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In Search of a Black Batman and Darker DC

With this month’s ‘Future State: The Next Batman,’ the comic book publisher debuted something new for the company: a Black Batman written by a Black writer. But despite on-page progress at DC and others, the industry still has a long way to go.

DC Comics/Ringer illustration

Batman has been many things over the years: a caveman, a T. rex, a vampire, a homeless person, and a fifth-dimension imp, among other things. He’s fought clowns, gods, the devil, Jack the Ripper, and drug-fueled paranoia. Part of the nocturnal superhero’s proposition is that he’s malleable to almost any time or genre. But the one thing Batman’s rarely been throughout his 82-year history is a person of color written by a person of color. That changed when DC Comics reached out to John Ridley about his interest in bringing a different type of Batman to life.

“When DC offered me the job, there were all these vague phone calls and ‘You’ve got to sign these nondisclosures,’” Ridley says over a Zoom call. The screenwriter behind 2013’s 12 Years a Slave and the creator of American Crime has been an avid comic fan since the ’70s and has had stints helming his own comics and writing credits on animated Justice League and Static Shock shows. But his new assignment was shepherding the future of a billion-dollar franchise.

“You know something big is coming your way because these are people who normally just call you on the phone, ‘Hey, John, what’s up? We want to talk.’ And now it’s like ‘Someone’s trying to get in touch with you, but you need to sign a document,’” Ridley continues. “Then once you understand what it is, you know the impact and you know what it means. And then when they tell you they want Batman to be Black, you know what that’s going to mean in all kinds of ways.”

Future State: The Next Batman, written by Ridley and drawn by Nick Derington, places Tim Fox—the son of longtime Batman ally, Lucius Fox—behind the cowl and imagines a Gotham City overrun by a security force with shoot-on-sight orders for any civilian seen wearing a mask. The subtext of the story isn’t subtle, but neither are most superhero comics.

Through the years, Batman’s central grounding force has been his secret identity. Any time the caped crusader’s comics would balloon out of control, they’d snap back to a familiar constant. As a child, Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in an alley and swore to exact vengeance on all criminals. But in 2021, the fictional story of a vigilante billionaire punishing criminals and jailing the poor is naturally fraught. It becomes even more so the minute the pigment of his skin changes.

“When we contextualized The Next Batman, we baked certain things into the equation that were going to allow us to discuss stories in a sandbox that were going to be bordered by race, class, policing, and community—those quadrants,” Ridley explains. “Everybody knew going in that they would deal with that.”

In the first issue of The Next Batman, released January 5, Ridley immediately shifts the paradigm. There’s no question Bruce Wayne would hand criminals over to the police, but when Tim Fox saves a pair of teenaged brothers who just joined a gang from the cops, the normal expectations are subverted.

“Are you going to put us in jail?” the masked teenager asks this new Batman.

“I’m turning you over to children’s services. What happens after that … it’s up to you,” he replies.

It’s not a perfect response, but it’s progress. Superheroes are rarely agents of nuance, but following a summer when Black Lives Matter protests reaffirmed how flawed policing in America is, it’s novel to see Batman reflecting that conversation.

“I think any slightly reasonable person can no longer deny the systemic bias that we see first and foremost in policing. But you see it in healthcare, you see it in the financial sector, you see it everywhere,” Ridley explains. “Bruce Wayne had the money. Bruce Wayne had the access. Bruce Wayne had the ability to go anywhere and beat up anybody. He could beat up white people. He could beat up people of color. If he was beating them up, they were clearly, clearly bad. It was never that sort of gray area of ‘Well, you pulled over someone and you made them a suspect, but were they suspect?’”

There’s likely no better place to understand Ridley’s view of superheroes than The Other History of the DC Universe, a miniseries he wrote that reframes iconic moments in the publisher’s history. A play on 1986’s History of the DC Universe by Marv Wolfman, Ridley’s version places Black Lightning—the first Black superhero to have a monthly comic at the publisher—at the center of the superhero boom throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

“Even when I was a little kid, I had my pull bag from the comic book store and they would just load comic books in it, and I would pull them out and read them. Imagine in the ’70s, pulling a comic book out of that bag and it’s Black Lightning and he’s Black,” Ridley says. “He was a teacher and he was fighting, not just bad guys, but fighting for his community, fighting for his students, fighting for things that were really fundamental.”

Ridley’s The Other History of the DC Universe looks at heroes through the lens of a post–Vietnam War, rise-of–Ronald Reagan America. To Black Lightning, Superman is a symbol of white privilege, while the Justice League is an organization that allows aliens and Atlanteans in without much of a thought, but makes potential Black candidates try out for spots. Instead of apolitical symbols, Ridley’s superheroes are as flawed as the countries and governments they represent.

