“When you can’t see yourself in others it’s just bigotry by a different name.” – Jefferson Pierce, Black Lightning
This week saw the release of The Other History of the DC Universe #1 from DC’s Black Label imprint, one of the most quietly powerful comics to have been released this year – or any year, for that matter. Written by Oscar-award winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and illustrated by artists Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi, it tells the story of the DC Universe through the eyes of Black Lightning, a.k.a. Jefferson Pierce. It’s a story of the DC Universe not only through his perspective, but more specifically, through his eyes as a Black man in America. It’s a story that is not easy to swallow at times, as it speaks to harsh realities, systemic oppression, and the blind spots that even DC’s greatest heroes have for the plight of African-Americans in a country that has historically treated them as second-class citizens, even after emancipation.
This is a story for our moment in the United States, in 2020. Originally slated to have been released a year ago, the delay in publishing means that it inadvertently became perfectly positioned to capture the zeitgeist in our post-George Floyd America. This past summer saw a vast awakening of not just Black America protesting injustice, but a sizable portion of white Americans joining in the fight, too. A cross-section of our society – white, Black, young, old, male, female, Asian, LGBTQ+, Native American, and more – took to the streets to demand a better system. To demand justice. To demand accountability. This came at a crucial inflection point in our nation’s history; the Presidential election became less about who our next leader would be and more about who we are as a nation. Are we stronger together or apart? Are we world leaders or isolationists? Do we treat refugees and immigrants with open hands or closed fists? The questions are legion, but all boil down to a central theme: Is the United States one that will attempt to live up to the creed inherent in the words of its founding fathers, flawed men though they were, or would it at last callously admit that its lofty ambitions toward brotherhood and inclusivity and egalitarianism were hollow and irrelevant? Would our better angels prevail, or would we at last succumb to the ghosts of slavery and Jim Crow and systematically erase all social progress made in the last 150+ years? The answer came on election night, when a record number of voters showed up to vote, and a majority of Americans said, “No, we are better than this.”
However, a record number of opposing voters had a voice, too, and they said differently.
It is into this America that The Other History of the DC Universe arrives. Had it been published a year ago as originally intended, it would have been powerful, and wise, and salient. But it wasn’t. It has been published in 2020, as we as a country are taking an off-ramp from the current administration amid a global pandemic that is raging out of control, ballooning unemployment, and perhaps most crucially for the long-term health of our nation, far too many unanswered questions about the state of race in America. That Other History is being published now gives it the added gravitas of being the right comic for its time, (black) lightning in a bottle that could not have happened any other way. History is funny like that sometimes.
Other History of the DC Universe #1 tells the story of Jefferson Pierce, Black Lightning. The character’s own publication history is one fraught with being a bit behind the times; it was 1977 before DC decided to belatedly cash in on the Blaxploitation fad of the first part of the decade by launching their own Black superhero in his own book. (For comparison, Marvel debuted Luke Cage, a decidedly more “street-level” black hero, to his own solo adventures in 1972. Historically, DC had always been very poor at keeping up with the times; this was more than likely a side effect of the company being run by old guard white men who had been in the business for decades and were used to running things in a very safe, don’t-rock-the-boat fashion.) Black Lightning was created by Tony Isabella and artist Trevor von Eeden; Isabella maintains that he alone should get sole creator credit while von Eeden counters that he drew the initial designs so he considers himself co-creator. (Somewhere, Steve Ditko was surely nodding in agreement.) The character’s initial solo run only lasted a paltry eleven issues before falling victim to the so-called DC Implosion of 1978 when a vast swath of the publisher’s titles were cancelled for a variety of reasons. Black Lightning bounced around making token guest-appearances for a few years before being drafted into new series Batman and the Outsiders in 1982; this kept him busy throughout most of the ‘80s. A second shot at solo stardom emerged in the ‘90s, but that run fizzled out just over a year. But after several false starts, the 21st century has seen a renewed and sustained popularity for the hero, though, and he is currently portrayed by actor Cress Williams in his eponymous TV series.
Other History’s hook, though, is that it explicitly focuses on Jefferson’s perspective as a Black man in America, watching neighborhoods crumble into slums, teaching public school with ever-shrinking federal financial support, and wary of the fact that the newly-formed Justice League is comprised of all white people plus a “green dude.” He has power, and wants to serve justice to clean up his neighborhood, but what he gets in return is a condescending scold from Superman about his methods. Green Lantern John Stewart is viewed with a similarly suspicious eye; Ridley has Jefferson stop just short of calling him an Uncle Tom but the general sentiment is there. In Jefferson’s description, the media trips over itself to find ways to remind its readers that Stewart isn’t full-time: he’s a replacement, a stand-in, an occasional hero, and that’s an image Jefferson is convinced Stewart doesn’t try to fight. He’s an appeaser. His feet not touching the ground, he comes off in Jefferson’s mind as arrogant and condescending. The collective Black community tolerates him but that’s about it.
