A new kind of superhero – BLACK LIGHTNING

A new kind of superhero – BLACK LIGHTNING

I also have Scratch-'n'-Sniff stickers... you'll never guess where!

I also have Scratch-‘n’-Sniff stickers… you’ll never guess where!

For the record: I think the powers are laughable in the show BLACK LIGHTNING, the villains are cardboard to the extreme, and the eponymous Black Lightning has a supersuit that looks like it has puffy day-glo stickers on it, which makes it IMPOSSIBLE for me to take him seriously.

That said, I’m in it for the long haul. One of the magnificent things about black culture is their emphasis on family and faith, and this show nails it.

The family is one that squabbles, that fights. The father (Black Lightning) and the mother (a scientist type who’s there to provide nifty, high-tech observations like, “According to the MRI, her cells are creating PURE ENERGY”) are divorced, but it’s for one of the best reasons I’ve heard – i.e., “You’re a superhero who comes home beaten half to death more often than not and does a significant amount of bleeding in front of the young kids – and even then, they still LOVE each other. To the point that, after nine years, the father is still chasing the mother, and she’s still doing her best to keep the family together within the structure allowed when one of the people is a vigilante. It’s never addressed directly, but there’s certainly the impression that neither of them has ever dated anyone else in those nine years, either: they’re divorced due to a horrifying circumstance, but have stayed faithful… if not to the letter of their vows, then to the spirit of them. Even when at their worst, neither looks at the other and says, “I wish you were gone from my life. I’m outta here, and I’m finding someone who ‘really understands me.'” This last is particularly amazing since you also get the feeling that both of them – especially BL, who is a major power figure and attention magnet in his “real” life as a high school principal – could have as many dates and relationships as they could possibly wish for… but don’t.

Even as “normal” people, there’s plenty of drama. The older sister works at the same high school where the father works, and where the younger sister goes, and there are family dynamics (read: fights and power struggles) between them all as a consequence. The younger sister is a pretty great depiction of a teen: wanting to be “all growed up,” but acting like a child more often than not. She faces a tough choice when her boyfriend is crippled by an errant bullet… and makes a BAD decision with regard to whether to stay with him (or rather, how she goes about implementing that decision). But it’s a decision that most kids would make. And she has the decency of character to recognize her failing, and to worry over it. It doesn’t motivate a magic change in her: she’s still petty and selfish at times. But it does force her to reassess some things and ask herself what kind of a woman she wants to be. She’s not a saint, but she’s a hopeful sinner – which I think most of us are, in the final analysis.

The older sister is a bit of a snoop and more than a bit bossy. She knows what’s right for everyone, and doesn’t hesitate to say so or to stick her nose in where it really doesn’t belong. In other words: a bang-on older sister.

The mother is headstrong to the point of it being a serious character flaw. She’s smart – at least within the confines of a “smart” scientist in any superhero movie, which is to say she’s there to provide exposition when it’s needed and then make a series of dumb moves “for science!” when a plot needs a bit of punching up, which isn’t a trait that only exists when it’s a woman scientist; it’s what passes for “the smartest of the smart” in ANY superhero story, most of which carry as a core tenet that the Everyman/Everywoman has been gifted with extraordinary powers, and then rises beyond his/her limits to become extraordinary as well.

The father… great. He loves his family, he continues to court his ex-wife as far as she allows, always making it clear he wants more but never so much as breathing a hint that he DOES have other options in his life. He hugs his kids, hollers at them, then hugs them all the harder. He vacillates (and this is a trait he shares with Mom) between holding his kids too close and letting them have too MUCH freedom from parental influence. He is a protector who knows he will ultimately fail – but who refuses to entertain the thought that he cannot protect his family.

They even have an adoptive uncle-figure of sorts who, when it comes out that he made some DEEPLY evil choices when younger and has been doing everything he can to make restitution for them since then and is ostracized by the family to some extent (and by BL completely), does not shrug his shoulders and find greener pastures. Nor does he even act petty about it, crossing his arms and returning tit for tat or refusing to help when needed (and he’s their Oracle character, the one who hacks anything, who provides the inventions that make BL-as-hero possible, and who always knows a bit more about the real danger of their situations than anyone else). He stays in the fight. He continues to offer EVERYTHING he has, and when they take nothing or only the bare minimum for “the mission,” he accepts that and just looks glad at what they’ve given.

A family that loves each other? How odd!

Not only that, but it’s refreshing to see characters who go to church, who pray – and who do so unironically, or without the sensation that the writers are rolling their eyes as they think up the scene. There’s no sense of, “Well, we gotta do THIS thing now. Anyone know where the weirdo intern is so we can ask some questions and feel like we nailed our ‘research’?”

It’s a family of faith – in each other, in their belief in More and Greater Beyond, and in the principle that most people are good. It’s a family I would LOVE to have as neighbors.

And it’s a thing that is sadly rare and sorely missed in mainstream drama, most of which centers on “relationships” between ultimately selfish individuals who are in it for the long haul… or until someone lies, or makes a mistake, or even just wants a job somewhere the significant other “has no friends.” Mainstream drama generally centers on “family” as being a longer-term dating relationship – interesting, even passionate, but destroyed all-too-easily at the first sign of trouble. Kids’ needs are second BY FAR to the couples’ convenience – which makes a certain amount of sense, since most kids are there only to show, “Hey, look! We have a kid so it MUST be real love (for now)!” and are quickly shunted offscreen. A nannie, a tough school curriculum, or the kids being the type who live in the cave of their room and so are never seen – all these are the norm for kids in the families we see. The only exception to this is generally in a sitcom, where the kids ARE front and center… but even then, they’re mostly a sounding board to discuss and highlight the buffoonery of one character (usually the father), or a parent’s lack of understanding of what it’s like to be a “real” kid/teen/young adult (and the offending parent here is usually the mother).

