Review: Marginalised Voices, Tokenism And Subconscious Racism Are All Explored In ‘The Other History Of The DC Universe’ #2

by Olly MacNamee


The history of the Teen Titans is recounted by Malcolm and Karen Duncan. As you would imagine, both have differing memories of the past, but both can be sure of one thing: tokenism and subconscious racism was rife in the DCU. A great alternative take on DC Comics history and culture with on and off the page.


On the first day of Black History Month it seems appropriate that I dropped my review of The Other History of the DC Universe #2 and it’s alternative take on the DCU. It’s also a damn fine take on the practices of the publisher, its inclusion of minority characters – and in particular those of African-American heritage – and how they have been marginalised both on and off the page.

This issue brings us the very personal story of Malcolm Duncan and Karen Beecher-Duncan, who offer two very different recounts of their time with the Teen Titans. As with the first issue of this oversized prestige format mini-series, comic book events are revisited from the viewpoint black characters who offer a very different and meta take on these stories from the past.

Our narrators share their hurt when it is revealed that none of the Teen Titans attended their wedding. They happily attend Donn Troy’s wedding in the classic Tales of The New Teen Titans #50, but you feel for these characters in their summation of these nuptials. And while no-one would accuse the likes of Marv Wolfman of being racist, like all other creators at that time, tokenism was rife and seemingly the standard practice. Whether intentionally or unconsciously. So, while Cyborg’s inclusion on the New Teen Titans team is most definitely a good example of this tokenism in play in the industry, it is presented in this book as tokenism at its finest. The book is full of such clever inclusions. Scenes from comics of the past reviewed through the ways of black characters given a voice by a black writer, John Ridley. 

As well as a radical rethink of these comic book capers, real-life events of the era come crashing into the fictional world of DC Comics, offering up an important and integral context to the history of the DCU. The late 60’s and early 70’s explosion of civil rights activism saw a similar explosion of all-new black characters into comics. These characters may well have been included for all the best intentions, but for the likes of Ridley as a young comic book loving kid characters created by white creators were probably far from authentic. And, arguably, such characters as Black Lightning, Black Panther and Black Goliath, only came about because of external social changes. One could see the same diversification of comic book content also stemming somewhat from this too. Just look at the knock-on effect Black Lives Matters has had on the hiring of new talent at DC Comics and across the comic book industry.

Corporations tend to react to change rather than champion it themselves  Cynically, one could argue that such corporations now taking up the banner of BLM and equality are the same corporations who allowed to exist and thrive in the first place. Never forget that. Ridley most certainly hasn’t, even if the tone to this series is far from bitter. This isn’t Spike Lee, that’s for sure. Indeed, there is a good deal of optimism to be had in this issue alone from our tag-team of narrators. But it is worth reminding you that Malcolm and Karen are nobodies fools.

In this issue such events as the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon (Arthur Ashe) are included as a rare example of black talents coming to dominate – even for the briefest of moments – an aspect of white culture and how such major events were a moment of collective pride. But others events, such the brutal murders of African-Americans in 1979 – 1981, are included to stretch a point somewhat tenuously, I think. This latter event is framed as yet another time which white superheroes ignored the black communities. Blaming the superhero community for not doing the right thing is maybe a stretch too far for this reader. You could equally complain about them never getting involved with the capture of John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy or Jeffery Dahmer. But the point about society turning its back on murders in black communities after a suspect was apprehended is not lost on me. It just felt like a stretch too far connecting this with DC superheroes. You don’t grow up listening to America’s “black CNN” Public Enemy without learning thing or two about racism in America, both explicit and institutionalised. But, when parallels are drawn between real world events and the institutionalised racism of comic book history, on the whole they land powerfully. And, there are a good deal of good examples made throughout this book. In case you hadn’t realised it yet, this whole series is shaping up into being a treatise on the history of black superheroes at DC Comics, but dressed up as a comic book. Edutainment at its finest. 

Even the inclusion of Cyborg in the Teen Titans is framed as tokenism by Mal and Karen, our narrators to this second issue. And one can’t really disagree with that, I don’t think. Just take a look back at any super hero team of the 80’s and spot how many teams have more than one minority character. Or any!? Juts take a look at the cover of Justice League #1 (1987). Doctor Light and that’s it.

What’s more, many of these black characters often shared the same lazy, stereotypical background too.  Social workers, teachers and other such worthy positions with the black community. Cyborg represented “the streets” which in itself is problematic if you think about it.

But, such length discussions are not for here. I’ve written enough to get you thinking, I hope, about other issues of representation in the media. Once more I find myself close to digression, so back to the comic book one last time!

The use of splash pages, by artist Giuseppe Camuncoli and inker Andrea Cucchi, that reframe classic moments from DC Comics’ Silver and Bronze Age allows for the inclusion of a great deal of prose. And thereby allowing Ridway the space he needs to allow his central and nuanced ideas to come across. The whole issue is a retake on the history of the Teen Titans, but from the point of view of Mal and Karen. It’s certainly a very different, albeit valid, take on this superhero group that has a rich history at DC Comics and one that has become even richer with this addition to its chronicles. And, it’s also a good indication of the work DC Comics and others still has ahead of them. But with the likes of Ridley working at DC Comics, these times they are a-changing. 

The Other History Of The DC Universe #2 is out now from DC Comics/DC Black Label

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