Jefferson is better known as Black Lightning, the electro-kinetic superhero from Metropolis’ underserved “Suicide Slum” neighborhood, who recently got a big boost in his profile when his eponymous television series was renewed for a third season. He’s also a staple of the Outsiders, a long-lived DC Comics superhero team that can be summed up in a brief, but tantalizing hook: Batman’s hand-picked black ops team.
In their original incarnation, Batman formed the Outsiders out of frustration with the Justice League’s rules and reticence, but in Hill’s new revival of the team — with artist Dexter Soy — things are much more personal for the Dark Knight.
“I try to always find the emotional way in on these stories,” Hill told Polygon. “And I remember talking to Tom [King] — his writing has always been a big inspiration for me. Especially [Sheriff of Babylon], which was such a watershed moment for me. It was really the book that made me want to come back to comics.
“And I thought, ‘OK, well it would be silly to think about this book not existing in the same dimension with what Tom is doing emotionally,’” he continued. “And because Tom does a good job of destabilizing Bruce Wayne and exposing his vulnerabilities, his frailties, I was like, ‘Well, you know what, if we’re going to an Outsiders thing, I think first and foremost for Bruce, it would be a place to exert himself.’ To prove that he still has that kind of classic Batman mojo. And that’s where it started for me, was thinking about what would Bruce want out of this.”
The other half of that emotional equation is the team’s field leader, Black Lightning, who, Hill says, was chosen because of Batman’s interest in molding the powerful but isolated hero, and Lightning’s ability to mold young minds.
“I think Bruce sees in him a lot of potential, and part of it might be Bruce thinking, [deep voice] ‘Hmm, if I had just gotten to Clark before ...’” Hill said. “I think part of Bruce looks at [Superman] and respects and admires him, but also finds him a little hampered by an ethics that he wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to. And Bruce, when he looks at Jefferson, sees a character that has a lot of potentiality. Jefferson has elemental-style abilities and he hasn’t really explored the water’s edge of what he could do. And I think Batman is thinking, [deep voice] ‘Hmm, Jefferson can be very effective.’
“One of Bruce’s greatest abilities is his way of showing you what you could be; of infecting you with his grandeur and his purpose [...] But it also allows Bruce to have someone who is minding the store on some of these younger characters,” Hill said.
In his civilian life, as in his television show, Jefferson is a public school teacher and administrator, one who embraces the challenge of reaching traumatized and frustrated kids especially. And he’ll have his work cut out for him with Hill and Soy’s new Outsiders lineup. There’s the deadly operative known as Katana, formerly of the Suicide Squad, whose children and husband were murdered by a man whose affections she rejected — although her husband’s spirit speaks to her from her sword, the blade that killed him.
And then there are the two kids: Cassandra Cain and Duke Thomas. Duke Thomas is an inner-city Gotham kid whose parents are in a mental institution, never having recovered from a Joker-gas attack. He came to the notice of the Bat-Family after he leading an ad hoc movement of teens known by their homemade red, green, and yellow outfits and the rallying cry “We are Robin.” Since then, he’s gotten some Dark Metal precognitive superpowers and taken on the code name Signal, but has yet to have had a consistent ongoing series to appear in.
Cassandra Cain has been around DC Comics history for 20 years, originating as the second Batgirl in 1999 (she’ll also feature in Margot Robbie’s upcoming Birds of Prey film). Her four years-late post-New 52 reintroduction kept her basic origin story — the mute child of assassins, potentially the greatest martial artist on Earth — but jettisoned all of her history with the Batfamily. Rather than Batgirl, she goes by the rather on-the-nose codename of Orphan. Both Signal and Orphan have both been somewhat adrift in the larger editorial world of Gotham City.
Hill wants to fix that in Batman & the Outsiders.
“Cassandra Cain has always been one of my favorite characters,” he told Polygon. “Really one of the things that drew me to wanting to do The Outsiders was the ability to write Cassandra Cain. Because Batman is a person, a character, that speaks in symbology: ‘I was afraid. I became the thing I was afraid of. And I use that fear against the people that deserve it.’
“So for Cassandra it’s a journey of her figuring out what is she going to be the symbol of,” Hill said. “When you see her, what should that mean? What would she design herself to be?
“When it comes to Duke,” Hill continued, “I share that feeling that Duke has a lot of fertile ground, a lot of narrative seeds can be planted there. And I know there are fans of him that are incredibly committed to him, as am I. [...] I can promise them that you’re going to get a multilayered exploration of Duke, and he’s going to go through some very powerful, transformative things. I can’t promise that some people won’t be mad at me, but I can promise that it will never be boring.”
Part of the reason that Duke is so fervently watched by his fans is that he’s one of very few black members of the Bat-Family. Cassandra shares a similar status, as the first Asian character introduced to the group, and very nearly the first Bat-person of color at all (Dick Grayson’s partial Romani heritage being easy for artists and creative teams to ignore).
Hill says he’s very aware of the particular totemic status of all the characters in his Outsiders team, not least because he himself represents something bigger.
“I recognize that even though I am relatively new to Big Two comics,” Hill told me, “I have become somewhat symbolic, because there just frankly aren’t a lot of African American writers in Big Two comics. So by the virtue of the situation you have to talk about me and Christopher Priest in the same breath [laughs], which is a little ridiculous. [...] Unfortunately that’s become a bit of a third rail in the conversation, but I just look at it like We need to know that we can be good. And that’s something that you can take for granted if goodness always looks like you. We have a better society when everyone can believe that they have the potential to be a positive influence on that society.”
But for his characters, a full picture involves some ups and downs.
“My specific creative goal is to make sure that we also give these characters room to make mistakes,” Hill says. “We give these characters room to not be perfect. If you look at my work, you’ll notice that I am interested in taking what I believe is a realistic snapshot of the world I see everyday and putting that into my stories with the way I cast and the characters I write. But at the same time, I’m not interested in making someone perfect, because that to me doesn’t feel like the kind of reflection that will give people self esteem.”
“You don’t have equality if you only have virtue, right?,” he continued. “Equality is when you have equality of virtue and equality of error. That’s something I’m focused on creatively.”
And now that Year of the Villain #1 has hit stands, we have a good idea of who might force those errors. In the same way that Bruce Wayne might be interested in the potential of Black Lightning, Signal, Orphan, and Katana; Ra’s al Ghul will be as well.
“He has designs of his own on the world,” Hill says, “and the belief that it is his responsibility to shepherd the evolution of the world to where it should go. Which oftentimes runs counter to the ethics of Bruce Wayne [laughs].”
And while Ra’s vaunted intellect will give Hill the chance to indulge in philosophy and psychology, he said a big priority of Batman & the Outsiders was the action.
“I wanted this book to move,” Hill told me. “If you have Dexter Soy, you don’t want people just talking to each other in rooms, you want Dexter to be able to get out there and do the iconic imagery he does best. [...] It’s a DCU book that kind of has the safety off a little bit. And I think what all of us are really happy about, is that how it does have that feeling. It’s a shot of adrenaline showing up in your pull box every issue, and we’re really proud of that.”