Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a blogpost. This week is Week #1, and this week’s questions is…
Who are my three favorite lightning-based comic book heroes?
And then there is a follow-up question which I’ll get to in a minute.
First of all, the lightning hero question is a bit tricky for me, simply because it’s asking for three, and really there aren’t that many that I have any sort of affinity for.
That’s not to say there’s none, because there’s definitely one that I’d put as one of my Top DC characters…
1. Lightning Lad (Garth Ranzz)
Lightning Lad is one of the founding members of my favorite superhero team, the Legion of Super-Heroes. The backstory is that in the distant future, Garth and his two siblings (twin sister Ayla and older brother Mekt) were on a space-joyride in their parents ship, and ended up out of fuel on the planet Korbal, which was uninhabited except for some “Lightning Beasts”. The trio decided to try to recharge their ship’s batteries by luring the beasts close by and getting them to fire their bolts, but of course this plan went awry and all three were super-charged with electricity. Mekt (already a troubled kid partially because of being a single-birth in a world of twins) soon after took off, prompting a worried Garth to travel to earth to look for him.
On the way, he met up with two other travelers–Rokk Krinn (with magnetic powers) and Imra Ardeen (a mind reader)–and together they end up using their abilities to save the life of rich financier R.J. Brande. As a result, Brande challenges them to embrace a higher purpose–use their powers to protect people, stop criminals and inspire the galaxy as the Legion of Super-Heroes. The team of three quickly grows to a team of dozens of heroic teenagers who together save the earth and the galaxy from all sorts of menaces: the Fatal Five, Mordru the Merciless, the Time Trapper, and even Garth’s brother Mekt, who has become the villainous Lightning Lord (that’s a lot of alliteration there, eh?)
Garth Ranzz has a colourful career as a hero. Early on in the series’ history (which started as a one-off guest feature in an issue of Superboy and eventually developed into its own franchise), Garth actually died, dramatically preventing Imra (“Saturn Girl”) from doing the same thing. After about a year of being dead (in real-world time), Garth was brought back to life in a memorable sequence where Saturn Girl again attempted to die for him, but was replaced by Proty (a fellow member’s shape-changing pet). I guess Saturn Girl was really bad at sacrificing herself for her teammates!
Later, Garth actually lost his arm in a fight with “the Super-Moby Dick of Space” and for a while had a robot limb (although he eventually got better). Still later, he married Saturn Girl (fulfilling something that readers had glimpsed in the Legion’s future) and became the last of the three original members of the team to become the Legion’s leader.
Lightning Lad was a great character, with a strong visual look and dramatic power set that appealed to a young comic book reader like me. He had lots of “screen time” in a book that had a huge cast, and his relationship with his villainous brother added an extra layer of angst to his personality.
When I first became connected to the character (in the 1970’s), he was shown to be a steady guiding light for the team, often in contrast to the hotheaded Wildfire. However, in the 1980’s, writer Paul Levitz returned to the Legion and began a celebrated run that included such stories as the Great Darkness Saga, one of the most well-regarded superhero stories ever. Levitz was known for his ability to add lots of layers of characterization to the Legion and created some of the best versions of many of the characters. Unfortunately, his Lightning Lad was not my favorite. Levitz’ Garth Ranzz started off as an over-stressed Legion leader with a short fuse (revealed eventually to be because his lightning powers were affecting his brain) and then became sort of a stay-at-home Dad, and was rarely used in favor of both his wife and his sister (Ayla Ranzz had for a long time been known as Lightning Lass). When Levitz left the book, the Legion was largely retooled and Garth’s role was even more diminished, with his most significant appearance revealing that he’d never come back to life in the first place, and had been Proty-living-in-Garth’s body ever since his supposed resurrection. This of course was a terrible development for anybody actually invested in the character.
Garth returned to a level of greatness when the whole Legion was rebooted in 1994 by Mark Waid and others. He was again a teenager with all the core elements of his character in place–lightning powers, twin sister, troubled older brother, in love with Saturn Girl…but this version of Garth had a quick-tempered personality that was consistent with his power set. But when he was written well, he was still intelligent and courageous (and not just annoyingly hot-headed). During Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run, he sacrificed his life again (this time to save his friends and the whole galaxy). Even so, he’s continued to play a role in all the version of the Legion that have come since, and he is, without a doubt, my favorite lightning-based hero.
