The five-issue DC Black Label miniseries written by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave,” “Guerrilla,” “American Crime”) is a run which delves deep into the backstories of DC’s most under-represented superheroes and heroines, all of whom carry histories which rival those of Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Diana Prince.
Ridley, 55, who is also set to pen his own version of “Batman” for DC in January which may feature a Black Bruce Wayne and centers on Wayne Enterprises president and CEO Lucius Fox, spoke with Fox News at length about why he chose his favorite all-time superhero to launch “The Other History,” saying with conviction, “it all goes back to 'Black Lightning'.”
DC's first Black superhero, "Black Lightning" made his debut in 1977. His alter ego Jefferson Pierce acquires electrical superpowers from a technologically advanced power belt.
“As a kid, going to the comic book shop and getting that first issue – which I still own and I still have, and it's not a replacement issue – it's not one that I got on eBay later, almost all the characters of color, when they first came out, I have those first issues because they really were impactful to me,” Ridley said, adding that in addition to telling the story of Jefferson Pierce, he also wanted to encapsulate the histories of Pierce’s daughter Anissa (Thunder), Mal Duncan (Herald) and his wife, Karen Beecher (Bumblebee), Renee Montoya (the Question) and Tatsu Yamashiro (Katana).
“Each of these characters come from traditionally marginalized backgrounds,” Ridley explained of the fan-favorite superheroes appearing in the graphic series. “I really wanted to treat them as though they were people first and costumed individuals second because the prevailing culture oftentimes thinks so little of us, that the biggest struggles we have is sometimes how we view each other and there are so many people in our community who are so freaking accomplished.”
Now, the “Jimi: All Is by My Side” screenwriter, is going in-depth with Fox News about creating "The Other History of the DC Universe."
Fox News: Had you always had an affinity for “Black Lightning” or did you simply feel his story was appropriate to explore given the fact he was the first Black DC Universe superhero to topline a comic book?
John Ridley: 'Black Lightning' for me personally, yes, everything you said is correct. He was the first Black hero in the DC Universe to have his own ongoing series. But he arrived at the right time for me. It was the mid-1970s, I was a little kid. I was just getting into reading comic books. I appreciated ‘Superman,’ ‘Batman,’ all of them. At that age, I just honestly didn't know what I was missing from not just comic books and storytelling back in the day.
We were lucky to have Hollywood pay any attention to us. And all of a sudden here comes this 'Black Lightning' comic book and there's a character who kind of looks like me or at least is Black like me. He's a teacher – my mom was a teacher. He's not just fighting bad guys, he's fighting for his students. He's fighting for his community. He's a husband and it was one of the first times that he'd been divorced, but he's a character who's got familial relations and dealing with circumstances.
So all of that stuff for me as a little kid, I was like, 'Oh, wait – this is the same, but different. This was the same, but more personal.' This made me more interested in comic books. And I think that at a very young age was when I started to realize, now I know what I'm missing and now I see where it's missing. And it was part of a process that made me want to be a storyteller to fill in those empty spaces where there should be Black and Brown people, there should be people from different backgrounds, different communities and different faiths.
Fox News: The backstories in any hero title are oftentimes what set the stage for what a hero will ultimately become. Why did so many stories of Black superheroes go untold for so long?
Ridley: I think you make a really good point in that there's always a hero who can run fast or is invulnerable or has heat-vision. And it's these backstories – it's where folks come from, just like in real life, that really give an insight into who they are. And unfortunately, with graphic novels, same as television, same as film, same as almost any industry – for decades, people didn't see the need.
We as people of color, people from different backgrounds, we consume culture. It was sometimes disheartening to not see us but we'll go see 'Superman,' we'll go see a 'Batman' movie or go see a western or whatever. But as we continue to come into ascension and you see the stories that try to take on a greater impact, you know… obviously we lost an incredible talent [with] Chadwick Boseman this year and he played Jackie Robinson, he played Thurgood Marshall. He played James Brown – played them brilliantly but think about the impact that he had as T'challa as 'Black Panther' globally. People could not give their money away fast enough to be part of that experience. The same as 'Wonder Woman,' the same with 'Captain Marvel.'
Folks are going to vote with their dollars and with their time and with their interests and it's just very fortunate that 'The Other History of the DC Universe' just happens to be right there in that space.
So I think we're finally arriving to a place where companies – I love DC, I think they're a wonderful company and they've given me nothing but support – but there are companies that are looking at the landscape going, 'Older white male leaders is not a growth industry.' And people of color, women and people from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, we've been there.
