Debuting in January 2018, Black Lightning has already become a hit for The CW network. Starring Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, and Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain as his daughters Anissa and Jennifer, it has brought DC Comics' first headlining black superhero to the attention of mainstream viewers.
The show is currently closing in on the finale of its second season and it has already been renewed for a third. This article will look at the comic book origins of the character, comparing and contrasting them with the show.
Black Lightning was created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden's in 1977 and the TV show bases much of its status quo on those early issues. It has updated certain elements to the modern day and added in some things that weren't there in the comics on day one (which we'll get to later), but overall is a very faithful adaptation.
The comic saw Jefferson Pierce return to his old neighborhood Suicide Slum in Metropolis (changed to Freeland for the show) to become Principal of the local high school. He uses his electricity-based superpowers to clean up the neighborhood, coming up against crime boss Tobias Whale and The 100 in the process.
In the show, Jefferson Pierce is a metahuman whose powers come from his own body. However, in the original comics, this wasn't the case. In those early tales, he acquired the powers from a technologically advanced power belt designed for him by his tailor Peter Gambi (who is played by James Remar in the show and basically acts as Black Lightning's version of Q or Lucius Fox).
The belt could generate and channel forcefields and he often used it like a whip. Later comic book retcons said that the belt had caused Jefferson's latent metahuman powers to activate, but this was simplified even further when DC changed his origin again and made him a metahuman right from the start.
In the show, Jefferson has two daughters, both of whom also turn out to be metahumans that become heroes in their own right. There's Anissa, his older daughter, who can manipulate her density using her breathing and emotions, giving her superhuman strength and durability. She fights crime as Thunder. Then there's Jennifer, his younger daughter, who has electrical powers like her dad. Her electricity is orange, unlike her father's which is blue, and she fights crime as Lightning.
While both women are characters from the comics, they weren't actually there in the original 77/78 series; Thunder debuted in 2003 and Lightning followed her in 2008.
Tobias Whale is the main villain of the television show and is played with a brilliant simmering menace by Marvin 'Krondon' Jones III, a rapper turned actor. In real life, he is an African-American with albinism, just like the comic book character. In the comics, Whale's physical size is greatly exaggerated, clocking in at around 400lbs of lethal muscle, and he is the leader of the Metropolis branch of organized crime outfit The 100.
In the show, Whale leads a group with the same name, although they are presented in a more realistic fashion as a local gang infecting Freeland with their corruption. Whale has always been Black Lightning's primary antagonist, so it made perfect sense for him to be the big bad in the show.
For a wacky few years of DC Comics continuity in the early 2000s, Lex Luthor became President Of The United States, and it led to some wonderful stories. Luthor wound up serving less than three years in office and his time was rife with corruption and deception; he was eventually impeached after going insane and trying to kill Superman. Obviously. One of the most interesting things he did while in the White House was when he appointed Jefferson Pierce Secretary Of Education!
Jefferson actually retired as Black Lightning when he accepted the job, which of course perturbed most of his superhero friends. He, however, saw it as a chance to do some good within the system, rather than waste energy fighting against it. He also wanted to keep tabs on Luthor!
Over the years, Black Lightning's solo series' have never lasted very long. The original Tony Isabella run only lasted 11 issues, while a 1995 series managed 13. His other solo efforts have all been six-issue miniseries'. He has spent most of his comic book career appearing as a member of one of two superhero teams: the Outsiders and/or the Justice League Of America. He was one of the first people Batman recruited when he formed the Outsiders, his group that would go on missions the League wouldn't touch.
He went on to be part of several incarnations of that team and will be a core member in a new series relaunch from writer Bryan Hill and artist Dexter Soy in May 2019. His time with the Justice League was mainly during the mid-2000s when writer Brad Meltzer took over the title. He initially refused membership, preferring to focus on street-level crime, but did agree to become a reservist. This meant that when all the reserve League members were called in to fight a new Amazo robot, he couldn't refuse again!
Khalil Payne/Painkiller is portrayed on the show by Jordan Calloway and has already become more important to the overall Black Lightning story than he ever was in the comics. The character was created by Tony Isabella for the 1995 series, at the height of the 'extreme' 90's comic book craze, in which many new characters were uber-violent psychopaths. He was a high-level mob enforcer who could induce anesthetization on any part of the human body.
He also had knives on the ends of his dreadlocks. Yes, really. He only lasted three issues and his real name was never revealed, so the show had carte blanche to create a compelling backstory and motivation for the character. Here he is Jennifer's boyfriend and a high-school track star whose spine is severed by a bullet, leading to him accepting cybernetic enhancements from Tobias Whale.