Jefferson Pierce, AKA Black Lightning, has a very unusual real-world origin. Initially, DC was set to publish a new series starring a character named the Black Bomber, who would be their first Black solo star. There was one problem here -- the Black Bomber was actually a racist White bigot who transformed into a Black hero. The first two stories evidently revolved around the Bomber rushing to help an innocent in danger, only to discover (to his dismay) that they were Black! Eventually, clearer heads prevailed, the Bomber was shelved, and DC brought in Tony Isabella to salvage the series. Isabella, pretty wisely, declared the character unworkable, and created Black Lightning as a last minute replacement. And boy, are we glad that he did!
Lightning is often compared to Marvel's Luke Cage, their first Black character to star in a solo title. Outside of that historical connection, though, the characters are as different as night and day. Cage was an escaped convict, living under an assumed name to avoid the police. Pierce was an Olympian and teacher, a well respected member of the community. Cage dared not return to his home neighborhood lest he be recognized; Pierce came back to the very high school he graduated from. Both Cage and Lightning spoke "jive" style, but Jeff's was an affectation, part of his heroic disguise (this was later retconed to be the case for Luke as well, ironically). And most importantly, while Luke Cage created his persona of the Hero For Hire to finally take something back from the world which he felt had wronged him in so many ways, Black Lightning defended the streets of Suicide Slum to protect the innocent from the vile inroads being made by gangs, drugs, and corruption. Black Lightning wasn't out to line his pockets, he was out to take out the garbage.
And therein lies Lightning's main appeal. In a sort of superhero twist of Welcome Back, Kotter, Jefferson Pierce sees himself in the kids he teaches, and sees all the potential pitfalls facing them. He managed to escape the ghetto, but with The 100 pushing dope in every alley and muscling in on every corner, what chance do they have? And so he dons his costume and puts his life on the line every night. This is a hero in the same mold as Superman and Batman, who unfortunately has never quite caught on to the same level as even B-listers like Green Arrow.
There's more, as well. In a universe where most of the heroes got along pretty well with each other, Black Lightning rejected an invitation to join the Justice League, saying that he couldn't be hopping around the world when Suicide Slum needed him right here. He's a character who sticks to his guns and sticks to his ethics. Even to this day, despite a recently-patched-up setback thanks to a storyline from Green Arrow, Black Lightning is a hero one can emulate and look up to.
Currently, Black Lightning is a member of the new Justice League of America, finally joining some 25 years or so after he turned them down. He had a key scene in the hugely popular Infinite Crisis, and was recently the star of a story in Outsiders. We're finally getting an official Black Lightning toy -- even if it is with his new, shaved head look, and there is a Black Lightning: Year One miniseries on the schedule. With this high-profile gig, hopefully the PTB at DC will realize that this is a character with his best years ahead of him -- a character with literally unlimited potential, with the drive and grit of Batman, but with superpowers to mix things up. Black Lightning is primed to hit the big time, if only DC doesn't drop the ball.
This is Black Lightning, and he is a character I like.