Black Lightning (Jefferson Pierce) is an early African-American super-hero.
He was created by Tony Isabella and Trevor von Eeden, appeared in 1977, and was the first Black character to ever headline a DC comic book.
He’s pretty cool.
Our coverage of Black Lightning is presented as a series of articles. To better present how the character grows, changes, gets rewritten, etc..
The chain (lightning) goes :
- Black Lightning (Profile 1 – Year One, original take). All you cool cats and super freaks start with that one, no jive.
- Batman and the Outsiders (Part 1 – 1983/1986).
- The Outsiders (Part 2 – 1986/1992).
- Black Lightning (Profile 2 – 1980s).
- Interlude – The other history of Black Lightning. This here profile.
- Black Lightning (Profile 3 – 1990s).
- Black Lightning (Profile 4 – 2000s).
- Black Lightning (Profile 1.1 – Year One, modernised take).
This article strongly assumes that you’ve read *at least* the first article in the sequence. And thus that you know the original story, so we can focus on what is *different* in this take.
If you need more guidance than a mere list, check our guide to Black Lightning character profiles.
The other history
In 2021, DC Comics Black Label published the The Other History of DC Universe Limited Series. It was a text-heavy series written by screenwriter John Ridley.
Issue one was about Black Lightning.
In this series, Mr. Ridley uses an approach broadly similar to writeups.org’s :
- Events occur by publication date.
- The characters simply age very little.
- The connections with real-world events and sociodynamics are explained.
So if you want a 1970s/1980s Black Lightning, but one that feels more realistic and less corny, well, he’s got your hero right here.
Here are our notes if you want to use that take on Black Lightning in your stories.
Continuity (part 1)
The key changes are :
- Black Lightning’s daughters are retconnedMaking changes to a character or story after the fact in. Whereas they didn’t exist yet during the actual 1970s and 1980s stories.
- The DC “heroic age” doesn’t start with a 1938-1941 sequence (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman). It instead occurs in 1974, with the Justice League being formed in 1976 (as opposed to the real-world 1960).
This isn’t compatible with what we call the “Year One modernised take” in the sequence above. The modernised take was written by Jen van Meter to fit into a sliding timeline paradigm, which is a completely different exercise.
Continuity (part 2)
The version of the character is otherwise close to what was depicted in the period material.
Since you’ve read our profiles for Lightning during the 1970s and 1980s, you know all about that already.
So let’s instead focus on Mr. Ridley’s tweaks to make it all feel more credible.
The story starts in 1972, so lessee… Nah, kidding. *Of course* it’s gonna be Bill Withers. C’mon.
I’m not a big fan of the voice microphone quality during this performance. But it also features footage of how some areas were back then, and thus the world where Jefferson Pierce became an adult.
Points of interest – real-world events
The decathlon world record by William Toomey, in 1968, was key in motivating Jefferson Pierce. Mr. Toomey clearly dominated the men’s decathlon back then.
Mr. Pierce went on to win the 1972 Olympics men’s decathlon, in Munich. During the decathlon, a terror attack by a Black September team killed Israeli athletes. This was an international shock back then, and the Munich massacre was the key event in the evolution of counter-terror in Western countries.
(Oddly, the world record Jeff achieves at the 1972 Olympics is markedly lower than the real-world record by Mykola Avilov. Eh, perhaps in the DC Universe Mr. Avilov became a Soviet super-agent instead of competing.)
The 1976 creation of the JLA is contrasted against the mid-1970s malaise in the US. Watergate, inflation, the defeats in Việt Nam, occasional gasoline scarcity (one of the worst fears in the American psyche), etc..
There’s a similar emphasis on the national sense of powerlessness during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis .
Another 1979 scene refers to mid-1970s blaxploitation cinema hits. Namely Foxy Brown (featuring a character played by Pam Grier, who also shaped the appearance of Misty Knight) and Jim Kelly (seen in Bruce Lee movies and Black Belt Jones).
Such movies were a clear influence in the portrayal of most early African-American super-heroes, including Black Lightning and Luke Cage.
Ronald Reagan’s election is presented from the PoV of a patriotic Black man.
It thus mixes pride about American resurgence after the morose breakdown of the 1970s, with clear unease about Reagan’s relentlessly racist dogwhistles.
There’s also a sly visual reference to Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986).
Points of interest – characterisation
There’s a much greater emphasis on Jefferson wanting to become more than human so he can finally count in the world.
He is extraordinarily driven to overcome his feelings of powerlessness, which peaked with the death of his father. Jeff must achieve the impossible and be immensely strong in all respects. So he finally can matter and have control over a hostile and broken world.
As a teenage champion athlete his focus on being more than human is to beat the Toomey decathlon record.
But once he does that, he realises that it changes very little in the world. Especially against the background of a terrorist massacre.
Several characterisation elements are also more visible than in the vintage stories :
- His faith. This is kept vague and non-denominational, though it’s a Christian one. But this is notable since this aspect is usually eluded in super-hero comics. With obvious exceptions such as 1980s+ Daredevil (Matt Murdock).
