So today marks the beginning of the second Black History Month in Alberta. To honour that, I thought I’d do a piece on DC’s first black superhero:
Black Lightning! (The fact that his show is on Canadian Netflix now helps, too).
Join me under the cut!
Okay, so technically Black Lightning isn’t DC’s first black superhero. That honour belongs to John Stewart of the Green Lanterns.
The problem is is that John, when he was introduced, was not the headlining Lantern. He was Hal Jordan’s back-up. And while he has remained an enduring character in DC comics (and for my generation of comic book fans, is Green Lantern) he’s never been as important as Black Lightning.
In keeping with DC tradition, both John and Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning’s real, just in case you didn’t know) were late-comers. The first black superhero, period, is the legendary Black Panther. This was followed up shortly by the Falcon a.k.a Sam Wilson. After that was Luke Cage, and then Blade of all people. It wasn’t until 1975 that we got the first female black superhero in the form of the weather witch, Storm. Black Lightning would debut two years after her.
So what makes Black Lightning so special?
Electric Black Guy
You ever notice that a lot of black guys in comics have electric powers? Well, that’s do to Jefferson Pierce.
Or, more accurately, the rights and licensing surrounding him. You see, way back in the late seventies/early eighties there was this cheesier than cheese show called Superfriends. And my friends, it was terrible. Hawkman and Aquaman were both reduced to jokes that they’ve never recovered from, the animation was practically non-existent, I could go on.
And one of the things the producers of Superfriends did to cut down on expenses was create a Captain Ersatz of Black Lightning by the name of Black Vulcan. Now, I’ll defend Black Lightning’s name, but there is nobody who can defend ‘Black Vulcan.’ Even just typing it feels racist.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that Superfriends started a trend. People started making expies of Black Lightning all over the place. The most obvious are Juice from JLU (which makes him an expy of an expy), Soul Power from Static Shock, Static from both the cartoon and the original comics, and half a dozen others. Some of whom are even descended from Pierce himself!
So if you ever wonder why, for example, Electro in Amazing Spider-Man 2 was made black, you can thank this guy.
Now you might argue that the trend actually started with Storm. And you’d be wrong. Although Storm does have electric powers and is a very popular superhero, she didn’t start the trend of black people having lightning powers. For one thing, Storm isn’t associated exclusively with electric mayhem; blizzards, hurricanes and other nasty bits of weather are as much her bag as zapping people is. For another, there’s no evidence that Storm inspired Pierce, whereas pretty much all black people with electric powers can trace their origins back to Black Lightning. Thirdly, there aren’t any copies of Storm running around. How many black women can you name with weather manipulation powers in fiction? Besides Storm? That’s what I thought.
So there you go, just a short little piece on Black Lightning! If you can, I strongly suggest you go check out the show: it’s fantastic.