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Book author superimposed over comic artwork Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: DC Comics/Getty Images

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John Ridley prepares us for The Other History of the DC Universe

‘It was really [about] trying to create as much of a plurality of perspectives as possible’

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

John Ridley’s new comic The Other History of the DC Universe was announced two and a half years ago. On the way to shelves, it’s evolved from a prose miniseries with illustrations to something in between a novel and a graphic novel, but the idea hasn’t changed.

The book, set for release on Nov. 24 with art from Giuseppe Camuncoli, Andrea Cucchi, and José Villarrubia, examines the major events of the DC Universe’s timeline from the perspective of its marginalized superheroes — Black, Latinx, queer, Asian, and immigrant characters like Katana and Renee Montoya — and places the cosmic shifts of the DC Comics timeline along societal shifts in American history.

Hollywood knows Ridley as the Academy Award-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave, but he has his own history with comics, and particularly DC. Keen eyes will spot episodes of both the Static Shock and Justice League cartoons in his filmography, and with artist Georges Jeanty, he crafted the original comic series The American Way, published through DC. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of the first Black man appointed to the United States’ government-created superhero team.

The title of The American Way echoes Superman’s famous maxim of his “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” But when the phrase was coined by the immortal intro of his radio show in early the 1940s, Superman just fought for truth and justice. The American way wasn’t shoehorned in until much later, during the Cold War.

This oft-forgotten intersection of superhero fiction, history, and politics isn’t just relevant because of the title of Ridley’s last book at DC Comics. When Polygon sat down with Ridley last week, we talked about those kinds of intersections as we explored the inspirations behind The Other History of the DC Universe, and its first focal character, the electrifying superhero known as Black Lightning.

Polygon: Black Lightning is a fascinating character, and in a lot of places right now. He’s coming up in The Other History, he’s got his own TV show, and he’s in the current Batman and the Outsiders series, just like he was in the original one. But what I find interesting about Black Lightning is that he kind of skipped a generation of readers. If you ask a millennial to name the most famous Black DC superhero, they’re probably going to say John Stewart/Green Lantern, and if you ask them about a Black superhero who has lightning powers, they’re probably going to say Static. What made him the first focal point that you wanted to go to in The Other History?

John Ridley: It’s interesting, you talk about skipping a generation. And I think sometimes that’s the truth, other than obviously, the Trinity — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. In general, there are heroes who rise and fall depending on their sales, and depending on what’s going on with the readership. Particularly with characters of color, in fits and starts, there’ve been efforts to both try to elevate some of these heroes, integrate some of these heroes. But in terms of characters that have a lot of cultural density, unfortunately a lot of the characters of color never quite got there.

Even Black Panther — certainly when you saw what happened with the film there was this ... people just got behind that character in a way, but he was a character that was around for a long time. Unfortunately, with a lot of characters of color, women, LGBTQ [characters], they become in some ways, like ethnic or gender or [sexual] orientation theater. Rather than people looking at them as Oh, no, these are characters that are just like any other character in the prevailing culture.

Black Lightning, in a blue, yellow, and black costume, white mask, and afro, slugs a criminal in a warehouse, saying “You pushers have wrecked the city long enough — now it’s my turn to wreck you!” on the cover of Black Lightning #1, DC Comics (1977).
The cover of 1977’s Black Lightning #1.
Image: Rich Buckler, Frank Springer/DC Comics

So for me personally, when I was a kid Black Lightning was the first character of color that I was not only aware of [having], but in the DC Universe, that had his own series. And to have a character that looked like me, to have a character who was a teacher, like the way that my mother was a teacher; to have a character that, in his personal life, was just a teacher trying to make a difference, a street level hero, who initially had a power belt and then had his own powers? It was just a really interesting experience for me to finally have a hero that had something different about him. That was actually, for me, not different.

So, for me when it came time to do The Other History; yeah, John Stewart predated Jefferson Pierce, but there were things about Jefferson Pierce that were powerful to me when I first read the comics. There were things about him as a father; as a guy who was, in some ways, maybe a little bit more conservative as a Black man, in terms of some of his values — that made him really interesting. So he felt like the absolute right character with which to begin this story.

And also, and I don’t want to jump ahead with some of your questions, but you alluded to treating these characters as though they occupy a real historical space. And so if I was going to try to take The Other History and really treat it as though it were a real document, [as if] it really were these oral histories from these characters, that was the place to start. Yes, I could have gone back a few more years with John Stewart, but for me, emotionally as a storyteller, in terms of the way these stories were going to play out, Jefferson Pierce was the absolute right character with which to begin the series.

