Johnny Thunder and Black Lightning.

JOHNNY THUNDER

Medium: Comic Books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1948
Creators: Robert Kanigher (writer) and Alex Toth (artist)
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During the late 1940s, DC Comics, like the rest of the comic book industry, was turning away from the superheroes that had sustained it practically …

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… since the beginning. But DC wasn't turning too far away. Several of its western characters clung to that old superhero stand-by, the secret identity — including its first big star in that genre, Johnny Thunder.

All-American Comics, where The Atom, Dr. Mid-Nite and The Red Tornado all began, got a new cover feature with its 100th issue (August, 1948). Green Lantern, who had virtually monopolized that position since 1940, was relegated to the back pages, squeezing Hop Harrigan, who had been there since the first issue, out altogether, while Johnny Thunder came galloping out of nowhere to become the star. Three issues later, the title was changed to All-American Western, and the old characters were completely gone.

Aside from being a harbinger of a new comic book genre, which would become important for DC (and comics in general) during the 1950s, Johnny was a harbinger of a practice that became increasingly prevalent at DC during the 1950s, '60s and beyond — naming new characters after old ones. The Flash, Hawkman, Robotman and dozens of others have been revived over the years — even The Three Mouseketeers got that treatment, tho in their case the revival was no more similar to the original than was Johnny Thunder. The original Johnny Thunder had been a plainclothes superhero of sorts, who had run in the back pages of DC's Flash Comics until just a few months before this Johnny's debut.

Johnny's first story, which was written by Robert Kanigher (Knights of the Galaxy, Metal Men) and drawn by Alex Toth (Space Ghost, Rex the Wonder Dog), concerned a deathbed promise and the slick way the promisor rationalized his way out of it. John Taine assured his dying mother he'd devote his life to peaceful pursuits, rather than use his gunfighting skills in more viscerally satisfying ways, but she was no sooner in the grave than he began to have regrets — especially considering the fact that his father, sheriff of John's home town of Mesa City, openly despised his schoolteacher son's way of life.

John responded by creating a new persona to handle whatever two-fisted work need doing. He wore more rugged clothes, rode a more rugged horse, used coal dust to turn his blond hair a more rugged black, and took on a more rugged name — Johnny Thunder. That way, "John Taine" could keep his promise, while as "Johnny Thunder" he got to do all the viscerally satisfying stuff. The sheriff, of course, never even suspected. Years later, Marvel Comics' Daredevil would use the same technique to avoid having to keep a promise to his dead father.

The more rugged horse's name was Black Lightning, so called not because of his color (he was almost pure white) but because of an oddly-shaped patch of black on his forehead. No relation to the Black Lightning who has been a minor fixture in the DC Universe since 1977 — that's just another example of DC giving a new character the same name as an old one.

Johnny continued to star in All-American Western until it switched genres again, and was re-titled All-American Men of War (#127, September, 1952). He moved to All Star Western (formerly All Star Comics, home of The Justice Society of America) with its 67th issue (November, 1952). There, he played second fiddle to The Trigger Twins, who had been the cover-featured stars of All Star just about since it became a western. He stayed in that position for years, and finally started getting an occasional cover with #87 (March, 1956). With #102 (July, 1958), he became the sole cover feature; and a year later, the magazine's logo was modified to emphasize his name.

Just as he'd helped displace the old superheroes in the 1940s, he was himself displaced by a resurgence of them in the '60s. All Star Western was canceled with its 119th issue (July, 1961) to make way for new versions of The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman etc. This time, there was no other western anthology title to take him in.

There was a brief reprint series in 1973, but this version of Johnny Thunder wasn't seen again in a new story until 1980, when the back pages of DC Comics Presents showed him in later life. Since then, he's scarcely been seen at all. When "Johnny Thunder" is mentioned in a DC comic, it's usually the idiot from the back pages of Flash Comics.

— DDM

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Text ©2002-04 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.