Black Lightning just debuted on The CW to phenomenal reviews and solid ratings for the network. If you share my enthusiasm for Jefferson Pierce on television, then you might be interested in sampling some of adventures in the realm of comics. Luckily, the acclaimed miniseries, BLACK LIGHTNING: YEAR ONE, was just reprinted and is the perfect starting point for any #DCTV fan new to Black Lightning’s world on the page. Plus, if you’ve seen the show, then many of the characters and story elements in Year One will already be familiar to you.
In Year One, writer Jen Van Meter is charged with introducing Jefferson Pierce’s dueling civilian and vigilante identities to a new generation of people, and she manages to do so and add to the long-standing mythology of the city of Metropolis. (That’s one key difference—in the comics, Black Lightning usually operates in Metropolis, but on the show, his base of operations is in the newly minted, fictional town of Freeland.) The story begins with the Pierce family returning to Jefferson’s familial home in Southside Metropolis—referred to by locals as “Suicide Slum”—and a brand new job as the principal of Garfield High. Suicide Slum has been a long-known part of Metropolis known for its high crime rate and drug use and to have Black Lightning: Year One retcon it as a neighborhood that fell from grace and is in need of a savior is nothing short of genius, as far as I am concerned.
The story also goes on to explain, reasonably, why Superman doesn’t frequent Southside. Yes, Clark Kent does show up over the course of this storyline, but the presence of the Man of Steel doesn’t overtake the hero’s journey that Black Lightning is on. If anything, it bolsters the necessity of Jefferson Pierce’s two selves.
Artist Cully Hamner (who did some pretty great work on Superman, himself), really breathes life into Suicide Slum. Under his pencil, the evolution of this borough cements it as every bit as important to the DC Universe as other more familiar locations like Gotham or Keystone. The art becomes nothing short of electric with the emergence of the titular Black Lightning. The book opens with a fight scene (complete with cool hoodie, just like we saw in the show’s pilot episode), and it ends with a full-scale superhero vs supervillain battle in the full Black Lightning costume—with hair extensions in the wig to convincingly obscure Jefferson’s identity.
This end fight is a culmination of Pierce’s conflict with Tobias Whale. Black Lightning: Year One has a really interesting storyline for the character. Whale is a longstanding DC villain known for appearing as much like the marine mammal that he is named after. In a post-Silver Age world, this can be a little difficult to take at face value. Here readers are presented with a reason why Tobias Whale is often more Moby Dick than anything else. While I’m doubtful that this will carry over onto the television show, it’s something that almost has to be addressed in a comic book looking to add a layer of realism and relevance to a classic superhero, and I really appreciated it being included in this story.
Gambi is here as well. He’s introduced as a friend of Jefferson’s father and one of the only characters, along with Lynn, who played a support role in Black Lightning’s previous incarnation. Van Meter introduces a pretty tremendous twist to the Gambi-Jefferson relationship that complicates matters for both characters. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil it for you!) This twist manages to add a layer of tragedy to Black Lightning’s rebirth, and could be seen as the push that Jefferson needs around the halfway point in the story. The whole thing is handled so deftly by Van Meter and Hamner that I can only hope we see it brought to life on the TV. (I’m kind of dreading it too—you’ll understand if you read the comic!)
You might be surprised to learn that Black Lightning: Year One also features a prominent Batman character in a supporting role. Again, I’m not going to spoil it here, but this character often appeared alongside Black Lightning when the characters were first introduced in the 1970s. Suffice it to say that her interest in Black Lightning and investment in his success as a hero goes a long way in establishing just how good he truly is, and it stands in marked contrast the supposed mess of Jefferson Pierce’s personal life amidst Lynn’s pregnancy with Jennifer.
If you want to guess at the Batman character down in the comments, I’m waiting to read them! (Also, for anyone who doesn’t know, this is not Black Lightning’s only tie to Batman! He and his daughter Thunder both go on to become members of the Outsiders!)
By the second issue, both Black Lightning and Jefferson Pierce have fallen from grace and it is the support of two women—the aforementioned Batman character and his wife, Lynn—that allow both sides of the same man to flourish and return to the light.
Black Lightning: Year One is a perfect jumping on point for any and all parties interested in experiencing more of this character. The writing is thoughtful and classic, marrying a creative modern sensibility with the tropes of superhero storytelling that we all know and love, while the art dazzles with kinetic energy. Here you will find familiar faces from the larger DC Comics Universe and the amazing new television series. Check it out!