Black Lightning (Jefferson Pierce) is an early African-American super-hero.
He was created by Tony Isabella , appeared in 1977, and was the first Black character to ever headline a DC comic book.
He’s pretty cool.
This profile is part of a series. The goal is to explain the character and show how he evolves. But in smaller bits, not as a giant article.
The chain (lightning) goes :
- Black Lightning (Profile 1 – Year One, original take).
- Batman and the Outsiders (Part 1 – 1983/1986).
- The Outsiders (Part 2 – 1986/1992).
- Black Lightning (Profile 2 – 1980s). This here profile.
- Interlude – The other history of Black Lightning.
- Black Lightning (Profile 3 – 1990s).
- Black Lightning (Profile 4 – 2000s).
- Black Lightning (Profile 1.1 – Year One, modernised take).
This profile only uses data from the 1980s and early 1990s. So for instance Jeff doesn’t have children – they were retconnedMaking changes to a character or story after the fact in later on.
If you need more guidance than a mere list, check our guide to Black Lightning character profiles.
- Real Name: Jefferson Pierce.
- Other Aliases: Mr. Bradford (cover ID), Sparks (radio callsign).
- Known Relatives: Lynn Stewart (ex-wife), unnamed parents (both deceased).
- Group Affiliation: Outsiders.
- Base of Operations: Metropolis ; later on Gotham City ; later on Los Angeles ; later on Cleveland.
- Height: 6’1″ (1.85m). Weight: 182 lbs. (83 Kg.).
- Eyes: Brown. Hair: Black.
Powers & Abilities
As he returns, Black Lightning doesn’t have any powers. His crushing guilt over the death of Trina Shelton left him unable to use these.
However, a pep talk by Batman soon allows Mr. Pierce to resume hurling lightning bolts. A bit as if throwing a javelin.
He also remains a powerful athlete and hand-to-hand fighter. But he doesn’t seem quite as formidable as he was back in Metropolis. This is presumably because his electricity is no longer strengthening him.
Misc. other skills
Jefferson has robust people skills, in a “responsible and smart adult” sort of way.
Black Lightning is also seen co-piloting planes, handling high technology devices and being familiar with some medical procedures. This likely comes from training with the Batman.
Black Lightning retains his high level of analytical and planning intelligence. Combined with his crimefighting experience, that makes him a solid detective.
Lightning then develops new applications for his powers.
- He can sense electrical fields over a short range. At a closer range still, he can perceive their specificities. By emitting matching currents, he might even be able to communicate with electricity-based consciousnesses.
- He can endure electrical shocks better than most. Basically he gets stunned, not burned and electrocuted.
- He can grab power lines and suck the juice out of them. But this requires his full concentration. This also allows for safely handling live wires.
- Dr. Jace teaches Jefferson to use his electricity to hack into computers. But he needs to touch the hardware, and computers were far less prevalent back then.
- Lightning once uses a pair of metallic rods to electrolyse New-Wave into hydrogen and oxygen.
- By 1985, Black Lightning can store absorbed electricity for a short while, then use it to strengthen his lightning.
- This comes in handy to drain, then overload large electrical circuits. Black Lightning can do this to even large electrified fence systems, likely blowing up the generator.
- By 1986, Jefferson can again make his eyes glow and crackle with lightning. But this little cosmetic effect requires concentration.
- By 1987, Jefferson (likely with Dr. Jace’s help) has learned to create a dead zone for radars. I’m not sure how that works, but it’s done with… electricity ! Wowie zowie !
- He then learns to trick electronically-controlled locks into opening by applying just the right electrical charge.
When Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 1 launched, Michael Jackson’s immensely successful Thriller album had been in heavy rotation for months. It was an era-defining sound.
A good fit would be the music video for Billie Jean. It’s a classic, and it was impressive by 1983 standards.
(It was also important in letting Black artists access White music networks such as MTV, but that’s a whole other story).
In the video, Mr. Jackson is sporting a Jheri curl. This is an emblematic African-American hairstyle of the 1980s. Though Black Lightning is usually depicted with short natural hair (about a 4C), some 1980s art by Kevin Nowlan shows Jeff with a Jheri curl.
We need to talk about the Crisis
This profile straddles the 1985/87 Crisis on Infinite Earths. If you haven’t read our primer about that, here’s a link to our Ages of DC Comics recap.
In the wake of the Crisis, DC published a Secret Origins series. It presented the post-Crisis backstory of its characters. Black Lightning appears in issue 26.
In his case, there are practically no changes from the late 1970s version.
