Black Lightning in heroic pose. Artist: Jim Aparo.

BLACK LIGHTNING

Original Medium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1977
Creator: Tony Isabella
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There is a time and a place for everything — and in 1977, in comic books, it was time for black superheroes to take starring roles. Marvel Comics already had …

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… two in their own titles — Luke Cage and Black Goliath — and arch-rival DC was falling behind the times. Unfortunately, the only one they had on the drawing board was an insult to practically everybody with any point of view at all. They called in writer Tony Isabella (whose prior credits included both of those Marvel characters, as well as Daredevil, Captain America, The Champions and many others) to act as script doctor, but he pronounced it hopeless. That left him with him three weeks to start from scratch and replace it with a brand new concept, and the result was Black Lightning.

(By the way, Black Lightning wasn't named after Johnny Thunder's horse. He was named after a menace on a Wonder Woman cover that Isabella chanced to run across while the character was gestating.)

Black Lightning was Jefferson Pierce, who grew up in a slum in Metropolis (Superman's home town — and the same slum, by the way, as the one where the 1940s Newsboy Legion series was set). He escaped the ghetto to the point of becoming an Olympic decathlon medalist. But he returned as a high school teacher, to improve conditions and help others find their way out. His biggest obstacle was organized crime, and it was to break their stranglehold on the community that he became a superhero. His friend Peter Gambi, a tailor and part-time experimenter, who had helped his family following the shooting death of his father, made him a costume and equipped it with a gimmicked belt. Wearing it, he was able to generate electricity from his body, and use it as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat. Later on, through unspecified means, he seems to have internalized the power. (Gambi, by the way, already had a minor connection to the DC Universe — his brother Paul had crafted costumes for most of The Flash's villains back in the 1960s.)

The character debuted in Black Lightning #1, dated April, 1977. Isabella wrote the script, with Trevor von Eeden (Thriller, Green Arrow Limited Series) doing the pencils and Frank Springer (Brain Boy; Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) on the inks. Isabella and von Eeden remained on the title throughout its 11-issue run, which ended when, in 1978, DC abruptly cut back drastically on its entire line. Before it was finished, the hero was offered membership in The Justice League of America, and became the third (after Adam Strange and Metamorpho) to turn them down. (He eventually joined, but decades went by first.)

Like several other refugees from what is remembered as "The DC Implosion", Black Lightning found a slot in the back pages of somebody else's comic. It took a couple of years, but eventually he got gigs in Detective Comics where Batman is the star, and in World's Finest Comics, where Superman and Batman shared top billing. In the mid-1980s, he was scooped up into a team, The Outsiders, where again, at least initially, Batman was the star who sold the comic. That series ended in 1988, and for the next several years Black Lightning was seen mostly as an occasional guest star.

DC launched a new Black Lightning series in 1995, with Isabella again doing the scripts, and art by Eddie Newell, a relative newcomer to the field. The series had great critical success and was apparently selling quite well; but differences with the publisher led to Isabella's departure after the eighth issue. Without him, the series ground to a halt. The spark went out with its 13th issue (February, 1996), and since then Black Lightning hasn't been seen on a regular basis.

Tho DC has black members of The Legion of Super Heroes, The Teen Titans and The Green Lantern Corps, as well as black characters in many other positions, Black Lightning remains the company's strongest black star. He just seems to have bad luck when it comes to sustaining a series.

— DDM

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Text ©2002-08 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.