In 1938, America created Superman.
While Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are the ones who put the seminal hero on the page, it was America that fully formed him. The image of a red, gold and blue-clad strongman with an eagle on his arm was just what the doctor ordered for white America. But this is not the only America, and the DC superheroes known to most of us, like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, are not the only heroes of our world. There are far too many who, like in our own reality, were denied a place at the table due to their race, sexuality or gender. Their experiences were forgotten, misplaced or tokenized. “The Other History of the DC Universe” by John Ridley finally tells their stories, and the first issue of this miniseries is a triumphant debut.
This issue places its focus on Jefferson Pierce, better known by the moniker “Black Lightning,” as his story is framed around a period spanning from 1972 to 1995. While iconic moments from DC’s 86-year history are present, real events like the 1972 Munich Olympics are also worked into the narrative. This may initially seem a bit strange, but there’s enough of a balance between the two histories that the main story manages to feel relatable yet still fantastical in its setting. However, this balance is less effective in terms of Ridley’s style of writing. The entire comic is written in a prose and essay style, which can at times be a bit wordy within the panel structure. However, the actual writing is superb and more than makes up for Ridley’s growing pains as a result of transitioning from screenwriting to comic book writing. Accordingly, the story being told is incredibly engaging.
Pierce is a very un-comic book hero. His everyman look at heroics and his costume are more akin to Shaft than Batman. His personality is not laid back, but is instead demanding and hard. He knows the world puts Black people at a disadvantage, and he takes this into account as a teacher, father and vigilante. All of this is juxtaposed with the more famous DC heroes, making the Justice League seem like out of touch power freaks, as are “The Seven” from “The Boys” (2019) or “The Minutemen” from “Watchmen” (2019) It’s a strange new look, but if the reader can learn to accept this new view, it’s no less engaging than a regular DC story.
The art is just as impressive and flowing. Giuseppe Camuncoli, Alex Dos Diaz and Andrea Cucchi make each page and panel, which are often one and the same, flow with detail. The scratchy style keeps in line with the grounded tone while still looking beautiful and including numerous allusions to famous DC comics (including a clever “Watchmen” reference for once, who’d have thought?).
Ridley has been unclear about how connected the stories of each issue will be (the next one will supposedly focus on the “Teen Titans’” Bumblebee and The Herald); but even if Pierce’s role in this story is over, Ridley has already succeeded in his mission to tell an excellent Black Lightning story in the process. Just like Superman, America created Black Lightning, and though he may never be as well known as the shining, flying boy Scout, his story is an invaluable reflection of the American experience. This one’s definitely going on the pull list.