Our two-part interview with John Ridley, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of the acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave, concludes today. In this installment, Ridley talks about working in comics, collaborating with the late writer and editor Dwayne McDuffie on the classic Justice League episode “Starcrossed,” and addresses some of the current issues with the reactions to minority characters and opportunities for minority creators in comics.
Newsarama: John, what have your experiences working in comics been like?
John Ridley: Well, I gotta say they were all really great. And I was fortunate to be working at Wildstorm at that time, in what turned out to be like the final years. Wildstorm at that time was almost like the art house division of the DC Universe.
So when I came in, one of the first things I got to do was take on The Authority with a hardcover trade publication (Human on the Inside), and essentially, my editor at the time, Ben Abernathy, said, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you put the toys back in the toy box at the end,” you know, not change anything. So that was fun because I could do something new with the characters, something that wasn’t the regular type of story.
And the second thing I did was with Warblade, which was fun because I got to sort of reinvent the character, but not with a hard reboot. You know, it was a character no one really cared about, and Ben saying, “Do whatever you want, here’s a character everyone’s thinking about, so if you have some odd, weird take, go for it.”
And working with Simon Bisley – my god! To be able to write whatever I wanted, and to be able to see him bring it to life, that was pretty phenomenal.
In the third circumstance, it was The American Way, a creator-owned book and a story I’d always wanted to tell. It dealt with an alternate take American history, and the Civil Rights movement, and that to me was exceptionally special.
It was the last of the creator-owned series that Wildstorm did, and that was a market that was disappearing, because the companies want to own their properties. So that was special to me, to be able to own that property and have a company supporting it.
Those were my experiences in comics – they were all very unique and all very special.
Nrama: Would you want to work in comics again in the future?
Ridley: Yeah, I’d love to try to do it – the thing is, though, you come in to write someone like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, whatever, and the people who are writing that character know everything, his parentage, his lineage, they know those stories. And it’s like, “Okay, honestly, can I tell one of those stories as well or better as someone who’s working on that character day in and day out?”
And if I couldn’t change things with those iconic characters, do I want to do that? There are things that I would love to try to do with them, but that market doesn’t exist the way it did a few years back with some of the specialty versions of some of those stories.
And then there’s creator-owned books, which I really, really love, but that market doesn’t work the way it did a few years ago. Comic book companies are savvy now – that is a lot of money they can make if they can repurpose those stories for the big screen.
So I loved The American Way; I still own it, and if I could find a way to go back and do it…writing graphic novels is a serious business. The people who work on those books are serious, and the fans are serious. So I don’t want to be this guy who just air-drops in and it’s, “I got some award in some other space, let me come in and do graphic novels.” I’ve seen some people do that and it hasn’t worked out so well.
I would love to go back do it when I have the space, especially if I was able to work with an editor like Ben Abernathy, who helped me out and made me look good, who saved me from myself often – that’s a great editor, not just someone who goes, “Oh, John writes movies! Let’s get him to do this and this and this, and it has to be out by this date, so it needs to be done now.”
So, like making a movie, you have to have the right team with you – the right artist, the right editor, the right company. I love graphic novels – I love reading them, I enjoyed writing them, I would love to go back and do them again. I hope I’m savvy enough to do them in the right way.
Nrama: Regarding your work in animation – I was curious if you worked with Dwayne McDuffie directly when you did “Starcrossed.”
Ridley: Yeah – I absolutely did, and I can’t say enough about him as a person and his legacy and – you know, look, the only reason “Starcrossed” got made, that was a great little mini-movie, and he was largely why it turned out so well. And I think that year that got a Writers Guild nomination, it was like four Simpsons episodes and “Starcrossed,” that’s how strong that was.
Working in animation these days is a complicated process, and there were a lot of people who worked on that, and who respected the things I could do well, but were not shy about helping me work in that space. So that was special.
What was also special about working on that was my oldest son, when that came out, it was the first time I took my kid to see that and he went, “You wrote that?!” And I went, “Well, I wrote part of it, there were all these other guys – “ And he went, “You’re so cool! That’s so cool!” (laughs)
The first time your kids respond to something you worked on…that’s part of what made that special for me. Not only because of the people I worked with on this like Dwayne, who helped me work in that space, but….you start to mark your life with the personal responses to your work. And that was the first time my son responded to my work, and it was a great response.
