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How Black Lightning hurdled racism, knockoffs and wars between creators to become the new powerhouse of 'Justice League of America'

By Ben Morse

Posted March 3, 2007  10:15 AM

DC had the perfect formula for their first prominent black superhero: He’d be powerful, he’d be complex—and he’d be a racist.

“The Black Bomber” saw a white man who hated black people periodically becoming a black superhero as a result of chemical experiments, and then remembering nothing of his exploits when the change reversed.

“[It] was a doubtless well-intentioned but truly offensive idea,” recalls Tony Isabella, an industry veteran brought on to rewrite the first two issues of the Bomber’s planned solo series. “Each script featured the white guy rescuing a black person and then grouse that he risked his life for—and this is a quote from the script—a ‘jungle bunny.’”

Fortunately for comic book readers of discerning taste, Isabella had a better idea: He called him Black Lightning.

“In a very real sense, he was my Superman and I had hoped he would have a place with DC’s other superstars.”

Despite a cult following and the work of several talented creators, it would take Black Lightning almost 30 years fraught with controversy and disrespect before he took his place alongside Superman and Green Lantern in the cast of Justice League of America.

In 1977, Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden introduced readers to Jefferson Pierce in Black Lightning #1. A former Olympic decathlete who returned to downtrodden Suicide Slum in Metropolis to become a teacher, Pierce ended up defending the streets with artificially generated electrical powers.
In a twist on the traditional secret identity, the educated and dapper Pierce would wear a mask with an Afro hairdo attached and speak in jive when going on patrol as Black Lightning.

“As Jeff, he had openly opposed the local pushers, so he needed as much distance between his dual identities as possible,” explains Isabella. “It was [former DC writer and editor] Bob Rozakis who came up with the Afro-mask. It might not have aged well but, at the time, it was something we hadn’t seen before.”

Black Lightning became a modest hit for 10 issues before losing a key ingredient to its recipe for success: Isabella.

“I quit due to my dissatisfaction with DC’s failure to live up to the spirit of their agreements with me on a number of occasions,” says the writer.
The series continued for one more issue, written by Denny O’Neil, before being canceled alongside a number of other DC titles.

One of the major contributing factors to Isabella’s departure came when Hanna-Barbera requested to use Black Lightning in their “Challenge of the Super Friends” cartoon and were told a fee would have to be paid to Isabella. Rather than compensate Isabella, Hanna-Barbera created Black Vulcan, a character similar to Black Lightning in powers and appearance.

“When the first episode aired, I was more than a bit surprised to see Black Vulcan instead of Black Lightning,” remembers Isabella.
In his final issue of Black Lightning, Isabella introduced a con artist named Barbara Hanna who tries to pass off an imposter Black Lightning as the real deal. “Subtlety was not one of my strong points back then,” muses the creator.

O’Neil would briefly bring Black Lightning into Justice League of America in a two-part story that had the hero turn down League membership to continue focusing on street crime. This would lead to Jefferson Pierce becoming a stalwart member of Batman’s team, the Outsiders, for the next decade, but by the late ’80s the team quietly disbanded and Black Lightning faded into obscurity.

Black Lightning’s next prominent appearance would take place on the unlikeliest of stages: “Saturday Night Live.”

In a 1992 episode of the sketch comedy show, guest host Sinbad donned a crude Black Lightning costume and crashed Superman’s funeral, trying to score a free meal and acting shocked that nobody had heard of him. While many—including Isabella—found the skit hilarious, others saw it as the final nail in the coffin of the character’s relevance as a serious hero.

Still, DC thought the character had some juice left and commissioned a new ongoing series in 1995, even bringing back Isabella to write it.
The writer’s second stint on the character he created would come to an even more abrupt end than his first.

“I was fired nearly two months before the first issue came out, and on the very day I turned in my as-yet-unpublished script for what would have been issue #9,” says Isabella. “The editor didn’t believe Black Lightning could be cool unless he killed people and didn’t want to see Jeff reunite with and remarry his ex-wife.” History repeated, and the series hobbled to cancellation with issue #13.

Jefferson Pierce—not Black Lightning—re-emerged in 2001 in a surprising new role as secretary of education for Lex Luthor, Superman’s archenemy who had achieved the office of U.S. president. “I wasn’t wild about Jeff Pierce serving as secretary of education under Luthor, but my biggest complaint was that it was treated as a throwaway bit,” shares Isabella.

After the Luthor storyline fizzled out without much mention of Pierce’s fate, writer Judd Winick—a longtime fan of the character—began using Black Lightning as a recurring character in both his Green Arrow and Outsiders series. Winick’s introduction of previously unknown teenage daughter Thunder as a new Outsider, coupled with his having Pierce commit murder in Green Arrow, led to Isabella vocally criticizing the work.

“[Winick] doesn’t seem to understand the character at all and, as a result, has done tremendous disservice to him,” insists Isabella. “I’d considered him a friendly acquaintance, yet he never did me the simple courtesy of talking to me about my creation. Had he called, I could and would have told him how to do what he wanted without violating the character.”

Even as he made a murky return to comics, Black Lightning still couldn’t catch a break on the small screen as the cartoon “Static Shock” introduced Soul Power, yet another clear imitation of Jefferson Pierce.

“We originally wanted to do a Black Lightning episode, but the rights to the character were unavailable,” admits series writer and co-creator Dwayne McDuffie, who had brought other DC Universe guest stars like the Justice League onto the show in the past. “We did an homage that ended up being quite different.”

After three decades of misfires, creative disputes and copycats, could 2007 finally be the year of Black Lightning?

With a prominent role in the best-selling and well-received new Justice League of America as well as a pending Black Lightning: Year One miniseries on the way from writer Jen Van Meter (JSA: Classified) and artist Cully Hamner (Blue Beetle), all signs point to Jefferson Pierce at long last getting his due.

His creator shares the excitement but remains cautious. “I am guardedly optimistic. I’ve exchanged a couple of e-mails with [JLA writer Brad] Meltzer and I believe he respects Black Lightning and my work on my creation. That said, I loathe and mock the new shaved-head look. It’s a fad and, Afro-mask notwithstanding, when was Jefferson Pierce ever a slave to fashion?”

Regardless of his hairstyle, it’s been a bumpy road, but Black Lightning has come a long way.

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