John Ridley Talks Reshaping Both the Past and Future of DC Comics With The Next Batman and The Other History of the DC Universe

Illustration for article titled John Ridley Talks Reshaping Both the Past and Future of DC Comics With The Next Batman and The Other History of the DC Universe
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As a part of DC’s ongoing Future State event, The Next Batman depicts a near-future where Bruce Wayne/Batman is believed to have been murdered by a private, hyper militarized police force called The Magistrate. With caped crusading becoming a crime punishable by death, Tim Fox—son of tech genius Lucius Fox—dons the cape and cowl to become a new symbol of hope for Gotham city.

The Root recently got to chat with John Ridley about his work writing not only The Next Batman, but also The Other History of the DC Universe, a five-part limited series that shows notable events from DC’s past through the lens of the Black and brown characters that were often relegated to the sidelines.

The Root: One thing I wanted to start off with asking is that you’ve written for comics before, you’ve written episodes of Static Shock and Justice League, what continues to draw you to storytelling about superheroes?

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John Ridley: First of all, it’s fun. I had the opportunity to work on a lot of projects earlier in my career that were more fun. Undercover Brother, Three Kings, and U-Turn. But then I turned to more serious subject matter, you know Red Tails, 12 Years A Slave, American Crime.

Listen, I could not be more proud of that work. I deeply appreciate the impact of it all, but you know man, it’s hard going into those stories. Looking into our history, and seeing how we’ve been treated, how we are treated, and how we were probably treated for a long time.

So to be able to speak to issues that matter to me about race, about identity, about community but to do it in a way that is truly fantastic. To me, it’s a really great meld of the storytelling I want to do, the kind of emotional velocity I want to put into that storytelling. But more importantly for me right now, it’s that these are the things my kids are actually interested in.

I hate to say it, but they’re not that interested in 12 Years a Slave. They’re becoming more interested at this age, and I’m happy that they’re interested, but I also know that their interest is driven by things that are very painful in our society right now.

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So when they’re interested in the work that I’m doing at DC, I’m doing some stuff at Marvel, it makes me feel good because they are interested in these characters and through these characters I can still talk about issues that I want them to be aware off, that I want every kid to be aware of, but I also don’t have to proselytize about some of these things.

You know, you got a young Black man who’s fighting a militarized police force in The Next Batman. That’s very potent, but that’s what’s going on in Gotham.

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TR: What did it mean to you to craft the first Black Batman?

JR: This is the first attempt at what will be an ongoing character as a Batman who is Black. I’m not on social media, I try to stay away from the discussions, but I do know early on people were like, “this is going to be a one and done. This is their do-good, social justice initiative. They can say they did it and go away.”

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I can tell you on the inside, any company that is even mildly socially responsible or certainly fiscally aware, [knows] the growth is in young people, young people of color, Latinx, LGBTQ, and you gotta get these folks young. I read when I was young because that’s all there was. Bruce and Clark, they were great, I loved them, I still love them to this day, but people want to see themselves more.

To be in this space where I’ve been granted the opportunity to work with great editors, great artists, and create a durable character, to be honest, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around what it really means.

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The responsibility I’ve been given, the opportunity that I’ve been given. I’ve certainly put in the work over the years but I’m not known as a comic book writer. I’m not known as that guy. For DC to look at me and say “we believe you are that person,” I understand I’ve been given the opportunity, but now I have to execute.

TR: With The Next Batman I found it striking that the villain was a militarized police force. I was curious if any of the events over the last year influenced the direction or maybe changed the way the Magistrate was portrayed?

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JR: It’s interesting because there was a lot of input from writers on what they would like to work on and don’t want to present this like it was my idea, but I wanted to get back to a space in Batman where he doesn’t have a lot of friends in the police force. That was going to be extra stress and extra pressure.

I wanted to do that for a couple of reasons. One, because I felt like for Batman, this Batman, I like the idea of starting over and going back to basics. [There’s] a certain reality that, you know, in real life, while there’s cases like Kenosha where police are maybe a little too friendly with people trying to be vigilantes, in real life the police are like “we can handle this. We don’t need anyone else coming in and doing this.”

