John Ridley Unveils 'The Other History of the DC Universe'

The Other History of the DC Universe - Publicity -H 2020
Giuseppe Cammuncoli and Marco Mastrazzo/DC
The Oscar-winning '12 Years a Slave' writer unpacks the hidden stories behind the comic book universe's 80-plus-year mythology.

Years after the completion of the second outing of his alternate history series The American Way, 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley is returning to comics to reveal The Other History of the DC Universe. The long-awaited series, exploring DC’s lengthy comic book mythology from a new angle, has been newly scheduled for a November release.

The five-part series, originally announced in 2018, re-examines important and iconic moments from DC’s comic book history from the point of view of characters from traditionally disenfranchised groups, including Jefferson Pierce — better known as Black Lightning — and Renee Montoya (The Question). Giuseppe “Cammo” Camuncoli, Andrea Cucchi, and colorist José Villarrubia are the artists for the series, with covers from Camuncoli and Jamal Campbell (Far Sector, Naomi).

The Other History of the DC Universe will begin Nov. 24, with the series being released every second month from that point forward. The Hollywood Reporter talked to Ridley about the series, and the less-explored past of DC’s heroes.

Coming up with not only the history of the DC universe, but what’s essentially a secret history — one that’s not the traditional big stories starring the big names, but something focusing on lesser known, if no less important, characters — it has me wondering, where did this come from? Are you secretly a massive Black Lightning fan, John?

It goes way back. When I was a kid, believe it or not for a writer, I used to hate reading, much to my parents chagrin — particularly my mom, because she's a teacher. I just hated to read and hated anything that even felt like formal education. Then, at one point, I discovered comic books, and my parents were like, "Hey, if you'll read them, we'll buy them." That was really the beginning of the process.

For years, as much as I love Batman, Superman and the Justice League, there were not characters of color, characters who looked anything like me. Sure, there were some that were out there: John Stewart, you know, sort of the backup Green Lantern. On the Marvel side, there were a few. But by and large, they were not the A-Team. They were not characters that necessarily had or lead in their own books.

When Black Lightning came out, I remember, as a younger person, how that felt to have a series that was led by a man of color, who in his regular identity was a teacher. Like I said, my mom was a teacher. It was a comic book that really, for me, for the first time, I felt like, "Oh, okay, this is for us as much as anybody else. The book, the universe, all of those things, you know, this is for us." If I ever had at an age felt like, "Oh, I want to be a writer, I want to be a creator, I want to be a storyteller, I want to deal in the fantastic," certainly when Black Lightning came out, it was a moment that galvanized that feeling.

How did you go from that to The Other History?

Jump to years and years later. I'd done some writing for Wildstorm, which at that point was an imprint of DC. I'd written an Authority one-shot and I'd written a really wild Warblade that Simon Bisley had done the art for, and then did the first in the series The American Way. And then my life sort of changed. I was doing more writing for film, doing more writing for television, and as much as I love graphic novels, I just wasn't writing on a monthly series, so it kind of fell by the wayside.

About 2017, DC approached me again and were like, "Hey, would you be interested in picking up The American Way?" I was surprised that they were interested in it, but I loved the series, and I was like, absolutely. DC really wanted to make a statement in terms of their belief in me as a writer and a creator, and they gave me a multi-book deal — one [of which] was going to be the [second series of] American Way, and the other one was undecided. It was really impressive that they were going to give me a deal for two books, and we had no idea on what that second book would be. So, I went in and pitched this idea.

Years and years and years ago, after Crisis on Infinite Earths — which was one of these big DC events that was really meant to make the complete DC universe more coherent — the creative team behind that series did a short series, called The History of the DC Universe. And they really treated the history like real history, and put it in a timeline and really tried to say, you know, "It started here, and then this happened, and this happened, and this happened." I just thought it was really cool, that they treated lore like fact, that they treated mythology like history.

So, eventually they're like, "OK, John, what do you want to do?" And I said, "What I would really like to do is the other history of the DC universe." Everything that the creative team did back in the day, but with people of color and people of traditionally marginalized backgrounds who were there every step of the way, who may not have been central characters: what was it like for them? What were their struggles? What were their successes, what in certain instances set them not only against the prevailing culture, but the concept that we as people of color are not monolithic?

We see life differently, we experience things differently. What would it be like to take these characters and try to put them in a real timeline and look at moments in the history of the DC Universe, but also in real history? What was it like for these characters being part of it and during it, watching it? What were their successes? And what how did each new generation build on the efforts and the experiences of the past generation?

DC, to their great credit, as big and as unwieldy as the series turned out to be — because trust me, it was far bigger and deeper than I expected when I pitched it — were there every step of the way. Over what will be, when the series is done and finally published, almost three-and-a-half years, they remained supportive throughout the process. They said, basically, "Whatever you need, we're here for you," and they stuck by it.

I'm deeply appreciative because the series deserved it. I don't mean me, I don't mean my work — I mean these characters. The history, the history of the DC Universe.

You reference the original History of the DC Universe — that series was prose with illustrations, rather than traditional comics. Is that what you're doing with this series as well?

