You may only know him as the superhero that Sinbad played in a 1992 SNL skit where he crashed Superman’s funeral, but Lightning is getting his own TV show on the CW. The network has ordered a pilot, written by Mara Brock Akil and her husband Salim Akil. Akil has run several successful shows, including Girlfriends and its entertaining spinoff, The Game, and she has won two NAACP Image Awards. The show will be produced by Greg Berlanti, who has his hands on every superhero show on the CW, and according to a Comic Book Resources article, it won’t cross over with the Arrowverse shows. The premise is that Jefferson Pierce is a retired superhero who decides to return as Black Lightning when his daughter thinks about following in his footsteps, and one of his best students starts to get involved in gangs.
Even though it is awesome that a black DC hero is finally headlining their own live action show (and he happens to be a father too), that premise might seem a little after school special-ish. However, Black Lightning has one of the most unique backgrounds of any DC Comics hero, and the story of how he was created is almost as entertaining as his crime fighting adventures in Metropolis or with Batman and the Outsiders. He also shares a special connection to the fan favorite teenage also-lightning-power-using black superhero Static Shock (who had a poster of Black Lightning in his room when Moesha and Sister, Sister’s Felicia Henderson had a run on Teen Titans). This bond could potentially lead to a whole array of cool and diverse heroes from the Milestone Comics universe (or Dakotaverse) popping up in live-action for the first time, despite Static having his own Saturday morning cartoon in the early 2000s, and Icon and Rocket making guest appearances on Cartoon Network’s Young Justice.
Before writer Tony Isabella, who had previously written Luke Cage for Marvel in Power Man, stepped in and called DC out on their racist bullshit, Black Lightning was going to be called the Black Bomber. He was a racist white man who turned into a black man when he got angry, getting his powers from a chemical “camouflage” experiment for soldiers in Vietnam. To say this is problematic is a huge understatement, especially for DC’s first black superhero to have his own comic. In one of the thankfully-unpublished scripts, Black Bomber was going to go on a rant about saving a black person. Yeah, this screams terrible idea, and is reflective of an editorial department that was out of touch with everyone except straight, white males.
Black Lightning’s actual origin story from Isabella and artist Trevor, which was later expanded upon in the 2009 Black Lightning Year One series by Jen Van Meter and Cully Hamner, is pretty damn inspirational. Jefferson Pierce was born in the Suicide Slum area of Metropolis, raised by a single mom with help from her neighbor, Peter Gambi, after his dad was killed in a mob hit. Jefferson was a great student and athlete, winning an Olympic gold medal and graduating with an English degree before acquiring a teaching certificate (it’s so awesome that there’s a superhero who was an English major, like me).
Black Lightning didn’t become a superhero until he returned to Metropolis, where he taught at Garfield High and forced some members of the 100 Gang off campus, resulting in one of his students, who had potential to be a great track star, being killed in revenge. So that this wouldn’t happen again, he and Peter Gambi crafted a costume and belt that shot electricity, along with an afro wig (because it was the late 1970s, and black superheroes were still entrenched in Blaxploitation imagery — see Luke Cage’s speech patterns and tiara at the same time). In Year One, Van Meter and Hamner do a more modern version of this by giving him a domino mask to show the predominantly black neighborhood of Suicide Slum that the hero who protects them is a black man and not some random white savior. Later, he got lightning powers when Peter took a bullet for him that somehow grafted the powers of his belt to his skin, and he also found out that Peter killed his dad. This kind of complex family drama would definitely fit in with the Arrowverse shows, except that Jefferson is a dad and teacher and not just a whiny billionaire who looks good shirtless.
In his 40 years of being a part of the DC Universe, Black Lightning has turned down the Justice League, joined Batman’s Outsiders team, and fought a bad guy named Ghetto Blaster. In a 2001 storyline, he controversially retired as Black Lightning and became President Lex Luthor’s Secretary of Education (insisting that it was to keep tabs on him). He was framed for murder by Deathstroke, and helped mentor a new generation of Outsiders, including his daughter Lightning, who chose legacy superhero over medical school. Black Lightning barely appeared in the New 52, and has yet to make appearance in DC Rebirth, but that should change when his TV show is greenlit.