“[It] was really important to me to show that all of these individuals are human,” Ridley says. “I loved reading Clark Kent stories. I love Bruce Wayne. I’m not trying to sell him out, but Bruce Wayne has a certain privilege.”

But it’s Ridley’s depiction of a Bruce Wayne from a different era that comes off as a darkly comic representation of those early superhero stories. “Batman wanted me not because I’d proven myself as a hero,” Black Lightning narrates in The Other History. “The guy who got kidnapped was Black, and Batman needed a Black man to pretend to be the guy’s brother. Apparently I was the only Black man Batman knew.”

DC and its chief competitor, Marvel Comics, replacing their most popular heroes with temporary stand-ins isn’t a new trend. In the last 15 years alone, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Kate Kane, and the Joker have either replaced Bruce Wayne or existed beside him as Batman. But decades before Miles Morales became the second-most famous Spider-Man or Disney+ green-lit a slate of shows in which male superheroes were replaced with their female counterparts (Hawkeye, She-Hulk, Ironheart), the Silver Age of comics introduced revamps of World War II heroes.

“The idea of changing superheroes’ identities in order to boost sales is a very old one. The Silver Age of comics began in 1956 when DC revived its Golden Age character, the Flash, by replacing Jay Garrick with Barry Allen. It happened again in 1959, when Alan Scott was replaced by Hal Jordan as Green Lantern,” John Jackson Miller writes via email. As the founder of Comichron—a comic book website that specializes in tracking sales figures—Miller has seen this trend persist through multiple eras of the medium. Batman: Knightfall, the 1993 event that saw Bane break Bruce Wayne’s back and place the more extreme Jean-Paul Valley in the Batman suit, resulted in a temporary sales boost. According to Miller, Batman no. 500 sold over a million copies and was among the last comics from this boom period to do that.

“One dynamic that publishers have found is that, should an original version of a hero return, they often get a second ongoing superhero out of the deal, such as War Machine in the case of Iron Man, or Steel in the case of Superman,” Miller says. “So there’s some added benefit to doing it.”

But more radical than the existence of a Black Batman is that a Black writer gets to introduce him. Since its inception, the comic book industry has been dominated by white men and little has changed in the last century. DC had only one Black staffer in its editorial department as late as 2019, according to Business Insider.

Even in 2021, to be a Black writer at DC or Marvel usually means being overwhelmingly successful in another field. Two of the most prominent Black voices working at DC and Marvel are Ridley (an Oscar-winning screenwriter) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient), and even their respective books—The Next Batman, Captain America, Black Panther—aren’t among either company’s flagship titles.

When asked about this trend, Ridley took a moment as he tried to sum up a problem bigger than him, but no less real.

“We talk about white privilege and things like that, but there’s a certain privilege that is going on right here. I don’t write a lot of comic books. I’ve certainly done a very good job in other spaces, a respectable job in other spaces. And here I am being handed some of the biggest books there are,” Ridley begins. “I certainly have to go in and pitch the ideas and get them approved.”

“You talk about characters that are literally billion-dollar IPs,” he continues. “Whoever it is, is going to have to have proven themselves. But again, I have not written a ton of graphic novels. I’ve been partnered with the right people, even now I’m partnering with the right editors who help me do my best work. … These patterns do exist. And if we’re not aware of these patterns, we can’t break it up.”

In retrospect, Ridley was far closer to the new Batman than either of us knew. Within the pages of The Next Batman, Ridley was telling a story about a hero forced to fix institutional messes that generations of privileged people inflicted upon the world.

“We need to make room at the table,” Ridley says. “So there’s a level of once you’re in, not just going ‘Well, I’m here. All done. That’s it. Nice to see you.’ What are we doing to really get folks in? And then the reality is, folks who are doing the advocating, folks who are in the critical decision-making positions to really start being colorblind but race aware so that you’re looking at people and knowing that anybody with talent can do these things.”

Before Ridley leaves, he discusses the workplace equality necessary for an industry that’s been slow to evolve, but in the process reveals a simple truth about the billion-dollar hero he’s charting the future for. For years, readers were told that with enough training, determination, and time they too could be the Dark Knight. But until recently, no one had asked the toughest question of all. If Batman is so malleable, then why, for 82 years, had he been written by only a select few who looked like Bruce Wayne?

“In all honesty, if I can do this—” Ridley begins. “Trust me, there’s somebody else out there who’s got the will, who’s got the ability.”