Among all the things Dwayne achieved with his life and career, he helped me personally achieve a milestone – no play on Milestone Comics there – but he helped me achieve a milestone in my personal life and in my career. I will never, ever forget that.
Nrama: He was just such a good guy. I interviewed him a few times, he wrote for a different website I worked on in the past, and he is just the definition of “gone too soon.”
Ridley: He was a great guy, no doubt.
Nrama: Now, I don’t want to posit you an expert on minority characters, but given your work in comics and film, I was curious about your feelings as to the reactions people have when a minority actor is cast or is considered for a traditionally-white superhero role – such as Idris Elba playing Heimdall in the Thor films, Donald Glover campaigning to play Peter Parker, Michael B. Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm… people get very, very angry about that, and often start bringing racial slurs into the mix. It just exposes something I find very sickening and ugly.
One thing that gets me is that I’ve talked to a number of black and Latino writers who’ve told me things like, “Growing up, I considered Spider-Man a black hero,” because they related to his outsider status, or that they considered many superheroes Latino because they grew up watching them in things dubbed into Spanish.
It seems like a lot of people of different backgrounds have been asked to try and see themselves in white characters…but when some white people are asked to do the opposite, there’s a sense of being threatened.
Ridley: Yeah. I will say this – I’d like to start with the defense first. If you change Wonder Woman’s costume, the blog sites blow up. There are some individuals who look at graphic novels as “canon,” and they cannot change in any way, shape or form, and that’s what makes them in some ways good fans.
I think we have to come to understand that core fans – and God bless ‘em, because they are core fans – they’re not enough to be drivers, in every sense. These worlds are bigger than just that core of fans. And at some point, if you want to remain relevant, whether it’s just comic books or moving into the TV space or the film space, you have to be cognizant of the world around you.
You know, you see that in plenty of films – the filmmakers go, “We’re living in a multicultural society, and if we want to survive, we have to start acknowledging that.” Certainly as a kid, I grew up with Batman, Superman, whoever – they didn’t need to be black for me to relate to them.
But when a character like Cyborg came along, I got excited, because he looked a little bit more like me, his experiences were a little bit more like mine.
I still have my first Black Lightning that I got way back in the day, and my first Steel. And I proudly display those comics, by the way. I have a lot of comics, but those are among the ones that mean the most to me.
I look at my kids, and how they respond to films, and yeah, if there’s a Michael B. Jordan in the film, they’re going to respond differently – not just in terms of whether or not they want to see the movie, but in terms of seeing someone like them being heroic, someone like them with powers and abilities.
All those things I said to you in that earlier question about wish fulfillment – why should that be limited to a certain space and time? With comic books, Batman has remained the same age forever, Superman has remained the same age – yeah, he gets rebooted and this and that, but if you are writing in a space that is magical, and it is at the whim of the creators, and these stories change as they need to change way back from the early days of the ‘30s and ‘40s all the way up to the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and today, my Batman is not the Batman I understood when I was a kid.
They change. Their stories change. And if they can change to the reality that they do change, why can’t they make that change (of race) as well? You know, there are people who are against people of color getting involved in politics, or there was a time when people were against their getting involved with sports.
The real world has changed and moved on. If we can make that change in the real world, we can make it in this fanciful world that exists beyond us.
And if people don’t like it – we’re not waiting for permission any longer to make these changes in real life, and we’re certainly not going to wait for them in storytelling. I never asked for permission.
So for those who are against it – I get it to a degree, but as a society, we’re moving on, and we’re not asking for permission.
Nrama: I’ve been encouraged by seeing a greater diversity of characters in comics, but I’d also like to see more progress behind the scenes. There was a whole thing recently where Image Comics announced a slew of new creator-owned books, and it was guys like Grant Morrison and Ed Brubaker, and everyone was excited for a moment, and then all the creators were on stage and people noticed, “Almost everyone there is a white guy.”
