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Artist: Black children 'deserve a good, black superhero role model'

Cary Ashby • Feb 6, 2018 at 11:00 AM

Artist Trevor Von Eeden, who co-created Black Lightning, said he hopes the new television series “becomes a big success.” But he hasn’t followed the superhero’s adventures since he helped design the original costume in the late 1970s.

Jefferson Pierce, in the comic books, is a metahuman — the DC Comics term for a mutant — and high school teacher and former Olympic decathlete who can manipulate and generate electricity. In the TV series (airing at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on The CW), Pierce has been a high school principal since giving up his Black Lightning guise nine years ago, but now has returned to being a superhero to save his community from gang activity.

“I do sincerely hope that the show is well-done and becomes a big success — for the sake of the millions (and) billions of young, black children all over the world who deserve a good, black superhero role model in the 21st century — especially now that an unabashed, unrepentant, rich and powerful white supremacist holds the title of President of the United States of America,” Von Eeden said via an email interview.

“Anything’s preferable to yet another safe, shallow, sanitized, corporate-designed 'superhero,' to be honest. A basic, and oft-overlooked truth of comics, is that superheroes are supposed to please and represent the child in every human — not the businessman in every fan. There's a huge difference between the two.”

DC Comics’ first black artist

Black Lightning made his first appearance in his own series in April 1977, giving DC its first African-American superhero.

The title only lasted 11 issues, all of which Von Eeden drew. Co-creator Tony Isabella wrote the first 10.

Von Eeden hasn’t followed DC or the history of Black Lightning since he drew the final issue.

“And frankly, I haven't really forgiven DC Comics for pulling the plug on their very first black superhero's debut series — just one issue away from a completed, scheduled run of 12. It was almost as if they were saying that even a black superhero can't finish what he started in America. No wonder there are so few of them in the DC roster,” Von Eeden said.

“I have absolutely no input in either the comics or small-screen version of Black Lightning, but what I'd like people to know about me is that I do good work — and always try my best to make it better. Hopefully, that's contagious.”

The character that Von Eeden affectionately calls “BL” came about after he was invited to visit the DC offices. The artist was a teenager at time.

“BL was created after I'd sent in some drawings for a professional critique and received an invitation to visit the Manhattan offices, (which was) 45 minutes away from my home in the Bronx,"  said.

“DC was coincidentally discussing the creation of their very first original black superhero … when I wandered in. At 16, I became DC Comics’ youngest artist, their first black artist and co-creator of their first black superhero to have his own title,” he added.

“I didn't create the character; (I) only helped make him popular by co-designing his original costume — along with Tony Isabella and Jack C. Harris — and drawing his debut series. Some time after the series had ended, I was informed by DC Comics that I was a co-creator of the character because I designed his costume and drew his debut run. That’s the extent of my knowledge of any behind-the-scenes situations, decisions or deeds concering BL,” Von Eeden said.

Referring to himself as “a very serious 16-year-old kid,” Von Eeden said “the whole experience was like a dream come true.”

“Mostly, I was keenly aware of the huge responsibility now resting on my shoulders; I felt that it was my job to know and represent black people — in the country, and all over the world (i.e. not just black Americans) — a job entrusted to me by Superman himself, for all intents and purposes,” he said.

Isabella and Von Eeden were two of the featured artists Nov. 4 at the Akron Comicon. Their tables were right next to each other.

Von Eeden found out retroactively DC had credited him as Black Lightning’s co-creator, which caused tension between the artist and Isabella for a time.

“For a long while, Tony — who was undergoing his own problems with DC — thought that I was somehow complicit in their decision to allocate me co-creator status and voiced his resentment publicly until I informed him directly of (what happened). Tony has since mended his relations with BL's parent company; he has no problems with me and no — I was never contacted by anyone (about) the upcoming BL TV show, nor about drawing the current BL comics series,” Von Eeden said.

Reunited with ‘BL’ briefly

Also at the Akron Comicon was writer Mike W. Barr, who created and wrote the series Batman and the Outsiders, with artist and inker Jim Aparo. Black Lightning was a member of the Outsiders, a group started by the Dark Knight.

Barr declined to be interviewed.

Von Eeden ended up being reunited briefly with Black Lightning, drawing the interior art for Batman and the Outsiders No. 15. DC published the issue in November 1984. 

“I enjoyed the Maxie Zeus story in ‘BATO’ No. 15 for what it was and drew it in a very loose, raw-lined style, which fit my somewhat tempestuous state of mind at the time,” Von Eeden said. “But I liked Mike W. Barr’s script and had a reasonable amount of fun drawing the story. Interestingly enough, I still receive a lot of compliments for that job, even though it was just another gig at the time and (I had) drawn in a fairly ‘throwaway’ style, but I’ve never been one to dictate or dispute another person's tastes. I’m very glad that at least some fans liked it.”

For more of this exclusive interview with artist Trevor Von Eeden, go to caryscomicscraze.blogspot.com.

Reflector staff writer Cary Ashby is a lifelong comic book fan. Follow him on Twitter at @Cary_reporter and on Facebook at “Cary Ashby — reporter & comic book blogger.”

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