Before Black Lightning, there was Static Shock. Part of a bloc of multicultural cartoons to air on Kids’ WB in the early 2000s, including Batman Beyond, Samurai Jack, Pokémon, Dragonball Z, Jackie Chan Adventures, and more, Static Shock is about one of many black superheroes with electric powers to appear in pop culture over the years: See, for instance, Storm, Black Vulcan, Juice, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Volt, and even a few Naruto ninjas. (If a superhero is black, it’s likely they’ve got a nature power of some kind—probably lightning.) The difference in Static Shock, which it shares with Black Lightning, is one of execution. At the intersection of superhero animation and social awareness, Static Shock and Black Lightning repurpose and resuscitate the trope, challenging its sometimes stereotypical past.
As Static comic and Static Shock TV writer Matt Wayne explains in io9 correspondent Charles Pulliam-Moore’s exploration of the topic, Static’s powers were conceived to reflect the character’s geekiness—but Wayne also allows that the phenomenon may stem from a desire to create physically limited, “tamable” black heroes. In the grand scheme of white comic creators, that certainly sounds likely to me, however unconscious; it’s an extension of film’s “Magical Negro,” combining characters’ race and special powers in ways that are poorly sketched, broadly comic, or worse. And it’s exactly this that Static Shock, and now Black Lightning, seek to counteract.
Black superheroes with lightning powers aren’t always bad, but they’re often blasé, especially on TV. Storm (an outlier if ever there was one) was a hyper-competent yet hilariously overdramatic leader in the 1990s X-Men cartoon; Black Lightning knock-off Black Vulcan is more representative of the stereotype. He never even gets a real name or origin story on Super Friends. Black Vulcan’s main contribution to the black, electricity-based superhero field is in the Hanna-Barbera parody Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, whose Black Vulcan has the best joke on the subject: “I used to go by Supervolt. Black Vulcan was Aquaman’s idea. So I said, ‘Well, maybe we should call you Whitefish.’”
Jefferson “Black Lightning” Pierce (Cress Williams) and Virgil “Static Shock” Hawkins (voiced by Phil LaMarr) are no Black Vulcans. High-school student Hawkins, whose mother was killed by gang gunfire, is asked to join a gang in the show’s pilot. His refusal coincides with a gunfight, the arrival of the police, and the accidental effusion of mysterious, meta-humanizing gas. That means Hawkins and the various gang members all have powers, and the show follows him combating super-gang activity. Pierce, for his part, is a high-school principal whose duties involve negotiating with local representative of The 100 gang and whose muckraking father was killed by that gang’s leader.
In both series, gang activity is villainized, yet acknowledged as intimate and complicated for those in the communities it afflicts—then joined by the idolization of education as its polar opposite. These shows approach their environments with a similar knack for progressive ideals at both the ground and institutional level.
Both even feature a neo-blaxploitation theme song—Black Lightning’s by Godholly and Static Shock’s by Lil’ Romeo—detailing the lives of their heroes. “Half kid, half amazin’” and “Last night I saw a superhero. He was black / He said this is for the streets—Black Lightning’s back,” carry on in the grand tradition of 1970s heroes that looked a little different from these masked crusaders, but whose powers were still “for the streets.” Think about blaxploitation films like Shaft (“Who’s the black private dick / That’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft!”), Cleopatra Jones (“Uzi-carrying mama”), and Foxy Brown (“No, but please don’t make Foxy mad / Or you’ll find out that the lady is Superbad”). They put their praise for local legends into song.
These legends of their neighborhoods also exist in similarly entangled home lives, with complex relationships that warrant further exploration. Static has a social-working widower for a father and an older sister attending college, while Black Lightning is a single dad juggling two daughters and a complicated relationship with his ex-wife. Both Hawkins and Pierce have white best friends that kit them out with awesome tech (Gear and Peter Gambi, respectively).
Hawkins and Pierce are characters with powers, sure, but they’re also characters with goals, backgrounds, and stakes. They know where they came from and have a destination in mind for where they (and their communities) are going. That’s why they work.
The best black superheroes (lightning-empowered or otherwise) are both socially conscious and superheroic, weaving the former into the latter. Black Lightning and Static Shock portray communities (from family units to neighborhoods to cities) that are exciting, multifaceted, and explicitly worth fighting for. When proving the latter requires changing folks’ minds (those who rant online about the lack of coverage of “black-on-black crime,” for instance), there’s ample opportunity to move forward in other arenas.
Static Shock took viewers to Ghana, in the third season’s “Static in Africa,” portraying a positive, bustling Kumasi filled with culture and heroes of its own. Here, Static “doesn’t feel like a minority, but a person”— Static’s best friend/sidekick has a racist dad—which is some heavy stuff for an audience full of kids. Hell, it even hits its viewers with the term “pan-Africanism.” There’s a lot going on here, even if the show isn’t portraying police brutality and profiling like the first episode of Black Lightning.
The latter has a lot on its mind as well. Aside from the pilot’s plot beginning with the aftermath of a police protest (and Black Lightning kicking cop ass as much as pimp ass), the show has its sights on plenty of areas its viewers haven’t seen either – especially with Black Lightning’s daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), who later becomes superhero Thunder.
Before the second episode of Black Lightning, the only time two black lesbian women were shown in bed together on network TV was the Dark Angel episode “Shorties in Love,” which aired on Fox, and in which one of the two women was killed immediately afterwards. Not here. It’s a healthy relationship between two black women, the purpose of which is just that—giving one of its black superheroes another reason to fight evil.
With the positive reclamation of this derivative trope by Static Shock and now Black Lightning, these characters can be just that: characters. They are more than the sum of their baseball card-style stats, listing powers and biographical basics. They are heroes that exist in worlds that look like them and are full of people like them worth fighting for. While there are still heroes that merely control lightning’s unpredictable power, there are other, more prominent ones who use it to shine a justice-seeking light on a part of society many would prefer left in the dark.
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW. Read Paste’s other coverage of the series here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.