Oscar-Winning screenwriter John Ridley on returning to comics with The American Way

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Aug 9, 2017

The entertainment business likes to pigeonhole writers to specific media. This writer writes for television. That one writes for film. Over here is a comics writer. The reality is that for writers who do cross over the three media, it’s no big deal. Writers simply write. No matter the project, no matter the medium. But we do need to be reminded sometimes, like when Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley returns to the world of comics.

Ridley started out writing for Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The John Larroquette Show. He eventually made the leap to film with indie thriller U-Turn, then David O. Russell’s 1999 Persian Gulf film Three Kings. Ridley would go back to television, creating Platinum and Barbershop. Then around 2005-2006, after writing The Authority: Human on the Inside, Ridley created his first creator-owned comic book series, The American Way for DC Comics’ Wildstorm imprint, with artist Georges Jeanty.

The American Way told a story where the 1940s United States government was complicit in creating super-powered heroes called the Civil Defense Corps and villains, staging public spectacles to preserve a facade of harmony to maintain public approval and hide the wounds and warts beneath. In 1962, when an African-American hero named The New American replaces the symbol of classic American ideals, Old Glory (who suffered a fatal heart attack), the country goes wild.

Jason Fisher, aka the New American, has super strength and invulnerable skin, thanks to gene therapy treatments. But he still retains the pain receptors of a normal human. So inflict enough physical punishment and Fisher could die, even though his body would show no wounds. With the civil rights movement boiling at that time, The American Way comments on the racial tensions and the complicated South while maintaining innocence and optimism despite the hostility embedded in our society.

Ridley would eventually be swept up by film and television again, writing 12 Years a Slave (for which he won the Oscar) and creating both American Crime and Guerrilla. Now here we are 10 years later, and Ridley has put out a sequel, The American Way: Those Above and Those Below, through DC Vertigo. The story is also set a decade later, this time in the 1970s. The real time that’s passed since the first volume includes two terms with President Barack Obama, and now the divisive transition into President Donald Trump’s run.

Progress occurred, but much work is still needed; that goes for all of society, both in reality and the one portrayed in The American Way: Those Above and Those Below. Sociopolitical themes that were important in past generations are still relevant today, but those issues, unfortunate experiences, and perspectives feed into the new series, making it germane for today’s heightened concerns, whether it's Jason feeling the effects of the racial profiling in young black males or needing to go beyond the lines of the laws as they are written.

I welcomed John Ridley to the SYFY WIRE interview studio at San Diego Comic-Con to talk about how this new six-issue miniseries came to happen and how the speculative nature of science fiction and fantasy can allow us to view historic periods in a different way. We even got into some of what’s written in the first issue of the new volume (out now), and if Ridley told me that another story of The American Way depends on availability and how well this second volume is received.

Issue #2 of The American Way: Those Above and Those Below comes out August 16, and #3 drops on September 6. Check out the interview below and let us know what you think.