Screenwriter John Ridley offers a new perspective on the DC Universe in a long-awaited comic book series.

By Chancellor Agard
November 18, 2020 at 11:30 AM EST
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Credit: DC Comics

The 1986 comic book series History of the DC Universe left a powerful impression on 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. A stunning mix of prose and art, the two-parter is a chronology of DC’s entire fictional world, explaining what was canon following the groundbreaking crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths, which forever altered DC’s continuity. "I loved it because it treated the characters, and overall DC universe, as a real timeline," says Ridley, who previously wrote The American Way. "As if it were history, and not just people sitting around musing about these characters month to month."

However, as a Black man, Ridley also noticed the series’ shortcomings — specifically, the marginalization of minority characters. And 34 years later, he is giving voice to those silent avengers with his own collection, aptly named The Other History of the DC Universe (out Nov. 24).

With illustrations from Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi, the five-issue miniseries revisits key DC moments through the fresh eyes of superheroes from those previously excluded groups: Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning), his daughter Anissa (Thunder), married couple Karen (Bumblebee) and Mal, Tatsu Yamashiro (Katana), and Renee Montoya (the Question). Ridley approached each installment by first placing the characters in the context of real-world, but less widely known, events.

“If you don’t know who Latasha Harlins or Vincent Chin were, or what Executive Order 9066 was, you’re going to get a lesson,” says Ridley, who is currently writing Future State: Batman, expected in January 2021. “It was very important for me to [put] these stories on a real timeline. Why [also] did the Justice League not to do anything in the Iranian hostage crisis? What was it like to watch Arthur Ashe win Wimbledon? It’s one thing to be able to [generically] save a planet. It’s another thing to watch an uprising in Los Angeles where the city is torn apart.”

Below, EW chats with Ridley about this ambitious work.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This book was announced two and a half years ago. How has the project involved from the point of conception to what's coming out this fall?
JOHN RIDLEY: It’s evolved, expanded, [and] recontextualized in every way, shape and form. From the writing to the main characters, to the events, to the incidents, both real and imagined, to the visual style of storytelling. None of us, myself included — and I put myself at the head of the list — had any concept of what we were getting into, in terms of the breadth of the story. [I brought] in individuals who were outside of my perspective to get their opinions on the scripts and for me to deal with those reactions honestly and not just saying, “Okay great, you read that and I’m doing this.” I’m a Black man of a certain age and it would’ve been just as disingenuous for me to have assumptions about Renee or Tatsu as with any of these other characters if it were just a straight white man writing about a Black character. Certainly throughout history that’s been done. And done well. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Tony Isabella and what he did with Black Lightning, or any number of writers and artists who may not have been Black, who may not have been women, but wanted to put their all into those characters to the best of their ability.

I would just say during that evolution there was never a point where DC or anyone in the hierarchy said, “Okay enough. Too many pages. Too much money. Too much time. Stop, it’s time to put it out.” They really supported us making this the most robust book that it could be. I think for people of color, for women, people from marginalized communities, we’ve always understood the necessity of telling our stories. But obviously right now there’s been a reckoning and folks are doing the best they can to try and recognize that. To DC’s credit, this was going on for two and a half years. This wasn’t [them] going, “Oh geez, this happened. John go back. Here’s more money. Here’s more time.” This was like, “When you and the team you’re working with are ready, we’re ready to put it out.”

Credit: DC Comics

What did you read and who did you talk to understand the perspectives like Renee and Katana?
In terms of the comic books that I read, pretty much I got massive omnibuses. I’m very fortunate my parents are still alive and with me, but I’m an old man at this point. For the past couple years, they were just sending my comic books back. [I consulted] other comic book writers that I know from various backgrounds, other people that I know from various backgrounds. [I asked them] to just read it and “what do you think? Can you give me your opinion? Can you direct me to other philosophical think pieces about gender, orientation, gender politics?” And just try to digest as much as possible. Like I said, it was giving to other people I trust to read. And when I say trust, [I don’t mean] trust that they’re going to respond the way I want them to. I don’t want to pretend like, “Oh, I went to three people therefore it represents all women and people from other orientations.” But really just trying to say, “I wrote it. I’m Black. It’s right” versus “Hit me with what you think, or at least point me in a direction where I could dig a little bit more deeply, or just point out the things that just feel like a little this or that.”

