Friday, August 2, 2013

With friends like these, huh?

Here's an oddly-shaped panel from Justice League of America #173 (December 1979), by Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin.  This is the story in which the JLA don disguises to test Black Lightning rather than just approach him directly and ask him if he's interested in joining the team and would it be all right if they observed him in action for a few days.

 But with the Flash suddenly and angrily concerned they're attempting to tokenize Black Lightning (Barry Allen experiencing a personality change because he's bereaved) and the equally hot-tempered Green Arrow (Oliver Queen being the political firebrand he always was) freaking out and suggesting the Scarlet Speedster is the world's worst racist for even suggesting such a thing, the JLA can't be bothered with doing something reasonable like actually asking Black Lightning his opinion on the future of his superhero career.

Then Superman, acclaimed by the others as the wisest, fairest and most reasonable among them, suggests they haze Black Lightning to see if he's worthy enough to hang out with the most powerful group of brightly-costumed humans and aliens ever to hang out on rooftops and do nothing while a man fights desperate criminals armed with guns on the street below.

Putting aside the fact they're crime-fighters and assault itself is a crime, the incognito JLA spend the rest of the day attacking Black Lightning at random, kind of like Cato, that guy Inspector Clouseau pays to keep his martial arts skills sharp by... well, attacking him at random.

Amazingly, despite being charged with the protection of the entire earth (and the region of space around it, in the case of Green Lantern), they have lots of time to play this elaborate frat-like prank on a prospective member.  During these tests, Black Lightning fights a giant gorilla, which he recognizes as a female giant gorilla because she's wearing a blond wig and a stainless steel bikini.  She's also got what appears to be a SCUBA mask as well, which kind of makes her kind of a call-back to the infamous 1953 sci-fi flick Robot Monster, known for its gorilla in a diving helmet.  

Gorilla girl is Zatanna, by the way.  And surprise of surprises, before the test is over, the JLA have driven this bright, articulate, conscientious man to the point of animalistic bellowing and attempted murder.  After Black Lightning backs down from throttling him, Green Arrow takes off his mask and says he wasn't worried, all he had to do was reveal himself because when a superhero does it, that means it's not illegal.  Our heroes!

In the end, Black Lightning pulls himself together and refrains from telling the JLA to go get fucked, but he does turn down their membership offer.  He says it's because he has too much work to do around Suicide Slum, but we know the real reason.  Even Green Arrow, dense as he is in this story, wonders aloud, "You think we made him mad with our dumb test?"  Superman's like, "Nahhh... Black Lantern is just one of those loner type guys who don't work well with others."  Of course Superman has to say that.  I mean, it was his stupid idea after all.

Okay, so this story barely makes any sense.  But I love it for exactly that reason.  The world's greatest heroes acting like a bunch of college kids.  A proud man who only wants to help others wasting an entire afternoon being physically attacked by people who are supposed to be on his side.

Black Lightning himself is a major draw as well.

That leads me to this.  My absolute favorite thing about this comic-- what makes me love it desperately (although the clean-reading Dillin/McLaughlin artwork plays its role, too)-- is the high priority Black Lightning gives his teaching job, even if some of its specific duties wear on him.  It's the middle of the afternoon and he's on his way home to rest up because he has to be at school early.  No running errands, no fighting crime.  The kids and their educations come first.  When you see a dude walking around in broad daylight with a huge disco collar and his shirt open almost to his crotch, the last thing you imagine he's thinking about is mimeographing history tests.  But there you have it.  That's what Black Lightning thinks about.

And because he does, if at this point you haven't concluded one Black Lightning is worth more than twenty Batmans, then you really should have your head examined.

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