Black Lightning: Underrated Hero

Black Lightning TV show fans tune in to the CW to watch their favorite superhero family in action every week. On the Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil-developed TV show, we follow Jefferson Pierce aka Black Lightning (Cress Williams), his wife Dr. Lynn Pierce (Christine Adams), and their daughters, Anissa aka Thunder/Blackbird (Nafeesa Williams) and Jennifer aka Lightning (China Anne McClaine) execute various superhero duties daily, as they embark on different missions to save Freeland from the dangers that lurk. Said dangers include the Markovians, the 100s, Tobias Whale, and the ASA. The TV show is inspired by some themes in the comic book, but of course, it’s adapted to modern times and they made some changes to story lines and characters. One of the most popular story lines is that an attempt to make people in the slums more docile by giving them drugs just ended up creating metahumans who could then pass their super traits to their offspring. Since that debacle, the government has been trying to round up the metahumans since they are now even more of a threat. Sound familiar? Think about all the conspiracy theories surrounding the 80s crack epidemic or even the MK-Ultra experiments. So, the show is definitely inspired by reality.  However, today, we’re delving into the comic book origins of Black Lightning, a character who has been underrated until recently.

Black Lightning is a DC Comics superhero created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden. The character  first appeared in Black Lightning #1 (April 1977), during what was known as the Bronze Age of Comic Books. Isabella was an experienced writer who had also done work for Marvel on Luke Cage. If you look at the first iterations of Luke Cage and Black Lightning, you’ll notice that both characters resemble many of the macho man characters from Blaxploitation films. That was intentional. Black Lightning actually spoke in jive, which was stated to be part of Jefferson Pierce’s way of throwing people off from his true identity.

In the comic book, Freeland was actually named Southside Metropolis aka Suicide Slum. You know Metropolis, right? It’s the same city Superman resided in, but Superman was on the good side while the Southside was crime ridden. Superman didn’t go to the slums much but to his credit, he did eventually help Black Lightning clean it up. It took a while but it happened. Anyway, when Black Lightning isn’t traipsing the streets as his superhero persona, he’s simply Jefferson Pierce. Pierce was a gold medal-winning Olympic decathlete who left Freeland after his father was murdered by Tobias Whale, a crooked politician, but he eventually returned with his wife and oldest daughter Anissa (who was a child at that time) to become the princial of Garfield High School. The Suicide Slum was overrun by crooked politicians like Tobias Whale, shady corporations, and the100 gang.

Pierce didn’t start out as a metahuman. He initially got powers from a technologically advanced belt created for him by his family friend, Peter Gambi. Gambi, taught him how to use the belt and encouraged him to protect his community with that power, which he did. As Black Lightning progressed in the DC Universe, it was stated that he had a latent metagene and eventually internalized his belt’s powers as a result of that gene. Other versions of Black Lightning depict him as being a metahuman with the inborn ability to generate, control and manipulate electricity. This also includes nuroimpulses and electrons in the human body. In other words, if he could make someone’s heart stop if he wanted to. As time passes, his power get stronger and he has a hard time controlling them—you know how it goes with superheroes. The TV show simplifies it by making his super genes inherited. 

Black Lightning, like many comic book characters, has had several story lines and affiliations. At one point, he was the Secretary of Education, appointed by Lex Luthor. Yes, the villain, Lex Luthor. Black Lightning took the job because he thought he’d be able to do the right thing. It didn’t work out and he ended up resigning. He has also worked with Green Arrow and also worked closely with Batman as part of the Outsiders. He turned down Batman’s requests for him to join the Justice League multiple times in the comic book world but eventually worked with them. He actually leads the team in the current Justice League cartoon, and he has also been part of the Infinite Crisis storyline, among others.

The first round of the Black Lightning comic book series only lasted for 12 issues, but the character continued to have life in the universe in other titles and via series reboots that ran for a short arcs at a time. In the 2000s, DC Comics introduced his daughters, Anissa and Jennifer as Thunder and Lightning respectively. They inherited the meta gene from their father and followed in his crime fighting footsteps.

Black Lightning is the first Black Superhero at DC Comics to have his own solo comic book series. Up until recent years, he has been considered one of DC’s D-list heroes and again, he’s underrated, but the character’s creation paved the way for other popular Black DC characters like John Stewart (Green Lantern) and Cyborg. Black Lightning has been referenced in pop culture here and there, even before the TV show. Check out this throwback Saturday Night Live skit with Sinbad as Black Lightning. They make fun of Black Lightning’s past obscurity, but the character is flourishing now the way he should have always been.

Sources:

https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2018/01/black-lightning-everything-you-need-to-know
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Lightning