- In particular, Jefferson comes to believe that God wants him to make the world better and more humane.
- His fatalism. Some of it is faith-based – at some points, Jefferson just goes “eh, the Lord will provide” and hits the road at random to find a new life. Part of it is his extreme drive, making him feel that he doesn’t really have a choice about how he lives his life.
- His patriotism. Jefferson wants every American to be able to feel proud of and energised by their country, but for factual reasons rather than reflexive nationalism. And he doesn’t want America to ever be powerless.
- (However, he’s still a child of the Cold War. He feels humiliated by the defeats of the US in Việt Nam or Iran, but he doesn’t question what the US were doing there in the first place).
- Black Pride, as it had emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. This too is kept relatively subdued. But, for instance, when Mr. Pierce thinks of two authors he finds important to teach, he naturally cites Maya Angelou and, of course, James Baldwin .
Too far, too hard
Jefferson’s Pierce shortcomings are also obliquely shown in this take.
His belief that Black men must be immensely strong to face the world ends up backfiring at least once. He pushes some of his more promising male students too hard, he lets them sink or swim when he should intervene, he dismisses their complaints.
Even by the 1990s, Mr. Pierce still blindly thought he was justified in this.
He also reproduces the failings of men of his generation, based on what he was taught about masculinity.
- There are hints that he pays less attention to his female students, and his daughters have an oddly low screen time in the narration.
- He subconsciously does not trust women to make the right decisions. That includes Lynn.
- At the same time he also places Lynn on a pedestal, while hiding things from her in a “a woman wouldn’t understand” sort of way. There’s no mention of Lynn’s activities in the narration, likely reflecting Jeff’s attitude.
- (For that matters, Jefferson barely mentions his mother either).
- He assumes that his own experience can be reproduced by any man, even though his abilities are obviously exceptional. In a “I suffered through this so you too can/must do so” sort of way.
- His religious faith, and his views of masculinity, combined to resemble homophobia for his male gay students. That wasn’t technically true, but for these young men it sure seemed like Mr. Pierce was trying to straighten them up as traditional manly men.
That Jefferson would run his and Lynn’s marriage into the ground is thus obvious. Despite all his intelligence and knowledge, he’s still able to consider both that Lynn is an extraordinary woman, *and* that she wouldn’t be able to handle him being Black Lightning.
Even as he keeps coming home at 2 a.m., bloody and battered. Dude, *of course* she knew.
Black Lightning certainly doesn’t like super-heroes.
- He sees them as the product of a racist society, bound to reproduce at least part of a racist mental model.
- The way the press, the police, other authorities, etc. report about Black Lightning’s Suicide Slum career strongly contributes to that. Other heroes will inevitably hear of Black Lightning as a vigilante, a “ghetto warrior”, a “super-thug” and be wary about him.
- He condemns them for not having intervened in a number of real-world crises, such as the Iran hostage crisis or the urban decay of the 1970s.
Pierce didn’t like Green Lantern (John Stewart) – DC Comics’ first African-American super-hero. To him Stewart felt like a token and an empty costume. Pierce felt that a Black super-hero should be more, and stand on his own.
Years later, when they became friends, Jefferson realised how unfair and judgemental he had been toward John.
In this continuity, the first encounter with Superman goes even worse than in the 1970s comics. Superman believes the biased and racist press accounts about Lightning. And Lightning resents Supes for barely ever setting foot in Suicide Slum. Jefferson essentially tells Clark to shove his White privilege and sod off.
Ditto for the nonsensical, embarrassing “secret challenge” of the JLA as they evaluated Black Lightning for recruitment.
Do you feel lucky, punk ?
There’s a 1979/80 stretch — after he discovers Peter Gambi’s secret, and after Lynn leaves — where Black Lightning becomes a markedly more violent vigilante.
He’s of course not going to maim or kill anybody. But any foo’ involved in criminal or underworld activities will be beaten up on the spot.
1979/80 Black Lightning is riding on a lot of rage and suffering. He’s still in control, but he’s bound to come crashing at some point.
Live and learn
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jefferson is in a much better place.
He still has lost too much (primarily the family he blinkeredly drove away). But his time with the Outsiders has given him his centre back. Plus enough momentum to accept that he has to move on.
He thus hits the road at random and ends up in Cleveland’s Brick City. There he resumes his ministry of sorts, as an educator turning at-risk schools around. But in an entirely new context, with new people, a new environment to learn, etc..
By 1993 or so, he doesn’t intend to become Black Lightning again. The new costume is in his closet just in case.
Points of interest – plot changes
Jefferson’s father is murdered when his son is already a teenager.
The older Pierce was a local reporter in Suicide Slum, with an history of exposing crime and corruption. He knew that his work would likely be the death of him. On the other hand, this meant that his family had a decent income – a rarity in the Slum.
Jefferson was too young to be at the 1968 Olympics. His one go at the Games was 1972.
Depressive about how meaningless his 1972 gold medal felt, Jefferson hit the road and ended up in Chicago.
