Comic book pioneers trace the impact of Black heroes at ‘DC In DC’

Black Lightning is not only DC comics’ first African American superhero, but Cress Williams will also be the first Black man to lead a network TV series. For comic book innovators like Milestone Media co-founder Denys Cowan and The Other Side Of The DC Universe writer John Ridley, this has been a long time coming.

“I was maybe 10 years old the day I went home and pulled these comic books out and one of them was Black Lightning. A lot of you will not have that feeling of pulling something out of a bag and being so stunned by it,” Ridley told the audience during the “The Many Shades of Heroism: DC Heroes Through The African American Lens” panel at DC In DC “To live long enough where it's not pulling the surprise out of the bag, but it's being presented to all of us as mainstream entertainment.”

Black Lightning, created by Tony Isabella and illustrated by Trevor Von Eeden in 1977, was one of the first times Ridley saw himself in a comic book. It later became Milestone’s goal, founded in 1993, to make sure everyone could see themselves in comic books. The influence of co-founder Dwayne McDuffie’s inclusive ideologies helped expand Milestone’s mission to its full capacity.

“When we started Milestone, it was like Black comics done by Black people in a Black way,” Cowan said. “It took someone like Dwayne McDuffie to go and say to me, ‘You know, dude, we need to open this up so it’s multicultural, so there’s different voices...Gay voices, transgender voices and we did a lot of stuff back then—all being done by the people who were those people.”

Decades later, executive producers Salim and Mara Brock Akil continue to build on that same foundation with the Black Lightning TV series.

“These writers and producers are creating the text to make sure our reality is better in the future,” said The Wind Done Gone author Alice Randall, who is currently working with Reginald Hudlin on Earth-M, a title in Milestone’s upcoming line.

The Akil's are adapting visceral, real-world experiences to Black Lightning and they aren’t holding back an ounce of emotion in the process. 

“I’m probably the angriest Black man in Hollywood,” said Salim Akil. “I just had a lot of shit to say. I’m a sensitive person, so the world affects me everyday. I can’t help but put it in my work because I feel like what I’m doing is a blessing. When you are given an opportunity in these times, I felt like I have to say something, right?”

It’s clear from the the footage released so far that Black Lightning is different. Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal, would be a hero even if he didn’t have powers. At the end of the day, he’s just a man trying to survive and do the best he can in an unjust world.

“We use that word authenticity often times when we are talking about other cultures. But really what we are talking about is the nuance of culture. And Black culture is an integral part of American culture. You just can’t tear the two apart,” Salim Akil said. “You can take the Black off and he’s a man who wants the best for his family and community.”

Black Lightning premieres on The CW Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.