HE IS THIS LIGHTNING!
I started first grade when I was six years old. This would have been 1967, the Summer of Love and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I went to a very rural grade school in my home community, a small village called Nineveh (named after the Biblical den of iniquity that Jonah was trying to avoid when he was swallowed by the whale… I never did quite understand the connection). Our school had three classrooms and a small common area used as a gym and auditorium. Each classroom had two grades in it. I sat in one of two rows of first graders, next to three rows of second graders. The teacher, Thelma Baldwin (who had also been my mother’s teacher, and my Mom was forty when I was born, so that gives you some idea of the age of this woman), split her time between the two halves of the class.
As I mentioned earlier I learned to read from comic books, well before beginning first grade. This led to a lot of very boring days in school as Miss Baldwin taught the alphabet and basic reading skills to my peers. And yes, I got in trouble a few times for not paying attention. One instance in particular stands out, when I was reprimanded for actually reading something I had taken from the classroom bookshelf instead of listening to her teach the alphabet.
We had a Halloween party at the school that year and I knew exactly what I wanted to be.
I wanted to be The Flash.
The Flash I’m talking about is the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, clad in red with yellow lightning around his arms and waist and a lightning bolt sigil slashed across his chest. He was a super speedster. His first appearance in Showcase #4 in 1956 signaled the beginning of the Silver Age of comics. There had been a character named the Flash in the 1940s, also a super speedster, the first in the literature of superheroes, but I didn’t know that at the time. I had apparently been reading some Flash comics in the Summer of Love.
I’m pretty sure none of my classmates or my teacher knew who the Flash was. My Mom was supportive in my desire, as she has been throughout my life, no matter what fool idea I dragged through the house. She was the one who turned me on to comics in the first place, after all. We bought a Flash costume at McCrory’s department store in Waynesburg. The mask was one of those Ben Cooper plastic affairs that make you sweat. I wasn’t satisfied with the costume that came with it though. It was a plastic sheath that featured a picture of the Flash, running of course, on the chest. That confused me. Flash wore a red and yellow costume with a lightning bolt on it. He didn’t wear a picture of himself, so how was this thing supposed to be his costume? I didn’t want to wear the Flash’s picture. I wanted to wear his sigil. I didn’t want to advertise the Flash. I wanted to be the Flash.
So Mom got out her sewing machine, a ritual that would be repeated many times in years to come, and we began. We got red and yellow cloth and began to cut and sew.
I was pretty specific with what I wanted. In all of the pictures I had of the Flash, even the dumb one that came on the costume we bought, the yellow part of his costume streaked out behind him as he ran. I now know that these were drawings by comics legend Carmine Infantino, and that the streaks were meant as an illusion, a drawn replica of the afterimage one would have if the Flash ran by at super speed. At the time, all I knew was that I wanted the yellow part of my costume to be fashioned out of long trailing, lightning-shaped strips of cloth.
It would make me look like I was running really fast, you see.
So, the day of the Halloween party came, and we held a small parade down the only street in Nineveh. There I was, all red and yellow drooping cloth, not looking like I was moving very fast at all, holding hands with some kid in a devil costume.
I was supposed to be a superhero, and they paired me up with the Prince of Darkness (no wonder Jonah wanted to avoid Nineveh). They just didn’t get it.
My obsession with comics and superheroes is something most people wouldn’t get for a large portion of my life.
Given what I now know about symbolism and the history of comics I find it fascinating that the very first time I ever donned the costume of a superhero (the first time I put on the cheap, plastic skin of my secular, Pop Culture gods), it was one with a lightning bolt on the chest.
I don’t claim to be the first to notice the proliferation of the lightning bolt as a recurring motif in superhero comics. But when I was putting together my lectures I found it was a great symbol to tie together many different movements in the genre. I had never read anything that tied very specific instances of lightning into one narrative thread that ran throughout the last eight decades.
In Supergods Grant Morrison outlines much of the same sequence of symbols. I’m not saying he, Prometheus-like, stole lightning from me. He mentioned some I didn’t, and I have a couple he missed. As I said, I don’t claim to be the first to notice this. But I found the similarities in our lists, and more importantly the context in which he talked about this, to be wonderfully synchronous. This was one of the specific similarities my student was referring to when she said his book was “Just like my class.”
Okay, so with that explanation and justification out of the way, what exactly is the significance of the lightning bolt symbol in superhero comics, and given the preponderance of its appearance, what are these noteworthy instances?
