Sunday, February 13, 2011

Black Superheroes: Black Lightning

Name: Jefferson Pierce
First Appearance: Black Lightning #1 (1977)
History: Born and raised in the Suicide Slum, the most crime infested area in Metropolis, Jefferson Piece was able to escape the ghetto through athletics eventually winning the Olympic Gold Medal for the decathlon.  Returning to his old neighborhood years later he was saddened to see little had changed from his youth and thus went on to become a teacher at his old high school in order to help make a difference in the kids’ lives.  However when one of his students is murdered and then has his body displayed in the school’s gym Pierce comes to the conclusion that he can do nothing as a teacher or an activist against the rampant gang violence…and then resolves to try fighting the corruption head-on!  Donning a costume and utilizing a electricity generating belt/his own inherent electric meta-gene powers (Depending on which version you’re reading) he takes to the streets as Black Lightning!  Pierce has since gone to become one of the most respected members of the superhero community as a member as the Outsiders and the Justice League of America.
Beta Says: Much of Black Lightning’s story suffers from changes due to retroactive continuity (Or “Retcons”) so in my research much of the info I found on his origin and early history was slightly different depending on the source.  Black Lightning: Year One is the most recent retelling and incorporates many of these retcons (Most famously his super powers now being referred to as something he was born with, which wasn’t the case in the original comic).  Bear with me if I get some things wrong here.
More on Black Lightning’s insane real world origin after the jump.
Time to Smoke Some Jive Turkeys!
The story of Black Lightning’s creation is one of those things that makes one suspicious and/or horrified of the mindset in the offices of DC Comics at the time.  By the mid 1970s Marvel Comics had demonstrated a great capacity for change as far as diversity went in their comics.  Black Panther was starring in Jungle Action, Storm as an integral member of the X-Men, and Luke Cage was the first black superhero to star in his own comic book (More on this guy very soon).  DC was falling behind the times, much as they had ten years previously during the beginning of the Silver Age of Comics.  They soon designed their own black superhero who would be their first headliner of the race, Black Lightning The Black Bomber, a white racist “disguised” as a black man.  I will repeat that: The Black Bomber who was a white racist dude who changed into a black guy sometimes.  Apparently The Black Bomber was a result of chemical exposure and would turn into a black superhero while under stress, rescue black people, then revert back to normal and be disgusted with having rescued “darkies” (Apparently he was unaware of his alter ego).  This, my gentle readers, was DC’s original answer to the growing request for racial diversity in their comics.

Are you kidding me?!  How is this real?  Whose idea was this?  I want names so we can discount all of their previous works in comics with shame and disgust!  I want this man blacklisted from the history books!  *Ahem*  Thankfully the Black Bomber never made it past the idea stage.  Tony Isabella, who had previously worked on the Luke Cage title, was brought in to possibly revive the racist character.  Isabella, not being an ignorant asshole, argued that the DC’s first superhero to star in his own book probably shouldn’t a bigot in blackface.  Instead he, along with artist Trevor Von Eeden, created the significantly less offensive Black Lightning in 1977.  So the next time you think that “Black Lightning” is a politically incorrect name for African-American superhero just remember what the alternative was.
Anyway Black Lighting first appeared in his self-titled series that only lasted about eleven issues before being canceled in the infamous DC Implosion of 1978 (Which I will talk about in much greater detail within the next week or so).  The character would bounce around in sporadic appearances for the next five years until he became a regular in the comic Batman & The Outsiders.  When that series ended he was again demoted to guest star until a new solo series was launched in 1995 written by Isabella, but the writer was soon fired and the book was canceled five months later.  Since then Pierce has been the Secretary of Education, a member of the Justice League and the not so proud father of two new superheroes, Thunder and Lightning.
He's gonna turn you on
He's gonna bring you the power
The weird thing about Black Lightning as that despite being, you know, black he was never used in any of DC Comics’ adaptations when they needed to create racial diversity in their ensemble.   The most famous example of this is the Super Friends cartoon where, instead of bringing Pierce in, the show’s writers instead created Black Vulcan who had similar powers.   He also didn’t appear in the cartoon Justice League Unlimited despite just about every other DC superhero at least showing up in a cameo.  Without proper exposure outside of the comics, and a lack of long term a comic appearances, Black Lightning never really took off, even to this day.  As I understand it part of the problem was that Isabella had some sort of legal dispute with DC over the character, although that couldn’t have been the only reason.  For whatever reason Jefferson Pierce never appeared in a single cartoon,  film or video game until 2009, thirty-two year after his creation, when he guest starred on Batman: The Brave on the Bold.   Despite the fact that he is in many ways the first major African-American superhero in DC he rarely had a chance to shine during his long history.
The only thing more sad than a superhero that is washed up is a superhero that’s a “never was”.  Somehow, despite being a very important step for DC Comics in coming into the modern era, Black Lightning is, at best, a second/third tier DC superhero who always shows up when creators need a black superhero to fill out the roster.  I’m not really sure if there’s much that can be done with him.  With two failed ongoing series already one wonders if enough interest could be drawn towards the character at this point.  But in lot of ways it may make a certain amount of sense for him to pass the torch and retire for good.  After all he has two superhero daughters running around, either of whom could and should be used in greater capacity than they current are.  Perhaps Pierce could be a mentor figure, which is something his daughter Thunder has seemingly always wanted anyway.  Anyone else have any idea on how DC could make Black Lightning a top guy?
Oh well.  At least he’s not actually a hateful white man is disguise.  Next time we’ll be looking at a hero who is an example of two of my least favorite gimmicks in comic books, yet has still managed to remain relatively popular.
Does Superman just never go to the Suicide Slum?
For more on Black Lightning click here.  Don't forget to check out BLACKSUPERHERO.COM for a more detailed list of black superheroes.

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