Image credit: DC Comics

Comic books don’t generally do well when it comes to real-world events or social issues. There’s plenty of reasons for that, but the biggest is that superhero stories are fundamentally mythological in nature. Superheroes are ways that we explore what it means to be human, to sacrifice and to suffer, and how we contend with good and evil in our lives and in ourselves. Weaving them together with real-life events and problems can come off like apples and oranges. Zeus does not struggle with climate change. There’s no story of Thor’s war on homophobia. 

As a result, when one of the big comic book companies announces a project that seems built around a social issue like race, the result is frequently cringeworthy, either because it’s really just virtue-signaling or it comes off as preachy. 

As of late, the main way that  comic books  and pop culture more generally have come to respond to prejudice is via inclusion. Companies and studios offer more characters that are women, queer, or people of color, and more storytellers for those properties who come from similar backgrounds. 

But in his recent five-part series The Other History of the DC Universe, Black screenwriter John Ridley throws out this standard playbook entirely. Using  six DC superheroes of color who tell their stories to us in the first person, Ridley explores the experiences of being people of color, women, and queer in the DC universe. Rather than coming off as clunky, it’s a profoundly provocative read that illuminates assumptions that have been there before us the whole time. 

Take for instance issue two, in which we walk with Mal Duncan and Karen Beecher-Duncan. Mal and Karen are the first two Black characters to have been in the Teen Titans, the group formed by all the DC sidekicks like Robin, Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash. Mal is also one of the earliest Black characters in superhero comics: he first appeared in 1970, years before John Stewart, Black Panther, Luke Cage, Storm, or Black Lightning. 

Image credit: DC Comics

And yet chances are if you’re a fan of either the various Titans animated series or their live-action show, his name is not familiar. Cyborg was the first Black character on the Titans, no? 

And this proves to be part of what Ridley wants to explore. Mal was a boxer who saved the Titans before he knew who they were and he was then offered a place on the team. Karen was a genius who came on board years later. But they never really popped as characters. Mal was never given powers and constantly struggled with whether he was worthy to be on the team. His main contribution to the broader storyline seemed to be when he screwed things up.

At some point the Titans  broke up without seeking Mal and Karen’s input. Then, the group reformed without including them.  When they find this out, they also discover that the team has added a new black superhero, the football star-turned-cyborg Victor Stone, as though to fill the “person of color” slot on the team.    

Comic publishing is a cyclical endeavor; new creators pick the team they want. But the fact that the Duncans were replaced by another Black character is significant. And rather than put that on DC, Ridley imagines it as the choice of the Teen Titan characters. And it fits like a glove, precisely because the team never seemed that interested in the Duncans in the first place. As Karen points out at one point, when their teammate Donna Troy got married, the whole DC universe came to a stop for it. But when she and Mal got married, no one even noticed. 

The third book focuses on Japanese heroine Tatsu Yamashiro, a.k.a. Katana. And right away Yamashiro notes how quickly and thoroughly Asian stereotypes are projected onto her by heroes and villains alike. Of course she must be a master of all the martial arts, and her sword must have some kind of mystical power. She’s Asian. 

She also notes how when she’s invited onto a team by Batman, it’s filled with characters who are overwhelmingly either of color or rejected by society for some other reason, and he calls them “Batman and the Outsiders.”  “I hated the way that it implied that we were somehow backup performers to the Batman’s leading act,” she says. “’Outsiders?’ Why not just refer to us as Batman and ‘the Asian, the Black man, the immigrant, the genetic freak, and the ingénue’ The whole concept seemed paternalistic.” Which of course it was. 

As harsh a light as these perspectives cast beloved characters, there’s also something tremendously liberating here. It gives name to issues that have always been there and have never been really considered in comics. 

It allows the book to comment on real world events in a deeper meaningful way than the standard “Special issue for this or that world tragedy” way that comics have done in the past. In Mal and Karen’s story, Karen wonders at the fact that twenty-eight Black people, most of them children, would be abducted and murdered in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981 and that no one from the superhero community did anything. 

At first Karen is horrified at the obvious assumptions underlying this, the heroes’ lack of interest because these were Black kids. But her later observation is even more chilling: “There was nothing any supergroup could have done,” she says, because Black people “were so utterly invisible to the prevailing culture they routinely went missing for days before anyone even noticed they were gone.”

Karen’s realization captures the other compelling part of the series, which is the way it aims to give each of these characters of color a journey of their own. We walk with Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a. Black Lightning, the first Black DC character to have his own book (and more recently his own TV series) as he struggles to learn to be a friend to himself, his family, and others amidst everything he had suffered in his life. Gotham cop Renee Montoya, who would later become the faceless hero The Question, works to overcome all the expectations put upon her so that she can be okay with herself as a queer Latinx woman. Having experienced far too often the unconscious bias in their Titans teammates, at some point the Duncans have to figure out how to make a life for themselves that they can be happy with, rather than continue to chase the affection of white people who will never give it to them. 

Characters of color are not mouthpieces in an argument, Ridley’s work insists again and again. 

Treating them as such is just another version of the same reduction of their humanity that our society has shown them all along, and queer people and women as well. Rather than “a social issue”, they are all human beings with stories of their own, their lives filled with relationships and history. And reading that “other history” is an invitation into not only a truer but a richer version of history itself. 

Jim McDermott, S.J., is a screenwriter, journalist, and associate editor for America.