Jefferson Pierce grew up in an impoverished part of Metropolis. He became a celebrated athlete, winning the gold medal in the decathlon during the 1976 Olympics (and the silver at the 100 metres dash).
After the death of his parents, he decides to return home. But this costs him his marriage, as Lynn won’t live in Suicide Slum.
Jeff is reunited with family friend Peter Gambi. He also rejoins his old high school as an English teacher. But before his first day at Garfield High is over, he already has been in two fights with drugs pushers.
Criminal conspiracy The 100 tries to intimidate Pierce by murdering student Earl Clifford. But Peter Gambi has a solution. He designs the Black Lightning mask and costume, so The 100 cannot identify their new foe.
In the fight between Lightning and The 100, Peter Gambi is slain. But Pierce defeats The 100’s kingpin Tobias Whale. He also develops his super-powers, and becomes a renowned street hero.
Bystander Trina Shelton is then accidentally shot during a battle, and Black Lightning retires out of guilt.
Additional 1992 material
The loose leaves 1990s Who’s Who in the DC Universe added some details. This was originally discussed here, but let’s move that to the 1990s Black Lightning writeup as we streamline our articles.
The bulk of the material is in the Outsiders team profiles, which you’ve already read.
So here we’re going to focus on what was specific to Black Lightning.
And the Outsiders
Mr. Pierce’s mission in Markovia went well at first. But it was derailed when Katana (Yamashiro Tatsu) murdered a senior rebel officer. Jefferson was arrested as a possible accomplice.
With Batman’s encouragement, Pierce could summon his lightning again. This was critical to their survival.
Lightning no longer had the wherewithal to act as a solo hero. But being a member of the Batman’s new team, the Outsiders, seemed like a good solution.
The Wayne Foundation ensured that Mr. Pierce could swiftly move to Gotham City and get a position as a teacher. He got it in time for the new school year at Edison High. Fellow Outsider Halo also attended Edison as a student.
(Curiously, Halo seems to be attending a nice middle-class high school, while Lightning seems to be teaching in a rundown ghetto school. However, Jeff does state that he’s teaching a remedial English language course.)
(Therefore, perhaps the Wayne Foundation’s offer was the private equivalent of Title 1 funding, for Edison to take in students from a poor neighbourhood. That it’d take place in their oldest classrooms and away from their other students wouldn’t be surprising.)
Black Lightning also ran nightly patrols in Gotham City slums, taking out dope peddlers in the like. This soon earned him the enmity of mob boss Morgan Jones.
Disaster strikes (or maybe not)
In 1984, Trina Shelton’s parents hired the Masters of Disaster to avenge their daughter.
With help from Morgan Jones, the Masters took hostages to force Black Lightning to surrender. But the Outsiders soon rescued him.
During the incident, Mrs. Shelton realised that she had misjudged Black Lightning. She risked her life to tell him that she now understood that Trina’s death wasn’t his fault. This was a key step in helping Black Lightning overcome his guilt.
In 1985, Black Lightning worked solo to stop Ghetto Blaster (yes, really). This armoured villain had convinced a small Gotham neighbourhood that he was an activist. But Lightning exposed him as a mere thief.
(This odd story echoes the “urban renewal” and slums clearance programs that primarily ran in the Eastern third of the US during the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1970s most such programs had been jettisoned due to their racist implementation.)
When the Outsiders left Batman, Black Lightning regretted the bad blood with the Caped Crusader.
On the plus side, his ex-wife Lynn Stewart was in Los Angeles. She had left education to launch a PR agency there, and met with success.
Despite the years, Jeff hadn’t gotten over their divorce. Nevertheless, the reunion with Lynn went well – and she was single.
Ms. Stewart also was working on a huge deal, the F.A.M.I.N.E. charity album for Africa (an expyFictional character heavily based on another character of the 1985 Live Aid concert ).
However, Lynn was kidnapped. That was to get at Edward Bentama, President of Mozambia and the main African partner of the F.A.M.I.N.E. relief concert. Bentama was secretly a Soviet-aligned tyrant, with clandestine opposition cells out to get him.
Don’t you know, they’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution
Jeff’s determination to rescue Lynn is what led the Outsiders to clash with the People’s Heroes in Mozambia. Though the Americans were defeated, Black Lightning escaped, allied with the opposition, and led the Outsiders in overthrowing Bentama.
The opposition leader was crippled local athlete Akubo Dimante. Mr. Pierce was familiar with him, since Mr. Dimante was the reason he did not get the 100 metres dash gold. In the end, Dimante sacrificed himself to kill Bentama.
In the wake of the coup, Jefferson and Lynn cautiously rekindled their relationship.