Lightning is an important symbol in many mythologies. It’s easy to see why. In prehistoric times a sudden burst of jagged fire from the heavens that contained destructive powers must have seemed completely magical. Imagine that you believe in gods who live in the sky, and suddenly the heavens darken, there is a storm, and the guy next to you gets hit by a bolt of lightning that also sets fire to your village. That guy must have done something to really piss off the sky gods. No wonder so many of them appear in our mythologies with bolts of lightning as weapons.
In western culture the Greek god Zeus, and his Roman counterpart Jupiter, are the most obvious examples. They are both sky gods and the fathers of their pantheons, known for their short tempers. Both of them are usually pictured wielding lightning bolts. Thanks to comics and the recent movie, Thor, the Norse god of thunder is now more well-known than previously, though manifestations of him have appeared frequently in modern literature. His hammer, Mjolnir is a physical manifestation of thunder and lightning.
But the symbol exists in lots of lesser known mythologies as well. The Hindu god Indra is known as the god of lightning and carries a thunderbolt as a weapon. The Celtic god of thunder is Taranis while the Irish is Tuireann. The Maya represented their god Huracan with three thunderbolts. The Cherokee tell stories of the Thunder Beings. The Ojibway believe that thunder is created by the Thunderbirds, and they can be either helpful or harmful to man.
So lightning has a long association with the gods and higher powers. But there is more to it than that. It is the symbol of sudden insight and enlightenment. We say that an idea came to us “like a bolt out of the blue.” We have all felt “thunderstruck” by something unexpected. The classic comic strip representation of a sudden idea is a lightbulb appearing over someone’s head, and what is a lightbulb but a container for lightning in the miniature form of an electric spark?
In this context lightning can be seen as divine inspiration. There is a Zen Buddhist concept known as Satori (what the Goth band Bauhaus referred to as a “Kick in the Eye”). It literally means “Understanding” and is seen as a sudden awakening to one’s Buddha nature and enlightenment. It is the first step on the road to Nirvana. Satori has been described to be like lightning; a sudden insight into the Divine that changes ones life. It is the glimpse of the Holy Grail that launches a lifelong quest for our higher selves. It is the bright light that converts Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus. It is a message from beyond, briefly illuminating our potential.
But like actual lightning, it can be dangerous. It brings change and destruction of the old. Once seen it cannot be unseen (and that’s a concept I plan on revisiting when I talk about the classic “Injury to the Eye” motif).
This symbolism of lightning and its relationship to insight and inspiration is obvious. I find it fascinating that modern science has taught us that all thought and brain activity is carried through our brains on flashes of electrical energy.
There are consequences to consciousness and enlightenment of course. The story of Prometheus illustrates this. In Greek mythology Prometheus is said to have stolen fire from the gods and given it as a gift to humanity (and there are variations on this theme/story in mythologies from around the world). Prosaically speaking the taming of fire by our ancient ancestors was one of the first steps that allowed us to evolve. Heat, light, cooking, and eventually metallurgy all stemmed from this discovery. In all likelihood, the very first fires mankind learned to use were started by lightning strikes. It was natural to see this as a gift from the heavens. Symbolically, this is seen to represent the fire of self-awareness, the first stirrings of our consciousness. It is the spark of intellect that lifts us above the animals and makes us more enlightened, more god-like.
But the gods were jealous and apparently didn’t want to share the gift of divine light. It had to stolen from them but one of their own and given to man. Prometheus was punished for all eternity for the temerity of giving this gift to man.
Speaking of being punished for all eternity, in some versions of the Biblical story Lucifer is known as the Lightbringer, which implies the same idea. In many interpretations of the story of Genesis the fruit of forbidden knowledge was self awareness. It was when Adam and Eve went from being innocent to being able to question the god that created them. Once they were aware they were naked they could never again return to the state they were in before. What had been seen could not be unseen.
Maybe it was appropriate for me to be paired up with the Prince of Darkness in that first grade Halloween party after all.
I want touch on some of the high points of this chain of lightning that stretched across comics history. Some of these will appear again, in more detail and in different contexts, in later discussions. But for now I want to at least launch the spark.
Morrison says that Superman’s “S” shield symbol can be read as a stylized lightning bolt. While the curved path of the S can be seen as the jagged path of lightning even I think that is stretching the metaphor a little. That said, in the 1990s there was a period of time when Superman had electric based powers and the S on his costume then (designed by artist Ron Frenz), was very definitively a lightning bolt. This was the form Superman was in for a significant portion of Morrison’s run on JLA.
The Golden Age Flash first appeared in Flash Comics #1 in January 1940. The comic bore the legend, “Lightning fast action, mystery and adventure.” A yellow lightning bolt, his personal sigil, slashed across his chest and down the side of his leg, indicating his power of super speed. But it was the rest of his costume that tied Jay Garrick into the iconography of classic mythology. His winged helmet and boots were the clothes worn by the Greek god Hermes. We can still see this image in the corporate logo of FTD Florists. Here’s a case of one of the earliest superheroes specifically donning the symbolism of the god he wished to embody.
