Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley creates a universe highlighting diversity stemmed from an impactful childhood experience.
Screenwriter John Ridley Exposes ‘The Other History of the DC Universe’ with Black Lightning
Step into the DC Universe and history awaits. So much history, so many iconic heroes and villains, yet only one side of the story.
Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley is opening a new door into a familiar backdrop with his new comic book offering, “The Other History of the DC Universe.” As the name implies, Ridley shines a light on different perspectives of the iconic moments in DC history, from the eyes of heroes of color.
“The Other History of the DC Universe” kicks off with Jefferson Pierce, aka Black Lightning, for its first issue. Black Lightning’s inclusion was a no-brainer for Ridley, whose view of comics changed after seeing the hero on the cover of Justice League No. 173.
The sight of Black Lightning talking to members of the legendary Justice League proved to Ridley that someone like him could exist in the same world as the superhero elite.
“I love comics. I read comics, but I remember the first time I saw Black Lightning as a hero. When I went to the comic book shop, this was the mid-’70s, and I was young. But I had to pull back,” said Ridley, a longtime comic book fan who recalled his personal experience while speaking at a media roundtable to promote “The Other History of the DC Universe” about his fateful trip to purchase comics the week he was introduced to Black Lightning.
“And I remember getting that bag that week, and honestly, I remember like it was yesterday, and spilling the bag out and going through them and seeing Black Lightning and seeing a hero who looked like me, was a teacher like my mother was. That was really, really impactful for me.”
Despite Ridley’s good fortune in other areas, his love of comics and Black Lightning remained as the country transitioned into its current state of strained race relations, a divided political climate and efforts for more diversity.
Coupled with frequent protests, the arrival of “The Other History of the DC Universe” couldn’t come at a better time. For the project, Ridley held it close to his heart by selecting heroes “that meant something to me when I was growing up,” while paying respect to DC’s history and readers.
“I didn’t want to do a made-up history of the DC universe. I didn’t want to go through and say, ‘I don’t care about what happened before. This is John Ridley’s version of it.,’ said Ridley. “Honestly, I wanted a reaction … where a fan will look at moments and go, ‘Omigosh, I remember that.’ Here’s some different context.’ It wasn’t about saying the past doesn’t equal the moment that we live in. … It was saying we’re here for a reason. We’re here because we’re fans.”
Ridley’s inspiration for “The Other History of the DC Universe” is more personal as each issue reflects the essence of storytelling, with someone telling their version of what happened while relaying their thoughts on how events affected them.
With Black Lightning, readers experience his interaction with the Justice League and the world’s view of those with superpowers that he felt focused more on worldwide threats than what was going on in his hometown.
“Here’s Black Lightning giving a version of an oral history, saying ‘Yeah, I remember that moment, too,’ But it may be a little bit different than an individual would contextualize it, different readers,” Ridley said. “But also what’s interesting about the series for me is that we also revisit moments from other characters that have a shared moment and may remember it completely differently than Jefferson Pierce did or feel differently about it or feel differently about Jeff Pierce.
“About, you know, why are you always this way? So for me, more than anything, it was trying to treat these stories as an oral history and getting the reaction that you have.”
Reflecting on stories he heard from his parents, Ridley recounted how moments shared were “were real heartbreak.”
“My dad was in the Air Force. They were all about service. And yet, there were moments where they were treated as just Black people. But when we hear stories from people, when people share stories, if you have an ounce of empathy in you, you can hear that pain, that joy, that heartache, heartbreak, the inspiration that comes from an individual.
“Those stories, again, if you have the slightest ounce of empathy in you, the slightest capacity to see yourself in others, those stories mean much more,” Ridley added. “We definitely could’ve done the other history of the DC universe where it was just about a big action moment and here’s Black Lightning just being a hero. Those are great stories because all of these folks are heroes in these stories. But I wanted to try to treat them as though you were listening to your uncle, your brother, your aunt, your sister, your cousin tell these stories in their own voices with their own perspectives and make them in some ways oral histories and so that it wasn’t just about these, a series of giant moments. But these were lives that were being shared. These were perspectives that were being shared.”
Black Lightning’s oral history isn’t the only one readers will discover. Other heroes giving their side of “The Other History of the DC Universe” include Mal Duncan, aka Herald and his wife, Karen Beecher (Bumblebee), Renee Montoya (the Question), Tatsu Yamashiro (Katana) and Black Lightning’s daughter Anissa, aka Thunder.
“There were many characters that I wanted to try to include. For example, in the first issue, Mari McCabe, Vixen, I did not see the story as having her own story. But there was no way that you could not have Vixen in this series, that her appearances were not just a one and done.
“There was an arc to it. That is Jefferson Pierce being myopic and underestimating her. I thought that was really important that it wasn’t just characters of color railing against the prevailing culture all the time.
“Jefferson is a Black man of a certain age, with a certain concept of Mari, what she could do and what she couldn’t do. And the next thing, she’s working with Superman. She’s big-time,” Ridley said while highlighting notable appearances from Vixen and John Stewart, arguably one of the most popular Green Lantern characters in the comics.
