Kent State’s Superhero Alumnus: Black Lightning
Black Lightning’s creator talks about his character’s connection to Kent State and to Black History
DC Comics’ superhero Black Lightning has been part of popular culture, and Black history, for more than 40 years. Since his debut in 1977 as DC’s very first “headline” Black character, Black Lightning has appeared in comic books, animated TV series, video games and, in 2017, a live-action TV series that ran for four seasons on The CW Network.
In his secret identity, Jefferson Pierce (shh, don’t tell anyone), he also appeared on the Kent Campus to get his teaching degree. Yes – Black Lightning is a Kent State alumnus.
A Hero Is Born – In Cleveland
Black Lightning’s creator, Tony Isabella, who now lives in Medina, grew up on the west side of Cleveland.
“In my mind, Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce, was born in Cleveland. In whatever version of Black Lightning you want to consider, he is a Cleveland native and has family there. I wanted him to be from Ohio because I’m from Ohio,” Isabella said.
“I thought that Kent State would be the college, the Ohio school, that would be most well-known across the country.”
Looking back at some of Black Lightning’s costumes over the years, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Jefferson Pierce’s years as a Golden Flash could have influenced their design.
His year of graduation, however, is fluid because of the sliding timeline of comic book universes. It’s also influenced by the narrative that the character competed in the 1968 Olympics.
“I’m saying he graduated from Kent State either later in 1968 or 1969, after the ’68 Olympics," Isabella said. "There’s a backstory to Black Lightning that I never got into the comics. It’s why he never made any money off his Olympic wins. In my mind, he was one of those guys on the podium who gives the Black Power salute and then is pretty much kicked out of sports. Unfortunately, those guys were treated like pariahs after that.
“If I ever redo Black Lightning from start to finish, I wouldn’t want him to be as old as I am, I’d probably push his timeline forward like two or three decades."
Writing Black Characters
Isabella loved reading comics and knew at an early age that he wanted to write them. He wrote letters that were published on the letters pages of numerous comic titles. He wrote for fanzines and corresponded with people who were working in comics like Roy Thomas (then editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics). Isabella’s career in writing comics began while he was working at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
“At one point I was just so fed up after a strike at the Plain Dealer, I called Roy Thomas and said ‘You’ve got to give me even an entry-level position at Marvel,’” Isabella said. At the time, they needed someone with writing and editing skills to assist Stan Lee (yes, that Stan Lee) in creating content for weekly Marvel publications in the U.K.
“That was pretty much how I got my start,” Isabella said.
Isabella considers working with great creators, both during his time with Marvel Comics and later at DC Comics, “one of the blessings of my career.”
Isabella wrote for many of Marvel’s most popular characters, including Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Moon Knight, the Avengers, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. He wrote for Marvel Comics’ Black characters, scripting for Luke Cage, transforming Bill Foster into Black Goliath (portrayed in 2018 by Laurence Fishburne in Marvel Studios’ “Ant Man and The Wasp”) and creating Misty Knight, who appeared in the 2016 Netflix series “Luke Cage.” This affinity for Black characters goes back to a promise Isabella made to himself as a young comics fan growing up in Cleveland.
Isabella said that Cleveland was quite segregated when he was a teenager. Some friends in his comic book club were Black and traveled from the east side to the west side to meet at Cudell Recreation Center for their meetings. He realized that they couldn’t see themselves in the books they loved so much the way that he could.
“I always thought it was unfair that my Black friends didn’t have more characters like them. So, I told myself that if I got into comics I would try to work on, and create, characters of color. It was one of the things I wanted to do with my career,” Isabella said.
He eventually was able to use his influence in the comics world to create those characters at a time when studios weren’t considering stories about people of color or hiring Black writers. He was also able to step in about a comic called the Black Bomber that he counseled and became an offensive portrayal of a Black superhero. He was successful in changing DC Comics’ mind and that led to the assignment to create something better, and ultimately, to Black Lightning.
The Importance of Black Superheroes
Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the graduate coordinator of Kent State’s School of Media and Journalism. She has published several articles about media representation as well as about media framing and has written blog posts specifically about superheroes. She’s currently writing a textual analysis of “Cleverman,” an Australian TV series about one of the first aboriginal superheroes.
“At first, I disliked how often ‘Black’ was the go-to surname for Black superhero monikers," Lambert said. "I have come to appreciate that these names establish the significance of their cultural identity. Their Blackness makes for enriching narratives that amplify markers of culture such as connections to community and strong familial ties. These markers function differently in white superheroes, where families are more often shorthand for tragic origin stories, for example, Batman, Spider-Man and Superman.”
Isabella said that he had intended that Jefferson Pierce’s superhero name is “born on his pride in who he is.”
Representation and identity matter, as Isabella noted. Readers need to see themselves in the comic book panels and viewers need to see themselves on screen. “Black superheroes can only be fully understood with consideration of the social context in which they and their readers exist. The ‘Black Lightning’ comic and later television adaptation, provided a positive representation of Blackness that is too often missing in such spaces. These representations can hold a mirror up to society, shining a light on incidents that exist in some reader’s daily lives,” Lambert said.
“The best representations of Black superheroes reveal how they successfully navigate societal expectations as well as cultural traditions," Lambert said. "Black Lightning seems to have struck that balance.”
Sparking Creation for a New Generation
The “Black Lightning” TV series premiered on The CW Network in 2018 and ran for four seasons. Isabella was acknowledged with creator credit on every episode with artist Trevor Von Eeden. Isabella said Von Eeden’s contribution, in working from Isabella’s character descriptions, was best captured by series producer, Salim Akil: “Tony Isabella created these characters and Trevor showed us what they looked like.”
Isabella made foundational contributions that shaped the TV series. “I knew about the CW series before they’d even hired anybody to do it,” he said. “I was asked to do a core values paper for the show. We had lots of conference calls and we bonded pretty quickly because, unlike a lot of comic book people, I realized that comic books are not the same as TV or movies. I knew there were going to be changes made. But the show always adhered to the core values I established and what they added to the show has just been remarkable. They always treated me and my work very respectfully.”
Isabella visited the production set and became friends with the cast members, writers and directors who would contact him from time to time for input in what they were doing or to ask how he might address something. Isabella even got to appear in an important cameo role in the final episode of the third season.
Looking Back Over the Comics Multiverse
Of all the characters Isabella has written for, Black Lightning is his favorite by far. “There are very few comics I’ve written where I haven’t liked the character. But Black Lighting would always be first – Black Lightning is always my favorite,” said Isabella. “If I could write Black Lightning stories until the day I die… I mean, my perfect death scene would be me typing the end to a ‘Black Lightning’ script and then I’d just keel over onto my keyboard. At which point, my cat would probably eat me. But that’s just the circle of life.”