I want to continue on that, but as a quick question: Why do you think there’s a trend of Black characters — I’m thinking of Black Lightning, Static, Storm, even Miles Morales — who have electricity powers?

You know, it’s weird. Because I’d read that somewhere previously and it was one of those things you go Wow, yeah, that is kind of weird. And it’s not one of those things where you can, at least to me, draw a line and go, Oh, well — like the way Asian characters are usually going to have karate-related powers. And for a long time you went OK, sure, why not? And you look at it now and go, Well, yeah, why couldn’t an Asian individual have these kinds of powers or those kinds of powers, and certainly they can. But with lightning powers, it’s not — at least in an way that I could look at and go, Oh, well, this goes back to something in the culture, or something in storytelling that became a trope for perhaps the wrong reasons or perhaps overly identifiable reasons.

But it is kind of weird. It’s certainly nothing in particular that I look at as a person of color and go, Oh, man, people have been doing that and it’s wrong because it leads to this, this or this. I don’t know if it’s just a weird happenstance [laughs] that Black people ... we just got the fire, we got the electricity. I don’t take it as something overly negative. It does seem to be a weird happenstance. But it may be a deeper dive for a broader thinker.

The Other History using a phrase like “the biggest events in DC history” evokes books like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour or Infinite Crisis. Those were events that are really far removed from the average human experience; immortal cosmic entities clashing in alternate dimensions. What does examining these events from the perspective of a person who is from a minority group offer? What does that show us?

That’s a very good question, and for me going into it, it was less about just rehashing, say, Crisis on Infinite Earths, but really getting into, say, a character’s difficult relationship with Superman. If you’re a character of color, and you’re faced with bias, and you’re faced with intolerance, and you see an individual who is literally an alien but because of his forward facing facade, his visage — his passport is stamped. And at the same time, when people have a difficult relationship with anyone, but something like Crisis on Infinite Earths happens and Supergirl is killed? How do characters react? How do they react to Superman, and how do they reconcile how they felt about this individual? But at the same time, he was out there trying to do right, he was out there trying to do certain things.

Even little things. When Batman labels his group “The Outsiders” — on one hand it just sounds like “Hey, we’re kind of these rogue fighters who don’t quite fit in with the Justice League.” But on the other hand, what does it say [to] the Black hero and the Japanese hero, or Geo-Force, who is [also] a foreigner? And they’re all labeled the Outsiders? And how do they feel about things like that?

Whether the Outsiders — Geo-Force, Halo, Black Lightning, Katana, and Metamorpho — are looking for the proper way to use their powers, who they really are, or “simply some kind of purpose in your lives,” Batman says he can help them find it, in Batman and the Outsiders #2, DC Comics (1983).
From Batman and the Outsiders #2.
Image: Mike W. Barr, Jim Aparo/DC Comics

So to me, it’s less about just going back and saying, Hey, in the ’80s, it was this big event. Hey, in the ’90s, it was this big event, but really saying within these big events on a human level — Think about any crisis that’s going on right now. We have maybe some shared collective opinions about things. Obviously, we’re a very broad country, we don’t all think alike, but individually, how we look at these events, how we feel, how we react to them as people, how we then go back and interact with other people based on these changes, and the nomenclature and how our politicians treat them.

That, to me is what I wanted to get into The Other History, that it wasn’t just recounting history, but looking at it from perspectives of people of color, of women, of people from the LGBTQ community, of people of different ages. For us it was really [about] trying to create as much of a plurality of perspectives as possible. And that is the great thing, over time DC has built it up. For me it was about trying to take all of these narratives and then weave them together, but allow that weaving to travel through events that comic book readers should know and remember. And in cases where they don’t, I hope they want to go back to those stories and Oh, I forgot about a moment when John Stewart destroyed a planet. What was that like for him?

But at the same time, there are real life events in there as well. Great events, like Arthur Ashe winning Wimbledon, [but also] the Iran hostage situation. If people don’t know what Executive Order 9066 was, they’re gonna have to look it up. If they don’t know who Vincent Chin was, they’re gonna have to look it up. But it really was an effort to try to treat these characters as real people, and [ask] What were their lives like? Not just as heroes, but as real people. The same way, when you’re not being a journalist, you’re a real person, and you’re not necessarily defined as the journalist person. These characters all have their superhero names. But we really went out of our way to treat them as Jefferson, as Tatsu, as Renee, as Mal, and Karen. They’re they’re real people. And we wanted to treat them — Anissa Pierce — as real people.

