I’m always excited to see a new comic featuring Jefferson Pierce aka Black Lightning, as he’s a favorite since I bought his first comic off the spinner rack in 1977. As I lived in a rural area with little access to a comic book store that carried everything, Black Lightning was also my first experience of playing a solo title featuring a black hero. (Marvel heroes Luke Cage and Black Panther somehow missed me due to the erratic nature of what was on the roller rack the day I was at the drugstore.)
Pierce has remained one of my favorite characters, although he rarely wrote as well as he should be, and he’s also gone through many changes over the years, from young Olympian and neighborhood champion to father to politician and hero again in a new series from original creator Tony Isabella.
But now? He’s hosting a TV show debuting on The CW on January 16, 2018, with Cress Williams, and I’m delighted with it.
So how did we get there, from its first appearance in 1977 to a 13-episode TV series in 2018?
This has not been easy.
My first colored hero
What attracted me to the first issue of Black Lightning, so that I catch it from the son-holder? Because it was Metropolis, the home of Superman, and because it looked cool. I can’t speak to the way people of color see these early issues of Black Lightning, with the creative team of Tony Isabella, a white writer, and Trevor Von Eeden, a black artist who may have been DC’s first.
Unaware at the age of 11 that it was all groundbreaking, I had found a hero who had a story like no one else I had read before and I was hooked.
Like Batman, Black Lightning was a street-level hero, albeit dedicated to protecting his neighborhood rather than an entire city. He was a teacher and former Olympic decathlon gold medalist, which I’m sure provided a convenient way to train the costumed superhero. Its origin was fairly straightforward: A popular student stands with Pierce against those who work for the neighborhood crime lord, and the student is killed to warn of those who would interfere.
Pierce swears to do something, but in costume, so that his students are no longer targeted. There is a formidable and in-depth examination of the question of origin at Retro reviews. (This also includes the original idea behind DC’s creation of a black hero … let’s say unhappy, to be kind, and it’s in everyone’s best interests. The DC editorial idea was scrapped and Isabella got into it. used an original.)
As you can see from above, part of his disguise was a fake Afro. He might also have been inspired by Eeden’s Afro, and it was definitely in fashion at the time. (And could make a comeback – see Colin Kaepernick.)
Jefferson Pierce was three-dimensional: intelligent, caring, and determined. And a hero. So much a hero.
What I loved most about Black Lightning was what I loved about many superheroes: how he was so fiercely protective of the people he cared about, how relentless he was on this quest. and what a good and kind man he was. It’s the very archetype of the protector character that I tend to like in fiction, regardless of genre. Jefferson Pierce was the first black hero I loved, and his stories gave me a glimpse of a community I knew nothing about at the time.
His confrontation with Superman, along with their argument about how Superman never helped Pierce’s Metropolis area, opened my eyes to racism that I had yet to personally experience. This is not to say that the hero is perfect or was perfectly imagined as a symbol for his people. I can’t talk about it like people of color might. But Pierce – imperfect as his portrayal was at the time – opened a door to the bigger world for me.
Black lightning reinvented
I was frustrated beyond measure when the Black Lightning series was canceled and looked forward to its appearances in other books. He was a main character for a time in Batman and the aliens, but he was often in the background there (or too much in the background for my taste) and he was an unfortunately underused character among DC until…
Until he reinvents himself a bit.
His lightning powers originally came from an artificial source – part of his costume – and now they were part of him. He was originally divorced, and now he has been given a family, aged, and two grown daughters who later became superheroes in their own right. His daughters’ powers were inherited from a version of their father’s abilities. Sadly, Jennifer and Anissa Pierce have been lost in the various DC reboots, which is frustrating.
There were times Pierce served in Lex Luthor’s cabinet when Luthor was president, and Jefferson made appearances in comics such as Green arrow, but it wasn’t even about Jefferson. The creative team of Green arrow at the time, he made up a niece for Pierce, then brutally killed her after having an affair with Green Arrow, so Pierce could come into conflict with Oliver Queen. So, yes, a black woman was invented just to be killed so that Oliver Queen could feel guilty both for her death and for cheating on Black Canary. It wasn’t a race that covered the creative team with glory.
As for Jefferson? This story didn’t concern him either, as he was just another prop in Oliver’s story.
It was only when Jan Van Meter and Cully Hamner Black Lightning: First Year that Jefferson finally had another story worthy of him. This miniseries took all the aspects that I loved about Jefferson Pierce and used them. Details have changed but the hero has stayed. Unfortunately, this miniseries never got a sequel. Then a “Black and Blue” reboot for DC’s New 52 line, where Jefferson starred with Blue Devil, was a complete dud.
Jefferson Pierce: Television and Comics Return
Finally, finally, came the announcement last year that a Black Lightning television series could be coming. “Mighty” has become “probably” turned “absolutely” and the show will debut in two short months. Not quite as originally imagined, as the show goes with the version with teenage girls, but from the descriptions he definitely seems like the hero I know and love.
And, maybe because of the show, there’s finally another Black Lightning comic, Black lighting: cold dead hands, which debuted earlier this month, written by co-creator Tony Isabella and drawn by Clayton Henry. Isabella’s participation is remarkable, considering he said that DC / Warner Bros. wasn’t using the character, possibly because Warners Bros. wanted to avoid paying him royalties on live action and animated appearances. (This can be seen when DC used a new Black Vulcan character in the animation SuperFriends rather than the similar and already existing Black Lightning.)
From DC’s description Cold dead hands:
He’s still a teacher who strives to be a positive force for his students, dressed and un-costumed, but he’s younger than he’s ever been – he’s around 28 years old. He is also not married and in one departure of the series he has no daughters.
In issue 1, Pierce’s origin seems quite close to the original character design of Isabella, although some elements, like her town, have been changed. It was a great start. Hope this continues and hope the show is just as good.
Now is a good time to be a Jefferson Pierce fan.