An exception: Black Lightning.

So the heroes are weak, the villains ASPIRE to be two-dimensional, and the hero-villain arcs are themselves hindered by the limited capacities of their players.

And I’m in this superhero show for the foreseeable future. Because it’s obvious that the show’s creators know the real heroes are the mothers and fathers who stand by each other, and sacrifice for the kids; the kids who struggle to find their own way and their own identity, but know what they want in the end is to be something that will make their families – both present and future – proud of them. The people who aren’t a part of the nuclear family, but who are there when needed, as surrogate parent figures or friends.

The “hero,” in fact, isn’t ANY of the people. It’s ALL of them, standing back to back against the challenges of the world. Facing problems together, and with the knowledge that they CAN stand back to back, because those behind and next to them will never abandon the fight, and never abandon THEM.

The hero… is family. And THAT is a hero worth cheering for.

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Horror and Hope

I am a guy who writes scary stuff. It’s basically all I do. I’m one of the bestselling horror writers on Amazon, and as of this writing one of the scary movies in Redboxes and video stores all over the world has my name after the “screenplay by” part.

I specialize in ghosts and goblins. In things that go bump in the night, in demons that steal souls, in madmen whose greatest desire is to maim and to kill.

In my most recent bestselling horror novel, Apparition, I write extensively about filicide – about parents who kill their children. And in my book, the parents who commit such atrocities do so with gusto, with relish, with lust. It is, as many reviewers have said, not only scary, but a deeply disturbing book.

To reiterate: I am a guy who writes scary stuff.

I am also a father who adores his children, a husband who loves his wife to a point that verges at times on worshipfulness. And I am a fairly (I hope) faithful member of my church (I’m LDS – what most folks call a Mormon), a person who believes in good and bad, and in a God who loves us.

This last is particularly interesting. There have been a lot of conversations at church that have gone like this:

Other Church Person: Hi! You must be new here!
Me: Yup! Just moved in.
OCP: Well, glad to have you. What do you do.
Me: I’m a writer.
OCP: How cool! Like, Harry Potter?
Me: Yeah. If Harry bursts into flames and then murders Ron and Hermione.
OCP: Um… huh….

I’m exaggerating a bit. But there are a lot of surprised looks when they realize I wrote that book, or that movie. Because how could someone so normal-seeming, so loving, so God-fearing write stuff like that?

The answer is in the question: it’s precisely because I am those things that horror comes so easily to me. Because horror is by far the most hopeful and Godly (note the capital “g”) of all the genres.

To be sure, there are plenty of horror stories out there that are nothing more than an excuse to go diving in the sewers of the mind. The kind of movies and books that basically make their audiences feel like taking a shower afterward… if not just taking a Brillo to the surface of their brains to get those images out.

But the thing about horror is that because it is, by definition, horrible, it also allows for goodness to bloom. In taking us to the depths of misery it allows us to climb to the heights of heroism.

An example: during history classes in U.S. schools, wars are taught more than anything else. Partly this is because wars determine history more than almost any other factor. Partly it is because wars are intrinsically dramatic and therefor interesting.

And of all the wars taught, there are two that are taught more than any other: WWII and the Civil War. There are a lot of erudite, scholarly reasons that could be given for this. But they are wrong. The simple fact is that in these two wars we saw something rare: a clear “good” guy and an even clearer “bad” guy. There was no way of painting the South as anything but evil, since their primary political platform rested on the backs of African slaves. Similarly, Hitler’s entire philosophy was one of megalomaniacal hatred and genocide. He even had the black moustache preferred by evildoers since caveman times (Snidely Whiplash and Yosemite Sam are actually based on cave paintings found in Mesopotamia).

So the lines were drawn. The evil stood on one side, the good on the other. And these were not genteel, rule-abiding evils. If you ever want a real definition of “horror,” read about what happened at places like Dachau and Buchenwald, imagine what occurred during the Bataan Death March, try to put yourself in the place of the slaves transported from Africa to the Southern Confederacy in the bellies of ships we wouldn’t consider humane for cockroaches today. The horror was real, and it was beyond the imagining of most of us.

But just as important… the horror, the evil, the wickedness failed to conquer. There were perils, there were horrors. Real people were challenged, many lost their lives. Perhaps even worse, those that did not die lived lives marred by mental and physical maimings, by emotional and psychic traumas the true depths of which no one else could understand.

But we went on. Heroes were made, not born. Humanity rose above itself and, in the best of moments, became enough – if only just enough – to combat the evil.

We remember Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, in no small measure because we see him as the embodiment of the spirit that brought us through a terrible and troubling time in our nation’s history. We remember the WWII G.I.’s as some of the Greatest Generation, because they fought some of the wickedest men the world has ever known… and resisted the urge to become that wickedness themselves.

And what does all this have to do with writing horror?


Horror has power possessed by no other genre. It can take us to the depths. It can then leave us there to rot, which is not my style, or it can then bring us back up… and in so doing show us that salvation is possible even from the profoundest darkness. It can possess a child and put her through terrible privations and suffering… but then rescue her, and in so doing remind us that if there is a Devil, perhaps there is also a God.

There are many kinds of horror. There are those that celebrate evil, and I don’t like those so much. I’m not saying don’t ever read them, I’m not advocating for a book-burning (one of the lessons we’ve learned). I’m just saying I don’t like them.

But I do like the horror that examines evil. And then shows us its weaknesses. Shows us that it can be beaten. And shows us, most importantly, that we are not it. That we are better than it. That we are more than what we fear.

Horror is the failure of hope. But it is only in that final moment when hope fails that we can find faith, and in so doing can rise above our fallen states and find a bit of divinity within ourselves.

Posted by in Life Advice, Writing Advice