Ridley: Yeah – it’s like my experiences in Hollywood. People – I think they generally want change, they want diversity. They don’t want to make it seem like they’re excluding other people, but they don’t know how to not make it about quotas, about “if we hire one, we have to hire another.”
And I understand that too, I’m sensitive to that. I don’t believe in quotas of any kind. There are talented people of all kinds of different backgrounds. And sometimes when we think of “diversity” we think “black” when we have to make sure Hispanics and Asians and women are all getting a shot.
Getting back to Dwayne McDuffie and Milestone – when I was a younger man, what it did for me to see characters like Hardware and Icon and Rocket! Those are comics that I still have to this day, because they really, really spoke to me. Sometimes the stories weren’t “black”-specific, but seeing those characters and knowing they were created by people of color behind the scenes, really did a lot for me and made me say, “Hey, maybe one day I could do this.”
I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for guys like Denys Cowan and Dwayne who blazed a trail way back in the day. So if we’re not opening the doors now…it’s 2014. There’s no reason why people who are capable, enthusiastic, well-versed in the lore and just happen to be of color shouldn’t have an equal chance to go in for these kinds of jobs and whatnot. It’s time, and the talent is there. And talent will out, I really believe that.
Nrama: I agree – and I wish there were more reprints of the Milestone books. That was great stuff, Icon and Xombi –
Ridley: Yeah. I still have my whole run of Icon. I think I have most of Hardware. I wish those characters would pop up more – I know DC owns them, but I’d love to see more of an integration of those characters into…man, I miss them.
I remember Rocket being pregnant in Icon! That blew my mind more than the superhero stuff! She was a teenager! I was thinking, “She’s a young girl, there’s no way they’ll let her have the baby…” She had the baby! And this was the early 1990s! A teen girl superhero having a baby – that was huge.
So, I would love to see those characters come back. They meant so much to me, and I just think they’re great. I don’t know, I’m not in the game, so maybe they’re bringing them back and I don’t know –
Nrama: They brought Static back for the “New 52” relaunch, but that was short-lived.
Ridley: I remember they had some appearances in a Justice League comic, but I don’t remember much about it. But when I hear about these characters, I go, “Let me go get this stuff, I gotta spend some money on this stuff.” So I can’t imagine I’m the only one. So I’d love to see them, but who knows? Maybe they’re working on them, whatever they’re doing with them, I’m happy for it.
Nrama: We’re about out of time, so I’d just like to ask about what all you have coming up – I know you have the pilot American Crime in play at ABC, and All Is by My Side –
Ridley: All Is by My Side will have its US premiere at the South by Southwest Festival in March, and it’ll be in theaters by May. I’m very excited to have that out now, and as the follow-up to 12 Years a Slave. It’s been received so well thus far, people seem to be getting what we’re trying to do and I think Andre Benjamin’s performance is just singular – what he does is absolutely amazing.
It’s a really good space and time for me – 12 Years a Slave, American Crime, which I’m also going to direct, and All Is by My Side.
Nrama: I was curious about your L.A. Riots screenplay – last I saw, Justin Lin was on board as director –
Ridley: Yeah, Justin’s on board, I’m doing some rewriting for him – and hopefully we’ll be off shooting on that. I’ve been working on this for a long time, I think it’s a fascinating piece of American history. People remember the images, but they forget how it happened, why it happened. To get that made, to get that story told, would be absolutely phenomenal.
Nrama: And anything in general you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed, or would like to say to our readers?
Ridley: Oh, wow. One thing I’d like to say is that I’ve been so lucky to work in that space of graphic novels, and with that amazing group of people at Wildstorm, and I really am always just so thankful for the fans’ support.
With any project, whether it’s film or TV or graphic novels, you need that base of support in place, and when The American Way came out, the way it was received, the way people encouraged us, were excited about it…to this day, people ask me about it, where the story might go, what happened to the characters. And I got to tell you, the people at Newsarama, the support we got…that was really special.
So if there’s anything I want to say to the fans, it’s thanks to the supporters, the bloggers…the support that’s unlike anything you get in film and TV. It’s a great community in comics. And I hope to get back to it someday.
12 Years a Slave is available now Digital HD.