Get to Know Black Lightning: DC's Groundbreaking and Oddly Unknown Superhero

Who is Jefferson Pierces, DC's first African-American leading superhero?
Rich Buckler/DC Entertainment

Objectively, the most important thing to know about DC Entertainment's Black Lightning — plucked from relative obscurity to be developed as a TV project at Fox — is that he was the first African-American character to be given his own series by the publisher, with the 1977 launch of the short-lived Black Lightning series.

Subjectively, however, the most important thing about the character is that the hero originally had the most cynical, inventive method of keeping his secret identity from being discovered; respectable schoolteacher Jefferson Pierce kept his identity hidden by wearing an afro wig and talking jive as Black Lightning, safe in the knowledge that living up to the stereotype would throw the majority of onlookers off the trail of who he really was. Intentionally or otherwise, it was a gimmick that commented on the racism implicit in the media's treatment of African-Americans that was sadly dropped early in the character's existence.

Writer Tony Isabella — who created the character, building from a rejected concept by former Wonder Woman writer Bob Kanigher and with design input by original series artist Trevor Von Eeden and editors Bob Rozakis and Joe Orlando — was the one to thank for that idea, and for setting up the basic tenets of the character's personal mythology: that Pierce was a former Olympic decathlete who had returned to Metropolis for a new start, only to find himself confronted with social injustice and forced into action as a costumed superhero in an attempt to improve the lives of those around him. His enemies tended to be corrupt businessmen and street-level criminals more often than costumed supervillains.

Isabella wrote the majority of Black Lightning's solo appearances, and unusually for a Marvel or DC creation, he maintains a profit-sharing interest in the character, something that has led to both a historically rocky relationship with DC (Now seemingly resolved) and a potentially reduced profile for the character inside DC's publishing portfolio. Indeed, outside of the original series, a 1995 revival that lasted a little over a year and a six-issue Black Lightning: Year One series in 2009, Lightning has mostly stayed out of the spotlight over the past four decades.

That isn't to say that he hasn't been used; the character was a core castmember of the 1983 series Batman and the Outsiders, and even temporarily joined the Justice League of America during that series' 2006 relaunch. He was also, surprisingly enough, a member of President Lex Luthor's cabinet during that random 2000-era plotline, serving both as U.S. Secretary of Education and spy for Batman, making sure that Luthor wasn't up to no good while in the White House. (Spoiler: He was.)

Black Lightning was named not only for his electrical powers, but also the Milo Sweetman quote "Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to few men's ruin, but to all men's fear," which would go on to be used in promoting the Marvel comic book series Thunderbolts more than a decade later. While he was making guest appearances in other heroes' comics, a strange thing happened: His daughters became superheroes in their own right.

His oldest daughter took the name "Thunder" and joined a later incarnation of the Outsiders team, while his youngest called herself "Lightning" and joined the Justice Society of America. Black Lightning, Thunder and Lightning would go on to appear in a number of animated shorts on Cartoon Network as a super-powered family unit:

Most recently, Black Lightning was reinvented entirely — de-aged from a middle-aged father to a younger, unattached hero who teamed with high-school-friend-turned-stuntman-and-superhero Blue Devil — "Black and Blue," get it? — in a four-issue storyline for the DC Universe Presents anthology comic series in 2012. Since then, he has returned to comic book limbo … although that is unlikely to last long, considering the new TV news. With DC currently enjoying its very successful comic book Rebirth, how long before Black Lightning finds himself reborn and in comic book stores once more?

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