Critics are already making encouraging noises about the CW’s new superhero series, Black Lightning, which premieres January 16. Created by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the series stars Cress Williams as the DC Comics character. But although he was one of DC’s first major black superheroes, Black Lightning isn’t a very well-known character, having been overshadowed by Cyborg in recent years as the company’s African-American leading man. So who is Black Lightning and what’s so exciting about his new show?
Created by writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden, Black Lightning first appeared in DC comics in 1977. Conscious of their lack of a big-name black character, DC tapped Isabella, who’d worked on Marvel’s Luke Cage, to create one for them. The resulting book only ran for 11 issues before being cancelled in the line-wide “DC Implosion” of 1978 that saw the publisher axing over 30 titles.
In contrast to the more swashbuckling cage, Black Lightning was a more responsible, community-oriented figure from the beginning. Jefferson Pierce was an educator and former star athlete whose superheroic career was motivated by the desire to protect his students from the influence of organised crime in his neighborhood. Black Lightning’s particular rival was Tobias Whale, a villain who blended elements of both politician and gang boss.
After the cancellation of his book, Black Lightning turned up throughout the DC Universe fairly regularly over the next few decades. He was a member of Batman’s superhero team, The Outsiders, in the early and mid 1980s, in which he again played a mentor role to some of the team’s younger members.
And yes, the 80s was a time when a mid-tier DC book with no-name heroes and forgettable villains had art by Alan Davis (and Jim Aparo the rest of the time).
Black Lightning cropped up off and on over the decades, sometimes filling in spots in superhero teams (including some later versions of the Outsiders) and sometimes appearing as a civilian. For instance, during the DC storyline that saw Lex Luthor become President of the United States,
Despite initially rejecting membership, Black Lightning even eventually wound up in the Justice League. Along the way, he also saw both of his daughters take up the mantle of super-powered crimefighters: his daughter Anissa joined a later incarnation of the outsiders using the codename Thunder, while his younger child Jennifer would take on the superheroic role of Lightning.
So what aspects of the comic character are we going to see in the new live-action show? Quite a lot, it seems like. In addition to Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce himself, we know that both daughters are going to appear, with China Anne McClain as Jennifer and Nafessa Williams as Anissa. We even have some images of Anissa in uniform as Thunder.
Other characters from the comics who appear in the show include Jefferson’s mentor/sidekick Peter Gambi, played by Hollywood veteran James Remar, as well as recurring villain Tobias Whale, played by Marvin “Krondon” Jones III. Chantal Thuy plays Anissa’s love interest Grace Choi.
DC’s TV offerings have mostly succeeded, with shows like Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and others showing that you can bring the full wackiness of a comic book to the small screen. Black Lightning looks set to do something similar.