Comics

Who is Black Lightning?

The CW is adding yet another superhero show to its ever expanding DC Universe, this time with a new live action series focusing on the character Black Lightning. With most, if not all, of the heroes and villains from DC Comics to choose from, many people have been asking why did they go for Black Lightning, and just who is he anyway?

Created by Tony Isabella back in 1977, Black Lightning, or Jefferson Pierce, is a metahuman with the ability to generate and manipulate electricity.

During the late 1970’s, DC Comics wanted to appeal to a broader audience, and this included having a comic book headlined by a black superhero. According to a number of sources within DC, the original plan for this black led book was a character called Black Bomber.

Black Bomber was to be a book about a lead character that was white, and was racist, however, thanks to being exposed to a chemical designed to allow troops to blend in with natives during the Vietnam war, this man was able to transform into a black superhero when stressed or in danger. Both the white and black versions of the character had no memories of being the other, and would each have their own ‘racially appropriate’ girlfriends. Black Bomber would also wear a super hero outfit that was similar to the Harlem Globetrotters basketball kit.

Despite obviously being a horrible, horrible idea the concept was given the go-ahead by editors at DC, with scripts for the first two issues being produced.  Thankfully, the editor that gave the go-ahead for the project left DC, and the project was handed over to writer Tony Isabella, who had previously worked on the black superhero book ‘Luke Cage’ at Marvel.

Speaking about the project many years later, Isabella said: “I will say that I created Black Lightning after convincing DC not to publish another ‘black’ super-hero on which they had started work.

“The Black Bomber was a white bigot who, in times of stress, turned into a black super-hero. This was the result of chemical camouflage experiments he’d taken part in as a soldier in Vietnam. The object of these experiments was to allow our [white] troops to blend into the jungle.

“In each of the two completed Black Bomber scripts, the white bigot risks his own life to save another person whom he can’t see clearly (in one case, a baby in a stroller) and then reacts in racial slur disgust when he discovers that he risked his life to save a black person. He wasn’t aware that he had two identities, but each identity had a girlfriend and the ladies were aware of the change. To add final insult, the Bomber’s costume was little more than a glorified basketball uniform.

“DC had wanted me to take over writing the book with the third issue. I convinced them to eat the two scripts and let me start over. To paraphrase my arguments…

“‘Do you REALLY want DC’s first black super-hero to be a white bigot?’

“Okay, he wasn’t precisely their first black super-hero, but I made my point. The Black Bomber stories were deep-sixed and I went to work on my own creation.”

Isabella luckily had another character already in mind for the series, Black Lightning, and convinced DC executives that this would be a better direction to take the book in. With the character being teased to audiences for several months he was finally revealed in the first issue of his own title, ‘Black Lightning’ in 1977.

Tony Isabella would write the first ten issues of the book, before it was handed over to Dennis O’Neil. Unfortunately, Black Lightning was one of a number of books cancelled before its twelfth issue as part of a large-scale streamlining of titles.

Despite this, Black Lightning proved to be a very popular character, and continued to appear across multiple titles ‘Detective Comics’ and ‘Justice League of America’. The character would go on to become a part of the Batman led team book ‘The Outsiders’ in several incarnations, including a number of television appearances.

Black Lightning had a second series in 1995, also written by Isabella, but this too was cancelled after just over a year.

Despite having his own titles cancelled more than one, Black Lightning continued to be a popular character, going on to become a member of the Justice League for a while, as well as having his personal stories expanded to include his two daughters Anissa and Jennifer, who have gone on to become superheroes themselves, Thunder and Lightning respectively.

Black Lightning may not be a household name, his own comic series may not have lasted long, and he’s probably not a lot of people’s first pick for favourite character, but he’s been a steady part of the DC Universe for more than four decades, playing roles across dozens of books, several television shows, and even video games. With representation and diversity being so important today, just as much as it was when he was first created, an older superhero of colour, with a family that includes a queer superhero of colour in the form of his daughter Thunder, makes Black Lightning the perfect choice for the next CW series.

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