Black Lightning debuted in the pages of DC Comics in April 1977 as their first starring black superhero. He was created as a response to the popular Marvel Comics character Luke Cage, who was not Marvel’s first black superhero—that’d be Black Panther—but was the first to have his own solo series. Lightning was essentially the same character as Cage, albeit with electric generation powers instead of indestructible skin. They both spouted blaxploitation clichés—a 1977 Justice League of America issue has Lightning refer to Superman’s team as a “bunch of jive turkeys.”
Four decades later, both series are now on television—Luke Cage on Netflix and Black Lightning on The CW—and they couldn’t be any more different.
Both series are focused on community—the cornerstone of the black superhero show. In Luke Cage, our hero is worried about protecting Harlem after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. Gone are the myriad superpowers on display in other Marvel films, though. Luke focuses on street-level criminals like Black Mariah, a corrupt congresswoman, and Cottonmouth, a menacing gangster. The series is steeped in respectability politics since Luke comes from a different generation. Though the show hardly has any traces of the hero’s blaxploitation origins, it feels at times like a throwback.
Black Lightning, on the other hand, feels far more au courant. The common refrain during Luke Cage was: “What if a black man was bulletproof in the age of Black Lives Matter?” Black Lightning isn’t interested in merely having its hero avoid bullets; it allows Jefferson Pierce, excellently rendered by Cress Williams, to fuck up the police when he wants to. You see, in Luke Cage our hero is often at odds with a Harlem police squad that wants to do right by its community but often fails. In Black Lightning, you live vicariously through Jefferson when he’s tased by two cops who shout, “Get your black ass on the ground!” and he uses his powers of electricity to light them up through their own weapons.
The CW, as it turns out, is exactly the place for Black Lightning. The series doesn’t merely focus on Jefferson, but his daughters Anissa and Jennifer as well. For the longest time, The CW has focused on the interior lives of young white girls and the white boys they are attracted to. Series like Jane the Virgin have often felt like an anomaly on the network, but as The CW continued to deepen its storytelling with a treatise on corruption in iZombie and an exploration of mental health on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it’s now become a place where Black Lightning is welcome.
The series juggles police brutality, systemic racism, black youth culture, gang violence, and black parenting with aplomb, and all topics feel entirely new to The CW but also necessary for the network, where it can be paired with an equally pulpy series like Riverdale. It’s a series that the Riverdale audience should be watching and it’s also a series for a black audience that is not catered to by the Tiger Beat teens in Archie Andrews’ world.
A secret weapon, of course, is executive producers the Akils.
Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, a married black couple, have given you series like Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane—two shows on predominantly black networks that went underappreciated by the rest of the entertainment industry. But the Akils have been plumbing the depths of black lives for decades on television and it's only fitting that they bring a humanity to the superhero genre that it’s been previously missing.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Salim Akil explained, “Right from the beginning you’re immersed in a new world you probably have never been immersed in before. I want you to dislike the things you should dislike. I want you to enjoy the things you should enjoy. You should never like to see someone get shot and I didn’t want to do a show where violence was just a throwaway for a scene. I wanted to do a show [where] when violence happened, you felt it. From [episode] one to two, you get to feel the emotional repercussions of violence, and that is what I really want people to take away from it. It’s not clean.”
Black Lightning has that in common with Showtime’s The Chi, another series that delves into the repercussions of violence and the ripple effect it has in black communities. In a world where our politicians use the pain of black lives to further hateful rhetoric and legislature, this year black showrunners are delivering programs that paint our communities in more than one shade.