Hermes is the messenger of the gods. As a messenger he brings the word of the divine to the world. He is the carrier of divine inspiration, insight or satori. He is a psychopomp, literally a “conductor of the souls of the dead.” He connects the physical realm of earth with that of both Olympus and Hades. This ability to travel at will between the realms, a power none of the other gods have, is significant and as we will see ties in more specifically with the Silver Age Flash. Hermes is a trickster figure, credited with the invention of music and writing. He is the god of travelers, or anyone on a journey, physical or spiritual. With Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, he sires a hermaphrodite, symbolically uniting the male and female principles, the same way he unites the upper realms of Olympus with the underworld. He is a god that unites the opposites.
Flash was not the only superhero, then or now, to wear the lightning bolt sigil, and a comprehensive list is not what I’m attempting here. Sorry if I leave your favorite one out.
The next significant character from the 1940s to emblazon the lightning sigil across his chest is the original Captain Marvel. First appearing in Whiz Comics #1 cover-dated February 1940 Captain Marvel would go on to be the most successful superhero comic of the decade. Captain Marvel titles regularly outsold Superman (which may account for DC’s ongoing legal battle against the character that would last until 1954).
Captain Marvel was originally young Billy Batson who was granted the powers of the gods by speaking the magic word SHAZAM. When he did so a bolt of lightning from the heavens would strike his body and transform him into “The World’s Mightiest Mortal.”
There is a lot more about this character I want to talk about. I plan on spending significant time on the symbolism and significance of Captain Marvel’s origin story in the next chapter.
There were many more. As I have said, sigils and symbols of all kinds appeared on the costumes of these colorful new heroes. The Lightning bolt was one of many, but it appeared with an amazing frequency.
As we’ll see, after an explosion of new superheroes during the years of the Second World War, they ceased to flourish in the post-War years. Crime comics and Horror comics and Romance comics had taken the lion’s share of the comic market and that would remain true until the advent of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. The only superheroes published consistently through this time period were Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman.
Then, in Showcase #4 in 1956, a new era in comics was signaled by the arrival of the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen (the one I dressed like in first grade). Leaping off the cover in a sleek new costume comics fans were once again witness to the rebirth of Hermes in the form of a superhero speedster. This version was more sleek and modern than his predecessor. The lightning bolt sigil on his chest remained intact, but the Greek helmet had disappeared. In its place were a pair of wings that stood out from his head like the hood ornaments of that ultimate symbol of 1950s prosperity, the automobile. The car can also be seen as a symbol of those other classic elements of Hermes, speed and travel.
The imagery of that cover is interesting for a number of reasons. On it we see the Flash running toward the reader, leaping out of a roll of movie film on which we see multiple images of him. There is nothing in the story that connects the Flash with movies, so we have to assume this image was meant purely symbolically. The motion picture implies motion, of course, even though this is an illusion. A film is composed of static images given the semblance of motion by the speed at which they are projected. Conveying motion on the screen is easy, but comics are a static medium. How does one convey motion at all, let a lone super speed, in a medium that doesn’t move?
Barry received his powers when he was hit by lightning and dowsed with chemicals. Originally he had the same powers of super speed as his predecessor, but over time this changed. By vibrating the molecules of his body he was able to pass through solid objects. As this power grew, eventually he was able to cross into other realities (and with the help of an unlikely device called the Cosmic Treadmill, to travel through time). He was the first hero to step into another, alternate version of our own Earth where he met Jay Garrick, the original Golden Age Flash. In Barry’s world Jay had existed only as a comic book character and had in fact inspired Barry’s choice of his superhero name. This created a meta-fiction that justifies the current usage of the term “Meta-Hero” for super-powered characters.
This power to cross dimensions and enter other worlds makes Barry Allen a psychopomp in a much more overt fashion than any previous character. The scientific concept of the “multiverse” and the mythic ideas of the various realms of being were beginning to converge.
Showcase #4 marked the beginning of something new. Editor Julius Schwartz had decided to resurrect the name of an old character and update him for a new generation of readers too young to remember the original. This flash of inspiration proved incredibly successful. After languishing for years the superhero genre was reinvigorated, leading to what we now call the Silver Age of Comics. DC relaunched many of their old characters in brand new incarnations. Many of these new characters were teamed up in the Justice League of America, creating a new pantheon of Pop Culture gods in comic book form. Flash, of course, took his place among them.
