The Other History of the DC Universe’s John Ridley on Giving New Voices to Legacy Characters

The Other History of the DC Universe’s John Ridley on Giving New Voices to Legacy Characters

DC Comics’ long-awaited The Other History of the DC Universe from Oscar-winning writer John Ridley is set to debut next month. Gizmodo spoke with Ridley recently about what it’s been like figuring out how to give fresh voices to an expansive cast characters who, while well-known in certain circles, have been historically marginalised both on the page and in the real world.

In the first issue of Ridley’s The Other History, you’re shown the birth of the modern age of superheroism from the perspective of a young Jefferson Pierce, the man fated to become a world-famous athlete, a teacher, and eventually, the hero Black Lightning. Unlike the Black Lightning we’ve been introduced to in DC’s various other continuities where he frequently works alongside legacy heroes, The Other History’s Jefferson is initially a much younger, angrier man with the firm belief that the world’s superheroes aren’t doing enough to help those in marginalised, overlooked communities like his own. Though Jefferson’s feelings about heroes seem harsh, they’re relatable and give you a sense of his own traumatic history featuring the death of his father and then a lifelong pursuit to be the best, strongest version of himself.

When we spoke with Ridley recently about the creative choices that led to The Other History opening this way, he explained how his desire to deconstruct Black Lightning’s identity led to him realising that Jefferson’s always been a person in search of a fight for a number of very different reasons. But as the series continues, Ridley pointed out that the perspectives are meant to shift, illustrating that Jefferson’s feelings don’t speak to everyone’s experiences.

Charles Pulliam-Moore, Gizmodo: What were some of the larger ideas you wanted to tackle with this series?

John Ridley: I think the important thing was the multiplicity of struggles. As a Black man of a certain age, you know, certainly starting with Black Lightning, I could put a lot of me and my perspective into the story, and I certainly did in many ways. More than any of the characters, Black Lightning mirrors so much of my experience. My mother was a teacher and when Black Lightning came out, it was my formative years in the mid-‘70s. But I didn’t want a singular expression either Blackness or authority. I wanted a story that would certainly acknowledge these people’s struggles, their hopes, their successes, their narratives. You know, just the complicated relationship between Jefferson and John Stewart, these two men of colour who are both dealing with how the prevailing culture sees them.

To me, the interesting question was, ‘Well what’s it like when our expectations of each other are either oversized or imbalanced? What’s it like when we have to reconcile those things? What’s it like when we have to acknowledge that my version of Blackness or my version of manhood doesn’t begin to express anybody else’s experiences?

This becomes way bigger in the second issue, which focuses on Mal Duncan [Guardian/Herald] and Karen Beecher [Bumblebee], and that was a larger challenge because Mal, I have a connection to, but for Karen, I have to contextualize what it’s like to be a Black woman from a certain time period, and that was also my challenge writing Renee Montoya, who’s Latinx and queer. I wanted to say that whatever our experiences are as people who’ve been marginalised, they’re definitely not monolithic.

Bumblebee and Herald on the cover of The Other History of the DC Universe #2. (Illustration: Giuseppe Cammuncoli, Marco Matarazzo, DC Comics)
Bumblebee and Herald on the cover of The Other History of the DC Universe #2. (Illustration: Giuseppe Cammuncoli, Marco Matarazzo, DC Comics)

Gizmodo: Talk to me about who Jefferson Pierce is to you? What sort of heroism defines him and sets him apart from DC’s other legacy characters? 

Ridley: [He’s] driven by a sense of “If only I could do this one thing. If only I could be more heroic.” He thinks that if he could have run faster, could have saved his father’s life. He was able to become a decathlete at a time when that was rare for people of colour to make those kinds of achievements, but he realises that once he’s made it to the top of the mountain, there’s nothing to show for it other than a medal. So he becomes a teacher, but he struggles with wondering if he pushes his students too hard.

I think of Black men particularly coming from that greatest generation where you had to fight for everything. You had to fight for the right to fight for your country. You had to fight for the right to vote. You had to fight to sit at the lunch counter you wanted to. To me, that’s who Jefferson was: everything was a fight to him. He had to fight John Stewart and Superman until he realised at one point that he didn’t have to fight that way. Powers don’t define a person or their being a hero. Being there for your family and being his own version for me, that was really what shaped Jefferson as a hero. Setting the bar so high for himself was the source of his struggle, and by the time he becomes a real hero, that’s what he’s overcome.

Gizmodo: This first issue is so charged with Jefferson’s anger and guilt. Where did you have to go, mentally, to inhabit Jefferson’s voice?

Ridley: There’s always elements that are parts of me, and the things that may seem furthest from me on the page are actually things that I feel most personally. I’m no better or no worse when I’m writing about bigotry or intolerance because I’ve been intolerant in my life. I’ve been judgmental. I wouldn’t say that Jefferson is me, but I certainly grew up around a lot of Black men who I think are very similar to Jefferson.

Again, as we kind of move away from Jeff in subsequent issues, I was going going to a lot of people asking them to read my scripts to get their honest opinions. I needed to know where I was falling short, what I was getting wrong, where I wasn’t getting deep enough, or when I was being too typical or stereotypical. In terms of the emotional velocity of all the stories, I’m not Latinx, I’m not gay, or queer, but love is still the same. Anger? It’s the same. For all of us, those emotions may be triggered by different things, but wanting, yearning, guilt? Those cut across all demographics.

Guardian and Bumblebee on the cover of The Other History of the DC Universe #2. (Illustration: Jamal Campbell)
Guardian and Bumblebee on the cover of The Other History of the DC Universe #2. (Illustration: Jamal Campbell)

Gizmodo: You mentioned Karen earlier. What’s your vision for Bumblebee?

Ridley: When I was going back to read some of these stories to remember them, there was this fog of memory that comes, because it’d been so long since I’d first experienced them, you know? But one of the things that was really clear to me immediately was my feeling that character Mal Duncan had always been really mismanaged over the years. He’d had all these frankly bad identities like Herald and the Guardian.

Karen though, surprisingly, was this Black, female character who came onto the scene in the ‘70s that DC handled very well. She was like Black Girl Magic before Black Girl Magic was a thing. She loved her man and got so sick of the Teen Titans disrespecting him that she went out with a plan to attack them. I wanted to show in her character this self-assuredness and lack of doubt.

With Jefferson, I wanted to deconstruct the character, but with Karen, it was really about reintroducing who she was — in my opinion, she was so ahead of her time — to fans who may know Bumblebee, but might not know that she was this hallmark of progressive representation for Black women.

Gizmodo: What do you hope people take away from the series?

Ridley: I certainly hope that in every regard, it upends expectations about what graphic novels can be. The continuity of storytelling that a lot of these characters came from were created by straight, white men, and they did the best that they could [in being] reflective of experiences that weren’t their own.

The biggest takeaway I hope is that there’s some reader from a different background who’s inspired for positive reasons. Not because they look at these older stories and think to themselves “Ah, man, they fucked it up so I have to go out and get into comics.” But instead where somebody goes “Oh, I’m seeing this character for the first time, and maybe one day I want to get into writing. Or be an artist.” And that can happen. If I can do it, anybody can do it. When any of us create, there’s this implicit invitation to join in.

The first book of The Other History of the DC Universe hits stores on November 24.