It's certainly more prose than one would find in a standard comic series. I came at it as a writer, as I would back in the day when I was writing novels. But one of the artists that I'm working with, Giuseppe Camuncoli, came on board to really do a graphic layout and design to give this sequential flow. Originally, when I approached it, it was, here's a bunch of text, here's a bunch of prose, and we'll figure out the art. As the series grew, it became very clear that this was something that was really going to need a really creative partnership that would take this prose that may have been one page and say, "Well, we need to dispense this over maybe two pages, three pages."

It became what it needed to be. It's not just prose and spot art. It's not panel art. It has a real graphic flow and design to it, but it's singular. It's singular because it just has its own flow and feel. Each book, we wanted to make sure it had its own feel, as well, because each of these individuals that the stories are nexused around, they have their own identity. It's a project like no other. 

How did you choose the characters the series focuses on? Obviously, you have a connection to Black Lightning, but how did you come to Mal Duncan, Renee Montoya are the other characters in the series?

It's tough. I mean, on the one hand, as a person of color, I just feel like there aren't enough characters like me out there. On the other end, when you're talking about a limited series, there's so many characters. So who are you going to go with? Absolutely, yes, Black Lightning, for what he meant to me — what he meant to the DC universe: the first character of color in the DC universe to topline a book. Most definitely, he was the character that I wanted to kick the series off with.

And then Mal and Karen Duncan. I wanted a couple of color that had their ups and downs, but were very committed to each other. It was very important to see people of color, beyond being heroes, beyond being [individual] characters, but characters who are in a relationship and were part of a larger organization — the Titans and the Teen Titans — but had their ups and downs in that group as well.

Renee Montoya was, to me, a really interesting character. Everything about her — to be Latina, to be a police officer, to be a character that started in the television space, but now is very, very central in the graphic novel space, as well as the film space in the DC Universe, and an LGBTQ character, and what it was like for her to be a cop, to be Latina, to be gay, to come out. All of those elements I thought were very, very important. Particularly now! There are conversations in her story about what it's like to be a cop, when sometimes there are cops out there who are not doing their brothers and sisters in uniforms any favors by how they police, and the difficulty in treating that occupation as a very real occupation.

Tatsu Yamashiro, who is Katana, arrived to comic books in the 1980s — at the same time in the 1980s, so many Americans were very suspect of Japanese individuals and Japan as a nation, of that society. So here you have a Japanese female individual who's coming to America by invitation of Batman. What it's like for her to be a hero in a nation where so many individuals were just playing fearful of the Japanese and Japanese culture. I just thought there was no better lens to look at that time period and America as an outsider, as an immigrant — literally an outsider as well as the [superhero team she belonged to], the Outsiders, and what that was like for her in that group working with Jefferson Pierce.

Rounding out the book is Anissa Pierce, who I thought was a great way to close out the series. Here you have the daughter of a longtime hero, but they see the world differently, and see moments even in Jefferson Pierce's narrative [differently]. When you see her, when you read her story, there are moments that you will see from Jefferson's story that she sees very differently. It’s important seeing Anissa as a young adult appreciating what her father has done, but still needing to have her own voice to be her own person to be her own hero. As a young person, a young woman, a young woman of color, a young woman from a LGBTQ community, I could not think of a better person to really bookend the series.

That's one of the things that I really wanted to do with the series. For any reader, they may be really excited about Black Lightning, they may be really excited about Renee Montoya, and say, "hey, I want to buy this issue, I want to buy that issue." It was very important for me that each of these stories individually should feel complete and satisfying to the reader, but at the same time, if you read all of these books in the series — and I certainly hope people will — there are moments where there is some memory, where there is some alignment, where there are events that these characters see from different lenses, that reward the reader that does want to tackle the entire series.

What was the research process like for this? I’m imagining you having to read decades worth of comics, yet somehow maintaining a throughline of these different characters that has to stay coherent, not just consistent. Did it leave you with more of an appreciation for all the stories they’d previously appeared in?

I believe that historically, the writers, the artists who work with these characters, if they're anything like me, have got to appreciate what others have done in the past, as well as look at [it] and say, "How can I take these characters and make them urgent for the present and give them longevity for the future?" It was a lot of reading for me, it was a lot of going back to stories that I thought I remembered and reading them again and looking at them through fresh eyes. It was dropping down many many rabbit holes: "this story leads to that story leads to, wait a minute, you know, whatever happened with that character?"

Over the years and decades, these stories start to branch out like tributaries from a river, and there were moments also where it was like, "OK, I'm going to be, as one of our ex-presidents used to say, the decider." You know, the story went in this direction or that direction, but I'm going to pick this direction because this element remains potent to me. I know these characters are our lore and they're fictional, but at the same time, I do think one has to have a certain amount of reverence and respect for the past. Even with that, you do have to be a little bit fearless, and say, "Irrespective of how certain people may feel, I'm going to take ownership of the story. And I'm going to take it in this direction."

I love these characters. I love the history, I love DC. I love the stories that these creators in the past have told, and this is a way to have a continuum. This is a way to have a legacy. This is a way to make all of this history hopefully a little bit more relevant for the next generation of readers. Knowing how I felt when I got that Black Lightning story, I hope that there's so many readers out there who'll feel, "Oh my god, here's a book that's maybe engineered a little bit more towards my lived experience."