DC’s celebration of Black History Month continues, and today we’re going to spotlight one of my favorite families in the DC Universe—the Pierces. They’re more than a dynasty of superheroes, they are a family filled with accomplished individuals who have broken barriers, survived adversity and led inspiring lives. Jefferson Pierce, his ex-wife Lynn, and their daughters Anissa and Jennifer may not be a traditional family unit, but their legacy in the DC Universe is extraordinary.
Let’s start with Jefferson Pierce, who was introduced to comic book readers in 1977’s Black Lightning #1. If you erased all of Jefferson’s accomplishments as Black Lightning (which are many), he would still have one of the most inspiring life stories in the DC Universe. As established in Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden’s origin story, Jefferson Pierce was an Olympic athlete who never forgot his roots. Instead of living a life as a celebrity athlete, he wanted to give back to the community he grew up in. After receiving his teaching degree, Jefferson returned to his old Suicide Slum neighborhood and became a teacher at his alma mater Garfield High.
How many people would turn down fame and fortune to become an underpaid teacher in an impoverished neighborhood? Jefferson did this because he cared, and he knew how hard it was to grow up in that neighborhood. The Black Lightning television show spent a lot of time exploring Jefferson’s relationship with his students as a teacher and a principal, and it was one of the best parts of the series. Cress Williams brought the nurturing side of Jefferson Pierce to life and showed viewers that true heroism was more than just punching bad guys.
Jefferson is also one of the only superheroes to ever serve in the Executive Branch. In 2001’s Superman #166, President Luthor nominated Jefferson Pierce to serve as Secretary of Education. Pierce knew that Luthor was corrupt, but he saw the job as a way to keep the President in check and fix the flaws in the education system. Pierce stayed in the White House until Luthor’s successor President Pete Ross asked for his resignation in 2004’s Outsiders #10. President Ross didn’t want the scandal that came with having a member of your Presidential cabinet leading a double life as a superhero.
Quite an impressive life, and we haven’t even touched on his accomplishments in costume. As Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce is the first African-American superhero to headline their own DC Comics series. Black Lightning has saved countless lives on his own and fighting alongside his teammates in the Outsiders and Justice League. In the Young Justice animated series, Black Lightning currently serves as the leader of the Justice League, breaking down more barriers.
Lynn Stewart was introduced in 1977’s Black Lightning #3, and she quickly proved herself to be more than a typical superhero love interest. Originally Lynn taught at Garfield High alongside her ex-husband, but her ambition to do more drove her to open her own public relations firm. Lynn’s firm helped promote charitable projects worldwide, raising money for impoverished countries and feeding the hungry. Later comics established her as a lawyer who sought to fight corruption in the justice system.
Lynn Stewart was given an elevated role in the Black Lightning television series where she was portrayed by Christine Adams. This version of Lynn was a neuroscientist who worked tirelessly to help metahuman children. At times, she was forced to cross moral lines in order to help victims of metahuman trafficking and keep corrupt forces at bay. She struggled with her addiction to a super-powered drug known as green light, but was able to overcome it with the help of her family.
Readers met Anissa Pierce in 2003’s Outsiders #1, and like her parents, she excelled at everything she put her mind to. As a child, Anissa discovered she had the power to increase her body’s density and create shockwaves. She immediately decided to become a superhero like her father, but Jefferson made her promise she would finish her education first. Anissa graduated college summa cum laude (an impressive feat on its own), and hours after her ceremony, she suited up as Thunder for the first time. Thunder joined the Outsiders and developed a romance with her teammate Grace Choi, becoming one of DC’s first lesbian superhero couples.
Nafessa Williams brought Anissa to life on The CW’s Black Lightning, breaking ground as the first African-American lesbian superhero in primetime television. The series explored new aspects of Anissa’s personality, creating a second identity for her known as Blackbird. While Thunder fought crime alongside Black Lightning, Blackbird robbed from the corrupt and elite, giving back to the poor. This led to some ideological arguments between Anissa and her father.
Jennifer Pierce was first introduced in Kingdom Come #1 before being brought in to mainstream continuity in 2008’s Justice Society of America #12. Like her father, Jennifer has the power to generate electricity and uses her gifts to fight crime as Lightning. While Jefferson wasn’t a fan of another one of his kids becoming a superhero, he agreed to let her join the Justice Society, reasoning that they could protect her while showing her the ropes. China Anne McClain played Jennifer on Black Lightning, where her version of the character struggled with trying to live a normal life as a teenager while dealing with the new responsibilities her powers brought.
The Pierces are not only inspiring for what they’ve accomplished on their own, but for what they’ve done as a family. In the comics, Jefferson and Lynn have had many failed reconciliation attempts, but it hasn’t stopped them from co-parenting their daughters. Take a look at their “parent-teacher conference” moment in Justice Society of America #12—you would never know they were divorced. Like most families, the Pierces sometimes make mistakes and at times they quarrel, but that just makes them seem more real. From their respective introductions, Jefferson, Lynn, Anissa and Jennifer have worked together to make the world a better, more just and more inclusive place, and as a result they’ve made the DC Universe a better place.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, “Gotham Gazette.” Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.