Because I can’t live on the ~$75 of revenue this site has generated in the three years it’s been around, I have to keep working at a day job, and because I have a day job, I missed my chance at this the first time around, but because some new copies arrived at the shop, and also because I have to keep working at a day job, nobody else gets a say in what I write about anymore, so there are spoilers ahead for…
Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey Special #1
Writer: Brian Hill, Jeff Parker
Artist: Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz, Scott Kollins
Cover: Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz
Variant Cover: ChrisCross
“I don’t have time to make you believe in any of this. I don’t really care if you do.”
The 1970s were…well, they were something.
My direct recollection of the time is limited; after all, I wasn’t even around at the very beginning of the decade, and I didn’t start forming solid memories until somewhere slightly past the mid-point. That said, I was there for much of it, and was certainly exposed to the leftover portions of it that stuck around into the next decade.
Along with disco, two things for which the 1970s are largely remembered are Blaxploitation and the Kung Fu craze.
While Hong Kong Phooey is most obviously an artifact of the latter, given that the character was coded as black – he was voiced by the late Scatman Crothers, after all – the cartoon about the crimefighting canine martial artist is a product of the overall zeitgeist, combining elements of both, which is why, in the context of the crazy idea of teaming up Hanna-Barbera characters with DC characters, pairing him with Black Lightning – and setting the story in the ‘70s – makes perfect, for a given value of the word, sense.
There is also precedent within comics – though more notably on the Marvel side of things – for mingling Blaxploitation with Kung Fu, so again, the pairing makes sense, of a kind.
It’s also the only pairing of the various DC/H-B characters that started happening last year that really piqued my interest, in large part because the pairing made sense. (While I enjoyed it, for what it was, the Super Sons/Dyno-Mutt special wasn’t something I deliberately added to my stack.)
The other factor that caught my interest is that the book features another pairing that just makes sense, in the form of Denys Cowan, as penciller, and Bill Sienkiewicz, as inker. (More on that in a bit.)
I’ve never been a big fan of most Hanna-Barbera productions, as even as a kid the lazy and cheap nature of the animation stood out, but H-B characters in one form or another have been – and remain – a mainstay of childhood cartoon consumption since before I was born, though HKP is probably one of the lesser-known, at least in comparison to a certain modern Stone Age family or a cowardly mystery-solving dog.
DC has been utilizing the stable of H-B characters in interesting ways that go beyond the team-ups with DC characters – but which includes a regular series that includes DC/H-B crossovers that is distinct from these specials – taking some core characteristics and veering off into wildly-different directions, as with the Mad Men-esque take on The Flintstones, or the post-apocalyptic adventures of Scooby and the gang.
That’s the approach this book takes, holding on to some of the essential elements of the character – most notably the fact that he’s a talking dog that walks and acts like a man in a world primarily populated by humans, and yet, for the most part, no one comments on that – while eschewing some others.
One thing that is jettisoned – thankfully, in my opinion – is the “bumbling hero who manages to save the day either despite his best efforts, or due to the unnoticed intervention of a competent sidekick” trope.
Cartoon HKP was well-intentioned, but wasn’t any good at crimefighting, usually solving problems – and causing even more along the way – clumsily and inadvertently as he referred to his copy of The Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu, an instructional guide from a martial arts correspondence course, to find the right technique to deal with a given situation. (Which rarely worked.)
Mostly the day would be saved by his companion, a striped cat named Spot, who was intelligent, but non-verbal, and was kept as a pet in the weird world of anthropomorphic animals living amongst humans.
Here, where HKP is competent, Spot is not needed, and is absent, though cats do figure into the story.
Gone too is the thin pretense of a secret identity – though he does wear a mask when in action – and his role as a janitor at a police department.
Rosemary – the police switchboard operator who had a crush on Hong Kong Phooey, but no interest in his alter ego Penry Pooch on the cartoon – is present, as HKP’s companion and a martial arts instructor.
As our story begins, it’s clear that Jefferson “Black Lightning” Pierce and Penry “Honk Kong Phooey” Pooch have a pre-existing relationship, as we find Pierce in Pooch’s office recounting the tale of his encounter with three martial artists who had killed a man in Metropolis and then threw Black Lightning out a window when he attempted to apprehend them.
BL seeks out HKP’s assistance, as anything involving martial arts is HKP’s beat.
Despite their victim’s obvious wealth, the three assailants only took a fragment of paper, which HKP reveals contains a portion of the secret of the God Fist fighting technique.
The God Fist technique was discovered centuries earlier by a monk who bound a demon and forced the demon to teach it. Having learned the technique, the monk used it to destroy the demon, and then realized that the God Fist was too powerful and should never be taught to anyone. However, he didn’t want the knowledge of it to die with him, as there might arise a time in which its power would be needed, and so he wrote it down on a scroll, which the then separated into three fragments, entrusting one fragment apiece to his three greatest students and extracting a vow from them that they would protect the secret of their fragment and continue the tradition by passing their fragments down to their greatest students, and always keeping them separated.
Naturally, HKP is the inheritor of one of the fragments, and he and BL head to Chinatown to retrieve it from where HKP placed it for safekeeping.
However, while our heroes are away, two of the villains – Bronze Tiger, and Cheshire – descend upon the martial arts school, and while Rosemary puts up a good fight, the villains prove too much for her. After HKP and BL have an encounter with the leader of the villainous trio – Professor Presto – and defeat him, Bronze Tiger and Cheshire show up with Rosemary in tow and use her as leverage to force HKP to hand over his fragment of the scroll.