The superhero genre came back in force in the late 1950s and early 1960s, eventually replacing almost every other genre in comics. During this time there were many new characters with lightning or electricity based powers who wore the sigil on their costumes. In Adventure Comics #247 in 1958 Superboy was visited by three members of the Legion of Superheroes from 1000 years in the future. One of them was called Lightning Lad. It was eventually revealed that he had a sister, Lightning Lass. It wasn’t the lightning that gave them the power to travel through time, but this is still a connection with the powers of a psychopomp. The existence of Superman is what inspired the Legion to form in the future, and Superboy’s interaction with them helped inspire his future career as Superman.
DC’s renewed success with the superhero was noticed by rival company, Marvel Comics, who quickly began to create their own stable of new superhero characters. Fantastic Four #1 was released in 1961. The very first words in that seminal story were, “With the sudden fury of a thunderbolt, a flare is shot into the sky over Central City.”
In this way a thunderbolt launched the Marvel Universe as well. It wasn’t long before the Mighty Thor, the actual Norse god of thunder, joined the ranks of Marvel superheroes. He first appeared in Journey Into Mystery #83 in 1962. Like the Golden Age Captain Marvel, a mortal man, Dr. Don Blake, was transformed into a god in cave, “bathed in blinding light!! Like a fiery bolt of lightning!” He also regularly journeyed between the realms, from Earth (Midgard), to Asgard to Jotunheim and beyond.
Thor was an original member of the Avengers, Marvel’s answer to the Justice League, at least in terms of putting several of their most powerful characters together in one book. When Thor left the team, taking his lightning-based powers with him, one of the new heroes who replaced him was a super-speedster with a lightning bolt sigil named Quicksilver. Quicksilver is the old alchemical name for the element Mercury. Mercury is, of course, the Roman name of the Greek god Hermes.
In 1975 Marvel introduced a new team of teenage mutants in Giant-Size X-Men #1. Prior to this the X-Men had been one of Marvel’s marginal titles, but this relaunch was the beginning of one of the most successful franchises in comics history, and as a whole, introduced characters, concepts and storytelling techniques that are still influential today. While there was no one who wore a lightning sigil, the character of Storm controlled the weather and used lightning bolts as a weapon on a regular basis.
In the 1980s the comic book marketplace was changed forever by the advent of direct market sales. This opened the door to an explosion of new publishing companies and new characters. Lightning was everywhere. The cosmic hero/assassin Nexus, created by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, wore a yellow slash of lightning from his left shoulder down across his chest. Scott McCloud, who would go on fame as the author of the seminal book Understanding Comics, would create a book called Zot! The title character wore the red and yellow of the Flash and the Golden Age Captain Marvel (who he also resembled in terms of features and drawing style). Zot’s chest sigil was a small, stylized lightning bolt that could also be read as a mirror image of his initial, Z.
In Matt Wagner’s series Mage: The Hero Discovered, his protagonist, Kevin Matchstick wears a black and white t-shirt version of the Captain Marvel lightning bolt. This was a character who represented a generation of comic book readers who had begun to wear the symbols of their favorite characters. Kevin was doing what comics fans were doing; he was donning the clothes of his pop culture gods in an effort to channel their power. Not that this was conscious on his part any more than it was to those of us in the real world. But it was a conscious decision on the part of Matt Wagner to reference the history of superhero symbolism. The fact that Kevin eventually embodied and channeled a mythic power, that of the Arthurian Pendragon, tied the modern superhero into a much larger literary tradition as well.
By 1985 DC Comics decided that their multiverse, the concept of multiple earths first introduced when the Silver Age Flash travelled to Earth 2 and met the Golden Age Flash, had grown too large, complicated, and confusing to new readers. The way they handled this perceived problem was a giant, twelve part sprawling story called Crisis on Infinite Earths. Characters from all of their worlds teamed up to try and stop a threat that was destroying the multiverse, one reality at a time. The end result was all of the worlds and their complex histories were compacted into one cohesive whole (that was the plan, anyway. Cracks in the logic of this and plot problems arose almost immediately, some of which were never resolved). Many characters died. The foremost among them was Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash. This signaled the definitive end to the era of comics that began with Showcase #4, and Barry’s death was symbolic of that.
The result of this Crisis was that many of the characters and stories in the DC universe were rebooted to fit this new continuity. One of the first new books, with a brand new #1, was The Flash. This time it was Wally West who wore the lightning bolt. Wally had been known as Kid Flash, the former sidekick of the Flash. He had received his powers in an amazingly coincidental way by being hit by lightning and dowsed in the very same chemicals as Barry.
