First of all, just what the heck are Archie and Jughead doing in a DC comic strip?
Black Lightning has the distinction of being DC's first black super-hero to have his own title. Creator Tony Isabella came up with the concept of a teacher at an inner-city school putting on a costume to fight drug pushers and other assorted urban (i.e., non-super) crime elements at night. His name derives from his ability (at first with a little help from technology, later naturally) to hurl bolts of electricity and/or disrupt electric circuits.
The series didn't last that long; like so many other titles, it was caught in the infamous 'DC Implosion', which saw the cancellation of several series. One final issue, completed but never published, is part of the 'Cancelled Comics Cavalcade' collection, if you're lucky enough to find someone who will make photocopies for you.
I had planned to write something here about the other black super-heroes in the DC pantheon, but Tony actually beat me to it in his June 20, 2000, 'Online Tips' column. So, with Tony's gracious indulgence, here is his take on his creation of Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a. Black Lightning:
BLACK LIGHTNING AND ME
Black Lightning was the first DC super-hero to headline his own book, but there were three other supporting players who showed up first.
The first was John Stewart, who became Earth's substitute Green Lantern after Guy Gardner was injured. He debuted in a Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams story and didn't make another appearance until Len Wein used him in a JLA story. It was a long time before he made anything resembling regular appearances.
Tyroc was a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes. The unfortunate thing about him was that he was the first Earth-type person of color shown in that series and came from an island nation of blacks.
All blacks living on their own island? Sounds like a Klansman wet dream to me. One of those things that makes you wonder if the writer had thought through this concept completely. As I recall, Tyroc had some sort of sound powers.
Then there was Mal of the Teen Titans. He didn't have any powers when he first joined the Teen Titans during their brief "no costumes" era. When the book was revived in the 1970s for another brief run, he initially wore an exoskeleton and the Guardian's costume. Later on, he picked up a magic horn somewhere and fought crime as the Hornblower.
I will say that I created Black Lightning after convincing DC not to publish another "black" super-hero on which they had started work. The Black Bomber was a white bigot who, in times of stress, turned into a black super-hero. This was the result of chemical camouflage experiments he'd taken part in as a soldier in Vietnam. The object of these experiments was to allow our [white] troops to blend into the jungle.
In each of the two completed Black Bomber scripts, the white bigot risks his own life to save another person whom he can't see clearly (in one case, a baby in a stroller) and then reacts in racial slur disgust when he discovers that he risked his life to save a black person. He wasn't aware that he had two identities, but each identity had a girlfriend and the ladies were aware of the change. To add final insult, the Bomber's costume was little more than a glorified basketball uniform.
DC had wanted me to take over writing the book with the third issue. I convinced them to eat the two scripts and let me start over. To paraphrase my arguments...
"Do you REALLY want DC's first black super-hero to be a white bigot?"
Okay, he wasn't precisely their first black super-hero, but I made my point. The Black Bomber stories were deep-sixed and I went to work on my own creation.
After all these years, Black Lightning remains the creation and the work of which I'm proudest. Readers of the original 1970s series have told me how much this character has meant to them; a couple of them were inspired by schoolteacher Jefferson Pierce and became teachers themselves. The short-lived 1990s series, drawn by the incredible Eddy Newell, received critical acclaim from all over the place. One issue even received an online award for best comic book of the year. Hopefully, Black Lightning, Eddy, and I will all get together again someday.
Technically, Tyroc was the Legion's fourth person of color, if you count Brainiac 5 (green-skinned), Shadow Lass (blue-skinned), and Chameleon Boy (orange-skinned by default, and capable of so many other hues) but, yes, Tony is correct in citing Tyroc as the first 'Earth-type' person of color.
DC has had other black heroes since then, of course, most visibly Cyborg, one of the original New Teen Titans, and then later just one of the Teen Titans when they weren't so new anymore. Cyborg, a Wolfman/Perez creation, had been a promising track athlete until an extra-dimensional jello monster conjured up by his father decided to turn him into an entrée. Dear ol' dad was able to send the blob back where it came from, but not before most of young Victor's body had been pretty thoroughly damaged. This meant that Pop had to go all Bob Vila on the poor kid, blending what was left of his body with shiny new molybdenum steel and a year's supply of Turtle Wax.
Roy Thomas and Jerry Ordway introduced Amazing Man in the pages of All-Star Squadron, as a hero whose body could take on the characteristics of whatever substance he touched (i.e., wood, stone, glass, etc.), just like Marvel's 'Absorbing Man' villain. Amazing Man's grandson showed up in recent years, taking on the same powers, costume, and identity as his grandfather had decades before. Tragically, he was killed by Starman nemesis Nash as part of her strategy to prove to herself that, yes, she had the stuff of epic super-villainy. Starman scribe James Robinson also skragged The Crimson Fox and Blue Devil in that same story, pretty much decimating the ranks of Justice League Europe. Maybe now they'll get the hint.
There are a few others, as well: Vixen, a member of the Justice League at one point, can take on the abilities of animal species, i.e., the strength of an elephant, the speed of a gazelle, etc. (Wait a minute - those are Animal Man's powers! I think I see a plot hook...)
Doctor Mid-Nite's successor was a young doctor colleague of his, a black woman named Beth Chapel. I'm not sure if she's still around in current DC books.
The Doom Patrol's Tempest was also a doctor, gaining his energy-blasting powers while serving as a medic in Vietnam. (Now, there's irony for you - a healer gets incredibly destructive powers in the midst of a war.)
Jack Kirby also created a couple of black characters for DC, one of them in his 'Forever People' title, called 'Vykin the Black'. I swear to you, that's the name that Jack gave him, I kid you not. Vykin was one of the four residents of New Genesis who banded together to rescue Beautiful Dreamer from her captor, Darkseid. Vykin possessed "magna-power", which let him project magnetic energy (whatever the heck that means), and could also trace atomic patterns as a means of tracking.
The other 'King' Kirby creation was called 'The Black Racer', who made his debut in the pages of 'New Gods'. Let me paint a mental picture for you: blue tights with red bands around the thighs and biceps, yellow gauntlets and cape, red medieval-style helmet, and matching red skis (with blue ski-poles, naturally).
That's right, skis. Here's a quote from DC's 'Who's Who' series:
"The Black Racer has the power to phase through solid objects and bring death to those he has chosen with a single touch. He travels through the air by means of two cosmically powered celestial skis, which can accelerate to the speed of light."
Really, Jack. Skis? The only thing that would look even sillier would be flying around on some kind of surfboard.
Reader update - June 26, 2000
Terence Chua wrote today to bring me up to speed on some of the characters I've talked about here. As he correctly points out, Blue Devil is no longer pushing up daisies, having been resurrected in the pages of the 'Days of Judgement' mini-series. Y'all can keep your Monty Python "I'm not dead yet" jokes to yourselves, okay?
Also, writer Grant Morrison explored the similarities between Animal Man and Vixen within the pages of the former's series, with the implication that they shared a common power source. I was right, then - there was a decent plot hook there!
The Beth Chapel rendition of Dr. Midnight was killed off during one of those company-wide crossover events, this one against Eclipso, along with the next generation version of Wildcat. So much for Roy Thomas' Infinity Inc. legacy...
Reader update - June 06, 2002
Diane Miller wrote very pleasantly to pick a nit (her words, okay? I'm not being at all snarky!), pointing out that Tyroc was actually the fourth person of color to join the Legion of Super-Heroes, after Brainiac 5, Shadow Lass, and (drumroll) Chameleon Boy. Hey, when I'm wrong, I'm wrong. I'm made the appropriate correction the text higher up the page.