John Ridley Spotlights Katana's Painfully Relevant 'Other History'

The Other History of the DC Universe #1 by John Ridley, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Andrea Cucchi, José Villarrubia and Steve Wands was released on November 24, 2020, after being in the works behind-the-scenes for years. The series, showing key events in DC Universe history from the perspective of characters hailing from traditionally disenfranchised groups, starts with an issue focused on Jefferson Pierce, detailing his experience as Black Lightning—one of DC’s first Black superheroes—juxtaposed with America’s history of real-life violence and discrimination against Black individuals.

Four months later, The Other History of the DC Universe #3 is now in stores, this time focused on Tatsu Yamashiro, better known as Katana. Tatsu is historically most closely associate with the Outsiders, but has been recently seen in comics and film as a member of the Suicide Squad. The latest installment of the five-issue DC Black Label series again delves into real-life events, including the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin—a victim of inexcusable racial paranoia and grievously misplaced anger.

DCComics.com spoke in-depth with Ridley about The Other History of the DC Universe #3 , the heartbreaking relevance of the issue, and why Katana was the right character to tell the story of attempting to be a hero amid the oppression and discrimination of the 1980s.

Read the full article in the News section of dccomics.com now!

Have you been reading The Other History of the DC Universe? Tell us what you think about this incredible, and painfully relevant, series below!

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Yeah, I think it’s the greatest thing ever publish in the history of DC Comics. But that’s just probably me. [insert smiley face]

This in-depth interview though…

The Other History of the DC Universe #3 is an impressive issue in all respects, and of course the heartbreaking thing is that none of us had any idea just how relevant this issue would be, coming out when it has. When you read the page about the murder of Vincent Chin—a real-life event from nearly forty years ago—and the circumstances of what happened, it’s eerily similar to recent events. What’s your state of mind on this comic coming out now, given what has transpired, and the maddening reminder that these tragedies keep happening?

It breaks my heart. This is the third issue, we’ve got a couple more coming out. The first, about Jefferson Pierce and his perspectives on race, came out in the wake of the reckoning we had following the execution murder of George Floyd. People were saying, “Oh my god, how did you know? How do you feel?” Now it’s the third issue, and it’s the same thing. My heart is broken.

I’m always proud when I have the opportunity—whether it’s this, whether it’s 12 Years a Slave, whether it’s American Crime, Guerrilla —to add to these necessary conversations, and in some cases even force conversations, on different marginalized communities. It breaks my heart when the work that you do comes out at moments and people ask, “Well, how did you predict this?” I didn’t predict it, but it’s never gone away. It gets modulated—up or down, louder or more softly—but violence against Asian-American communities, bigotry, going back months and months when people were openly misnaming the virus that we’re going through and creating an enemy for their own purposes. Then we get here.

“How did this happen? This isn’t us. This isn’t America.” Well, yes it is. It painfully is. And it’s not new. You go through the book. The Chinese Exclusion Act. Or Executive Order 9066. Or Vincent Chin. Or what happened in South Central LA—the stress points between the Black community and the Asian community. None of this is new. I’m never surprised by the violence, by the hatred, by the bigotry that exists. I’m surprised when the supposedly good, reasonable people are surprised that it’s happening.

What was said is all very true, I think – this is “us;” some of “us,” at least. Too many of “us” either way. And yes, this story was relevant in an unfortunate way.

Other highlights from the interview for me…

I remember the first time we talked about this series was last year, against the backdrop of everything you just noted. It’s almost debilitatingly discouraging when you think about how these things keep happening. Something that’s notable about this series is that it’s showcasing different perspectives in multiple different marginalized, othered groups, from in and outside your own lived experiences. Why was it important for you to take that approach? And what was your process in doing that?

Let me start with the second part first. You get anxious. We live in a world now where we absolutely are, and should be, very cognizant of who’s telling stories—both for the veracity and also making sure that we give the opportunity to people who have a lived experience that is much more close in line with the characters, to weave their lived experience into the fabric of those characters.

You start with Jefferson Pierce. I felt very comfortable writing that. His age as he’s telling this story, his experience, it mirrored mine. I didn’t have a problem with that. With Mal (Duncan) and Karen (Beecher-Duncan), obviously I’m not a Black female, but I’ve grown up around them. I’ve been around women of color my entire life. I don’t want to suppose that being around is the same as living, but a young Black man, his partner in life, their experiences, I felt like, okay, I could accomplish that story.

You start getting into Tatsu and even though there are many aspects of her life that, again, have surrounded my lived experience—with my family, with my family’s family—you are getting into a space where, okay, this is not me. One of the things that remains a guiding principle, part of the reason I’m sitting here and you and I are having this conversation, is because there were so many people—yes, historically, they’ve been largely white men—who have added to the fabric of storytelling that helped inspire many people, and me in particular. I think of Tony Isabella writing Black Lightning —if it weren’t for him saying at some point, I’m going to write this character of color, and write him to the best of my ability in a way that’s entertaining and that he’s just as exciting as any other hero, and maybe it’s going to inspire somebody else to do it… I get to be part of a continuum of storytelling where now maybe I’m inspiring somebody. I hope I’m doing my best work. I hope I’m honorific of people’s experiences, but if nothing else, I hope certainly in a positive way, I’m inspiring somebody else to say, “Okay, you know what? This is a good story, but if I wrote it and I added my lived experience, it could be even better.”