It was later revealed that instead of dying in the Crisis, Barry had become one with something called the Speed Force, the source of power for everyone in the DCU with super speed. By being one with it Barry was able to transcend space and time in undreamed of ways, literally becoming the lightning bolts that had empowered both himself and Wally. Like the Flatland analogy, Barry was able to see reality from a higher plane and move at will anywhere along the timeline, expanding the powers of the psychopomp.
1986 has been called “The Best Year in Comics, Ever!” There are a number of reasons for this, which I’ll get to when the time comes. One of those reasons was the publication of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This, along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen both completely changed the way superhero comics were done. In terms of art and storytelling, and in the case of the Dark Knight, format, the influence of these titles cannot be underestimated. If you have only read superhero comics since then you have only read stories influenced by these two books. And this change was announced by the sheer graphic intensity of the cover of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1. Miller was able to distill the concept of Batman into the simplest of black silhouettes against a background image of a realistic flash of lightning. No comic had ever looked like this before and the power of its imagery jumped off the racks immediately.
The end of the 20th century saw the creation of a new kind of superhero team. Born out of the ashes of Stormwatch, a second or third tier book from Image Comics, The Authority represented the next evolution in the concept of the superhero and set the stage for the way we approached them in the 21st century (that’s a bigger topic for later). The essential part of this for right now is the leader of the Authority, Jenny Sparks. Jenny had superpowers based on electricity. Nothing new there, but the underlying concept of her character ties together much of what I have been talking about in this chapter.
Jenny Sparks was one of several characters in her universe (Wildstorm Studios, at the time. These characters are now owned by DC and their status in current continuity is unknown), known as “Century Babies.” They were all born on January 1, 1900, and age more slowly than normal people. Each of them serve a specific purpose for the world. Jenny Sparks was the “Spirit of the 20th Century.” As such, she died on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and a new spirit of the 21st century, Jenny Quantum, was born. It was suggested that there has always been a Jenny, a living spirit of each century in history, with powers that represent the world at that time. The 19th century had Jenny Steam.
Jenny Sparks was the embodiment of electricity, the single most influential technology of the last century. Before then the world was dark. Through our technology we captured lightning and encased it in bulbs to illuminate our homes and streets. We send messages, words and pictures and music and information, around the world and into space on currents of electricity. Hermes, the god of communication, races around our world at the speed of light, to bring the light of information to all. Powers that once were magical are now a common, everyday experience for most of us. Like the sky gods of old, we all wield the power of the lightning bolt.
Though Jenny Sparks represented the previous century we have not left the symbol behind. Though we have moved into a Quantum age, as represented by this century’s Jenny, we are not done with the sigil of lightning. A symbol with this history, extending back into our prehistoric past, is powerful and has a life of its own.
Just recently DC has once again decided, just like in the days of Crisis on Infinite Earths, that their universe had become too unwieldy to be understood by new readers. They have recently rebooted their entire universe with a brand new continuity. Of course, a Flash had to be involved.
Barry Allen had been resurrected a couple of years ago and he, Wally, and Jay Garrick were all running around the DC universe using the name The Flash. A villain from the future, Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash, went back in time and changed the entire history of the DCU, leading to an event called Flashpoint. By the end of it Barry was able to defeat Zoom and undo his interference in the timeline. When history corrected itself most things were restored, though there have been major changes. This story arc is the justification for the relaunch of all of their titles. Barry seems to have some lingering memory of the old timeline. Whether this will have any impact on the future of DC is yet to be seen. If it does it will be one more instance of our lightning powered psychopomp bringing about change.
One of the new titles launched in the New 52 is called Earth 2. This is a reference to the stories in this title taking place in an alternate universe to the one portrayed in the other titles in the line. In a previous continuity Earth 2 was where all of the Golden Age DC stories took place and the home of those characters, including the original Flash. In the new series, rather than continue telling stories of these characters set in the 1940s they have decided to recreate them in a modern context. The first new hero to appear is Jay Garrick, the Flash. In this iteration he does not simply wear a costume that references the god Hermes. In this story Hermes himself appears to Jay. The old gods have all been killed defending the world from invasion. Hermes is the last of them and knows that their powers must survive. He infuses Jay with is essence, igniting the spark of god-like powers, super speed, in a mortal. We have come full circle with this story>
One last observation before moving away from this topic
Recently there was a documentary called Real Life Superheroes. The film is about real people in America who put on costumes and go out onto the streets to fight crime. The very first person we meet calls himself Mr. Extreme. He wears a superhero costume while going out and patrolling the streets of San Diego. When we meet him in his “Extreme Cave” (his tiny apartment), in his secret identity he is wearing a cap with the team logo of the San Diego Chargers Football team.
A lightning bolt.