The Other History of the DC Universe Tells a Different Black Lightning Story Than You’d Expect

The Other History of the DC Universe is John Ridley's big prestige Black Label DC series, but it's not quite the comic you would expect from the name.

The Other History of the DC Universe #1 cover
Photo: Giuseppe Cammuncoli

The Other History of the DC Universe, John Ridley and Giuseppe Cammuncoli’s new prestige miniseries from DC’s Black Label, has a particularly evocative title. When you hear that name, you think Howard Zinn, something like A People’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. It implies a grand, broad look at the sweep of DC Universe history from the perspective of marginalized people, voices who were not the ones telling the story (in and outside of it). But the book that is out this week is…not quite that.

Ridley was “less interested in putting obelisks on the timeline,” he said at a roundtable discussion with Den of Geek, and more focused on how some major signpost events in the history of the DC Universe were contextualized and absorbed for different characters.

The first issue focuses on Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning), and it contains a conscious effort from Ridley to marry the DCU to real world history as much as possible. So we see Pierce’s athletic triumph at the Munich Olympics overshadowed by the terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes. We see the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. We see Pierce going to Milwaukee to try and help students at a neglected, unfunded school. And we see the Justice League taking on Starro the Conqueror. Ridley made a point of calling his perspective heroes – Black Lightning, Bumblebee, Herald, Katana, Thunder – by their given names rather than their superhero monikers to illustrate his point: this is a much more personal view, a character study rather than a continuity cleanup.

The title also implies a political slant that isn’t really present in the book. The story certainly has a perspective on some of the societal problems that Pierce is trying to fix, but they’re all filtered through Jefferson’s own perspective and concerns. He is at times stubborn and resentful, particularly of the two heroes who join the League, John Stewart and Mari McCabe. And he’s kind of an asshole to one of his students, and then prideful when he runs into him later and the young man doesn’t pay him enough respect. But these flaws make him a much more real character, fleshed out and genuine in his motivations rather than some robotic paragon.

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The artistic choices go a long way towards reinforcing the story’s perspective. The Other History of the DC Universe doesn’t have typical comic storytelling. Instead it is more like illustrated first-person prose, with pinups or splash pages from Cammuncoli, and Jefferson Pierce’s running narration in caption boxes across the page. This was the plan from the start: Ridley said he knew it wasn’t going to be a multipanel sequential story when he conceived of the project. It’s jarring at first, but it’s extremely well used as a way to steer the reader’s focus away from the big events the book addresses, and into Jeff’s head for help processing those events. It works remarkably well, and Cammuncoli delivers a few truly stunning pages (including an utterly brutal Watchmen riff).

The Other History of the DC Universe isn’t necessarily the sweeping, leftist continuity reorganization that some of us might have expected (Editor’s note: we would read the hell out of Howard Zinn’s A People’s Crisis on Infinite Earths). But that doesn’t mean it won’t hit on some pretty big moments: Ridley specifically flagged Superman and Supergirl‘s deaths, as well as Wonder Woman killing Max Lord, asking why people would make such a big deal out of Diana killing on camera when so many other heroes have killed before. But you should expect it to stay as narrowly focused in its perspective as the first issue. The second, working with Bumblebee and Herald, will be lighter, but it’s also digging into Teen Titans history and how Mal and Karen processed that team.

The Other History of the DC Universe #1 is on sale on Tuesday, 11/24.