Black Lightning is a show that could not have existed before the genre explosion that’s been surging through the entertainment industry for years now – with no immediate end in sight. Comic books as source material have infused new life into television. But it’s also created the same results in reverse. The Walking Dead is a household name. Archie Andrews and company will be the teenage heartthrobs of the decade. Creators who grew up loving these characters and their stories have been claiming the mantles that will shape the direction of their futures in pop culture. And now Black Lightning, his daughters and the surrounding characters in their world will receive the same treatment.
Jefferson Pierce’s lore says he was born in the early 1970s, but his first appearance in the panels was in ‘77. His origin in Black Lightning #1 is almost identical to much of his story on the CW. Swap out principal for teacher, his father for a talented student named Earl Clifford, plus the name of the town, Freeland, for the Suicide Slums of Metropolis and you’re there. Peter Gambi, Tobias Whale, Joey Toledo and the 100 all make their debut in the issue. Comic book writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eden were the first creators to bring this world to life. Isabella is also one of the minds behind the blerd fan favorite Misty Knight, who’s become a star in the Marvel television universe. From that first layer of foundation, Salim and Mara Brock Akil, along with Greg Berlanti, were able to add new breath to Black Lightning’s legacy.
[caption id="attachment_302653" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Pictured (L-R): Nafessa Williams as Thunder and Cress Williams as Black Lightning. Photo: Annette Brown/The CW[/caption]
Season one, while full of the action that we’ve come to expect from superhero-centric storytelling, shines its brightest when it takes time to explore relationships. The relationships within the Pierce family, Gambi and Jefferson’s father/son relationship, Lala and his murder victims, the corrupt city of Freeland and its predominantly black community all have arcs that develop their own distinct tone and rhythm. And both sides of every argument always have merit, removing all the easy ways out. The entire 13-episode span truly excites in moments where conflict and resolution happen even in the absence of violence, which is honestly a rarity.
[caption id="attachment_302655" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Pictured (L-R): Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce and Christine Adams as Lynn -- Photo: Annette Brown/The CW[/caption]
Most specifically, the scenes that speak the loudest this season were often not underlined by a well-scored beat down, which were all peak levels of blackness. It was the exchanges, full of passion, born from interpersonal pain. Jefferson and Anissa’s conflicts early in the season about activism and the ways in which they both choose to fight for their people/community, his many conversations with Lynn about Black Lightning and his impact on their family, the confession of betrayal from Peter Gambi, being confronted by his daughter Jen for his own omission, plus countless others throughout – these conversations stop time on screen. And the argument could easily be made that they are not happening at the same level on any other small screen superhero series.
[caption id="attachment_302654" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Pictured (L-R): China Anne McClain as Jennifer Pierce and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce -- Photo: Annette Brown/The CW[/caption]
But the bond that deserves the biggest standing ovation in Black Lightning is between Jefferson Pierce and his daughters. Healthy onscreen family relationships, especially for black people, are very few and far between. Not only in superhero genre stories, but across the board, toxicity in familial relationships is often the policy. There may be disagreements and differences of opinion, and that conflict even can lead to prolonged consequence, but there’s never a time when father/daughter love doesn’t win. In fact, it saves his life on more than one occasion. Jefferson and his children quote important public figures from rote memory to each other in discussion. He taught both of them how to defend themselves when necessary. The amount of openness that exists between them is eye-watering. And although for most of the season their mother, Lynn, is removed from the home they all live in, her role in their lives is never diminished or disrespected, ever. We know many black families exist like this, but for some reason is not portrayed as often as it should.
The only other relationship that could play a close second to the Pierce family dynamic is much more existential. Jefferson Pierce spends a great deal of season one fighting himself. There’s a montage worth of scenes in which his eyes flash white, but his learned behavior of restraint kicks in right on time. Black Lightning is intensely focused on the idea that a black superhero living in a present-day world where racism and police brutality are the norm, using powers for immediate, personal justice is not justice at all. Even when Jefferson is framed, wrongfully arrested, jailed and mistreated in a sequence of scenes that are tough to watch, especially for us, he doesn’t budge on this principle.
[caption id="attachment_302656" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Pictured: Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce -- Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW[/caption]
Black Lightning delivers on everything we have come to expect from a superhero television series in 2018. The main arc fits in perfectly with, and borrows from, the issues that have been written over the years of the character’s legacy. Each bad guy you meet connects to the next in an interesting way that keeps the viewer engaged. The show ticks all the boxes. But the biggest accomplishment to take away from season one is how well the stakes are defined for all the players involved, and the way that story develops a complex, rich and authentic web of story, with threads that link together the entire chain of events that take place from episode one all the way to 13. Because after all, what’s action without purpose?