No, I am not a female Japanese national telling this story. But at the same time, I was not a Black slave in 1849 when I wrote 12 Years a Slave. All of it is saying, “This is less about me, let me go on a listening tour. Let me go on a reading tour. Let me sponge in all of these things.” Vincent Chin’s murder—I remember it. It was impactful for me back in the day. It’s not an accident that it’s in there. Tatsu’s going to comment on this. Tatsu’s going to comment on the stress points in Los Angeles between Blacks and Asians. She’s going to want to go visit Manzanar, sit in the space and wonder what it would have been like to be Japanese in America in the 1940s. She arrived at DC in the 1980s, and that was not a great time for Japanese nationals to be in America. There’s some supposition, but a lot of it is taking things that exist, listening, putting emotions that are true human to human to human, and putting that all together and hoping and believing that you’ve created something that will entertain everyone, but hopefully inspire the next generation.

Well said.

And John Ridley’s wife is Japanese.

So the…

You start getting into Tatsu and even though there are many aspects of her life that, again, have surrounded my lived experience—with my family, with my family’s family…

He has Japanese relatives, so that’s what he’s talking about there.

And…

Many fans will know Katana mostly as a character in team books like Batman and The Outsiders and Suicide Squad. This issue really delves into her psyche and details her personal perspective. What potential did you see in the character that made you certain she should be one of the handful of characters you focused on in this book?

I saw the potential in every one of these characters. Every one of them has been around for decades and they’re incredibly durable. And they have not been marquee characters, but they’ve been witnesses to an incredible history. If you talk to anybody who was there in the room where it happened for all of these amazing things, you know their story is bigger than just being a side character. They were there for a reason. They were there because they were trustworthy as a team member, they were there because they were durable, they were there because they had something to add. When you go through these comics, even though they may not have been the lead characters in some of these stories, the moments they were around were pretty monumental.

It was an honor to take every one of these characters and elevate them to the place where any writer can come in afterwards now and see the work the other writers have done through history. If this was where my career ended, by elevating Jefferson, Tatsu, Mal, Karen—Renee (Montoya) probably didn’t need it, she’s pretty durable, but she’s great and certainly deserves it—and Anissa (Pierce); if that were the end of my contribution to pop culture, I’d retire a happy man.

Last…

As noted, this series has been in the works for a long time and now we’re roughly halfway through the issues. What has it meant to you to finally have this out in the world and people are seeing what the team has been working on for so long? Knowing that it’s been an unconventional type of comic in many ways—from format, to content, to theme—how does it feel to see people pick it up and get it, and embrace what you’ve been working on for so long?

I couldn’t be more proud and I couldn’t be more pained. I’m so proud of the work, I’m so proud of the team. Everybody—the editors, everybody at DC—I don’t think they get enough credit for what they wanted to try to do, starting three years ago. This is not corporate do-goodery, they made a decision three years ago to lean into race, orientation and gender. Every step of the way was just push it, push it, push it. Let’s do more. Let’s make it better. I’m proud of all of that.

It really, genuinely pains me, to the point that I could literally start crying right now, that this book is coming out right at this moment. I’m proud that we’re hopefully, at whatever level, forcing conversations. It breaks my heart that a story about Vincent Chin, who deserves for people to know his name—I’m not going to say the names of the perpetrators, they should be consigned to the potter’s field of history. That a story about Vincent Chin is coming out at a time like this just breaks my heart. I’m happy that we add to the awareness. It didn’t start yesterday. It didn’t start a year ago. It’s been going on.

How does it feel to know we’re coming out in a moment that hate creates? It feels terrible. I could not be more proud, I could not be more pained. If there was a piece of art or literature that was going to change the world, somebody else would have already created it. I do hope that for people who have the capacity to understand that this stuff needs to end, that this will help them understand that this is cyclical.

You look at what Watchmen on HBO did—some people didn’t know about Tulsa. It took a TV show to educate people. I hope for a lot of people that right now genuinely want to understand that this is an opportunity to really grasp how we got here and why Tatsu is such an amazing character in the DC fabric.

Yeah, I guess HBO’s Watchmen; my favorite comic book-related TV series – did bring a higher awareness to what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.

Because if you knew your history you were aware of it, but that incident, as horrible and tragic as it was, isn’t really at the forefront when it comes to historical events.

And of course one of the reasons why it’s not at the forefront is probably easy to guess…

Hint: the reason why is because of who the perpetrators of the riot were.

It’s been largely ignored in history because those who write the history want it that way.

Be that as it may, if a comic book-related TV series can educate those who were unaware of certain things in history, then that’s not a bad thing.

HBO’s Lovercraft Country also explored the Tulsa Race Riot in an episode.

But yeah, that’s the beauty of the comic art form.

