“Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to some men hope, to other men fear.”
Today’s article is going make you feel the thunder and bring a shock to your system! I’m running out of lighting puns here so I’ll get into DC’s first African-American superhero with his own series: Black Lightning!
First Appearance and Creation
The Black Bomber? Really???
The decision was made by DC Comics to create their first-ever headlining black superhero. The first candidate was an abomination called The Black Bomber, a racist white man who would turn into a black superhero under stress. Thankfully, the editor who had approved the Black Bomber apparently left DC before the character ever saw print.
The job of salvaging the Black Bomber character was given to writer Tony Isabella. Isabella was chosen due to his previous writing experience on the initial issues of Luke Cage, Hero For Hire at Marvel Comics. Isabella was horrified at the very concept of The Black Bomber and was given three weeks to create his own character. One of the first things Isabella did was make the character a positive role model and someone people can relate to: A school teacher.
Right before he was about to send the story to DC, Isabella realized he hadn’t named his character yet. As fate would have it, Tony was at home, watching an episode of the CBS Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter. Suddenly, he saw a streak of lightning coming from the top of a building nearby. Isabella then said to himself “Aha, Black Lightning”.
Isabella wrote the first 10 issues of Black Lightning before handing it over to the late Denny O’Neil. However, only one issue scripted by O’Neil came out before the series was canceled in 1978 during the infamous “DC Implosion” of the late 70’s.
After the cancellation, Black Lightning made a number of guest appearances in various titles over the next few years, including World’s Finest Comics and Detective Comics.
Jefferson Pierce was born and raised in Suicide Slum (the “ghetto” of Metropolis). Suicide Slum got its name from the idea that people who lived there only escaped the slum by killing themselves. Jeff and his widowed mother lived there after his father was accidentally shot during a mob hit. An Italian tailor named Peter Gambi opened a shop beneath their apartment and helped The Pierce family through some hard financial times. Peter became a positive father figure and took care for Jeff while his mother worked. Jeff was shown to be a gifted athlete from a very young age.
At the age of 18, Jeff’s prowess allowed him to make it to the Olympic Games, gaining fame from the media due to his rise from Suicide Slum. Jeff received scholarships and endorsement offers which allowed him to go to college and receive both an English major and a teaching degree. Four years after he left for college, he again went to the Olympics and won the Gold in the decathlon.
Upon his return to Metropolis, Pierce decided it was time to make a difference and went back at his old alma mater Garfield High School as a teacher.
In retaliation for Jeff’s acts, the 100 killed Earl Clifford, one of Pierce’s students, and left the body in the school gymnasium. A distraught Pierce told the details of the incident to Peter Gambi, who urged him to fight back. To prevent further counter-attacks, it was decided a new persona would be needed to protect himself and his students.
Over time, Pierce establishes himself as a successful superhero in Metropolis, gaining the trust of high-profile figures like Metropolis PD Inspector Bill Henderson and even Superman himself. Black Lightning’s first meeting with The Man Of Steel had him chastised by for being a vigilante. Black Lightning then asks why Superman never comes to ‘this side of town‘ where it’s clear he’s needed most. Superman has no answer.
Multimedia Appearances (Animated)
Batman: The Brave and The Bold (2008-2011)
Black Lightning’s first official multimedia appearance was on the Cartoon Network series Batman: The Brave and the Bold in the episode “Enter the Outsiders!” in 2009. Voiced by actor Bumper Robinson, Black Lightning is shown to be the leader of the trio composed of him and two other young heroes Katana and Metamorpho. They work for a sewer dweller named Slug at first, but turn on him when veteran hero Wildcat convinces them to fight for good. Black Lightning is shown to be headstrong and having great contempt for society in general. However, he later uses his electricity to save Wildcat’s life with instructions from Katana when the elder falls victim to a heart attack.
Black Lightning and his comrades are later seen training with Batman as The Outsiders in the teaser of “Duel of the Double Crossers!“. Black Lightning reappeared in the episodes “Inside the Outsiders!“, “The Siege of Starro! Part One” and “Requiem for a Scarlet Speedster!” ( all as a member of The Outsiders).
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
Black Lightning makes an appearance in the animated film Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Voiced by actor Levar Burton, Black Lightning is shown as a member of a metahuman task force assigned to capture The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel by President Lex Luthor.
DC Nation Shorts (2011)
Black Lightning appears in the “Thunder and Lightning” short of DC Nation Shorts. Voiced by actor Blair Underwood, this version shows Black Lightning balancing his superhero life while being a responsible father to his two young daughters Anissa and Jennifer.
