I’ve written more than my share of superhero slugfests (in both comics and animation) and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I adore these larger-than-life characters and there’s much to be said about the mythic qualities Superman, Spider-Man and their brethren bring to the page and screen and the resonance of the symbolic conflicts that play out in their battles.But there’s an inherent flaw in the capes-and-masks genre that was underscored—and I suspect it was intentional—in the first episode of the CW’s Black Lightning (which got off to a terrific start this past Tuesday.If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out).Early in the episode, lead character Jefferson Pierce—who, some years earlier, turned his back on his career as a costumed crime-fighter—says that he’s done more to change lives in his time as a high school principal than he ever did in his time as a superhero:a valuable insight about the power of focused compassion, of individual effort by average human beings, to change the world.But, by the end of the episode, Pierce is back in costume zapping “bad guys” left and right, leaving a trail of bodies, some of them dead, in his wake.The message appears to be:This is the way you really change the world.Compassion and kindness ultimately don’t work.Violence, in the end, is the most effective solution.
I’m sure this wasn’t the message the producers intended. BL is an extremely thoughtful show, grappling with serious issues, and I look forward to seeing where things go from here. Perhaps a major part of the ongoing story will be an exploration of this contradiction, examining the massive crack in the foundation of the entire superhero genre: No matter how much these characters talk about high ideals, non-violence or the power of love, in the end it often comes down to two people in costumes dropping buildings on each other’s heads. (And the more street level, the more realistic, your story is, the more difficult those scenes become: A space battle against aliens plays out very differently than, say, Batman beating the hell out of a common criminal.)
I’ve wrestled with the question of superhero violence throughout my career, trying to find new ways to circumvent it and addressing it very directly in stories like The Life and Times of Savior 28. There will always be a wide-eyed kid inside me who gets a primal thrill watching self-sacrificing heroes and crazed villains knocking each other across the city: it’s exhilarating, it’s cathartic, it’s fun. But there’s another part of me that would love to see Jefferson Pierce, after a few seasons of hard lessons, realize that he truly can impact the world more positively as an educator. That violence is never a viable answer.
And, perhaps, ultimately, that’s the story Black Lightning will unfold.