all cops everywhere, she’s talking about the ones on her particular force. Like the trigger-happy corrupt cops Batman takes on in Year One, Black Bolt is up against a very specific attitude in his local police. Yeah, this scenario can comment on some of the very real problems in police forces around the country, just as GCPD’s corruption issues can, but both are doing so by heightening the problems to make them worthy obstacles for superheroes. That’s just how the genre works.

    • Every comic is political. To be apolitical is to be pro-status quo, which is a political stance in itself. Hell, Merriam Webster has a definition of politics that is ‘the total complex of relations between people living in society’. How do you write a comic that doesn’t concern itself with the relations of people in a society? In fact, I disagree with Drew’s notion that it all comes down to the execution of the point, regardless of what the point it. While there is plenty of space in politics for disagreement, there are some political viewpoints that have to be specifically called out for being too odious. Political viewpoints whose very existence in a piece of art detracts from it, regardless of the quality of execution of the message (a topical example would be Nazis/White Supremacists)

      I hated that Ms Marvel issue as well, but not because it was political. But because it dishonestly examined the problem and disrespected the message it was presenting because of it. As a story about the importance of voting, it instead coddled the egos of the audience instead of teaching them how to responsibly vote. It was a comic telling you to waste your vote.
      But the idea that it was political to the point of ignoring narrative and character development is wrong. Nothing is more Kamala, whose crime fighting style essentially is community activism (she got the internet to be nice for a day), to fight HYDRA’s political plans with a Get Out to Vote movement. And to say it had no narrative impact ignores how the events of the issue had impacts in the Mecca arc, with the fact that Marchesi won the election having important narrative (the crisis is actually resolved by the Third Circuit Court saying Marchesi was illegally deposed) and thematic (Worthy’s schemes are fundamentally illegitimate. Despite being Mayor, he has no legitimate claim to set the law) purposes.

      Also, no one says all police are racist, or that all police are so racist to the point where they execute black men. The criticism is that the police as an institution fails to adequately ensure black people are protected from racist elements within the police force.
      And the problem certainly isn’t primarily about individual policemen not having the awareness to properly assess a situation. Because that stats don’t back that up. If that was the case, there would be much more innocent white people who have been wrongly killed by police. Instead, there has only been one high profile shooting of a white person in recent memory, compared to countless black people.
      The only reasonable situation for the horrendous skew in the stats is that too many police officers have an unconscious bias (by too many, I mean more than one) and that the police as a whole don’t do an adequate job at addressing this issue
      None of this says all police are racist. Just that too many are. Just as too many police are corrupt. And as Drew said, if Batman can staff Gotham full of corrupt cops so that it can explore corruption in the police force, this book can do the same with racism in the police force (even if I fundamentally do not trust the current DC to treat the issue with the respect it deserves)

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