With the final piece in his possession, Presto gains the power of the God Fist, and, as per his arrangement, shares a portion of that power with Cheshire and Bronze Tiger.
After extracting a promise from BL that he’ll do what’s necessary should the need arise, HKP reveals that he was not just in possession of the fragment of the scroll, he had the full knowledge of the God Fist technique the whole time, and so he uses it to confront Presto while BL and Rosemary – who BL equipped with some power gloves that when charged up by his lightning will allow her to pack more of a punch – deal with Bronze Tiger and Cheshire.
The secret to defeating the God Fist is for HKP to channel the demon who taught the technique to the monk and was betrayed by him and offering the demon the opportunity to avenge itself on the current user of the God Fist. The demon drags Presto away to hell, then attempts to convince HKP to continue to serve as its vessel. HKP does not give in to temptation, however, and the demon recedes.
It was the fear of being consumed by the demon that led HKP to ask BL to kill him should the need arise. For his part, Black Lightning is glad the need didn’t arise.
The backup feature, despite what the solicitation stated, is not a story pairing the Funky Phantom – an even lesser-known H-B creation – with The Spectre. Instead, it involves Jason Blood being prevailed upon to summon forth the spirit of a dead Revolutionary War hero, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, one Jonathan Wellington “Muddy” Muddlemore.
After running afoul of British soldiers, Muddy had been shot and was on the run, in search of a hiding place. Sneaking into an unoccupied home, he climbed inside a large clock, where he ultimately bled out and died, and the clock served as his casket for more than two centuries.
Had he lived, Muddy would have likely been one of the framers of the Constitution, and so, as his spirit had been trapped with is body all this time, Blood is tasked with releasing his spirit, during a televised event organized by a gun rights-supporting Senator, so that a Founding Father can provide direct support for an absolutist reading of the Second Amendment (all the other Founders’ spirits are too far-gone to be summoned forth).
With that accomplished, Blood takes his leave, and the awed members of the audience ask Muddy for his take on the Second Amendment. Of course, having died before the Constitution was written, Muddy has no idea what they’re talking about, so they supply him with a copy of the Constitution so that he can read it and let them know what his friends’ intent would have been. This takes some time, as Muddy is particularly gregarious and has an anecdote about his old pals for each passage he reads.
He asks for a little more clarity about the question once he – finally – gets to the Second Amendment and is shown an example of the kind of weapon that people feel entitled to own and openly carry and is given a demonstration.
A mishap with some of the loaded firearms on the premises leads to a lot of gunfire and a shredded flag and a very rattled Senator, though fortunately no fatalities, which leads to…
One thing I’ve found with the DC/H-B crossovers – and with the DC/Warner Bros. crossovers – is that playing it somewhat straight actually seems to lead to more interesting and amusing stories than you might get if the writers and artists aimed for silliness.
That is, the whole “yeah, just go with it” attitude when introducing silly talking animals into the overall dark and gritty milieu of the DC Universe creates its own kind of silliness that has more…heft than you might find from a more gag-oriented story. Even if it doesn’t really resemble it in terms of structure, it’s evocative of the Airplane style of humor, and I like that it’s a recognition of the idea that a talking dog who’s a martial artist isn’t really any more ridiculous than, oh, let’s say an inner-city school teacher who can shoot lightning bolts out of his hands.
And yet, it does seem more ridiculous, at least when the two are brought together, and your brain rebels as the willingness of your suspension of disbelief is pushed to its limits.
That said, the story itself wasn’t particularly great, and I think it could have benefited from leaning into the 1970s-ness of it all, making the most of its setting in a way that it just…didn’t. (At the very least they should have included a Prez cameo.)
I also initially found it odd that for the DC villains they went with Cheshire rather than Lady Shiva, given that Cheshire wasn’t introduced until the 1980s, whereas Lady Shiva was part of DC’s own 1970s’ Kung Fu efforts, and was a companion to Bronze Tiger. But then I realized: “Oh, duh. Cats.”
The highlight of it all, of course, was the art. Cowan and Sienkiewicz each have a distinctive style, but they are, in some ways opposite sides of the same coin, as they are both expressionistic and almost abstract, but while Cowan tends to be a little more controlled and tightly-confined, Sienkiewicz cuts loose a bit more.
Having Sienkiewicz doing the inking – which is generally where the looser pencils are tightened up – was an intriguing choice, as it loosened up Cowan’s pencils in a way that was suitably funky. The colors were fine, but I wish they had gone with someone who could have done more to emphasize the wildness of the line art.
The back-up feature was, of course, topical, but it remined me of the Phantom’s appearance on Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law, in which they did a similar bit, albeit with a focus on the Funky Phantom’s dismay at the excesses of First Amendment absolutism.
Obviously, we can’t summon the spirits of the Founding Fathers to get their take on today’s debates, but ultimately, why would we need to? The specific thoughts of men who lived 250 years ago, and many of whom owned other human beings, don’t strike me as particularly relevant, and what they had to offer of value is already in place for us to refer to and use in reaching our own decisions.
Regardless of whichever side of the debate you take, I think those last two panels of the story drive home the ridiculousness of viewing whatever people who lived before the Industrial Revolution and the cultural and technological developments thought as sacrosanct and authoritative.
In any case, I wanted to carve out some space to talk about at least one of the weird crossovers that DC has been doing with some of the other properties available in the stables maintained by their shared corporate overlords, and so…this.
Next week’s entry is a foregone conclusion, of course, as The Man of Steel will have its last issue hit the stands on Wednesday, so I wanted to pick something a little surprising, even if it wasn’t exactly new, or the best thing in my stack.
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