So I just watched the season premiere of CW’s Black Lightning yesterday.
It’s pretty good. The effects were great, the character dynamics were well thought out and have a lot of potential, and it pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to dealing with the…well let’s be polite and say “strained” relationship between black Americans and the police.
By all accounts the CW has another hit on their hands and it looks like Black Lightning is here to stay, so let’s look at his origins and see what’s changed and if the show can learn anything from the comics.
Origin and Career
Black Lightning was created in 1977, a few decades after the Golden Age of Comics and the favorite time period of this blog. This is going to require a little explanation.
It’s widely believed that the Golden Age of Comics ended in 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4 and the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash.
This brought along the Silver Age of Comics, a time period that was known for comics that focused on a more sci fi and technological oriented appeal.
Magic had been replaced by space science and monsters had been replaced by aliens.
This was also the time when Marvel Comics came into the world as the comic book company we all know and love today. A little known creator named Stan Lee decided to create a super hero family that traveled across time and space to defeat strange and fantastic threats.
It did pretty well and helped kick off the Marvel Universe that we all know and love today.
However, by the 1970’s things were changing again, and comics were moving out of the high concept science fantasy of the Silver Age. Times were changing. There were protests,
and there was a general sense of doom and gloom.
Yes, the 1970’s were a unique and special time that we will never have to live through again.
The great thing about these changing times was that in the comic book industry restrictions on what comic books could be talk about were becoming looser and looser, and in 1970 we entered a time that comic book historians called “The Bronze Age of Comics”.
This was a time where comic books got darker and edgier, talking about issues like drugs,
not shying away from violence,
and launching an explosion of black superheroes. Luke Cage is probably the most famous and successful of these heroes.
Anyway, DC had a problem in the 1970’s, Marvel was growing too fast and taking away a huge portion of their business. So DC decided to try and beat Marvel by flooding the market with a slew of new titles. One of these titles was going to be DC’s first black superhero and they eventually decided to publish….the Black Bomber.
The Black Bomber was supposed to be a white bigot who hated black people, but thanks to an accident he gained the ability to turn into a black superhero when under duress.
This is the only picture I could find of him. The only other reference he got in a comic book was a small reference in a Justice League of America comic written by Dwayne McDuffie.
Yeah, this was probably not a good idea.
So what convinced the editors at DC to change their mind? Why one of the writers of Luke Cage of course!
The guy on the right is Tony Isabella, one of the early writers of Luke Cage. DC had hired Tony to create their first black superhero and in 1977 he partnered with artist Trevor Von Eden,
to create Black Lightning.
Black Lightning’s real name is Jefferson Pierce. He actually grew up in the poorest part of Metropolis known as Suicide Slum. After becoming a highly successful athlete an scholar he returned home and he used a newly created power belt that helped him shoot bolts of electricity to clean up the streets of drug dealers and gang members.
Where was Superman in all of this? Probably saving Earth from aliens but whatever.
Black Lightning did initially play up a lot of stereotypes that were prevalent among the black community in the 1970’s. His costume and accent were over the top and almost comical but his intentions were good and he proved himself to be a respectable hero in his own right, gaining the trust of Superman and several other figures in the city in his battle against the gang that had made Suicide Slum their home, a group called The 100 and led by a large man known as Tobias Whale.
Aside from changing the location, the show appears to be pretty loyal to the comics. Granted, in his early appearances Black Lightning isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, but that would come later.
So what happened?
Unfortunately the individual series for the character only lasted 11 issues. While DC had high hopes in regaining its market share by flooding the market with new comics, it didn’t work out so well due to rising printing costs, the 1977 blizzard, and an awful economic recession. A year later the company cancelled 40% of its titles in an event known as the “DC Implosion”.
Black Lightning survived, although he would only show up in other books for the next couple of years. In 1983, he joined a group called the Outsiders, a group of superheroes led by Batman and featured mostly new characters like Katana and Geo-Force.
So yes, the idea that Batman is everything is nothing new.
In 1989 it was revealed that his powers weren’t the result of his power belt, but they were actually derived from a genetic abnormality known as the “Metagene”, a plot point that has been used throughout the DC universe as the source of power for a large number of their heroes.
DC’s first black superhero would get another crack at a solo series in 1995, and they even brought back Tony Isabella to do the writing.
Unfortunately, history has a nasty way of repeating itself and the series was cancelled after 13 issues.
Black Lightning has continued to exist in the DC universe as a hero making appearances in other books. At one point, Lex Luthor actually made him Secretary of Education when he was elected President of the United States.
But let’s not delve too much into the fact that a comic book company had a corrupt businessman elected to the Presidency, that’s just too unrealistic.
He would also get a family and two children to look after. Their names were Anissa and Jennifer Pierce and they have been a staple of Black Lightning’s identity ever since.
Even though he’s never had much of a solo career, Black Lightning is a capable and talented hero with a great backstory and plenty of potential.
He is a teacher, a mentor, and a very capable role model for everyone in the DC universe but most importantly of all…he has the respect and attention of Batman.
I think this CW show is going to be awesome.