He worked as a high school sports coach in an “at risk” school, then also taught English Lit. In 1974, he moved to Milwaukee, where he also taught History classes. In both cases he obtained exceptional results, with the kids’ grades skyrocketing.
In 1974, Jefferson became aware of his powers. Post-traumatic nightmares about his father’s death made him emit heat at night. He eventually had to sleep in his bathtub to avoid setting his apartment on fire.
At this point super-heroes were emerging. Therefore, Mr. Pierce had some sense of what was happening to him. But he didn’t know how to control these abilities.
Jefferson likely meets and marries Lynn Stewart in 1976. Their first daughter — Anissa — is likely born in 1976.
At this point the family moves to Suicide Slum’s Carver High School, as Jeff feels he must exorcise his ghosts there.
In this timeline, Green Lantern (John Stewart) seems to appear in 1976. By publication date it should be 1971. But here the debut of Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) was circa 1974, so John needs to be pushed back a few years.
To intimidate him and as a general message, The 100 slays Pierce’s star student, one Earl Clifford. They also display the broken corpse at the school gym.
Jefferson discusses with a friend of his late father, the tailor Peter Gambi. As it happens, Gambi can make an electricity-conducting, Kevlar-lined costume. And an electricity-modulating belt that allows Jefferson to manifest his powers.
Gambi even provides the “justice, like lightning” quote. But Pierce is too focused on his mission of justice to wonder why Gambi can do all this.
In 1978, Jefferson Pierce is named Teacher Of The Year. This presumably was the Council of Chief State School Officers’ national award . It acknowledged his extraordinary results at Carver High.
In 1979, Jennifer Pierce is born. But Lynn divorces Jefferson a few months later.
In 1979, Black Lightning has a brief encounter with Vixen (Mari McCabe). She comes to consult with him about becoming a super-heroine. Vixen’s first appearance was in 1981, so unlike John Stewart she doesn’t have to be “pushed back” in the timeline.
(This encounter didn’t actually take place in the comics. But there’s a foxy trick. Vixen was actually supposed to debut in 1978, but her book was cancelled before it happened. Had Vixen been published, Mari’s meeting with Jefferson could easily have been part of the story in the first few issues.)
Trina Shelton’s death happens in 1980. In this continuity, she was a student at Carver High.
Black Lightning retires at this point. He has now indirectly caused the death of two of his students (Earl Clifford and Trina Shelton), and both his daughters are going to grow up without him. Distraught, Jeff symbolically destroys his costume.
For about three years, Jefferson simply works as a teacher, and mostly lives for child visitation time.
For Markovia !
In 1983, Jefferson is contacted by Batman (Bruce Wayne) to pass himself for Lucius Fox’s brother. Two important divergences here :
- Jeff initially refuses, feeling insulted that he was approached because the plan requires some Black dude. But Batman strongarms him by pointing out how his daughters or father would be ashamed to see him refuse to help save a life.
- The “lost my powers for psychosomatic reasons” thing is a made-up excuse, to refuse to help at first.
Mr. Pierce’s recollections about his time with the Outsiders emphasise :
- That the Outsiders felt like a found family, especially after he had estranged Lynn and the girls.
- That the team wasn’t afraid to fight for social justice.
- That the Outsiders were rivenTorn apart with personal trauma and shortcomings. And though for some years supporting each other felt great, ultimately each had to walk their own path alone.
This suggests that in this continuity, the team spent more downtime bonding than in the 1980s comics. And that there were more helping-the-common-people cases, likely involving more nuance than the over-the-top takes in the period Outsiders stories.
(The 1988 breakup of the Outsiders is presented as the team drifting apart. It actually was more of a mess than that. But I suspect that it’s more a matter of running out of pages to fit that into the The Other History book.)
The Other History also injects a discussion between John Stewart and Jefferson Pierce after the destruction of Xanshi.
Though it’s thematically important, the scene didn’t take place in period comics. If only because it’s impossible per strict publication order (the Outsiders disband in early 1988, Xanshi is destroyed in early 1989).
Points of interest – powers
There is a stronger sense that Jefferson’s powers are tied to his psychic state and subconscious tensions.
It originally builds up during nightmares as an expression of his feeling of powerlessness, and the post-traumatic stress about his father’s death.
Once he starts taking direct action at Carver High, the electricity becomes stronger. It also feels much better, as he feels less frustrated.
The point where his powers no longer need the belt to be wielded corresponds to when Jefferson is overwhelmed by pain and rage. Which means he acts even more freely to affirm that he has power over the world.
It is clearer in this telling that Mr. Pierce’s electricity starkly diminishes his need for sleep. During much of his Suicide Slum career he’s running on three hours of sleep per night, without much degradation of his capabilities as Jefferson or as Lightning.
So a bit of Life Support Advantage here.
There’s also an implication that he may heal faster and more completely than a normal person. Regeneration: 01 might suffice, since this is a super-hero comic book.
Source of Character: The Other History of the DC Universe.
Helper(s): Darci, Ethan Roe.
Writeup completed on the 6th of June, 2021.