You’ve previously written alternate history for DC with American Way. And it’s hard to talk about alternate history stories in comics without invoking the granddaddy of them all, Watchmen. One of the things the Watchmen TV series put into focus for me is that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic is an alternate history of America that declines to include the presence of race conflict in American history. And sure, you can say that they were two British guys, and that wasn’t the story they wanted to tell, but I’m curious if you have read comics that made you want to examine the ideas that they weren’t examining? And are those ideas the ideas that drove American Way and The Other History?

For any of us in any space we work, you cannot help but be inspired or informed in some way by the things that happen before you. The comic books, the films, the books that have been written. And I think it’s really important if you love what you do in any space, you’ve got to really digest those stories. If you’re a physicist, you’re not going to say, Well, I’m going to ignore Einstein and just start all over. You want to build on people’s work, expand on it, prove out theories, whatever. So whether it was Watchmen, whether it was Dark Knight, whether it was The Question, all of those stories really informed me.

But I would say I’ve been more informed, probably, by the series that I first read when I was a kid. It was a two-part World’s Finest series with Batman and Superman, where they ended up in a Soviet-style gulag, Superman without his powers in Batman without his utility belt. So you have these two characters — and this was literally one of the first comic books I read.

I obviously was aware of Batman when I was a kid — mostly from the TV show, and Superman also mostly from the TV show. Because I was so young, I mean, I was not even a reader yet, [but] you can sit in front of a TV and absorb. And I don’t even remember how exactly I got these books, but I got them. And mind you, these were stories that I think were reprints, even, so the stories themselves were from the ’60s and I think by the time I read them, it was probably in the early ’70s.

But what I remember more than anything, is that they were literally graphic. Obviously [with] stories from that time period it wasn’t that there was blood or gore or things like that, but there was something about the stories about these two heroes. Superman’s uniform was torn, they were standing in line and getting poured food, and [they were] behind barbed wire. And there was obviously, politics involved, it may have been agitprop at that time. But it was about the Soviets, and it was about gulags, and it was about “our enemies,” it was about, you know, it’s not this alien threat. It may be communism that’s coming for us.

And more than anything, I just remember that reading those books and truly feeling upset, upset in my stomach, upset reading them. I remember, I think Curt Swan was the artist, but it just didn’t feel like the light, happy Superman or Batman that I’d seen.

So for me, reading these stories where it was less about the powers — they had no powers. It wasn’t Superman flying into outer space. It wasn’t Batman fighting criminals in an alleyway. It was these two guys who were fighting a system. It was two guys who were fighting oppression. Again, I really want to stress, it may have been agitprop at that time, but you’re a kid reading it going, Oh my god, that’s the threat.

For me going forward, as much as I love comic books and love outer space or whatever, it was about telling stories or responding to stories that were more about Who are these people who are really behind the mask? And What are threats that are far more existential than planet-swallowing portals? And What are the true threats to us as people? And that, to me is much more where The American Way came from, was just going back to that series.

[The American Way] was an alt-universe, but it was only meant to be a very slight alt-universe. This was not Gotham by Gaslight or Elseworlds. And I don’t mean that in any way, shape, or form to denigrate those stories, but those stories were saying, Hey, this is a really alt-world. One of the things that really weirded me out about The American Way was one comment somebody had, and this was not whether they loved the story or hated the story, or whatever. You get people loving it, people hate it, it at some point, it’s par for the course. But somebody had written something somewhere and they said, “The racism seems so extreme, is this an alternate universe?”

It was really weird to me because it wasn’t Hey, is this an alternate universe because Batman isn’t there? Is this an alternate universe because there are heroes in the 1960s? It was an alternate universe because the reader couldn’t believe that racism was that severe. And believe me in, that book, comparatively speaking, I mean, even look at where we are right now in the world. So that was the thing that weirded me out, and obviously that one comment wasn’t a reflection of what everybody thinks. But it wasn’t that it was an alternate universe because there were superheroes in the 1960s. Somebody felt like it was an alternate universe because racism surely couldn’t have been that bad.

And that’s one of the things that really tripped me about that, is that you can write something where you’re trying to marry it to reality. But sometimes when you put it in certain spaces, or maybe just where we are in the world — the way you talk about things skipping a generation, I think sometimes what we face and how we face it [is similar].

I could believe people growing up in the ’80s thinking Oh, racism is not a big deal. It wasn’t necessarily front page, we don’t see it. But just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s one of the things that I want to try to alleviate with [The Other History]. We hope we entertain. We hope we inspire. We hope we drive people to look at old comic books and go Oh, what did I miss? When did this happen? Did it really happen that way? But for people to try to consider experiences as being real and not alternative. You know, if you tell me a story about your life, I shouldn’t just dismiss that. Your experience is not an alternative experience, it’s part and parcel with all of our experience. That’s true for every single person who walks this planet.

