REVIEW: The Other History of the DC Universe #1

Written by Fabian Wood

November 28, 2020

The Other History of the DC Universe #1

Writer: John Ridley

Pencils/ Inks/ Colors: Alex Dos Diaz

Letters: Steve Wands

Publisher: DC Comics

Written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, Let It Fall, American Crime) with art courtesy of Giuseppe Camuncoli, Andrea Cucchi and Jose Villarrubia, and lettering by Steve Wands, the title The Other History of the DC Universe can be misleading. Rather than being an in-depth look and comprehensive analysis of Black representation in comics over the decades in an in-story context, this is the life story of one Jefferson Pierce [1972-1995], an African-American prodigy growing up in “Suicide Slums”, Metropolis’ underdeveloped, crime-ridden and impoverished neighborhoods. Spurred by an indomitable internal drive to not only better himself, but his community and people, that never-ending struggle pervades the entire graphic novel. It’s an apt exploration of the private trials and tribulations, as well as addressing the unique burdens and responsibilities of being one of the very scant few Black superheroes in the DC landscape during the mid-1970s to mid-1990s.

The story is told exclusively from the perspective of Jefferson Pierce, a young Black man trying to buck the trend of institutionalized racism and economic subjugation that has plagued his neighborhood and his people all his life. Pierce naturally starts out justified in his judgmental view of Silver Age superheroes in general with a lot of self-righteousness behind his contempt; but it’s almost hypocritical of him when he dons a costume himself to fight inner city crime and injustice with superpowers but is unable to generate the kind of permanent, positive change he aspires to or expects the grander superhero community to achieve and enforce.

Image credit DC Comics.

This is more so a complimentary character flaw than a narrative one. It also touches on the racial inequality in the superhero community of the times, as well as their preoccupation with public/international appearance and dealing with “extra-ordinary” threats like super-villains from outer space and other dimensions, while seemingly ignoring the plights of the common (Black) people. This serves as a kind of meta-commentary on the comic book industry as a whole at that point in time, and in some ways today.

What I also like about this underutilized character is the fact that Jefferson Pierce in his professional career is a pedagogue. This only underscores that he represents the unsung real-life heroes in teachers, professors and academic mentors in similar situations and with similar aspirations for the underprivileged and overlooked youths of the next generation. One can easily argue he is more a hero out of costume than in it.

Image credit DC Comics.

With such a deficiency of Black superhero during this epoch, Pierce is only allowed to truly interact, though briefly, with the only two other heroes of his skin color; Green Lantern John Stewart [1972] and Mari Jiwe McCabe/Vixen [1981]. The rare trio’s similar and differing careers offer a nice juxtaposition.

In terms of execution, Jefferson’s memoire narration leaves no room for dialog to be spoken in the entire graphic novel. This means many pages are bathed in text and text boxes, sometimes taking up 50% of the real estate, with some paragraphs wedged within the art itself. For someone who is not familiar with reading such comics, it may be a challenge to follow on each page from point-to-point. The unconventional artwork and coloring by Camuncoli, Cucchi and Villarrubia authentically captures the era’s comic art style.

Each page is like a collage or scrap book, with abstract panels blended and bleeding into each other. This visually reflects the kind of reminiscing, emotional tone the book tries to invoke. In all honesty, this eccentric format of both narration and art could have easily ruined the whole experience, being either too “wordy”, congested or hard to follow; but that amalgamation is skillfully pull off, crossing that precarious line maybe a few times.

Image credit DC Comics.

Overall, The Other History of the DC Universe is not really a critique or commentary on superhero comics (both in-universe and in-industry) or a historical exploration of the growth of Black representation therein – although those threads are touched along the way. Having completed the graphic novel, I am confident fans of Black Lightning will enjoy Pierce’s long, engrossing life journey. It is gripping with an empathetic coming of age tale, tied to his rise to heroism, his triumphs and pitfalls, retirement and self-reflection.

Pierce is a changed man, a better man at the end of his story, even if everything else seems to remain unchanged or slowly shifting without his influence in the broader DCU tapestry. Fundamentally, The Other History of the DC Universe is more an auto-biography of a Black man striving for self-actualization to become a champion of the helpless, oppressed and downtrodden of his race in a world oversaturated by incredible gods and monsters of a different color.

Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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