When Newsarama last spoke with John Ridley, it was just before he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave and saw his TV series American Crime picked up for what would be an Emmy-winning three-season run. Ridley’s one of the busiest and most in-demand writer/directors in Hollywood - but when the chance came to revisit the comic book title he started a decade ago, he couldn’t say no.
This week's The American Way: Those Above and Those Below #1 returns to the world established in the 2006 WildStorm series, an alternate United States where government-created superheroes were thrown for a loop in the 1960s when an African-American hero was put on their team. Now, it’s the 1970s, and that hero, Jason Fisher, faces a United States where he’s at odds with the race riots sweeping the country – and his teammates face their own demons during one of the country’s most tumultuous periods.
Newsaramagot the chance to talk to Ridley for a few minutes about the new series, which comes out Wednesday from DC's Vertigo imprint. Ridley spoke about returning to the characters and reuniting with original series artist Georges Jeanty, why the series is special to him, the unique challenges of writing comic books vs. film, and much more.
Newsarama: John, it’s been a decade. What made you want to come back to The American Way at this point in your career?
John Ridley: I’ll be honest - a big part was having WildStorm approach me and ask me, “Would you like to continue The American Way?” And ironically, from the time that it was published 10 years ago, I’d always wanted to take a decade-by-decade examination of these heroes, how they changed, and how society changed around them.
And the funny thing is, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but like you say, it’s been 10 years. And in that time, my life started to change – my focus in storytelling began to move into film and television - and it seemed like The American Way would be something that I’d always appreciate, but was truly something of the moment.
So, to be approached literally 10 years later, to be 10 years older, to hopefully have 10 years of perspective from just being alive a decade more - to be able to infuse that into the characters’ perspective, who they are, what they are, how they think – it was just a very serendipitous occurrence. And I jumped at the chance to do it.
Nrama: It’s like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, but with superheroes.
Ridley: In some ways! Richard, to his credit, planned things much more meticulously, and deliberately. But there was something like that in my mindset for approaching this - when you have a character who’s truly growing up, not just playing someone who’s 10, 12 years older – that’s very exciting for a storyteller, to embrace that subject matter in a conceptual way.
Nrama: How did you find you approach to writing comics had changed after a decade of writing in many other forms of different media?
Ridley: Initially, it didn’t seem to change for the better. It was a hard muscle to get going again! To write film, to write television on almost a daily basis for the past 10 years, gives you an understanding of the elements you just need to get started, to get into the story. There’s an efficiency that you get used to over time.
To go back and write comics after that is like trying to get into a new software program. Everything about it - and I was working on three other projects at the same time, American Crime, Guerilla and the documentary Let It Fall - working on different things is like a healthy outlet, because it lets you shift over to other parts of your brain when you’re stuck on one thing. It’s a good feeling, and it feeds into whatever else I’m working on.
But coming back into the graphic novel space after 10 years of not doing it at all - just getting started, getting into it, getting into that story, dealing with the limitations in dialogue, in space -
Nrama: You practically gotta think in haiku when you’re writing dialogue in comics.
Ridley: Yeah! There are some writers I admire because they don’t seem to worry about that limitation, but a huge part of why fans come to graphic novels is the imagery. I’m lucky in that I’ve got a great artist in Georges Jeanty, but yeah, I’ve never heard it phrased like that, haiku. Just dealing with all the limitations, to the point where you’re trying to be artistic in language but not overwhelm the actual visuals - all those things did not come easily.
The first issue, I found myself thinking, “I am not going to hit all these deadlines.” I don’t often get phone calls where they’re saying, “Where’s the product? Where’s the script?” But I thought I was going to be on the phone with these guys every other day – “Where is it, John?”
Getting into that first issue - getting through that first issue - it was like I was shaking the rust off. Working with Georges helped, because it’s great to work with someone you knew 10 years ago, who has that understanding, who’s able to say, “Why not do this instead of that?” It’s a real partnership.
And Jamie S. Rich has been a phenomenal editor, and Georges has obviously been a terrific partner. So, after I got through that first issue, there was only one - and I say this with pride - there was only one issue that wound up running late. And that was one where I called them up and said, “Hey, sorry, this is going to be a little tight,” and that was more because of the other projects I was working on than problems with the writing itself.
Nrama: I have to say this, John - literally every time I talk to someone who works in other media such as novels, TV, film, and so forth, they always say, “Well, I thought writing comics would be easy, but it turns out it’s some of the hardest writing I’ve ever had to do.”
Ridley: Ohhhh yeah. I would second or third that. Now, a lot of the limitations you usually have just drop away - you can write an alien invasion, you can write characters who literally glow. When you have all the tools in the toolbox at your disposal, it’s like George Orwell said, “Freedom is Slavery.”
It’s no longer, “I’d have done better, but the production budget didn’t allow.” As a novelist, you have more freedom, but with comics - even the visuals are there. You have this artist who’s going to come in and create great visuals for you. As a novelist, you can help people paint a picture with their minds, but to truly paint a picture and say, “I do have to be aware of perspectives and points of view and where this character is looking…” That’s a lot to ask of an artist, that sense of what’s happening and what characters are thinking and what’s going on.
