Van Meter Strikes with “Black Lightning: Year One”

Jen Van Meter has a history with being an outsider.

Well, at least writing “Outsiders,” having penned two “Infinite Crisis” tie-in issues in 2005. And now Van Meter’s giving a former Outsider the origin treatment as she and artist Cully Hamner team on “Black Lightning: Year One,” a six-issue DC Comics miniseries scheduled to begin in January.

“My story is about a man -- a former Olympian and a successful educator — who returns with his family to the community where he grew up and finds it subjected to the will of a criminal organization not even Superman can fight,” Van Meter told CBR News.

“And then he does what heroes do. He puts himself on the line to do what's right, risking his personal happiness to save thousands.”

Van Meter said her tale is a re-imagining of Jefferson Pierce’s earliest adventures. Sort of. “The short answer is yes, of course,” laughed Van Meter. “But maybe adaptation, or arrangement — in the musical sense, would be more useful words. The story that evolved for the characters is about what heroic people risk and sacrifice. I was thinking a lot about military families, whose struggles are as noble as those of the parent or child who goes off to war, and about the different ways communities and families survive when things get bad.

“Those elements inform the story, but in many ways, the plot elements will look familiar to fans of the character’s early material, which had an awful lot of stuff that I wanted to use. If you think about doing an ‘early Batman’ story for any medium, you don’t consider leaving out Gordon or Alfred, right? Nor do you get rid of the death of his parents because they’re part of the character. There’s a lot like that from that first run that I didn’t consider shedding because he wouldn’t be Jeff if I did. Then again, a Jeff who didn’t help raise his kids doesn’t dovetail with the core of the character so a lot of what I did is built around taking that original material and trying to find ways to weave in current continuity.”

Black Lightning debuted in his own solo series, “Black Lightning” #1 in April 1977. The DC title was created by writer Tony Isabella and designed by artist Trevor Von Eeden.

“Black Lightning: Year One” was first announced back in 2006, so Van Meter had to dig deep to recall the project came together. “If I remember it right, I was pitching something else to [DCU Executive Editor] Dan DiDio at a convention and he asked me if I’d be willing to pitch a Black Lightning book to be part of the group of Year Ones they were planning,” explained Van Meter. “I wasn’t sure at the time, but he flattered me by saying something about liking the ‘honesty and depth’ I bring to the characters I write, so I said I’d give it some thought. I read every appearance of the character I could lay my hands on, and found I loved him. Then I called [editor] Joan Hilty to find out what the parameters of the project were. I built the pitch from there, and they liked it.”

Van Meter confirmed the roll-out schedule for all the “Year One” titles, which also included “Green Arrow,” “Metamorpho,” “Teen Titans” and “Huntress,” changed a number of times “for a lot of reasons.”

“I think it was always understood that this would be one of the last of the bunch to come out. When I took it on, I told Joan that I’m really slow — my writing time is entirely subject to the school calendar, and a kid home sick for a week can make for a three-week delay in the writing-notes-revision exchange that goes on. So they had that in mind, I think, when they did even the earliest schedules.”

The delay may work in the book’s favor, as Black Lightning’s profile has greatly increased since he’s been an active member of the Justice League of America since Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes’ relaunch of the franchise in 2006.

“In the time I’ve been working on , I've grown to feel very attached to the character, so seeing him get more screen time in the DCU is marvelous,” said Van Meter. “I love Jeff’s dignity and his principles. I love that he’s an educator first, and that everything he does is informed by his commitment to the future through the promise of youth. To my mind he’s a very optimistic man, not in the Pollyanna sense of always seeing only the good in people, but in a profound belief in the inherent worth of people. I love that he’s smart and honest and takes everything he does very seriously, but I think he has a warm, appreciative sense of humor, too.

“And I think being Black Lightning gives Jeff an opportunity to take joy and pride in things he might have thought he was leaving behind — his athleticism, for instance, or a younger man’s freedom to draw attention to himself — he can put those things to use in service of something as Black Lightning, and I think that’s kind of satisfying. As for me, I love that Black Lightning is pretty direct. He doesn’t pretend to be everyone’s buddy — it goes with his slogan — how you see him, hope or fear, depends on whether you deserve his wrath.”

Van Meter said “Black Lightning: Year One” is bursting with cameos, including the Man of Steel. “Suicide Slum is part of Metropolis, so one of the questions people in that community are asking at the beginning is why Superman hasn’t come by to clean things up,” offered Van Meter. “The answer to that is a fairly sizable plot element, and yeah, he will appear. There are several other familiar DCU faces and connections that show up as well.”

Many fans of the character were introduced to Black Lightning (or at least his archetype) by watching Black Vulcan on the animated “Super Friends” in the seventies and the eighties. That wasn’t the case for Van Meter. “You know, I watched the ‘Super Friends,’ but I think I was such a geek for Aquaman and Wonder Woman that most of the other characters were lost on me at the time. I first encountered him in back issues of ‘Batman and the Outsiders,’ where I thought he stood out as a very interesting character, and for a long time I wondered why he wasn’t used more.”

Van Meter couldn’t say enough about the work of her artist, Cully Hamner — including the fact that he is “bleeping fantastic.” “The man bleeds awesome when he cuts himself shaving,” gushed Van Meter. “I can’t imagine having done this with anyone else. His commitment to story is mind-blowing, and his art -- I wrote a scene for #4 that I thought was pretty moving, and when I saw the inks, I started crying. It was like he’d taken my modest goal for the scene and cranked it all the way to perfect. And what he does in the action sequences — just wait. It’s wonderful.”

Next up for Van Meter is a new volume of “Hopeless Savages” for Oni Press.

“Black Lightning: Year One” #1 on sale in January, 2009 from DC Comics.

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