Review: ‘The Other History Of The DC Universe’ #1 Is A Precient Alternative Take On The History Of DC’s Black Characters

The Other History of The DC Universe #1 is a bold new comic book limited series from 12 Years A Slave scriptwriter John Ridley. One that gives a very different and distinct overview of DC Comics history of black characters going back to the Bronze Age. All told through the perspective of DC Comics premier black hero of that era, Jefferson Pierce, aka, Black Lightning.

This is not a Black Lightning like you’ve ever seen before, that’s for sure. Ridley’s hero recognises institutional racism when he sees it and one who’s happy to call it out too. A progressive hero for a less progressive time. So, in Pierce’s eyes Superman may have been an alien, but he was white, and “wrapped in red, white and blue” and so “his passport was stamped” and accepted. It’s this kind of fresh new take on the DCU that flows throughout thus debut issue and one that could not be more prescient right now.

Even the choice of font goes against the norm, with the use of a lettering more associated with novels than comics and favouring a personal narration by Black Lightning which leans heavy on the prosaic. It certainly tests the skills of letterer Steve Wands, who delivers impressively adding balance to each lavish page of art.

Beyond its subject matter, The Other History of The DC Universe #1 stands out from then crowd of new books out last week. It amounts to something like a hybrid novel and comic book. Add to that the DC Black Label prestige format and oversized pages and you get a very distinctive book in presentation, narration and tone.

And, as a DC Black Label book it has the enviable position as being a story that’s set out of continuity allowing Ridley to work his way through the eras appropriate for his stars. And so we get Jefferson Piece at the 1972 Olympics, but missing out on the golden pot of money showered on the likes of white athletes like Mark Spitz thanks to the institutionalised racism we are all far more aware of since then. This mixing of real-life events with comic book characters works really well and allows Ridley to make meta-textual comments on the creation and use of black characters at DC Comics in a wider context. 

And so we get to revisit key events from DCU’s past but in a very real world context. For instance, readers get to revisit the public’s reception of John Stewart as the first black Green Lantern. A reception reflected in the characters handling at DC Comics by the white creators of the day. Always the bridesmaid never the bride. Always seen as the second fiddle to the great white saviour that is Hal Jordan.

Too often when both DC Comics and Marvel did try their best address social issues back in the 70s, their BAME heroes were often created by white middle class men who simply could not relate to the black experience of that era. We’ve had a lot of sloppy superheroes with ‘Black’ prefixing a good deal of their superhero identities who are still about today. Thus, Jon Stewart is seen by our narrator as “an appeaser”, someone not willing to rock the boat. Through Pierce’s narrative we can clearly hear Ridley’s own voice and views in hindsight on this period in DC Comics publishing. 

Art wise, Giuseppe Camuncoli proves a great fit for this book. He has a great eye for the dramatic and a flair for composition too, with each page of this story delivering punch after punch in a compositional knockout! There is seldom a dull panel, even when Black Lightning relates the most domestic and mundane of events in his own life. On this series, his style reminds me of a scaled back Bill Sienkiewicz at times, but with a good eye for nostalgic homage too, with many panels lovely lifted straight out of classic comics of yesteryear, with the tipping of the hat to the likes of Jim Aparo, Neal Adams and more. He certainly is something of a chameleon of an artist when I think of his work on Undiscovered Country. You wouldn’t know its as the same artist. Although, how much of that is down to the work of his finisher in tis issue, Andrea Cucchi, remains to be determined. Bit, they certainly make a great team.

Beyond the colourful capes and cowls lies another story too. The story of black culture and context that reflects real life more than the heroes depicted within. Although, to hammer his point home he does play fast and loose with the history of the DCU. And so, the Justice League are formed in America’s bicentennial year of 1976 so that it better suits the story Ridley wants to presents. The story of Black America, but with superheroes. And so, in this context the Justice League become another example of white, male middle class dominance and privilege against which the likes of Black Lightning either rails against or conforms to. Even his recruitment into the Outsiders is not afraid to throw some shade on Batman. This defilement of DC Comics’ sacred cows is refreshing to read in a book full of alternative takes. 

Of course, there are points made here that aren’t all that original. Superheroes don’t do ghettos being one of them. But, Black Lightning did. 

The Jefferson Pierce of this series is rightfully a healthy cynic after years of being oppressed and his neighbourhood ignored. But, this narrative tone that offers up fresh new take on the likes of Superman and Batman offers readers a much more blunt and damning report.

But, beneath this all is the story of one man’s life and his attempts to make a difference in the world. A task that strains his marriage to the point of almost breaking. A man who has felt the unthinking hand of racism endemic in our society and our thinking. In this book, Superman become a symbol of the establishment and white privilege; a rather radical reinterpretation of Kal-El but one that doesn’t ring false, either.  And, after this issue, I can’t wait to see Ridley’s take on the next phase of the DCU.

The Other History of The DC Universe #1 is out now from DC Comics/DC Black Label

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