2. Black Lightning (Jefferson Pierce)
Funny thing about Black Lightning: when he first appeared, he was just a street-level fighter who was inspired to take up a costumed identity to fight back against the gangs that were destroying the school he was teaching in. It was only later that he developed some sort of belt that allowed him to shoot lightning, before it was revealed that he actually had lightning powers of his own.
I first discovered Black Lightning (aside from a reprint of his first issue) when Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo included him in their Batman & the Outsiders title in the 1980’s. There, we discovered that Black Lightning had lost his powers after accidentally killing someone, but this turned out to be a mental block and he soon got them back.
I like the fact that Black Lightning, in his civilian identity, is a teacher, which I think is relatively unusual in superhero comics, and that that job was connected in with him becoming a hero. With that, the character has always been shown to have a strong moral fibre along with his commitment to fight evil. At one point, Jefferson Pierce even became the US Secretary of Education, albeit under President Lex Luthor. Soon, he will have his own TV series, which hopefully will be good!
There’s really not a third hero that comes to mind. I’ve never been a fan of Thor (although I like him in the movies). I don’t really like Storm (her portrayal in the movies has crushed any affection I had for the character back when I read the X-Men). I’ve never read Static, I don’t really like Lightning Lass (Garth’s sister) all that much. Maybe Superman Blue?
I’d like to say Captain Marvel (Billy Batson), nowadays known as Shazam. I’m not a huge fan, but if you read Mark Waid & Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (set a generation in the future), you see an interesting guy who’s mind has been broken, but who ultimately finds himself and sacrifices himself to save as many as he can. And he uses the magic lightning that gives him powers in a pretty awesome way, as a weapon with which he nearly defeats Superman!
But I don’t think you can really call him “lightning-based”, even though there’s apparently more and more lightning in his power set recently. But at his core, he’s a boy who says a magic word that summons magic lightning which turns him into grown up powerhouse. So that’s really magic at the heart of the character, not lightning.
So in the absence of a proper third answer, we’ll just quickly give a shout out to these guys…
That’s right, the Thunderers of Qward, who were basically generic evil soldiers, revealed in Crisis on Infinite Earths to be servants of the Anti-Monitor. They aren’t terribly memorable, and they wore bird hats and shorts, but they actually carried around lightning bolts that they’d throw at people, so there’s that.
Anyway, now that we’ve got our three heroes, let’s look at the second part of Rod’s question:
Do I consider the Flash to be a lightning-based superhero?
Actually, Rod wanted me to explain why the Flash isn’t a lightning-based hero. I’m not sure what sort of arguments he’s been having about this, but I basically said that he could give me questions but couldn’t dictate my opinions. Nonetheless, I do agree with him–it doesn’t really make sense to think of the Flash (in any of his incarnations) as “lightning-based”, for essentially the same reasons as Captain Marvel, above.
The Flash has always used lots of lightning in his imagery. He got his powers when he was struck by lightning (and simultaneously doused in a chemicals), he has lightning symbols on his costume, and in more recent depictions he is often seen with lightning crackling around his body. According to some stories, in his death he actually became the lightning bolt that gave him his powers. And similar to Shazam, modern versions of the character have been able to manipulate this lightning with more and more effects. Barry Allen on TV runs around in a circle really fast in order to generate the electricity to toss a lightning bolt, and Barry Allen in the movies runs real fast to generate the electricity to jump-start a Mother Box.
But still, the Flash is absolutely “speed” based, not “lightning” based. Even before Mark Waid created the idea of a “Speed Force”, everything about the Flash had to do with him being really, really fast and in absolute control of his molecules (which allowed him to vibrate at such a rate that he could not only phase through walls, but also undo bizarre traps which turned him into glass and so on). More modern depictions of the character (or characters, in fact) have him tapped into an underlying energy field that gives speedsters their abilities. Even though it often manifests with something like electricity, it probably owes more to Star Wars than anything to do with lightning itself.
So, sure, the Flash’s creators use lightning as part of the character’s motif, of course, but to say that he’s “lightning-based” is certainly taking it too far.
And so that’s it, for Week 1 of the Weekly Geeky Question, in which really there were two questions for the price of 1. New year’s bargain!