Black Lightning has a tragic, yet inspirational, backstory, a strained relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, close relationships to superheroes like Green Arrow and Batman, and also a small, yet fun, rogue’s gallery. (Tobias Whale is a poor man’s Kingpin, though.) However, his show could really kick into high gear if the Akils and Berlanti used the Black Lightning show to introduce the Milestone superheroes. This makes sense because Black Lightning is probably going to be set on its own Earth and not the Arrowverse, and his world could use some filling out. Also, adding those characters would easily make Black Lightning the most diverse superhero show on the CW.
Milestone Media was founded by the late, legendary Dwayne McDuffie (Justice League Unlimited), Michael Davis (Static Shock Special), Denys Cowan (Hardware), and Derek Dingle (Black Enterprise). Black Panther writer Christopher Priest designed the logo, but backed out at the last minute to be their liaison to DC Comics, who published the Milestone comics. DC got a share of Milestone’s profits, but they had full creative control over their characters, which existed in a shared universe called the Dakotaverse, because most of Milestone’s superheroes lived in the fictional Midwestern city of Dakota. Milestone was a comics publisher from 1993 to 1997, but recently announced in 2015 that they would be returning to comics, with DC’s Geoff Johns and Jim Lee and film producer/former Black Panther writer Reginald Hudlin teaming up to tell new stories featuring Static Shock, Icon, Rocket, Hardware, and Xombi, while also creating new characters for the 2010s set on Earth-M, just like the old Dakotaverse.
Milestone’s heroes were rooted in classic superhero tropes, but were more socially relevant than most of their contemporaries at Marvel and DC. Most of them got their powers from the Big Bang, when an industrialist gave the police an experimental riot gas to stop a gang turf battle, a move that ended up killing many people and giving some of them special abilities (the Big Bang was rooted in the urban legend that soda companies put chemicals in their drinks to sterilize poor black people). For example, Virgil Hawkins (aka Static Shock) got lightning abilities and was a joking, geeky teenage superhero in the mold of Stan Lee and John Romita’s Spider-Man. However, unlike that era of Spidey, he dealt with real world issues like racism, violence, and his best friend Richie coming out as gay. On the opposite side of the age and class spectrum was Hardware, a brilliant black scientist who doesn’t get credit for his invention or any share of the Alva Corporation’s profits. He later finds out that Alva was responsible for the Big Bang, and fights crime in super armor similar to Iron Man. Hardware took shots at the minimization of people of color in STEM fields, while also taking a stand against disparity between the 1% and the rest of us, decades before the Occupy Movement. Plus, there were cool gadgets from artist Denys Cowan, who also drew Steel for DC Comics.
Another popular Milestone hero was Icon, who was an alien from another planet that landed in the Antebellum South and took the guise of a black slave because that was the first human he saw, an ingenious twist on Superman from writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist M.D. Bright (Quantum and Woody). Centuries later, he has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps to become the successful, politically-conservative lawyer Augustus Freeman IV, until a super-powered single mom with the codename Rocket convinces him to use his great powers to fight crime as Icon. Along with the usual superheroics and sci-fi elements, Icon was an ongoing conversation between a liberal and conservative, looking into class differences as well while making both Icon and Rocket endearing characters, as they popped up in the Young Justice cartoon decades later.
Icon, Rocket, Hardware, Static, and others characters like the Blood Syndicate, a multicultural team of gang-members-turned-superheroes, would add depth and a diversity in race, ideology, class, and sexuality to the Black Lightning TV show. It’s similar to Martian Manhunter, Miss Martian, Mon-El, and Superman popping up in Supergirl to give it an interstellar reach and compensate for not having the years of Arrowverse lore to build on. These crosssovers could start slow, with Black Lightning going to a teacher development conference in Dakota as his civilian identity, Jefferson Pierce, then hearing rumors about a teen with similar powers and investigating for himself. He could mentor Static from afar, and the show could slip in mentions to the Big Bang and other heroes and villains for future seasons, once Black Lightning’s origins and heroic arc have been established. Plus, a lot of 90s kid would be very happy if there was a Static Shock live action show.
Even though he has been underused in DC Comics’ recent New 52 and Rebirth initiatives, Black Lightning has a super-engaging backstory, and he would be the first teacher and father to be a lead in a superhero show. The Akils could draw on his relationship with Static Shock, who idolizes him in both the comics and Young Justice cartoon, to bring the wonderful world of Milestone and the Dakotaverse back to limelight, as well as introduce characters that look like a broad swathe of audience members.
Also, hearing a new version of the “Superhero, Static Shock” song from Childish Gambino (or anyone not named Jaden Smith) would be fun too.