The Flash may have a cool lightning bolt on his chest, but he’s hardly DC Comics’ most electrifying superhero. That honor belongs to Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a. Black Lightning, the first black character to headline a DC Comics title and one of the DCU’s most underrated characters. Now, he’s about to be the star of the newest addition to the DC Television Universe on the CW. But unfortunately, for many people out there, Black Lightning has flown under the radar. Who is he? Why should you care? Where can I get a sweet super suit like that? Well today on The Dan Cave, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about Black Lightning.
Editor’s note: This episode of the Dan Cave is sponsored by The CW’s Black Lightning
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Now, before we get started, allow me to specify that this is Black Lightning’s history, according to the comics. The show’s version won’t necessarily be the exact same, but it’s still an important and fascinating context for understanding this character.
Created by Tony Isabella and Trevor von Eeden, Black Lightning is an icon of Bronze Age comics. First appearing in April 1977’s Black Lightning #1, Black Lightning was created in direct response to the success of black superheroes like Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Black Goliath at DC’s biggest rival, Marvel.
DC should be thanking their lucky stars that they went with Black Lightning because their only other concept was one of the worst ideas in comic book history: a character named the Black Bomber, who was a white racist Vietnam vet whose exposure to an Agent Orange-like gas would transform him into a black superhero during times of great stress. Thankfully, Isabella had already been developing Black Lightning as an independent project, and he brought it to DC. Which is to say: You’re the real superhero here, Tony Isabella.
Black Lightning is the alter ego of Jefferson Pierce, a young black man who grew up in the Suicide Slum, a bleakly named neighborhood of Metropolis that earned its nickname from the idea that the only way to escape it was to kill oneself. Yikes. While he was born with metahuman abilities, he learned to control them at a young age with the help of Peter Gambi, an Italian tailor who became a close family friend after the murder of Jefferson’s father. As a teenager, Jefferson excelled in sports, eventually going on to become an Olympic decathlon athlete. However, Jefferson wanted to give back to his community, which was struggling with drugs, gangs, and violence, by showing that everyone can get out of “Suicide Slum” if they want to. So after college, he returned to his hometown to become the principal of his alma mater, Garfield High School.
Unfortunately, it proved difficult to help the students in the classroom because of the stranglehold gangs like The 100 had on the town. Please note: this is not to be confused with another hit CW series The 100, although I would be very down for that crossover. To add further fuel to the fire, the gangs worked in conjunction with sleazy politicians like Tobias Whale to keep Suicide Slum awash in drugs and violence. Jefferson was very vocally opposed to their influence on the school, and kicked one of the drug dealers off school grounds, shaming him and his cronies in the process. In retaliation, the 100 brutally murdered one of his students, Earl Clifford, and left his corpse on display in the school’s gymnasium.
Distraught over his student’s death, Jefferson told Peter Gambi what happened and his longtime friend suggested he adopt a persona that would let him fight back against evil without bringing repercussions on those close to him. Gambi took things one step further by crafting a specialized costume for Jefferson, equipped with a force-field belt helped harness his innate powers of electrokinesis that let him manipulate bio-electric currents in the human body, shoot lightning blasts, and much more. And thus, Black Lightning was born, named for both his powers and a paraphrased Milo Sweetman quote: “Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to few men’s ruin, but to all men’s fear.”
With the powers of superhuman strength and the ability to bend electricity to his will, he began to fight back against Tobias Whale and the 100 gang. In the early days, Jefferson donned an afro wig and used street slang while in his Black Lightning persona in an effort to prevent anyone from realizing he was secretly a mild-mannered high school principal. Slowly but surely, Black Lightning began cleaning up the streets of Suicide Slum, putting a major dent in Tobias Whale and the 100’s plans. While putting an end to Whale’s reign of terror was a feather in Jefferson’s cap, his quest for justice had one last tragedy: Peter Gambi sacrificed his life for Jefferson by leaping in front of a bullet intended to kill Black Lightning. This sacrifice was the final act in a life of penance for Peter Gambi, as it turns out. During the battle, Black Lightning learned Peter’s terrible secret: he had been the man who killed Jefferson’s father, and spent the rest of his life paying for it.
After making a name for himself in Metropolis, Black Lightning was offered a spot on the Justice League, having impressed the likes of Batman, Superman, Black Canary and Green Arrow, but he ultimately rejected the offer. However, everyone loves a good team-up book, so Jefferson Pierce eventually became a founding member of the Outsiders, a team of superheroes who weren’t bound by the same do-gooder image and necessity to keep up appearances like the Justice League. They were sort of a black ops group of superheroes, able to take on the jobs that the Justice League simply could not for political reasons.
Speaking of politics, when Jefferson Pierce hung up the costume for a time, he accepted the role of Secretary of Education of the United States, serving under none other than President Lex Luthor. While this shocked many of his former allies, Jefferson understood the value of the old adage: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But like many heroes, Jefferson could not resist the siren song of spandex for long, and returned to his life of costumed vigilantism to fight evil wherever it may lurk. Although he initially rejected membership, Black Lightning went on to be a pivotal member of the Justice League of America, helping fight villains like Amazo and Solomon Grundy.
Fun fact: Black Lightning isn’t the only superpowered member of his family; his two daughters, Anissa and Jennifer, who will be featured on the TV series, both inherited electricity-based powers from their pops. Not only that, but they followed in their father’s superheroic footsteps too. Anissa adopted the identity of Thunder and fought with the Outsiders, while Jennifer joined the Justice Society as Lightning. Based on the trailers and the key art we’ve seen, we’ll likely see the Pierce girls suiting up to fight crime alongside their father, but only time will tell for sure.
And that’s everything you need to know about Black Lightning! What’s your favorite Black Lightning story? What do you hope to see from the TV series? Let me know in the comments below and give me an electrifying thumbs up while you’re there.
Images: DC Comics / The CW
Special thanks to The CW’s Black Lightning for sponsoring today’s show! One of DC Comics’ greatest characters is finally coming to the small screen in a brand new TV series. Cress Williams stars as Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal who used to have a second job as a superhero. Now with his city in peril, he must come out of retirement to fight injustice as Black Lightning once more! Catch the series premiere on Tuesday, January 16th at 9/8c only on the CW!
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Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter ( @DanCasey).