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Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big (and small) screen.
The DC Universe is a space populated by secret origins, histories defined by crises, and larger than life characters whose stories are part of a grand legacy. Oscar-winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), along with artists Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi, is tackling another side of those origins, histories, and legacies with The Other History of the DC Universe. The five-issue bimonthly series from DC’s Black Label imprint explores the DC Universe through the lens of heroes from traditionally marginalized, and POC perspectives: Black Lightning (Jefferson Pierce), Herald (Mal Duncan) and Bumblebee (Karen Beecher), The Question (Renee Montoya), and Katana (Tatsu Yamashiro). The series debuts ahead of Ridley’s upcoming Batman miniseries, which will feature a person of color underneath the cowl, rather than Bruce Wayne.
In a number of ways The Other History of the DC Universe feels like a prelude of sorts to Ridley tackling race with DC’s biggest character in a presumably contemporary setting. While the DC Universe has always had a fantastic cadre of characters of color, Ridley is bringing those characters to the forefront, which feels monumental, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter events of 2020.
The first issue of The Other History of the DC Universe centers on Black Lightning. Covering 1972 to 1995, Book One follows the ups and down of Jefferson Pierce, beginning with Jefferson’s origins as an Olympic track hopeful growing up in Metropolis’ Suicide Slum. Through his eyes, we witness the arrival of Superman, a shining beacon who is embraced as much for the color of his skin and the red and blue of his costume as much as his powers. As the age of heroes dawn, the arrival of Batman, then Wonder Woman, and then an entire league of heroes, Jefferson’s struggle with purposelessness causes his powers to manifest. Ridley’s novelistic prose carries the reader through Jefferson’s years with ease, taking its time, with no rush towards the costumed career that eventually comes. Ridley focuses on the personhood of Jefferson Pierce and that makes all the difference. After all, we’ve gotten volumes and volumes about the early years of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, examined as sprawling American odysseys. Why should Jefferson Pierce’s journey be any less?
But it’s not just Jefferson’s individual journey that makes The Other History of the DC Universe soar. It’s the attention to history, the understanding of systemic oppression, and the fallacy in which Suicide Slum exits in despair while a few streets over downtown Metropolis thrives, protected by Superman who doesn’t spare a glance towards the slum, and is bound by his need to be liked and exist within a space of white privilege that serves as a balm for the belonging he’ll never receive from his own extinct race. And this honest, complex criticism of Superman through Jefferson’s perspective is not the only expertly aimed stone lobbed at the superheroes. John Stewart, who Jefferson describes as the first hero who looked like “us,” is regarded as a substitute by the media, secondary to Hal Jordan. And by the community of Suicide Slum, by Black people, Stewart is, by Jefferson’s initial account, a man out of touch with the needs of the community, literally hovering just off the ground in a seemingly fearless state of ignorance and arrogance. The relationship changes over the course of years, with Jefferson and John finding meaning in their similarities rather than their differences. But when it comes down to it, The Justice League is not an infallible entity, and placing them within the context of history allows for the luxury of seeing how their apolitical stance creates a sense of disillusionment in Jefferson.
Oddly enough, the release of the issue comes just several days after The CW’s cancelation of Black Lightning. Yet, it’s so apparent that the world needs superheroes of color, not just in movies every few years, but on a consistent basis. The Other History of the DC Universe is special because it works within the framework of long standing comic book continuity. But, Ridley’s story also feels like something necessary within our pop-culture, something that could conceivably exist alongside Watchmen on HBO Max’s and its growing DC content.
What Ridley offers here is something that would fit quite well within the impetus of Zack Snyder’s DCEU films. Rather than aiming to tell the stories of these characters as ideals, as comic book icons who fit within our need to see audience-friendly exceptionalism and, most often, clearly defined morals, as the MCU has found its success in doing, The Other History of the DC Universe isn’t afraid of criticizing these heroes, of looking at them in the context of real-world prejudices and struggles with faith and character. This isn’t about Superman being the best of us, Batman being an unbeatable genius or Wonder Woman as a shining paragon for progress. It’s about an alien, passing for white, who cares deeply about what the ruling class thinks of him. A vigilante whose privilege allows him to be seen as a knight rather than a thug, but who’s perceived heroism is an excuse to work through his own psychodrama. And an Amazon princess who exists as a contradiction between war and peace, but refuses to step far enough in either direction. It’s about how all of those things impact the struggles of being both a Black man and a hero.
The Other History of the DC Universe isn’t only a book that answers for the failings of superhero culture, it is essential in terms of pushing the medium forward. If the following four issues reach the same heights as this first issue then we’re not only looking at one of the best books of the year, but a book that could be spoken about in the same breath as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, a watershed moment for the forward motion of our consideration of superheroes.
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Jon M. Chu