The Other History of the DC Universe #1 review

Striking cover by Camuncoli and Marco Mastrazzo, production design by Kenny Lopez – I like that the title lettering nods to the Bronze Age DC Bullet

… or, the Life Story of Black Lightning. ‘1972-1995: Jefferson Pierce’ is the official title of Book One of 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley’s DC Black Label project, which looks at the DC Universe through the eyes of the marginalised. Future issues will focus on Teen Titans Mal and Karen Duncan, Gotham cop Renee Montoya, Black Lightning’s Outsiders teammate Katana, and his daughter, Thunder.

But this opening story belongs to Jeff Pierce, Olympic athlete turned teacher turned superhero. Ridley echoes the format of the 1980s History of the DC Universe in eschewing word balloons for narrative text, but where the earlier project gave us snapshots of the DCU ‘from the dawn of time to the far-flung future’, Ridley focuses on one man in one era – the Seventies, when the Tony Isabella-created Black Lightning exploded onto the comics scene as the first Black character to headline a book at DC, to the Nineties.

Partnered with Ridley is Giuseppe Camuncoli, an artist whose work I’ve enjoyed on various DC specials and series. Freed from the demands of sequential art, he’s able to get extra creative with layouts, while always serving the narrative.

And what a narrative. Cards on the table, I’ve never been a big fan of the illustrated comic format – a Batman short here, an Adam Strange tale there, they were a bit of a slog to get through… even the classic History of the DCU is memorable more for George Perez’s compositions than Marv Wolfman’s story.

This, though, is different – by the end of the first page I was all in, captured by the voice Ridley gives Jeff, dazzled by the visuals of Camuncoli, finisher Andrea Cucchi and colour artist Joe Villarubbia. The alternating placement of panels and blocks of text – Steve Wands handles the typography – on the top half of the page makes it look like young Jeff is running from a horrific hall of mirrors. The figure directs the eye to the second half of the page, his shadow anticipating the pools of blood around Jeff’s father’s body. It’s a powerful statement of intent, one which the creative team more than follows through on.

The story is a familiar one to longtime readers – Jeff drags himself up through Metropolis’s ‘Suicide Slum’, gains glory on the athletics field and finds his calling as a teacher. But gangsters The 100 rule the streets, pushing drugs on kids, causing deaths by overdose, murdering anyone who gets in their way. Finding he has super powers, the newlywed Jeff decides to fight back, but being a teacher by day and vigilante by night takes a heavy toll on family life.

And while an intelligent man, this is something he doesn’t see coming – as the years pass, and the ‘New Age’ of heroes dawns, Jeff is quick to psychoanalyse the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern John Stewart, and judge them harshly. He’s even one to correct the grammar of his wife Lynn. But Jeff doesn’t take a breath from his crusade for long enough to see he’s every bit as obsessed as the Batman. And because we’re in his head, hearing things from Jeff’s point of view, we may be just a few steps ahead of him in seeing the bigger picture.

Ridley is pretty true to events as depicted in DC’s Bronze Age – Black Lightning’s first encounters with Superman and the JLA, for example – but tweaks the perspective slightly. So Superman floats imperiously over him when they first meet in Black Lightning #5 – which the Man of Steel didn’t, apart from, possibly, on beginner artist Trevor Von Eeden’s splash – is he hovering, or could inker Vince Colletta simply not be bothered to add the texture to the rooftop that would make it clear both heroes are standing on the same level? But Superman was undeniably heavy handed, dickish, really.

And while Black Lightning didn’t tell the JLA that if they wanted someone to be their ‘boy’, maybe they should try John Stewart, that would have been fair; the ‘World’s Greatest Superheroes’ were appallingly condescending to him in JLA #173, seeing Black Lightning’s skin before they see the man. And we learn that he was already unimpressed by their focusing solely on ‘nebulous threats’, ignoring ordinary people, whether on the city’s toughest streets or tangled in 1979’s hostage crisis.

Occasional things such as the timing of Supergirl’s public debut in relation to Black Lightning’s are tweaked slightly, but this isn’t a book that should be beholden to any particular version of DC continuity – it’s more about the bigger truths, and I’m OK with a bit of fudging when it gives us a new angle on a character as beloved as Kara Zor-El.

It’s not a big focus of the story, but Ridley makes it clear Jeff is a Christian, which makes sense, given his background, but it’s not something I recall being mentioned previously. I’m glad Ridley puts it out there, because too few superheroes are shown to have faith; it adds another layer to Jeff.

I read this book – which was edited by Mark Doyle, Andy Khouri and Amadeo Turturro – just last night, so there’s not been time enough for the story to properly percolate through what passes for my brain. But words and pictures made an immediate impression, and I wanted to get a few thoughts down before life gets in the way. I think Jefferson Pierce would understand.

11 thoughts on “The Other History of the DC Universe #1 review

  1. The fact it’s a novella with pictures turned me off. I doubt I’ll read another issue especially since it’s not really the other side. There’s no LGBTQ representation at all from what I can tell from interviews. Other side implies the whole story is White heroes as one side and racial minorities in the US as the other side, with gay folk like me having no place on either side.