Young Justice: Invasion (2012)
Black Lightning appears in Young Justice: Invasion, voiced by Khary Payton. In “Happy New Year“, he is shown as a member of the Justice League five years later from Season One. In “Cornered“, he attempts to remove the force-field that Despero has set in the Hall of Justice. He displays pitch-black electricity when using his powers. In “Endgame“, Black Lightning and Static take down the Magnetic Field Disruptor in Dakota City. Afterwards, Black Lightning offers to be Static’s mentor.
Young Justice: Outsiders (2019)
In the third season, an incident where Black Lightning’s powers kill a mutated 14 year old meta-human girl causes Jeff to quit the Justice League. Growing out his hair and a beard, Jeff considers quitting being a super hero altogether until he is convinced to join Nightwing’s team. However, he soon becomes disgusted when he finds out the secret methods Batman Inc. has been using against the Light and to boost the Outsiders’ popularity.
At the end of the season, he helps to expose Luthor’s illegal metahuman trafficking to the world and is appointed as the new leader of the Justice League. He accepts on the condition that there will be no more secrets and that the heroes will not sacrifice their principles while fighting against the Light.
Multimedia Appearances ( Live-Action)
Saturday Night Live (1992)
Black Lightning’s first live action portrayal was a comedic one. In an episode that aired during the publication of “The Death of Superman” comic book, comedian Sinbad (the show’s guest host) dressed as Black Lightning in a skit about Superman’s funeral. In the sketch, the other superheroes in attendance do not recognize him and he claims to have taught Superman how to fly. As the superheroes leave to confront the Legion of Doom, he is spotted grabbing the shrimp at the buffet table.
The skit featured many SNL legends dressed as superheroes from both Marvel and DC including:
- Dana Carvey as Batman
- Chris Rock as Robin
- David Spade as Aquaman
- Adam Sandler as The Flash
- Chris Farley as The Hulk
Black Lightning (2018 to present)
“It is time that people know that Black Lightning is back.”
A live-action television series based on the character debuted on The CW on January 16, 2018. The series was developed by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, who also executive produce along with Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter. The Fox Network gave the series a “pilot production commitment” in September 2016. In January 2017, Berlanti stated the series, if ordered, would not crossover with his other DC Comics television properties on The CW nor would it exist in their established universe. The following month, Fox passed on the series after deciding it was “not a good fit into its already crowded genre drama space.”
Shortly thereafter, it was picked up by The CW with a pilot order. The pilot episode was directed by Akil. In May 2017, The CW officially ordered the project to series.
In the series, Jefferson Pierce is born and raised in Freeland (which is clearly the DC comics equivalent of Atlanta, Georgia). As a boy, he was given a vaccine which granted him electricity-based powers. Jefferson also witnessed his father Alvin getting killed by gangster Tobias Whale and his men which led to Jefferson getting taken in by Alvin’s friend Peter Gambi.
Jefferson’s powers first manifest at age twelve, when he was chased down an alley by two SWAT officers and accidentally knocked out both of the officers. Jefferson was then found by Gambi, who discovered his powers and then began raising Jefferson, while keeping Jefferson’s powers a secret from him. After this, it would be 15 years before Jefferson’s powers fully manifested.
Jefferson eventually decided to use his powers and became the vigilante superhero named “Black Lightning” (a name he didn’t particularly care for). He was aided by Gambi and fought crime for 10 years against The 100, a street gang running Freeland. However, the war with The 100 took its toll on Jefferson and his wife Lynn implored him to give it up. Jefferson decided to retire as Black Lightning to focus on his family. Jefferson Pierce becomes the principal of Garfield High School where his family has Inspector Bill Henderson as a family friend.
During the first season, Jefferson resurfaces as Black Lightning when his daughters are kidnapped by members of The 100. After talking to Henderson doesn’t help, Jefferson decides to reclaim the Black Lightning title and dons a new technologically advanced suit designed by Gambi. Jeff fights the 100, a resurfaced Tobias Whale, and A.S.A. agents led by the corrupt Martin Proctor. Meanwhile, his daughters Anissa and Jennifer start to develop their own metahuman abilities.
In the second season, Jefferson loses his position as principal due to him not being there when the 100 attacks the school which caused a new principal named Mike Lowry to be installed. In addition, Henderson figures out that Black Lightning and Jefferson are one and the same which briefly strains their friendship until Tobias Whale kills a cop that was on his side. By the end of the season, the Pierce family is approached by A.S.A. agent Odell who voices his knowledge of their identities and wants them to help the A.S.A. when the Markovians turn Freeland into a war zone. In the third season, Jefferson has been placed in the Pit, where Tobias is also held, for 37 days where he is experimented on.
