When Tony Isabella first brought Black Lightning to DC Comics back in 1977, the world of comic books was a vastly different place across all publishers. Black heroes were few and far between and the stories about them didn't always render the characters as fully-realised, three-dimensional people.
It was in Jefferson Pierce that DC found one of its first black heroes to headline their own series before Black Lightning was cancelled after a mere 11 issues. Over the years, Black Lightning would make appearances all throughout DC's various books, assisting other heroes and having more than a few adventures with the Justice League of America. The character's legacy would also live on in every single black superhero endowed with electricity-based powers to come after him.
After years of making occasional cameos in other characters' books, Black Lightning is finally coming back to headline his own series just months before the character is coming to televisions as the lead hero of the CW's new Black Lightning television series. We sat down with Isabella, who's returning to write the new series, about how this new take on a classic character speaks to the spirit of the original series while also understanding how Jefferson Pierce had to evolve for the 21st century.
Tell us about how you decided on updating the Black Lightning character. What makes him different than the character you created all those years ago?
Tony Isabella: When DC comics asked me if I'd be interested in writing a new Black Lightning series, I of course said yes because my dream is to write Black Lightning to my dying day. And they told me I could do whatever I wanted, which is a dangerous thing to tell a writer.
Well, I could try to make 40 years of continuity fit into this new series or I can kind of start over. So Black Lightning is 28 in this new series, younger than I've ever written him before, and smarter than I've ever written him before.
Smarter in what ways?
He's constantly learning things to do with his powers. They're natural and derived from his meta gene and he's always working at finding new and interesting ways to use his abilities. He won't suddenly develop telescopic vision or anything, but he finds new techniques to use his skills and we'll see him trying to perfect those techniques.
And what about his personality? How does this Jefferson Piece's emotions compare to his earlier incarnation's?
He's still angry because that's just what happens when you face the kinds of threats and prejudices that black men face in the US. But the anger isn't his driving force. His driving force is his responsibility to his community and the desire to meet that responsibility.
How has your approach to writing a black character like Jefferson Piece changed over time? The first issue quickly establishes that Jefferson's race plays a major factor in the way that he interacts with the police.
I'm a lot more open about those issues because the times allow me to be. It's what it is. It's what you see in your newspapers. You're going to see cops in this series, good ones, bad ones, and ones that are still trying to figure out who they are. We don't shy away from the "them vs. us" mentality that so many police departments have. We don't shy away from how policemen are going to consider a vigilante. We don't shy away from any of that.
For some cops his race is a big deal, and for others not so much. There will be those cops that want to shoot him on sight. But you'll also see cops who see him as a necessary evil, and there are scenes where his being a black superhero does come up in particular, but I don't want to give too much away about the issue.
So, Black Lightning's relationship with the police is complicated, but what about his connections to other superheroes? How does Black Lightning feel about the Justice League?
I'm being coy about that. Cyborg is referenced early on and I think it's pretty clear that he and Cyborg are friends. I haven't gotten around to mentioning Batman yet, but this Black Lightning worked with Batman for a hot minute in the past before realising that he didn't much like it. As I need to bring other heroes in, I will, but I didn't want to get into the habit of codifying certain superhero relationships when I don't have to because once you do that, you're locked in.
Who is the new Black Lightning series for? Is the book something more oriented towards old school fans or people who might be new to the character and coming from the upcoming CW show?
I'm sure that there will be some old school fans who don't like that I'm not writing him exactly the same way I did back in the '70s and '90s when I wrote the character again, but I don't stand still as a writer. If they give the book a chance and read the issues, they will see that this is the same Black Lightning. The same core values are there.
I think new readers are going to love it. Marvel's success with Luke Cage has shown that there's an audience for black heroes on television and what I've seen of Black Lightning is wonderful.
As someone who's been working in the comics industry for as long as you have, you've seen countless characters grow and evolve over time. How do you square away the classic ideas about characters that you have to the way that you sometimes see them updated by new writers?
I'm a core values kind of guy. I know characters have to change to be acceptable to new audiences and that's fine so long as the core values don't change. Captain America was never a Nazi. My favourite Superman isn't really the most popularly known one. I like the guy from the '30s who would fly wife beaters up in the air and threaten to drop them and run crooked businessmen and politicians out of town. Superman's evolved, but he's still a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed.
And what about when comics characters are updated in ways meant to make them more like their live-action counterparts? What do you make of that?
I see opportunity. If Black Lightning sells 200,000 copies, it will be a really successful comic book, but if only 200,000 people watch the tv show, it's a disaster. So I look at the movies and TV shows as an opportunity that bring people who love these characters and give them a chance to experience them in a new way. It all comes back to core values, my mantra. If the same core values of the Flash are present on both the TV show and the Justice League movie and the comic book, a person's going to enjoy all three.