Bruce Wayne is a White guy. Superman is a White guy – hey, it's entertaining. We certainly rallied around our 'Black Panthers,' rallied around our 'Falcons' and these characters. But we said, 'Hey, we're there,' and now that we are coming to an ascension, there's also the realization that White folks like 'Black Panther' too and guys like 'Wonder Woman,' too. So it's unfortunate that it's taken decades. You can certainly look at any industry and say it's taken too long… but folks are going to vote with their dollars and vote with their time and with their interests and it's just very fortunate that 'The Other History of the DC Universe' just happens to be right there in that space.
Fox News: Why is it that people can be so protective of fictional hero characters like a Peter Parker in ‘Spider-Man,’ but struggle to understand that because the superhero is fiction, he or she can be whatever race the storyteller wants to them be, alas a Miles Morales?
Ridley: It's sort of interesting. If you take George Washington or pick any White guy in history and say, 'We're going to make him a Black person' -- you look at 'Hamilton' and how powerful that is, it's wildly popular and just really flips the script. Within the show, they say, 'Immigrants will get the job done,' and it has a whole different meaning.
You're asking a great question because there are people who say with Miles, he’s not Peter Parker. That's the only Spider-Man who exists. But if you look at mythology, there's a shifting of this mythology as it moves from region to region. So mythology changing to set a different time or different era or a different region, that's not new. This goes back to the beginning of humanity. And there are people right now who are like, ‘Things have to be this way.’ And you make a really good point. This is not real. This is mythology. And historically, mythology has changed to fit those people who are telling the story. And it's no different now than it is then.
And I've had people, in arguments say, 'OK, fine, you want to change Bruce Wayne, what about Black Panther? How would you feel if Black Panther were a White guy? And my answer would be, it's not just if you're a White guy. What is the story? And how does that change? And there have been White people born and raised in Africa, and certainly, those are very particular narratives. But tell me what the story is and then I'll tell you whether I think there's value in that story.
This is not real. This is mythology. And historically, [it] has changed to fit those people who are telling the story. And it's no different now than it is then.
Tell me what the story is, and then I can have a discussion with you about why it matters. And by the way, people got all upset about Miles Morales, as I'm sure you know – and now he is one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe. So this idea that it's going to change and nobody is going to want it, they're making a 'Spider-Man' movie. They're making Miles Morales movies, he's the new Spider-Man in the video game. Yo, guess what? There are enough people out there who want to consume entertainment that you can make these shifts and everybody can be happy.
Fox News: How is inclusion factored and worked into the creating of “The Other History of the DC Universe?”
Ridley: I think you have to start with Black Lightning for all the reasons that we talked about because he was so instrumental for me in becoming a storyteller and a creator and he sort of neared my existence at this point, we would have been around the same age. Then, it gets more challenging as the stories progressed –immensely challenging when I start getting outside of my lived experience but still want to represent communities and individuals that have largely either been ignored or marginalized in the storytelling. So after that, we have Mal [Duncan] and Karen [Beecher]. And I thought it was really important to include them because to have a young Black couple who are committed to each other, who are there for each other, who just struggle as a young couple. And certainly, for Mal, I never thought he was handled very well as a character. But Karen Beecher, I thought she was handled fairly well. She's bright, smart, sharp, a young lady who's just a STEM genius who becomes her own hero.
And then in the third issue, we have Tatsu Yamashiro, who is Katana but would have been a Japanese immigrant arriving to America in the 1980s at the height of the anti-Japanese xenophobia in America. And what was that like for her? She's a character who was in 'Suicide Squad.' I think she had maybe three lines in the movie, if at all. But in the comic books, she's a mother and a wife who lost her family and who is just looking for solace as she travels the world.
And then with Renee Montoya, who started as a side character in 'Batman, the Animated Series' but who is a Latinx, gay police officer – I mean, just those factors alone, what is that story and how do you tell that story in this day and age when we have such friction between police and communities? And I thought it was very important to tell that story from that perspective and then rounding it out is Anissa Pierce [Thunder], who is Jefferson Pierce's [Black Lightning] daughter. Pierce is a father, who again, is a very real person and was heroic in many ways, but had blind spots and a very particular blind spot with a daughter who is young and queer and trying to figure out who she is and he’s an older father who has a little bit of trouble accepting that. I just thought those stories, they were certainly representative of the DC Universe.
“They were representatives of characters who were very impactful to me. I thought they were hopefully broadly representative of those communities. And really a good way to hopefully start these conversations on being different is not a negative, it's a positive. You can be different or you can be singular. You can be ‘an other’ or you can be unique. And it starts with how one views themselves. It's an important story for anybody of any age group.”
Book One of “The Other History of the DC Universe” goes on sale Nov. 24 from DC.