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So for me it worked in two ways. We’re going to have a new Batman, it’s year one for him, so what is that like? What is it going to be for him?

There were also realities of, yeah, the world that we’re living in. We know that the police, unfortunately, are not always our friends. And that’s before they become our enemies, our antagonists.

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TR: I know that you’re a father, you’re a husband, and it was interesting to me that the quote on the back of the first issue of The Other History of the DC Universe was about Black Lightning’s marriage. Was this book a personal work for you?

JR: I would say it was highly personal but in many, many ways. Number one, just to be able to go back to the stories that really informed me as a person, as a kid who wanted to write, a kid who loved comic books. I mean truly, going through comic books that my parents finally sent back to me and are sitting around my house. It was very fun and it was very personal because it was like going through scrapbooks and seeing stories that I had forgotten about, or misremembered, or you know, thought were spectacular and were just okay.

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For example, I had real deep appreciation going back through my Teen Titans comic books with how well rounded I thought Karen Beecher was as a character. I say this as a man, because I know a Black woman may read that character and go “well, it’s not as well rounded as you think.” She was super bright, she was STEM back in the day, she was Hidden Figures before many of us, myself included, were aware of these remarkable women. So going back and seeing those moments that were perhaps more progressive than we knew at that time.

But as you say, now I’m a father and a husband. And talking about the strains of marriage, yes I’m talking about Black Lightning but that’s true for any partner in a relationship.

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Sometimes the job can be overwhelming, sometimes we’re not as attentive to our partners, sometimes we realize, hopefully not too late, the values our partners bring to relationships. The challenges that Jefferson had raising his kids, that was hyper-personalized.

I think in some ways, The Other History may be the most personal project I’ve ever worked in. In some ways not just personal because it’s about me, but personal because what do I want to express to anybody?

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Be yourself. Your identity is something that you have every right to own and should be proud to own. If you’re a young person, find inspiration where you can. All these things that sometimes they sound a little bit corny but those are the things that everybody of any age needs to know, needs to hear, and needs to believe. And then inserting it in ways into DC’s past that I hope become canon at some point.

And if nothing else, I gotta say this openly, Tony Isabella (creator of Black Lightning), a straight white man of a certain age, inspired me through his work. I hope that I inspire people to know that if I can do this, and I mean this hypersincerly, anybody can. If I can do it, it ain’t that hard.

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If you haven’t already managed to already peep them, the first two issues of The Next Batman and The Other History of the DC Universe are available at comic book shops and digital storefronts. Trust me, they’re worth the pick up. The Next Batman is a wild ride through future Gotham and The Other History of the DC Universe will teach you some history while making you give side-eye to half the DC universe.

This interview has been edited for both clarity and length.

The stylin', profilin', limousine riding, jet flying, wheelin' and dealin' nerd of The Root.

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Be yourself. Your identity is something that you have every right to own and should be proud to own. If you’re a young person, find inspiration where you can. All these things that sometimes they sound a little bit corny but those are the things that everybody of any age needs to know, needs to hear, and needs to believe.

This is it, right here.

I’ve said it a bunch, and I’ll keep saying it until I can’t anymore, that the ONLY way to really shine is to be as much of yourself as you can manage to.

Look at Prince. Janelle Monae. Stevie Wonder. Little Richard.

They and countless others are praised and worshiped as geniuses who changed the world with their art, and the reason they each made such an impact was that they were each doing things THEIR way, and not changing to fit the backwards world around them.

David Bowie might have had a dozen different identities throughout his career, but it was amazing because that was HIM. These people saw the way the world worked, and the demands for them to fit the existing molds, and were lucky and determined enough to make the choices to keep it all the way real, and the world changed in their wake, sometimes at their whims.

Shine on, every single one of you crazy diamonds! You may need to hide yourself somewhat to get around in the world, but don’t let it prevent you from being you, in whatever way that might be.