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  2. Argh! My comment vanished into the ether. I shall try to recreate it in a slightly more concise version.
    Loved the art!
    Was surprised at the story… I think I was expecting a stronger focus on the history side of things and less of a character study. But that’s on me. It’s a perfectly valid approach to telling the tale and I’m looking forward to seeing how different characters continue the story. I’ll be a little disappointed if all we get are well- written character sketches that tangentially tied into the wider DCU. I’m hoping for something a little grander… something that says something more. But we’ll see.
    I did appreciate Jefferson’s point of view throughout the book. I liked how Ridley took scenes that we had read in the past and tweaked them slightly. Superman floating above Black Lightning, and the first meeting with the JLA were amazing!
    What didn’t work for me, were the scenes where Jefferson (or Ridley?) complained that the white heroes weren’t doing enough for the world because they weren’t down there on the streets solving real world problems. I mean… are we really supposed to believe that Black Lightning thinks that Starro or Kanjar Ro are going to be solving the drug problems and homelessness if the JLA allows them to take over the world? That kind of thinking is just stupid and should be called out. The reality is… these characters they live in a world where there *are* street level problems butting up against cosmic menace every single day. End of story. To have someone call out the JLA for *saving the world* from a mind-controlling alien starfish is kinda dumb. I mean… what’s the alternative? It kicks the reader out of the story. Especially, when most of these characters *did* deal with real world problems in their own books. So, I guess… if this is the way that Jefferson feels… it can be a valid point of view. But it’s short-sighted and doesn’t make a lot of sense and I would have preferred someone like Lynn or Mari to call him out on that kind of simplistic thinking.
    But if that’s Ridley’s point of view… that’s a problem and demonstrates that he doesn’t really get the way the fictionalized super hero universes work.

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    1. That dumb argument has been around since the overrated Green Lantern-Green Arrow series of the 70s. It was inane then and it’s inane now…

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      1. I agree. It’s a dumb argument which is why I was disappointed to see it in this book. Like what is the point of including it in the story? If the point was to show the white heroes ignoring the concerns and problems of people of colour, then having them save the world is maybe not the best way to make that point. There are better ways to make that point that don’t undercut the theme of the story.
        But if the point was to shine a light into Jefferson’s thinking… mission accomplished. But then, where does the story go from here? Black Lightning doesn’t look to be a focus of upcoming issues so… the conflict that was introduced isn’t going to go anywhere. I mean, it’s early. Maybe Black Lightning will be featured in all of the issues. it’s too soon to critique what hasn’t been presented to us.

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      2. Murray, thanks so much for recreating your comments, they’re worth hearing. I’m with you and Steve, the idea that heroes shouldn’t be saving the world, they should be doing the job of social workers, cops and councils, is ridiculous; I’ve railed about that on more than one occasion. I can live with it in this book, though, as it starts in the Bronze Age, when ‘Relevance’ was a thing – I assume that, as Jeff came to see other superheroes as people rather than stuck-up gods, he also realised there was a time to join together and beat up aliens… else why stick with the Outsiders for so long and, eventually, join the Justice League?

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      3. I don’t think the point is so much to show white heroes ignoring the concerns of people of color — we all have a stake in not being mind-controlled by giant space starfish, after all — but to illustrate the *perception* that they’re unconcerned. We see people all the time go after public figures for not paying attention to their cause or issue, whether the people being targeted are doing worthy things in other arenas or not. It’s a very human response. Is it fair? Not entirely. But the perspective exists, both in the real world and in fiction, and it has to be reckoned with in a book like this.

        So no, I don’t think the book is making the argument that the JLA is doing the wrong thing by fighting Starro and Kanjar-Ro. For one thing, the book’s perspective and Jefferson’s do not always align. But Jefferson IS calling them aloof and privileged. And on the privileged point, he’s right on target. Aloof is in the eye of the beholder, and his perspective on that changes throughout the book. (And I expect their behavior will change as the years go on as well, and be perceived differently by different narrators.)

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  3. Man, I loved this book. Ridley gives a great character study of Jeff, and manages to make it feel relevant to the actual DC publishing history of the character — pinning it to so many pre- and post-Crisis events! — while still feeling of a piece with ethos of the TV show. Great stuff, and a tough tightrope to walk. And Giuseppe Camuncoli absolutely kills here, both with his own layouts (that weddings page!) and the visual callbacks to previous DC images (everything from Outsiders panels to an Untold Tales of Batman cover), and even heightening them when he can (the murder of one of Pierce’s students, for example, is accurate to the 70s comic, but so much more arresting as a splash).

    I can’t wait for more. This is one for the ages.

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  4. Well, your excellent review did what a good review should do … prompted me to buy the book.

    I thought this was excellent, as a childe of the Bronze Age, so many of the flashbacks were remembered by me from their original issues. The art homages were excellently done. And I thought hearing how Pierce related to all this was interesting.

    I do feel that Superman may have been cast in an unflattering light. But I guess seen through Pierce’s experience, he might seem needy and aloof.

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    1. When this book was announced and it mentioned Kara would be in the mix, I thought she’d be getting an issue to herself. If these two pages are all she gets, I’ll be OK – having grown up with her in the Silver Age, the idea of her as a refugee was just background. I’d love to see an imaginary tale really leaning into her as a Cinderella type, with Kal-El as the jealous guardian…

      But is she does pop up again on the OHotDCU, it could be very interesting!

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