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‘The Other History of the DC Universe #1’ (review)

Written by John Ridley
Art by Alex Dos Diaz
Published by DC Comics
Buy it Digitally from comiXology

 

When I first heard that John Ridley would be writing a retelling of the DC Universe through the eyes of marginalized heroes, I felt nothing but unbound excitement.

The racially conscious, Black screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave and American Crime, whose prose was thoughtful and layered yet propulsive in storytelling, would get his hands on Black Lightning?

The Black Lightning who had seen a resurgence in comics and TV in the hands of Black creators? At a moment of racial reckoning in America 2020?

This first issue brings everything you would expect, and more. If the rest of the series follows on this level, in time this could sit on a shelf next to Watchmen, Batman: Year One, The Sandman and all the other greatest DC stories of all time.

A longtime writer of television and film, Ridley’s style brings cinematic sweep alongside Camuncoli and Cucchi’s art.

The artwork is both detailed and a little hand-drawn rough in a way that reminds me of Klaus Janson’s inks over Frank Miller. It’s outsized enough to fit within superhero fiction, with many callbacks to famous stories and images from DC’s history.

However, Camuncoli and Cucchi go gritty enough to evoke our real world. It’s the kind of art this project requires, because this is not some fantastic parallel Earth that’s like ours. No, Ridley frames this story as happening in the America we know and lived through in the years 1972 to 1995 through the life of Jefferson Pierce aka Black Lightning.

Black Lightning, engaged in a battle for the streets in Suicide Slum, sees Superman and the heroes of the Justice League as embodiments of white privilege in American society. They get to fight whatever threats they want, when they feel like it, while systemic problems and the people who suffer under them go unheeded. The Man of Steel does come to the other side of MLK Boulevard where the ghetto is.

The Silver Age era of comic books ended in 1972, and what we now call the Bronze Age began. At DC Comics, this was a time marked by Denny O’Neil writing social commentary into Green Lantern/Green Arrow and returning Batman to his dark roots with Neal Adams.

This was also was a time when DC began to put out a handful of Black heroes and other heroes of color, including Black Lightning, Green Lantern John Stewart, Vixen, Katana, and later Cyborg.

Frankly, it’s bracing and encouraging to see Ridley presumably write his own frustrations with the genre’s lacking diversity into Jefferson’s reactions to those heroes.

I say that because, as a Black superhero comic book fan myself, I have felt and heard those reactions to Black heroes over the decades: they’re too few to matter/count in the mainstream; sidelined next to the “real” (i.e. white and male) version; badly written and drowned in stereotypes; or a jealousy over these characters because they wouldn’t get the Black creators they deserved to make them stick.

Sometimes, it was better to turn on those characters because we knew their existence would be stunted by creators and readers prejudiced against elevating characters who weren’t white men. At the top of that heap for DC heroes were Black Lightning – who was a joke from Super Friends in my childhood – and John Stewart.

Ridley’s story cuts out before Bruce Timm’s revamp of the character in the Justice League cartoon first hits the world in 2001. However, seeing Black Lightning’s reconciliation with John Stewart and all he represented felt like reckoning and catharsis nonetheless.

The issue takes us to some unexpected places that feel more humanly shocking and disappointing than they probably should. Black Lightning’s run-in with the Justice League feels so commonly sad, as they debate the optics of bringing on a Black hero while half the membership isn’t even human.

Black Lightning remarks on the world’s acceptance of Superman – alien, stronger than a thousand armies – as a case of white privilege. In Ridley’s writing, Superman’s white skin literally shines because sunlight reflects off its bulletproof density. It’s the “Superman’s a square” sentiment brought forth in a way Frank Miller never did.

But don’t think all these commentaries distract from Jefferson Pierce telling us the story of his life, his career as a teacher, as a husband and father. Ridley does such a fine job using Jefferson as a vehicle to show the conflict between individual success and the collective degradation of Black people under racism. The burden of representation and the obligation to reach back for others when you’ve “made it,” while questioning the fairness of that obligation.

Instead, they all weave together, the personal and political. Jefferson’s private pain flows from systemic injustice, and his fight against street gangs feed his fury while never satisfying it, because the struggle never stops. Those events and realizations add to some intriguing reversals as Black Lightning gets into his years with Batman and the Outsiders, and he sees how much he has in common with other heroes in addition to what sets him apart.

This isn’t a comic book as much as a graphic memoir. Be prepared to read big stretches of prose and let your mind play the pictures in your head. But it’s compelling stuff, daring you to sink into it, and let its questions sink into you.

Go snap this one up. Go now.

 

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