The imagery of heroes’ feet not touching the ground is a recurring one throughout Other History. John Stewart and Superman’s don’t, and other heroes are presented at a remove that keeps them distant from the people they’ve sworn to protect. When Jefferson eventually becomes Black Lightning, one of the things he swears is that he won’t forget where he came from, and will continue to clean up and protect his own neighborhood. These two dichotomic approaches to super-heroism eventually come to a head when three members of the Justice League disguise themselves as villains and individually ambush Black Lightning, as a means to test whether he is “worthy” of joining the League. Once the ruse is seen through and they extend their hands to him to join, though, he bitterly declines. Why must they perform these ludicrous “tests” for the Black hero? Everyone else got to just join. It speaks to a double-standard within the League, an inherent bias toward race that they had never considered but nonetheless existed. (This sequence is based on the infamous Justice League of America #173, in which the League are pointedly called jive turkeys on the cover.)
These types of experiences are the core of Other History: the Black Experience in America, perceived through the eyes of a Black superhero. The faces and costumes and times may change, but the experience of Black Americans remains relatively static. However, it is important – and uncomfortable -to note that it is not my experience. Whether I want it or not, I have white privilege on my side by virtue of birth alone. I will never know the experience of Jefferson Pierce or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner. Nor will I know the quiet, day-to-day indignities and struggles of Black Americans whose names most of us will never know, but whose stories are no less important for it. If we as a society, as Americans, are to move forward in the slow but steady lurch toward our better angels, it is crucial that the rest of us hear those stories to the best of our abilities. To listen to others, to accept that they have different experiences than we do and that one race’s experience is not equal to another’s. That call for understanding is at the core of what John Ridley is trying to convey in The Other History of the DC Universe. Even Black Lightning eventually makes peace with John Stewart when he meets him as a man, not a paragon.
The concept of “being a man” is key to Jefferson Pierce’s approach to education. Acknowledging that a great many of his male students have not had any sort of a strong male role model, he takes it upon himself to push them to be better than who they are today and not never settle for the status quo and to continue to fight. This approach backfires when one of his students is transferred from his school by a mother who doesn’t understand Jefferson’s tough love approach and instead only sees her child is stressed to what she perceives as his limits. There’s a moment here where Jefferson’s conceptualization of what makes a “man” might ruffle certain feathers among left-leaning readers, but to do so is to miss the point Ridley is trying to make entirely. Jefferson’s experience is his own, and he’s reacting to circumstances as best he can. It’s easy to judge unless you’ve been there – right, left, or center. It’s a lot harder to accept that others’ experiences allow for a worldview that some might find uncomfortable or challenging.
There are quite a few discomforting scenes in Other History, particularly when it comes to Jefferson’s harsh assessments of his fellow superheroes. He cynically sees Superman as being in pursuit of a Nobel Peace Prize and wonders aloud why Wonder Woman seems so hesitant to get her hands dirty in the ongoing fight against systemic racism. The formation of the Justice League to coincide with the country’s bicentennial is seen as a publicity stunt. But as he experiences his own personal defeats and his worldview grows beyond his own experience, that cynicism softens. He realizes his fellow heroes have the same feet of clay he does, even if their journey may look different. He realizes that they’re human, just people trying to survive or redress some old trauma in their lives, just like him. They may have failings, but they have their struggles, too. That appeal to seeing “the other” as an equal rather than someone to be suspicious or even fearful of is what The Other History of the DC Universe is about at its heart, despite its trappings as “a black viewpoint on DC’s history.”
As I stated, I can never know-first hand what it’s like to be Black in America. I can spend so much time reading about it, learning the history, watching footage of Dr. King or Brother Malcolm, or recite passages from Invisible Man by heart. I can listen to Duke Ellison or Ice Cube or anything in between; I can watch Jungle Fever or Get on the Bus or read Bitter Root or Excellence to my heart’s desire – but I can never have that experience. No white person can. That’s why it’s so important to listen and learn, because doing so breeds compassion, empathy, and understanding. Doing so brings us closer together.
I’m white in America. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do everything I can to reach out, seek understanding, and just plain listen. Not only to the Black Experience, but to the LGBTQ Experience, the Female Experience, the Asian Experience, the Disabled Experience. That’s the bottom line, that’s Ridley’s appeal with Other History – to learn from others and find common ground. If we do that, we might just live up to the promise of our better angels not just as Americans, but as human beings.
COMMENTARY: The Quiet Power of DC’s “Other History”
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