It can be there for sheer escapism from the real world, and also bring about an awareness to issues in the real world.

I know for as long as I can remember I’ve preferred the latter over the former. And that’s because I can learn things that I may not have otherwise been aware of before, and that’s pretty cool to me.

Anyway, yep, my favorite comic series ever from my favorite comic book writer ever. It hits all of the right notes and interests for me.

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Fully support this series. More, please!

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Other History is, no joke, the best thing to come out of DC in years, and easily the best Black Label series we’ve seen so far. This level of introspection and contextualization of DC history is unmatched. I’m in love with this comic and I cannot wait for the Question issue.

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A plug, I also fully support!

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Another John Ridley interview…

The two big takeaways for me…

一.

Ichi (“one” in Japanese)

CBR: You’ve mentioned previously that a lot of your work is drawn from your personal experience. The latest issue of The Other History of the DC Universe tells the story of Katana, who is an Asian female hero. What was your inspiration for telling her story?

John Ridley: Much of the inspiration was drawn from personal memory. In the 1980s, there was the rise of a xenophobic fear and hatred of Japanese people. I remember visiting Japan in the late '80s and talking to Japanese people who just couldn’t understand why Americans were so afraid of them. It felt like after the Second World War, America needed to have an adversary and a boogeyman. There was just so much in that time period that I remembered and thought was really interesting.

Tatsu is a really unique character and she was created in the '80s, during that time period, but her stories never dealt with what it would really be like to be Japanese in America; to be someone who wanted to stand up for something and wanted to represent values, arriving to a place that exists as the beacon of democracy to the world but doesn’t necessarily practice the things that we preach. So all of those aspects, as well as the fact that Tatsu was birthed in pain, although her pain has never really been woven into her narrative made her an interesting character to write.

With everybody in the Other History, and particularly with Tatsu, there are all of these ingredients for a great character. Why not bring them together and use them in service of character building? I believe that’s exactly what we’re doing in Other History #3, taking her narrative and making it unique.

And again, John Ridley’s wife is Japanese.

I’ve been watching John Ridley for years as a guest commentator on various cable TV political shows (he’s mainly appeared on MSNBC), and that’s when I learned of that.

Anyway, I do want to visit Tokyo at some point.

And 二.

Ni (“two” in Japanese)…

CBR: What can readers expect from the final three issues of other history of the DC Universe?

Ridley: People have been really appreciative of the first few issues, and I’m hoping for more of the same. This series does not shy away from painful conversations. It holds up all of these individuals as being heroic not because of their powers, or their commitment to justice. For these characters, it’s not just about powers, it’s about a belief in being inspirational and catalysts for change.

There’s a reason that comic books are wish fulfillment. And to me, it’s not just because I wish I could wake up in the morning and have all of Superman’s powers, or be The Flash or Black Lightning. The wish-fulfillment is that you see people who refuse to give in to their circumstances and refuse to be marginalized in any regard. Even when it comes to Batman, Bruce Wayne realizes that having all the money in the world doesn’t protect you. And he chooses not to use his money to isolate himself. There’s the joke now that Bruce’s power is that he’s super-rich, but he’s actually a super-rich guy who is committed to change.

I want these stories to be tales of heroes. When the first issues came out, and people asked me what the series was about, I said that they were five stories of hope. Sometimes hope comes from a very difficult place. John Lewis was a person who inspired many, but his life was not easy. He didn’t choose to settle. He didn’t just say he wanted civil rights and leave somebody else to lead the charge. It was a difficult and painful time, but we’re in a better place because of people like John Lewis. And you can say the same about anybody who chooses to not be limited by their circumstances and makes a determination to fight for something. When it comes to things like civil rights, equal rights, legal rights and marriage equality, if everybody doesn’t have it, nobody has it.

Last summer, Black and brown people were out on the streets advocating, but we also equally need to be advocating for any other demographic that is marginalized. So I hope with these books, people get a better understanding of themselves, and a better understanding of people with different life experiences. I want these books to be reminders that hope and change are positive things and will only happen if we fight for them. We’ve seen that the other side doesn’t care. They’ll fight against it, they’ll lie, and they will demonize proponents of change. They’re in an active process of denying voting rights right now.

If there was a piece of pop culture that was going to change the world, somebody else would have done it by now. I hope that there’s some advocacy here, but it’s done in a way that it invites reading and ingratiates itself with the audience. It honors the heroes of the past and inspires the heroes and storytellers of the future. This is what people can expect. The final issues are more of the same, only better and more hopeful every step of the way.

And I of course thank John Ridley for what we’ve gotten. And more of the same is good. Is great. Is what I want.

So more please, and arigato, Ridley-san.

Or something like that, at least. I studied German, not Japanese. [insert smiley face]

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The only thing I don’t like is that a few events have been switched around in time from when they happened in DC history such as the late debut of Supergirl, and having John Stewart appear before the formation of the Justice League.

Not that it doesn’t work well in the story, but I think this book is such a masterpiece that I would have loved for it to be the official history of the DC Universe instead of some sort of alternate history that is extremely close to the actual publication history.

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