LOS ANGELES - The decades after Superman sparked the massive world of comic book superheroes didn't feature a lot of champions of color. The few that made their way into the printed pages were supporting players, and only a few by the mid '70s starred in their own comic books. Luke Cage was Marvel's answer to the lack of diversity when the "Hero for Hire" debut in his own comic in 1972. The biggest change for DC Comics came in 1977 with the first issue of "Black Lightning" gave the company its first African-American superhero to star in his own book.
It's been more than 40 years, but the TV and film worlds have faced the same situation. Outside the Netflix series "Luke Cage" and the upcoming Marvel film "Black Panther," there have been no other mainstream black superheroes starring in their own projects.
That small world is a little bigger with "Black Lightning," a new CW Network series based on the 1977 comic book. Cress Williams stars as Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal who gave up his crime fighting ways nine years ago. He's traded his electrical abilities for saving young people through education. That changes when his family is threatened by the gang violence that has taken over the city since Black Lightning went into retirement.
Williams wants "Black Lightning" to be a major spark for more diversity in comic book-inspired projects.
"Basically, all I had was Superman," Williams says. "I hope that that keeps growing, not only for African Americans but for every ethnicity, gender, religion. I want ideally everyone to be able to look and go, that's me. I want them to find some sort of representative that they grow up and can look to the screens and say, 'I see me. I see me here. I see me there.' Not just for us, but for everyone.
"I think history is repeating itself, but, wonderfully. We're not the only ones repeating it. I think it's beautiful that we have Luke Cage, that we have us, and we have Black Panther, so we're, kind of, conquering every possible outlet."
Williams comes to the series with a long resume of TV roles, including working on "Code Black," "Hart of Dixie," "Friday Night Lights," "ER," "Veronica Mars" and "Nash Bridges." His first leap into the comic book TV world was a role on "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman."
The Fullerton College had the acting background but he was a little weak in regards to the comic book history of Black Lightning. He found Black Lightning comics from the '70s, '90s and 2000s to fill out the background of the character.
All that worked because the producer knew as soon as Williams came into the room for the audition that he was the right person not only to play Black Lightning but also Principal Pierce. They had to find someone to handle both because both Lightning and Pierce will be equally involved in trying to save a community that is in dire straits.
The series isn't just about Black Lightning fighting a villain with equally impressive super powers. The show is grounded in reality where the bad guys sell drugs, commit murder without hesitation and have paralyzed most of the community with terror tactics. And, there's not a lot of help from law enforcement as Pierce learns when he's randomly pulled over by the police trying to find a man who robbed a liquor store. The only similarity is the suspect is described as black.
It sounds a little odd, but reality was the key to creating the comic book-inspired show. Executive producer Salim Akil ("The Game") drew from his life in creating the series.
"When I started, the character of Jefferson is already a community based superhero. He's already a principal. He's already a father. So, it gave me the opportunity to talk about things that were personal to me," Salim Akil says. "I grew up in a community like Freeland. I was surrounded by those things that you see in Freeland and in Chicago and Oakland and Watts.
"So, it came naturally. It wasn't a choice made out of, hey, this is what we want to say. It came out of a choice of this is what I know and this is what we know. So, let's do what's real. I guess the word people are using now is 'authentic.' So let's do what's authentic and real to me, which I think everybody embraced."
Giving the show such a realistic base is one of the things Williams likes best about "Black Lightning."
"As artists, we want to entertain, obviously, but when you see what's going on in the world, the job of art is, also, to speak to it and be impactful," Williams says. "I mean, I can only speak for myself that once I leave this planet, I want to know that something that I did made a difference a touch to it. And so, I was just ecstatic.
"This is an amazing opportunity to entertain but, also, to speak to life."
Executive producer Mara Brock Akil ("Girlfriends") echoes what Williams says by stressing that in the time we are in, people should be asking themselves what they can do to make change for the better. That doesn't mean individually, adds Mara Brock Akil, but "for our families, for our community, for our nation, for the world."
The first season of "Black Lighting" airs Tuesdays following "The Flash" through April 17. The sci-fi drama "The 100" will take over the time slot starting April 24.