Crisis On Infinite Earths (2019-2020)
In the third season mid-season finale, Jefferson is recruited by Pariah to help the heroes stop the anti-matter cannon in the CW Arrowverse crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths. The Anti-Monitor erases Jefferson’s Earth but is later bought back to life after Oliver Queen’s sacrifice to reboot the universe. This includes Jefferson’s Earth being merged with the others, now called “Earth-Prime”, and Jeff himself becomes a member of a league of heroes led by Barry Allen in memory of Queen.
- At 47 years old, Cress Williams is the second oldest actor to make his debut appearance as a superhero in a live-action production. (The oldest is Ron Perlman, who was 54 when he played the title character in Hellboy (2004)).
- Williams previously appeared in the series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” as the villain Baron Sunday.
- Jefferson adopts a more street-wise manner of speaking when disguised as Black Lightning. This is in keeping with the original comic books, where Black Lightning made use of 70’s era slang to disguise his identity.
Black Lightning was ranked 85th overall on IGN’s “Top 100 Comic Books Heroes” list in 2011. Black Lightning was a big influence on the creation of the DC/Milestone hero Static and a number of other electrical powered African American heroes.
The Black Lightning Knockoffs/ Homages
Super Friends (1973-1985)
For the sake of political correctness, the popular Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends on ABC began to display a number of racially diverse superheroes like El Dorado (a Latino), Samurai (an Asian) and Apache Chief (a Native American). As such, Black Lightning was supposed to be included on the show. However, due to a dispute between DC and Black Lightning’s creator Tony Isabella, he could not be used. So, Hanna-Barbera (the show’s producers) created a new black superhero inspired by Black Lightning, Black Vulcan!
Black Vulcan had all the same powers as Black Lightning and wore an outfit that was skin tight and had a helmet that resembled the Flash’s. Black Vulcan first appeared in The All-New Super Friends Hour cartoon series episode “The Whirlpool”.
Like Black Lightning, Black Vulcan’s main power was his ability to emit electricity from his hands. Unlike Black Lightning at the time, Black Vulcan’s powers were internal and he exhibited powers his comic inspiration had not shown before. For instance, Black Vulcan could fly by charging his lower body with energy. On a few occasions, Black Vulcan had the ability to completely turn his whole body into a form of pure energy( this allowed him to travel at the speed of light and travel back in time).
- Tony Isabella hates the character of Black Vulcan and considers his creation as ‘stealing‘. In fact, his last issue of Black Lightning’s original run featured a story called ‘The Other Black Lightning‘ where a villainess named Barbara Hanna ( a swipe at Hanna Barbera) creates a fraudulent Black Lightning.
- The Cartoon Network series Justice League Unlimited featured a manufactured group of heroes called The Ultimen (based on the 70’s racially diverse Super Friends). The character Juice is based on Black Vulcan.
- Black Vulcan has made several appearances on Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, voiced by Phil Lamarr. It was revealed that his real name is Michael Jones and he used to go by the name of Supervolt before Aquaman suggested his present name Black Vulcan. A running gag on the show was whenever someone made a double entendre, Black Vulcan will often appear to utter some variation on “…in my pants.” (Ex: He describes his power as “Pure electricity… in my pants“).
- Black Vulcan makes a cameo in Scooby-Doo! Mask of the Blue Falcon along with the other Super Friends.
- Black Vulcan makes a big screen cameo appearance in The Lego Batman Movie as a dancing partygoer at the Justice League Anniversary Party held at the Fortress of Solitude.
Static Shock (2000-2004)
The Kids WB! cartoon series Static Shock featured a character based on Black Lightning named Soul Power (voiced by the late Brock Peters) in the episode “Blast from the Past“. Back in the 1960s, a young black man named Morris Grant gained his powers in an accident at Hoover Dam.
As Soul Power, Grant protected the city of Dakota from criminals with “the power of ten turbines“. After a victory, Soul Power would do a ‘ Funky Chicken’-like dance for the public on scene and end it with the ‘Black Power’ fist in the air. Soul Power had a Batcave-like headquarters hidden underground called The Power Pad and drove a car called The Soulmobile.
He also had a mouthy teen sidekick named Sparky whose powers were derived from a suit he originally invented so that he can aid Soul Power in fighting crime. Morris is now an elderly man who lives in a nursing home where Static volunteers as Virgil Hawkins. Also, Static’s father Robert was Soul Power’s biggest fan as a kid.
- Soul Power’s outfit and Afro hair style both greatly resemble Black Lightning’s original look.
- As with Black Vulcan, Soul Power was originally intended to be Black Lightning, but this was not allowed by DC, as it would require paying royalties to his creator, Tony Isabella.