When Looker (Lia Briggs) was framed for murder, Black Lightning’s deductive reasoning was key to exonerating her.
In between days
After Metamorpho’s death, Black Lightning soldiered to have the Outsiders carry on. They thus fought during the Millennium crisis .
But after the team took further casualties, even Jeff had to throw the towel.
These losses apparently drove him to move to another city. Which also meant that he and Lynn didn’t reunite after all, though they remained good friends and confidantes.
For a little while, Jeff returned to teaching in Gotham. A Wayne Foundation grant made that the fastest option. He also fought low-level street crime.
(One 1995 panel implies that Mr. Pierce was retconned as having moved to Cleveland, rather than Gotham. Based on Tony Isabella’s notes, and since there’s but one caption establishing that Lightning was in Gotham, I’d favour the “it always was Cleveland” take.)
In 1989, Black Lightning was among the hundreds of metahumanSynonym for superhuman, sometimes with setting-specific nuances who became comatose during the Invasion .
In 1991, Jefferson reunited with Looker and Katana. They helped defend Gotham City as it was attacked by Circe’s army of harpies and other bestiamorphs.
The costume used during these years has yellow lenses over the eyeholes. This likely is to diminish eye strain from exposure to flashing electrical arcs, as Jeff’s body no longer is electrically reinforced.
In his civvies, Jefferson often wears a pine green business suit.
Colouring Black Lightning’s bolts black (inconsistently) starts in 1985. Prior to that, it’s the usual yellow. If we could just step out of our *literal* minds for just a moment…
In the last few months of 1987, Lightning clearly switches his natural short hair to a Jheri curl. It’s also longer in the back, though it’s well shorter than a mullet would.
A new look for the 1990s
In 1992, Lightning modernises everything.
He switches to a much less discotastic costume. It’s still in dark blue and light blue with some yellow lightning motifs.
He also switches to a simple flat top cut, without any fade effects on the sides or back. And becomes good enough at making his eyes glow that he doesn’t really need a mask.
However, this look is never actually seen in stories. When we do see him in 1995, Jefferson has already switched to a new look.
Originally, Lightning is wracked by guilt and regret, and rusty at super-heroing. Being an Outsider is a way to heal, while resuming doing good deeds faster than he could on his own.
Early on he’s clearly fighting depression. And he gradually prevails, in good part because the Outsiders give him a goal, a change of setting, new challenges and new friends.
But that means months during which he’s wary of his own action hero temper. Lightning fears the consequences of taking actions that are too rash and direct. He also regularly visits Trina Shelton’s grave, even after moving to Gotham.
Even after he overcomes his depression, Black Lightning remains a serious, smart, responsible, dedicated, professional helper.
He doesn’t unclench much, and he’s always looking for ways to improve the world and save lives.
He sometimes utters tough-guy-action-hero quips. But it’s more because those are mandatory in 1980s action stories.
His highly developed sense of responsibility can make him brood. But he tries not to let that affect others, especially since his divorce.
Mr. Pierce is the most experienced and analytical Outsider when Batman is away. Leadership thus defaults to him, except during the era when Geo-Force wants to assume control.
Lightning doesn’t particularly want to be the boss. But, well, somebody has to coordinate during emergencies.
Teacher don’t teach me nonsense
As a teacher he’s upbeat, nurturing and particularly dynamic.
He sometimes uses his classroom-monitoring skills among the Outsiders, to spot and support whoever’s feeling down and might want to talk about it.
In his solo activities, Lightning remains primarily concerned with damage done to sundry impoverished Black communities.
Both as Pierce and as Lightning, he sometimes adds a light touch of (comic book approximation of) jive talk. It’s mostly done for colour and to sound more relaxed and approachable.
He’ll also use his old patterns of speech when interacting when somebody who knows Black Lightning from his Metropolis days. Or simply when he feels like getting back in character.
Jefferson is on good terms with Halo. They have a nice student/caring teacher dynamic.
On the other hand he’s initially wary about Katana and her lethal ways. Though as discussed in the team profiles, lethal combat in the Outsiders books didn’t make much sense. But he did appreciate her courage, discipline and devotion to Halo’s well-being. And they thus became friends.
Lightning also works well with Batman. Jeff can keep up with Bruce, and they have good chemistry in the field – from street crime to space aliens. By contrast, he lacks chemistry with Geo-Force, though they could work together fine.
Jefferson often hangs out with Rex. They have fairly similar old-school big-city working-class tastes in pastimes.
(In class) “Morning, troops ! Yesterday, some of you said you couldn’t understand the language Shakespeare used. But it’s just a matter of plugging into the way people spoke back then ! You take the word ‘bodkinA dagger or other kind of piercing tool’…”
“Fact is, I wanted t’talk to you, Katana… you’ve been lower than a mole’s soles since Halo left !”