That’s a small part of the gift of science fiction, right? That we can show people things that are actually real. We saw this with the Watchmen TV series, with Google searches for the Tulsa Race Riots spiking, as people realized that it wasn’t part of the alternate history, it was part of actual history.

Absolutely, the great thing about science fiction, comic book, fantasy fans is that I think they are predisposed to want more, and predisposed to be challenged and predisposed to imagine other greater, more fantastic worlds. I don’t think it’s an accident that [in the original] Star Trek series, you had this amazing multicultural command on the ship. And it’s not an accident that what people consider to be the first interracial kiss — although whether the lips actually ever touched is obviously under a lot of debate — but that happened on Star Trek on primetime broadcast television.

And you look at the Twilight Zone, and how a lot of people assume those stories, Oh, they’re just fantasy, but they’re about human nature and they’re about fear, and they’re about bias, they’re about antisemitism. They’re about these things that challenge, because you can step back a little bit and say, “It’s just an alternate world. Don’t fear, folks, I’m not wagging a finger at you.” But I do think that these audiences that choose to dream and imagine and accept things ... there’s the stereotype of the fanboys, and now the fan ladies, and things like that. But the reality is I just don’t think that there are audiences that are more primed to be receptive to these kinds of challenging ideas and concepts than the graphic novel, sci-fi, fantasy crowd

On that subject of the intersection of fiction and reality, there’s been a lot conversation going around this summer about the ways that the superhero archetype intersects with copaganda and whether or not the superhero idea is part of a conscious or unconscious authoritarian agitprop. Between The Other History and your upcoming Lucius Fox miniseries, I’m curious if that intersection is present for you as you’ve been writing. Is that something that you’ve been interrogating yourself?

Well, I have the advantage of not being on social media [laughs], so a lot of those conversations ... You know what I mean? They’re gonna go on whether it’s this, whether it’s basketball, it’s policing, whatever. We have gotten to a point where politics and point of view have seeped into almost every corner of our cultures. And certainly in television folks are going through that. Cop shows, are they benign? Are they harmful? What is the role of any of us as storytellers?

For me, I think that ultimately the values of superheroes are good values. Of people who decide to not just be passive in society, people who learn the lesson of loss, people who want to be part of the fabric of society and certainly, historically, that has come from a singular American perspective. And the American perspective is driven by the prevailing culture, and the prevailing culture is straight white men of a certain age.

So yes, absolutely, I don’t think they’re wrong to say that at some point, there’s some agitprop that goes in there, you know, “truth, justice, and the American way.” But at the same time, Siegel and Schuster, some of these folks who are telling these stories, were immigrants themselves who were trying to contextualize that experience of coming to America and wanting to represent.

One of the interesting things to me, and forgive me I forget the exact issue, but [in] the first publication of the backstory of Batman, Bruce Wayne is kneeling on his bed, praying to a higher power, saying “I want to spend the rest of my life” — and that is a paraphrase — but he literally uses the word “warring.” “Warring against crime” and people now want to say Social justice warriors and crime fighting, that’s wrong, but it’s always been there.

After witnessing his parents deaths, Bruce Wayne swears to spend “the rest of my life warring on all criminals,” in the first reveal of Batman’s origin story in Detective Comics #33, DC Comics (1939). Image: Bob Kane, Bill Finger/DC Comics

If you have a man who fights for truth, justice and the American way, well, doesn’t that extend to all people, if that’s what he’s fighting for? Isn’t he fighting for social justice? Wonder Woman comes to Man’s World, where men cannot get it together, and has to show them a better way. And this is in the ’40s, and coming from an island of all women and certainly having, erotic undertones and bondage and women loving women in a certain degree. It has been subversive in the best ways.

And maybe it has not, as in almost any space, moved as quickly, shown perspectives as broadly, invited storytellers behind the page as willingly as it should have — and when I say it I mean the entire industry, not any one publisher, not any one group. I’m talking about the entire [comics] industry, and we can expand that to the entertainment industry. Have any of us done enough to broaden our base of storytelling?

But at its core, yes, you can have conversations about authority and things like that. But I also think there are comic books that have pulled that back. And you look at Identity Crisis and questions of At what point do heroes go too far? When do we cross the line? When I say we, I mean people who tell stories for those heroes. But I think at its core, those values are good.

But like anything else, we see it all the time. People can take populist values and turn them into demagoguery. We’ve all got to be careful of that. Whether that was stories told them the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s or 20 years from now. Are we really supporting perspectives, points of view, narratives, from all segments of society, or are we just doing agitprop?