Then it was making choices about the narrative. Many of these characters have been reimagined, so [it was a matter of deciding] which one of these comic book narratives am I going to embrace and say, “Okay, I believe this is going to be the one. For this book, this series [or] this event, this moment." Even [deciding] which costume are they going to wear. And then in terms of the information people gave me. I’ll say this, they were exceedingly personal and that was very powerful. They embraced the opportunity to express how they felt about these characters, how they felt about the way they were represented, and how we could demystify the tropes and things that like that if we were going reset and make these characters feel like people. In the books it’s Jefferson Pierce, it’s not Black Lightning. It’s Tatsu Yamashiro, it’s not Katana.” Obviously, Renee Montoya was Renee Montoya first before she became the Question. But it’s really trying to treat Mal and Karen as Mal and Karen and not Herald and Bumblebee. That was very important to us. My approach was the difference between writing an unauthorized biography or an oral history.

For Renee, how do you hope a story about a cop of color fits into current conversations going on in the country about police brutality?
Look, Renee talks about what it’s like being a female police officer, what it’s like being a closeted police officer, what it’s like a police officer who watches what’s happening in Los Angeles. When cops commit crimes under the color of authority, you know, it certainly doesn’t help the person who’s been victimized, it doesn’t help the cops who are actually trying to go out and do their jobs. We don’t shy away from it. I take it seriously.

For me, you can go back to American Crime [where] we dealt with it. So going into this, I knew that was a subject matter I wanted to deal with and it was irrespective of what is going on in the moment. What has happened over the summer, it may be new for a lot of people but it’s not new. And it happens on a cycle. You can go back to Rodney King. You can go back to James Mincey 10 years before Rodney, Freddie Gray, Ferguson…It happens on a cycle so that was going to be in there irrespective. I wouldn’t have put my foot any more on the gas nor would I have put it on the break. I felt it needed to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Credit: Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

In the past you've talked about how much Black Lightning meant to you growing up. How did it feel to actually write a Black Lightning story?
Every one of these characters was incredibly fun. Not just the characters themselves, but you know, John Stewart is in it, Mari McCabe is in it. It was more than just being, “I’m a Black Lightning fan and I get to write a Black Lightning arc.” It was, in some ways, paying homage and honor to all of the writers and artists who made me want to do [write]. So, it was great to be able to go back and say, “Oh, I remember this story, and I wanna acknowledge this story.” Mal and Karen, I’ve always loved them as a couple. I always felt like they never knew what to do with Mal. Ironically, they actually did a really good job with Karen, you know what I mean? You know, [she’s] super smart, Hidden Figures before people knew who these amazing women were, and their relationship and the fact that they were committed and had a family.

Every one of them represents different phases in my life, in terms of being a reader. I remember Renee Montoya. One of my favorite, favorite characters was The Question and here’s Renee who became The Question. So it was great to finally be able to write some Question stories.

I hope when it comes out that people feel that enjoyment. We wanted it to be a hopeful series. The other thing is when people think of othered individuals, you think of, “Oh, struggle and it’s hardship!” There’s certainly that in these stories, but I want it to be entertaining, I want it be hopeful. I wanted [readers] to come out of it on the other [side] and say, “We can endure. Throw whatever you can at us. Being heroic is not just the costume and the powers. It’s the endurance for all of these individuals.” That’s what I really wanted to express was a hopeful nature, an uplift, progress, being progressive. I wouldn’t be sitting here again if that wasn’t truth in reality so I wanted that to be part of it.

The Other History of the DC Universe hits stands Nov. 24.

A version of this story appears in the December issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now or available here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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