John Ridley on Politics, Superheroes and History Repeating in 'The American Way'

American Way 2 Panel - Publicity - H 2017
Georges Jeanty/DC Entertainment
The Academy Award-winning screenwriter has returned to comics after 10 years for the new DC miniseries.

With this week's release of its second issue, John Ridley and Georges Jeanty's The American Way: Those Above and Those Below continues its investigation into the interplay between superheroes, society and politics in the 1970s.

Those Above and Those Below is a follow-up to 2006's The American Way and takes place a decade after the original series, with the Academy Award-winning writer Ridley reteaming with the fan-favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer artist Jeanty to revive characters such as the New American, Ole Miss and Amber Waves, superheroes created as all-American propaganda in more innocent times and now trying to come to terms with a brave new, far more uncertain, world.

Heat Vision spoke to Ridley about returning to the series (and comics) after a 10-year gap, and what today's readers can learn from the past.

The new series doesn't just take place 10 years after the first American Way, you and Georges Jeanty are creating it 10 years on, as well. Did that gap in working on these characters influence where you ended up taking the story this time around?

It was always intended that, if the series had continued a year after the first iteration, I'd wanted to move the story 10 years on. I'd wanted to take a decade-by-decade examination of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans, where our psyche is. I believe that we as a nation, as we progressed [from the 1962 setting of the original series], we began to realize that the threats that we face, they're less externalized — it wasn't about the Soviet Union, or Communism, or the domino theory or all of those things that we were afraid of. It became more internalized: racial injustice, intolerance, lack of progressive nature, the rise of the "urban terrorist."

[The original series] was about the agitprop, about something that was analogous to the space race — there was so much of the iconography that was about selling America, "American can-do" and American might. As we progressed, the issues that we face are the ones up the street and around the block, still today — Russia, China, they're adversaries, but I don't think many people think we're going to devolve into nuclear war tomorrow, although North Korea is obviously an issue. The issues that we face — how we engage with our fellow countrymen, whether we're a progressive society or a regressive society, the interaction between police and citizenry — those remain. Those are the same, and that's where the struggle is.

The set-up for The American Way was about setting up this world and establishing the characters, and the bigger ideology for an audience who might draw parallels between this world and what they see in Justice League or The Avengers, but set in as real a world as we can image, and then, 10 years later, watching those individuals dealing with the consequences of their actions, and the past becoming present again. Do we as people really change, or is human nature just that we become more of who we really are? That's really what we're dealing with in this second series.

You talk about past becoming present, and that's something that I was thinking especially in reading the second issue of the series, with Ole' Miss turning to politics. It's difficult to not read in certain political figures in her position these days.

There are certainly some things that become more and more refined as you get closer to script, but we started working on this second series before the present [administration], before the very raw politics that we're dealing with, but the idea of celebrity as president — the idea of hostile interaction between police and citizenry, or the idea of people feeling that the only way to save the system being to burn down the system — those things aren't new. They're happening now, they happened 10 years ago, they happened in the '70s. They happened long before I even considered the first series.

At Comic-Con, I was asked, "Are you trying to comment on present-day society?" and, it's not that I'm commenting on what's going on today, but there's a cyclical nature to things. You can look at the end of the Nixon era, through Carter — when people thought America was going to change — and then it becomes Reagan, it becomes about a former actor who's charismatic and is a wonderful public speaker but may not have a lot behind it in terms of ideology. People were all, 'Oh, he's never going to be president, and if he is going to be president, he's just going to be a complete idiot and nothing will be accomplished,' and obviously, that wasn't entirely true. He was elected, and some people think he was the greatest president. Some people think he was just a guy who shammed his way through eight years. The things we're going through now, they're not new. What we have to examine is, why do we continue to keep going through these cycles? How do we break these cycles?

That's what these heroes are dealing with now in this second series. They were brought in initially to point America in a better direction, but America didn't get there. We just went through a cycle, again, where what President Obama represented at the election was our better angels. Whatever people might think about him, whatever happened to the idea that the people who lead us represent the best of us? That's the question of this series — the heroes have all these powers and abilities, but do they matter in the real world?

Unlike the first series, The American Way: Those Above and Those Below feels like a fragmented narrative where you're dealing with so any different threads and stories co-existing simultaneously. How did you decide which characters would return, and which stories were worth telling?

I think if you're a writer who appreciates world-building, then you have to have some appreciation of where the characters could potentially go, even if we'd never gotten to the second series. Do they exist beyond the first page and the last page? Much of what you're seeing now, with Jason, with Amber, with Missy — and with a few surprises that are coming; well, hopefully, they're surprises — much of that was in place even as we were going through the first series. I believed that, if we continued, that Jason — without a doubt, because there was no way that Jason would not be included — and Amber would be included. Her arc in the first series, going from being extremely optimistic to being an assertive woman who is ready to stand up and fight for what she believes in — love, and feminism — was one of the most important.

Even Ole' Miss, who is struggling with trying to be a progressive — she tried to do the right thing and she feels like she was beaten up for it. That's what's so interesting to me. If it were just about me and my perspective, I hope that it would be a good story, but it would just be one story. Telling the story from multiple perspectives, it challenges in new ways. We deal with things that are outside of any one individual's capacity — the audience can go, 'Well, that one I get, that one I don't like, that one I get…' To me, that's what makes it strong. It can keep challenging.

As I said, you come back to this series after 10 years of working in movies and television. What is it about comics that brought you back? What makes it worth returning?

I think the fact that you really are only limited by your imagination. Film and television, obviously I love them and I take pride in what I do, but you think about films — how big they can be, how immersive they can be, but you're still fighting a budget and limitations on the way you can render fantasy. The story can be wonderful, but people can walk away and say, "That looked kind of digital." In comics, even with the art, it's a theater of imagination, where art and story and character progression obviously have to work on the page, but you have to leave space for the audience to fill things in, and move between the panels and fill in those gaps. That's what makes graphic novel writing so strong: you really are in partnership with the audience, and you're not merely sitting them down and saying, "I'm going to show you every image and every frame." This really is about trying to sit with the reader and saying, "We're going to share an experience."

Graphic novels are a more active experience — even turning that page, going back, going forward, it makes the audience active. That's what makes graphic novels very, very special.

Published by DC Entertainment's Vertigo imprint, the first two issues of The American Way: Those Above and Those Below are now available in comic book stores and digitally.