“Right, Batman ! We know my electricity gives ’em a bellyful of pain… and the way I feel right now, the juice is on the house !” (GRZZZZZZZZ !!)
“Medals are fine, but the lives saved — *that’s* what counts !”
“Nope, place is quiet… and darker than a landlord’s heart. Looker, take a scan will you ?”
“It *looks* like Cramer accused Lia with his dying message… But since we know that’s a frame [job], it’s possible that killer got that idea from a *real* dying message Cramer left. [And so] there might be a clue the police might have overlooked… because it’s not here.”
DC Heroes RPG
Tell me more about the game stats
Black Lightning (early 1987)
|Dex: 06||Str: 04||Bod: 05|
|Int: 06||Wil: 06||Min: 05|
|Inf: 05||Aur: 05||Spi: 05|
|Init: 019||HP: 050|
Detect (Electrical fields): 06, Energy absorption: 06, Invulnerability: 08, Lightning: 08, Obscure: 08, Power Reserve (Lightning, Accuracy (Lightning)): 02, Telepathy: 00
Bonuses and Limitations:
- All Powers are Contingent Upon Lightning.
- Detect is Discerning.
- Deploying Detect takes as much time (in APs) as the APs used.
- Energy absorption only works on electricity, requires full concentration, and requires all of his Actions for that Phase.
- Invulnerability only applies vs. electrocution.
- Lightning has Multi-Attack 1, but only if every target is strongly conductive (usually meaning metals).
- In particularly cold environments, or if he’s soaked wet, Lightning’s Lightning Range becomes Touch. It also immediately attacks Pierce’s BODY/BODY using its APs of power.
- Obscure only vs. radar- and electricity-based detection. This requires concentration and all of Mr. Pierce’s Actions for every Phase.
- Power Reserve can only be fed by Energy Absorption.
- Telepathy only with electricity-based lifeforms.
Accuracy (Lightning): 07, Acrobatics: 06, Martial Artist: 06, Medicine (First aid): 02, Scientist (Computers): 07, Thief (Stealth): 05, Thief (Locks & Safes): 06, Vehicles (Land): 04, Vehicles (Air): 03
Bonuses and Limitations:
- Scientist is a Powered Skill, is Contingent Upon Lightning, and has a Range of Touch (it cannot be used over a network).
- Thief is a Powered Skill, is Contingent Upon Lightning, and only works on non-shielded electronically-controlled locks.
Expertise (English lit, High-school teaching), Familiarity (Physics of electricity, High-tech equipment), Schtick (Disarmer (Lightning)).
Outsiders (Low), Batman (Bruce Wayne) (Low).
Attack Vulnerability (being unexpectedly doused with water results in Jefferson being attacked by his own Lightning against BODY/BODY, even if he wasn’t using it during that Phase), Dependent (Lynn Stewart).
COSTUME [BODY 03, Shade: 01]. A standard Outsiders radio is also normally worked into his disco collar.
Always bet on Black (Lightning)
Early on, while he’s still struggling with depression, Jefferson has one fewer AP of INF and WIL, and 20 fewer Hero Points.
He also had a MIF of losing his temper/accidentally killing someone.
By late 1987, Mr. Pierce has regained a DEX, Martial Artist and Acrobatics of 07. It may have occurred a bit earlier, but it’s hard to say.
I’m not using any sort of stats continuity here. These stats are solely based on his 1980s appearances, where his abilities are toned down.
I went with reduced Hero Points rather than a Guilt Drawback. It’s hard to make a solid case, but Lightning seems to be progressing via Character Advancement during this era. A Guilt Drawback would work at cross-purposes with that.
The delay with expanding his Detect APs isn’t clearly demonstrated. It’s reasonable, but statting it out is a bit of flourish.
In one scene (Outsiders Vol. 1 #1) he seems to absorb some power from incoming energy blasts. That’s not coherent with how his Energy Absorption usually works. So I assumed that the player just rolled a double and said something funky about why their attack was so successful.
More design notes
Setting APs for Obscure vs. radar is a bit pointless. Even radars mounted on small planes need huge APs to account for Range (the rulebook shows this well).
No formal Detective Skill, since his INF/AUR are robust enough for the legwork he conducts. And his detection work is about deduction, not technique.
Giving an AP of Shade to his eye protections is a bit enthusiastic, I’ll admit. Drop it if you ain’t feelin’ it.
Source of Character: DC Comics.
Writeup completed on the 12th of September, 2020.