The thing is, most artists have seen it all. The best artists, on books like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, the 1980s The Question - and on top of that, you have these great writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates coming in from other spaces as well - that you have all those great artists, those great writers, great characters, all that means you can’t slouch. You’ve gotta come in full force.
So, it is hard. It is hard in every regard - the things you have to live up to, the quality, the expectations of people, the limitations of graphic novel space, and the fact that you are walking a path hewed by some of the finest artists and writers and storytellers who ever lived.
Nrama: In terms of The American Way series itself, what are some of the biggest issues you wanted to examine regarding the 1970s, and in terms of finding relationships to the world of today, which you’ve done in so much of your other work?
Ridley: Yeah, I hope that the storytelling will draw people to the timely and timeless nature. With this second series, what we wanted to write about predates any specific politics we’re going through right now. At the same time, though, I think people can read these stories and see elements of people questioning the government, questioning our leaders, the desires of people who are traditionally disenfranchised to have activists stand up for them, questions of how the law is implemented and is it implemented fairly among different groups, for some individuals to look at “traditional” politics and the power of “traditional” politics and what they mean - and I put that in very heavy quotations because I don’t think the word “politics” and its applications has always been used fairly in a traditional sense.
But those things that a lot of people will say - “Oh, he’s talking about the here and now!” - those issues were incredibly timely in the 1970s. They were relevant in the 1980s, they were relevant in the 1990s, and sadly, they may be relevant 15 years from now.
But I’ve had the opportunity to work in spaces with American Crime where what we were talking about was meant to reflect the world as we know it currently. For The American Way, it’s more of an effort to excavate the era of the 1970s. But for a certain segment of the audience, they’re going to think I’m wagging my finger at current politics. That’s not the case! But at the same time, I think it can’t be helped. All politics, in some way, is like present-day politics. It’s an unfortunate accident based in the fact that sometimes we, the people, don’t always do such a great job of problem-solving.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing more comic book work? There have been some announcements the last few years that you’re going to be doing some film and TV work with some comics characters.
Ridley: Yeah, that’s slightly different - taking these characters and putting them in a space that I work on them on a semi-daily basis. That prospect is exciting in a different way - weekend by weekend, there seems to be no loss of appetite for these characters, so that would be terrific!
But for me, because I work in film and television and other spaces, there is a joy in working specifically in the graphic novel space. Again, once I shook off the rust, it was great fun, and great working with Georges and everyone at Vertigo, and see what these characters are like 10 years later. So, for me, writing a graphic novel for its own sake can be its own reward.
Nrama: Well, are you able to give any updates on your project with Marvel Television?
Ridley: Oh man, they’d - you’d find me in a ditch with a bullet in the back of my head if I said anything about those. I can’t.
Nrama: Fair enough. So, do you see yourself doing more graphic novels?
Ridley: That’s really up to the individuals who are in this space, and who are the content providers. But hopefully, I’ll get to do this again. I know WildStorm - sorry, Vertigo - feels the same way about the work that’s been done. I’ve absolutely enjoyed it – as you say, it’s incredibly hard and requires a huge skill set, but I’d love to do more, even if it’s not The American Way specifically.
Nrama: Going back to the timely/timeless elements of the 1970s setting you talked about - something people seem to have gotten more accepting of in the last few years has been taking a superhero story, and accepting it as allegorical or a comment on cultural elements. For example, there’s the Luke Cage sequence on Netflix, the Wonder Woman film - people seem able to accept the subtextual elements and not get as hung up on, “Why are they wearing a costume?” or “Why are they able to fly?”
Nrama: Do you feel that in terms of that kind of output, that makes it easier to tell a story like The American Way?
Ridley: Absolutely. I do think that as comic books have taken on a wider cultural density, those fundamental questions that people who go to their local comic book shop have long put away are now accepted by a wider audience. As you say, the questions of, “How come no one’s looking at her costume?” or “Isn’t Superman’s costume kind of awkward?” are now things that are accepted as part of the lore, the norm, the nomenclature -even that people can designate themselves things like “Superman” and “Ant-Man” and do so without a smirk.
So, I think because comic books are becoming more ingrained in the wider audience, they’re more accepting of things. And I think there’s a reverse flow - because comics are now accepted by a wider audience, they’re making more comics and comics-related works that are reflective of that wider audience, in terms of their composition and makeup. The heroes are the individuals themselves - we see these characters reflecting the actual demographics of the country, and I think that’s a very, very good thing.
So, I think in a way, The American Way is well-positioned in that there are element of traditional superheroes in these stories. There are elements that are reflective of the nation we live in – and elements of politics, which audiences have demonstrated they are not only accepting of but excited about in their stories.
I do think the time is right for stories like this, and I think it’s a good environment in which to reintroduce The American Way.
Nrama: Anything you’d like to recommend, by yourself or others?
Ridley: Well, I’m never above recommending my own work! If I have a few minutes, I’d like to really praise Vertigo – to still have space as a major-market publication that wants to do challenging, creator-owned work and engage audiences, is a major achievement. To be able to do The American Way for a larger audience after 10 years, is a wonderful thing. I was telling Jamie, I’ve won some awards, had some achievements, but this is very, very special for me, to pick up with Georges again and tell stories about these characters.
The American Way has a lot of personal value to me, and it’s with a great deal of pride that I share this with the public at large.