I used to regret not growing up during the golden age of comics. Me and my crew woulda roamed the neighborhood after school and, after cleaning out Mr. Jackson’s garage, we’d pool our quarters together and run to the grocery store to choose a shiny new comic book stacked between the People magazines and pop rocks. Peaches would want Superman, Iron Man would get Deuce’s vote and Darren, well, he’d go with whatever I said. My vote would always be Black Lightning.
Now, I don’t know a Peaches or a Deuce, and I’ve never bought a comic book in a grocery store. But when I found this Black Lightning collection in a bookstore discount bin, it transported me to the 1970s and ushered in the comic experience I’ve dreamed of. After getting hooked on the CW’s adaptation starring Living Single’s Scooter (Cress Williams), Black Lightning became my favorite black superhero and I was forced to stan harder than I ever have before.
When I started reading comic books and graphic novels, there was a very specific and unique adventure I wanted: fall in love with the comic run, and then make a smooth transition to its live-action adaptation that paid homage to and elevated the original storyline. Issa big ask, one that several shows fail at (looking at you, Preacher). Black Lightning manages to be endearing on both fronts, black AF and campy in comics and thoughtfully relevant on television.
Black Lightning debuted as DC’s first starring black superhero in 1977 and ran for 11 Harlem-jive filled issues that were so ridiculous that the absurdity made it funnier. For instance, our hero and his bumbling villains trade one-liners in nearly every fight scene panel. Two-Bits legit dresses in a purple and yellow zoot suit. Jefferson Pierce’s Black Lightning mask has an afro attached. Tobias Whale is actually a whale, and he’s got the high-level vocabulary befitting a tailored suit-wearing leviathan of the ocean. That is absolutely camp and you can fight me about it.
The show does work to keep several key original elements and characters, making the comic books a perfect primer. It also gave my first look at Jefferson’s family, his wife Lynn, daughters Jennifer and Anissa, and mentor and resident tech expert Peter Gambi. In the comics, Jefferson runs every time he’s in the same room as Lynn, and in the show, I honestly understand why – she’s my least favorite. Jennifer and Anissa, who don’t appear in the original comic run but make appearances in other DC titles, have their own superpowers to learn and control. The big reveal here tho is Anissa as the first black queer woman superhero, and Black Lightning makes sure her depiction feels authentic and real. Plus, she fine.
Where the story dovetails and expands is how it parallels our country’s current atrocities. If Marvel’s X-Men mutants are a metaphor for American racism and civil rights, then DC’s metahumans correlate with that and American xenophobia. The writer’s room brings tough conversations into the room by showing children locked in cages under the guise of martial law.
Black Lightning is very much a hometown hero story, and that’s why he’s my favorite black American superhero. After winning a gold medal in the Olympic decathlon, he returns to his old high school to teach and affect the kids who are following in his footsteps. He’s super without leaning into black exceptionalism, and for me, that wrinkle sets him apart and above Black Panther. I like T’Challa, but not as much as I love the concept of Wakanda and the Dora Milaje.
In 11 issues you can’t really dig into full backstory. After the initial run, he does pop up in other titles, like Justice League and Outsiders, so he doesn’t disappear from the DC universe completely. I picked up a few Outsiders collections to get even more Black Lightning, but whatever the medium, I’m ready for the future, and I plan to read and watch it, by any means necessary.
Check out the first two seasons of Black Lightning on Netflix, and look for season three episodes on the CW app. Ask your local comic book store for Black Lightning collections.