THE OTHER HISTORY OF THE DC UNIVERSE #1/ Story by JOHN RIDLEY/ Layouts by GIUSEPPE CAMUNCOLI/ Finishes by ANDREA CUCCHI/ Colors by JOSE VILLARRUBIA/ Letters by STEVE WANDS/ Published by DC BLACK LABEL
Recently, Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley gave an interview where he revealed that the Black Lightning comics of Tony Isabella helped inspire him to become a writer. It is fitting then that The Other History Of The DC Universe #1 should start with the story of Jefferson Pierce and how he tried to change the world as an Olympian and a teacher before becoming a costumed hero. Yet the history here goes beyond the life of the first black superhero to have a solo series at DC Comics and takes a long look at how the society of the DC Universe treated heroes of color.
The Other History of The DC Universe avoids the standard comic book format, with panels and word balloons. The prose, presented in the form of Pierce’s journal or an interview, appears alongside the illustrations, like captions over a photograph. This subtly encourages the idea that we are reading a true historical account rather than a fictional story, which is fitting as Ridley’s script sets Jefferson Pierce’s life against the background of real world events like the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympics and the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979.
While this does add context to the narrative, the real story is how Jefferson Pierce tried to build himself up and how his efforts to make himself into a man who could stand on his own drove away the woman he loved. This is a point in Pierce’s background that has been retconned a few times over the years. It proves notable here, however, because Ridley’s script is easily the best written attempt in DC Comics’ history to reconcile the existence of Anissa and Jennifer Pierce with Tony Isabella’s belief that Jefferson Pierce would never have risked his life as a vigilante if it might result in his daughters growing up without a father. (The decision to retroactively make Jefferson a father, it should be noted, was the result of another writer not doing their research.)
By contrast, Ridley clearly studied, as his script recalls every major appearance of Black Lightning from 1977 through just before Crisis on Infinite Earths and makes Jefferson’s voice ring true throughout. We empathize with Jefferson’s annoyance with the seemingly-arrogant John Stewart and Superman only showing up in the slums of Metropolis that Jefferson protected after the newspapers dubbed Black Lightning a menace. Ridley also adds in some scenes, including an encounter between Jefferson and Mari McCabe before she took the name Vixen, and a touching moment where Jefferson reaches out to John Stewart after hearing about his failure to save the planet Xanshi. These scenes are added into the narrative so seamlessly that even now I find myself wondering if I’m mistaken and there’s not some obscure pre-Crisis book where Vixen and Black Lightning did meet that I’ve never read.
The artwork proves the equal of the story. Giuseppe Camuncoli restages a number of iconic moments from DC Comics’ history, but makes them his own even as the style evokes the memory of Neal Adams, George Perez and Trevor Von Eeden. The finishes by Andrea Cucchi are lightly applied, leaving the completed artwork with a more photographic look that adds to the documentary aesthetic of the book. The colors by Jose Villarrubia are similarly muted, for the most part, which makes the colorful costumes of the superheroes stand out all the stronger when they encroach on Jefferson’s world.
The Other History of The DC Universe goes beyond mere history and nostalgia to present a new view of the DC Universe. If you’ve ever read the classic Black Lightning comics, you’ll want to reread them with new eyes after reading this book. If you haven’t, you’ll want to seek them out. This book educates and entertains in equal measure and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.