Review: Other History of the DC Universe hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

December 8, 2021

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It is for once not hyperbole when a back cover blurb mentions that John Ridley’s The Other History of the DC Universe might be mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. I wonder, though, if the bar for recognizing greatness in this day and age is too high. Or maybe we’ve lived in an era of greatness for so long that an insightful prose comic like Other History — surely a labor of love in its sheer amount of prose, if nothing else — doesn’t get its due because at the basest level we’ve seen prose comics before and this one doesn’t, say, come with its own virtual reality mechanism any more than the original History of the DC Universe did. 

Other History does not redefine the genre in use of the medium, but the content surely stands toe-to-toe with the most thoughtful comics of the modern era, and certainly those that used comics to examine the social and political fabrics of their times.

[Review contains spoilers]

The Other History of the DC Universe arrives at an unusual time. Continuity is somewhat beside the point for a story like this, but also it’s obvious how much painstaking research went in to aligning the comics events of this book to one another and to the events of the real world. But in the yet-fully explained “everything matters” Dark Nights: Death Meta/Infinite Frontier era, Other History blithely spans pre- and post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, layering the Silver Age arrival of Supergirl Kara Zor-El atop the Death of Superman, and equally from Mike W. Barr’s 1980s Outsiders to Judd Winick’s 2000s Infinite Crisis-era Outsiders and beyond.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Other History is not likely meant to define DC’s continuity, but what it does at least within itself is to create its own new version of DC’s continuity. That that continuity anchors itself among other places in the era of Winick’s Outsiders, one of my favorite comics, only endears this book further to me. But that the book finds its climax in Dan DiDio’s Outsiders era (in my opinion, a low point in Outsiders history) is a lagniappe to comics overall — a suggestion that nothing in comics is wholly forgettable, nothing is irredeemable if re-viewed through the right lens. (See also the villain of DC Comics: Generations.) “Everything matters,” indeed.

But to love a chapter of DC Comics recognized by Other History is to have to embrace that chapter warts and all; with expert precision, time and again, Ridley demonstrates the intersection of privilege with minority representation. If Mal Duncan integrated the Teen Titans, he was still largely sidelined, reduced to the Titans' pseudo-mascot. Despite the long tenure and multi-medium appearances of Tatsu Yamashiro, she’s still an Asian character dubbed “Katana” (what may be among Ridley’s best contributions is the idea that Katana’s mystical “Soultaker” mythos is all stagecraft feeding the stereotypes).

For the New Titans, Ridley is particularly sharp, having Katana call Deathstroke Slade Wilson a rapist outright for his abuse of Terra Tara Markov in “The Judas Contract.” I applaud DC for allowing that to see print, though clearly the company’s relationship with Deathstroke holds shades of gray, given that he’s even now starring in a high-profile title. I loved the maturity of Winick’s Outsiders at a time when’s DC’s “not just for kids” ethos had faded a bit, but Ridley correctly points out that what seemed progressive sexuality in the title could be equally recognized as an excess of male fantasy, where the men are all horny and the women are all willing.

And so — rightly, necessarily — Other History is very much about struggling with its own material. To tell the “other history of the DC Universe,” Ridley needs to spotlight those heroes outside the black-haired, blue-eyed mainstream. His focus is largely on the teams where DC offered the greatest spectrum of racial, social, and sexual representation, and so to an extent where Ridley finds fault is also where the greatest strides were being made, in Baxter titles like New Teen Titans and Outsiders.

That the concurrent post-Crisis adventures of Superman and Batman mostly dealt with white characters sparring with white characters insulates them from the same scrutiny given Mike W. Barr or Marv Wolfman’s stories; Wonder Woman barely garners a mention here. It’s a reminder that inasmuch as any one writer does, there is always more to do for inclusion and representation. (Notably, most of the characters' stories that warrant a second look here were written by writers whose backgrounds didn’t match the characters they wrote.)

Though again the book is altogether powerful, my favorite chapter is probably the fourth, which diverges from Ridley’s ongoing narrative to follow Gotham City police detective and eventual Question Renee Montoya. It is, for better or worse, gripping in the way that many of the best Gotham Central/52 Renee stories were, a self-destructive hero as likely to save the world as to take her own life.

It also juxtaposes well comics and real life — as Ridley does many times in the book — putting the political aftermath of September 11 and Infinite Crisis in conversation, making the zeitgeist’s implicit influence on that story explicit. That kind of juxtaposition is where Other History most reminds of Watchmen; especially into the fifth chapter, where Other History tackles both the Obama and Trump presidencies, Other History succeeds in being the sociopolitical comic that Doomsday Clock tried and failed to be.

I appreciated how Ridley brought Other History full circle between the first and last chapters; the “mystery” of Black Lightning Jefferson Pierce’s student Dwight in the beginning and the implications in the end were especially moving. In the last chapter, focusing on Thunder Anissa Pierce, Ridley is not wrong in attributing homophobia to Jefferson — it’s there on DiDio’s page (as is the crude comment from DiDio’s inexplicable creation Freight Train, which Ridley notes). Then, in between panels right there in 2011’s Outsiders #36, Ridley brilliantly shoehorns a scene of family reconciliation — what a moment that must have been when a space in a comic ten years past (at the nadir of its story at the time) revealed itself for the scene Ridley wanted to write in the here and now.

But I did not totally agree with how neatly Ridley tied up the ending (Future State cameos or not). Anissa had dealt with her parents covert homophobia all her life, in addition to the emotional baggage each of her parents had hung on her and her sister Jennifer, as well as her father’s constant meddling in her life and her superheroics. Within a page though, after Anissa confronts him, she’s already decided that she spent so much time trying not to become her father that “I forgot to work on myself”; essentially that she, the child, shared commensurate blame for their family issues as the emotionally distant father who found her sexuality problematic. Forgiveness is, I’m sure, a virtue, and maybe Ridley shows us here the higher road, but for me if nothing else it came too quickly and easily for what Ridley had built leading up to it.

4.0

Rating

I’ve been saying a lot of “never thought we’d see that again” lately in my reviews; maybe that’s a good thing, a function of Death Metal, that as soon as all of DC history was available, the delights started coming. Here, it’s an Outsiders team that included a sentient sliver of Metamorpho and a violet robot, taken seriously and whose battle against Sabbac, for gosh sakes, now steps into legend. John Ridley’s The Other History of the DC Universe shows the importance of every character but also every story — that whatever is on the page, there’s always another way of looking at it.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Comments ( 2 )

  1. The surprisingly conservative portrayal of Black Lightning in issue #1 gave me pause, but that turned out to be a brilliant setup for the final issue. My favorite issues were #2-3, showing the history of the Teen Titans and the original Outsiders through perspectives that made me see those teams in a completely different, not very flattering light.

    Overall, I found this series a very impressive piece of writing, very well aided by Cammuncoli, Cucchi and Villarubia's artwork. My one knock against it is that Ridley kept referring to Indigo as "Violet" in issue #5 for some reason. Did the collected edition, which I've yet to receive, fix that?

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    1. The portrayal of Black Lightning gave me pause, too, especially considering what a nicely non-issue Anissa's sexuality was in the Black Lightning TV show, but the Outsiders #36 issue does uphold that portrayal. At least, Ridley wasn't making that up from scratch.

      "Violet" is still in the (digital) collection — I knew that was tripping me up for some reason! You're right, it should be Indigo.

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