Celebrating Black Lightning

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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I couldn’t let Black History Month go by without talking about Black Lightning.

Jefferson Pierce was the first black superhero whose adventures I avidly followed.

I grew up in a rural area of New England where the vast majority of people were white. Books for me were an escape to other worlds and superhero comic books were more so, the ultimate fantasy of being somebody and making a difference.

My comics came from a spinner rack at the local drug store. The joy and frustration of the spinner rack was that you never knew what would be there. Sometimes an issue that I desperately wanted was gone or never arrived. Sometimes there would be something new and interesting that would catch my eye.

One of those comics was Black Lightning #1 by Tony Isabella and Trevor Van Eeden, published in 1977. It wasn’t the cover art that attracted me. As you can see, it’s not the best. But I was intrigued by the name, the lightning powers and the costume looked cool.

The story inside had me anxiously searching the drug store the next month for issue #2.

I was introduced to Jefferson Pierce, an educated man and former Olympic star who’d come back to Suicide Slum in Metropolis to teach and make a difference in young lives.

Pierce quickly discovers that opposing some of the local gangs can get you killed. At the time, it was a true shock to me to read about the death of the young student who helped Pierce drive drug dealers from the school. It made perfect sense after that death for Pierce to adopt a secret identity, even with the afro wig and mask. He had to be sure no one found out who he was to protect himself and those he cared about.

The first issue ended on a cliffhanger as Black Lightning prepared for a fight in which he was outnumbered and didn’t expect to win, though he had to try.

I loved the new hero’s dedication, his courage and his compassion.

Today, he’s still one of my favorite characters.

Unfortunately, Jefferson Pierce has been somewhat forgotten and pushed aside by DC over the years. The original Black Lightning series was canceled quickly, with issue #11, part of the DC implosion of the late 1970s that eliminated many titles. Pierce was shifted over to a new title called Batman & the Outsiders. I liked his appearances there but he seemed slightly out of place. Like Batman and the lesser-known hero Ragman, to me Black Lightning belongs on the streets, fighting crime and protecting the innocent, not in a world of global warfare.

But just last year, DC published a new miniseries that retold and updated his origin: Black Lightning Year One by Jen Van Meter and artist Cully Hamner.

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I didn’t want to like it. I thought his origin story was just fine . But I’d loved Van Meter’s Cinnamon:El Ciclo miniseries so I gave this a try.

The retelling won me over because it preserved the character of Jefferson Pierce, the fierce defender of those who had no one to protect them. It also explained away a retroactive plot point that had bothered me for years.

In the original series, Pierce is divorced but with no children. Later DC gave him two daughters so they could then become superheroes themselves. But while Pierce might have been content to move away from his ex-wife, he was not the type of man to move to a new city and away from his daughters. Van Meter tackled this issue head-on and came up with an explanation that made sense.

My dream comic now would be to have Van Meter write a new Black Lightning series but I doubt, as much as I like him, that Lightning is a popular enough to merit his own title. Perhaps at some point, he’ll shine as a supporting character. He is in the new Outsiders series but, so far, the stories haven’t revolved around him.

Lightning did appear in the “Enter the Outsiders” episode of the Batman: Brave and the Bold television show but his character had been changed and de-aged. In the episode, he was part of a gang of homeless kids that had been taken advantage of by a sewer dwelling villain along with fellow Outsiders Katana and Metamorpho. I’m hopeful that the show might feature the character again, perhaps having graduated to again protecting a neighborhood in Gotham City.

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