“So his [Black Lightning’s] relationship with John Stewart. A lot of people were like, ‘How could you not have John Stewart?’ John Stewart was always gonna be a part of it. But again, Jefferson’s relation to John and their reconciliation, I wanted to have a very human end.”
Black heroes’ views only scratch the surface of “The Other History of the DC Universe.” As much attention is paid to Renee Montoya, a Latinx police officer, as well as Tatsu Yamashiro, a Japanese national living in America during the ’80s, Ridley made sure these characters’ stories were given their due, adding another layer to his latest opus.
“With Tatsu Yamashiro (Katana), I remember in the ’80s, when America was at its height of anti-Japanese xenophobia. What’s it like for a Japanese national coming to America in the ’80s,” Ridley explained about Yamashiro. “And on the one hand, there are other people who look at her as a hero when she is in costume. There are other people who look at her as a menace when she’s just walking around.
“Renee had to be in it. You want to talk about a character who just started as a minor character in ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ and is now one of the most durable characters in the DC Universe? And played The Question at one point, my all-time favorite character, The Question. So she was gonna be in it. Always,” he continued about his reasons for including Montoya. But also Latinx, a police officer.
“You know, this series started before our current reckoning on race and police. To tell a story from a police officer’s point of view, who’s Latinx, who’s closeted, who believes in law and order but is also commenting on things like the L.A. uprising and what that means to her as a police officer.”
Coming back to Black Lightning, Ridley examined another side of the hero with his daughter Anissa. The young heroine’s point of view is one that differs at times from her father’s, which is shown in the first issue.
“I just thought it was really important to try to bookend this series with a father and daughter. And there are things that you will see in Anissa’s story that goes back in common with what you have seen or read in the very first issue. And again, Jefferson Pierce as a human being and things that she has missed, things that he deals with as a man of a certain age.
“And some of them positive, some of them, I wouldn’t say slightly negative, but certainly representative of a myopia that we see in the Black community,” Ridley told the round table. “So it was not just again trying to pick up the characters from column A and column B. The characters that I felt a connection to because I felt like I had seen them grow up over a certain space and time. They had been part of my life. And wanting to be very honorific with the work the creators had done in the past having them arrive in this space.”
Furthering the diversity, Ridley included Duncan and Beecher into the mix, knowing a couple with different views of the same happening would be a fun aspect with which to play.
“It was very important that in this story, we were going to have at least one that was a Black couple who were in love, who were sharing their story together. Also, because I thought it would be fun for a couple to … it was kind of ‘The Newlywed Game.’ ‘Wait. What? How do you remember that? No, that wasn’t how it happened.”
As the series examines unique views from its roster of heroes, it is worth noting each issue occurs around the time DC created the heroes.
According to Ridley, the time frame ranges from the ’70s to the early 2000s, a period that supports Ridley’s intent to create a real timeline and add weight to each character’s story.
“It was really important to me because I did think it added to the verisimilitude, it added to the reality to say that Jefferson Pierce is only gonna live in a certain amount of time. When the story ends or wherever he be found, he’d be roughly my age,” he said about placing Black Lightning in the ’70s.”
“The stories begin essentially, and I think you see in the issues that they all have timelines. I think roughly ’77 to’ 90-something. Technically, it’s a little bit earlier because he is in the Olympics in 1972. But if he was a decathlete, he would’ve been in the ’72 games. He would’ve been around the Munich massacre.
“What does that mean for him as a person? What does that mean for a guy who wanted to be better because he lost his father and at the games where was going to show what an amazing human specimen he is. It means nothing compared to the loss of those Israeli athletes.”
The Munich massacre was an attack during the 1972 Olympics, involving members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. The incident resulted in the death of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, who were taken hostage by Black September.
“So I wanted those true timelines. Tatsu, for example, coming around in the ’80s. What would that mean for a Japanese national? What would it mean for Renée to be a cop in the ’90s,” he added. “We treat it as a timeline. It was important to me because it helps make these characters, and their stories as real.
Speaking to EURweb’s Lee Bailey, a humble Ridley welcomed the possibility of ‘The Other History of the DC Universe” crossing over into film as a way for his story to be seen by more people.
“I will say this. I have been very, very fortunate. Obviously, I work in film, and I work in television, and I continue to do so. So for me, writing a graphic novel was the endgame. It was so special and it’s such precious real estate.
“I mean I can’t lie. Even if somebody came back and this was successful enough, and they said, ‘Hey, we would like to try and make it into a movie or a series or something like that … who doesn’t want to try to reach as many people as humanly possible?” said Ridley.
“But for me, because I am lucky enough to work in other spaces, it wasn’t about, ‘Oh this only is going to be fun or enjoyable or impactful for me if they make it into a movie. No, I mean the fact that this is going to be out, people are going to, within the confines of the COVID [-19] world we live in, go somewhere, purchase it, get it to read it, talk about it, love it, hate it.
“You know, embrace it. And whatever those things that people do with any issue, I get to be part of that. That is so special, in and of itself. If that is all that happens to it. I could not be more fortunate.”
The first issue of John Ridley’s “The Other History of DC Universe ” is on sale now. The second issue of the miniseries will be available on Jan. 26, 2021.
This story first appeared on EURweb