John Ridley is best known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave, but before he found success with movies and TV shows such as American Crime, graphic novels were his passion. He vividly recalls the first time he picked up a comic book with a character who actually looked like him. It was Black Lightning, created by Tony Isabella with Trevor Von Eeden for DC Comics 1977. So it was no coincidence Ridley traveled to Washington, D.C. to watch the premiere of the first African-American superhero on network TV during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend.
“To live long enough to see this character achieve some mainstream popularity, it’s huge,” Ridley told Newsweek. “For a lot of people, you can’t imagine what it was like that first time pulling a comic book out of a paper bag and seeing someone who looks like you.”
The personal and professional impact of this early experience carries through to today, and his new project is rooted in his shared devotion with DC Comics’ to achieve more inclusion in art and media. The Other History Of The DC Universe will examine watershed events throughout the history of DC Comics, tracking sociopolitical gains from the perspective of characters who come from oppressed groups. The stories aren’t about saving the world, rather “having the strength to simply be who you are.” Ridley said when he first put in the call to DC, each party assumed the other wouldn’t be interested.
“It was kind of like having a significant other that you never expressed how you feel. DC was so excited. They just assumed, ‘Why would you want to do graphic novels when you are doing film and television?’ This is why I do film and television, because of the storytelling,” Ridley said. “Their passion for at this point in their history, really shifting these lenses, has been absolutely amazing.”
The Other History Of The DC Universe will follow characters such as John Stewart, Extraño, Vixen, Supergirl, Katana and Rene Montoya, who Ridley asserts have earned their seat at the table. Within 24 hours of the announcement, fans made even more suggestions, making his job even harder.
“The exciting thing is the energy and enthusiasm for characters that are familiar, but that haven't been excavated. I think the challenge is that I can't tell every story,” Ridley said. “I've been thinking about it for a long time, but as it gets close to reality, there’s this sort of inverse relationship. The closer you get, it’s like trying to break the speed of light. The closer you get, the more weight, the more gravity you're carrying, and the harder it is go get past it.”
Ridley did not reveal the artist collaborators for The Other History Of The DC Universe, but he did specify the story (as of right now) will start in 1972 and run to the mid or late 90’s. That was the time he was reading comic books and when a lot of the characters he plans to make use of were introduced.
“I’d like to cut it off before the 2000s. At this point, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman they kind of have to reinvent. They’ve been around for 80 years or so. So for these characters that I'm very familiar with, they really arrived at demarcations in my life and would be of a certain age at this point,” he said.
What excites Ridley most about exploring DC’s unwritten history is looking back to the characters’ mortality and defining what it was like for them to exist in that time period.
“What was really happening in the world and why did they not get involved in this? Politically, what did it mean for these things to not happen?” Ridley explained. “How they dealt with the AIDS crisis, those kind of things. I want it to exist in DC’s universe, but live in a real world.”