I Am Batman's John Ridley on what makes Jace Fox different, and why GCPD: The Blue Wall matters
The Oscar-winning screenwriter showed up at New York Comic Con 2022 to talk about his upcoming projects in DC's Batman universe
John Ridley is about to have a Bat-tastic October. In addition to his ongoing work with the regular I Am Batman series — currently featuring a guest appearance by Renee Montoya’s Question — the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave has two special Batman-related projects hitting shelves in October: GCPD: The Blue Wall, his six-issue miniseries and Stefano Raffaele about Montoya as Gotham City’s police commissioner and the cops she’s leading, and Batman One Bad Day: The Penguin, an oversized one-shot that re-teams him with his Other History of the DC Universe collaborator Giuseppe Camuncoli.
Despite his busy schedule — in addition to the projects above, Ridley’s also writing the ongoing Black Panther series for Marvel, as well as writing, directing, and executive producing Apple TV+’s Five Days at Memorial and working on the upcoming movie Shirley — Ridley showed up at New York Comic Con 2022 to talk to Popverse about what he’s up to in Gotham and beyond.
Popverse: How has New York Comic Con been for you so far, John?
John Ridley: So far, unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to experience as a fan, so…
Have you just been walked around for the entire time and shown the backstage areas and that's it?
Essentially, being walked from person to person, being introduced and chatting.
That sounds like a wonderful way to experience the show to me. [Laughs]
Yeah, no, but it's one of those things that you look out over the floor and you see people in costume, you see them having a great time, you see them walking around with the swag that they've gotten. The people there, they're like, 'Oh my gosh, it must be really wonderful to be talent and be there.' And it is. But there's also a moment where you go, 'God, I would just feel like to be a fan again and go out and let my inner fan run wild.'
Cosplay exists. Put the mask on no one and will know.
And have a really, really good time.
I am loving what you're doing with the Bat books. I had a chance to read GCPD: The Blue Wall, and I am fascinated with what you're doing. I am Batman is a Batman book, obviously, but it's also a book about policing, and it's a book about how people relate to the police in a way that honestly, is far different than any other superhero book stands. And then, with GCPD: The Blue Wall, you're taking that further. This is a story that is much more complex. How much of that did you know were doing when you started with the next Batman?
I have to be honest. I think that there's very little separation between the stories that I want to tell and the voices that I want to give real estate to, and then the end product itself. So it wasn't like, Oh, hey, here's an opportunity to write Batman and write Batman as a person of color. And then where does it go? I have kids, I have two boys. I have two young men who are out in the world who are about the same age as Jace Fox, and they ask questions, and they're starting to realize despite all the opportunities, all the advantages, all the things that any parent fights for that leg up, that you're still starting half a step behind other folks. So for me, and I certainly really appreciate that you say it's there, that it's not over modulated, but it's still unmistakable and unmissable because that's what I want.
I want people to read exciting stories. I want it to be about heroics doing the right thing or difficult choices, but it's less about that taking place in a Gotham space and certainly there have been amazing, impactful stories told in the Gotham space. I don't want to pretend that you can't do that, but when you move it to New York City, with the Blue Wall, it's less about the heroes and more about real people who have to be heroic or find themselves in a system where things aren't fair, and they're trying to make a difference, but the system, and I'm not talking about people, but systems that are built up that are not easy to unwind.
To me, that's just whether it's American Prime on TV, if it's Five Days at Memorial, if it's Let it Fall, the documentary I did, I'm just in that space right now where if it doesn't hue towards a certain reality, there are other people who are doing those stories and doing them great. So why am I here to replicate or even attempt what other people are already doing? What other people are doing incredibly well, I got to differentiate and for me, this is the way of saying these are realities, and there is a difference if you show up and you're a person of color.
If you show up and you're a woman, if you show up and you're from the LGBT community, there's a difference. And it's not a difference that we want to add. It's a difference that is imposed on us, and we got to deal with it. So there's segments of the audience that need to deal with that in terms of the stories that we're telling.
You're presenting this as: this is the reality that everyone is existing inside. These are the questions people have to ask. These are the questions people have to wrestle with. Especially The Blue Wall, none of the core characters are necessarily who they want to be, and they all find themselves inside these structures where they're like, "I guess this is who I am now. I guess this is who people see me as."
There are a lot of conversations in America right now about things that people are calling critical race theory or what makes certain people, other people would say, "Well, if we talk about race, if we talk about identity, you're just making people hate America." But the reality, and certainly my reality, I come from a family of service. My dad volunteered and was in the Air Force. I had an uncle who was a Tuskagee airman, my mother, who was a teacher. We love this country. We love being part of, no disrespect to anybody from any other place, the greatest country on the face of the earth. But at the same time, we're asked to prove our love and our dedication over and over and over again. It's been hard for anybody who's come to this country.
You've seen people have been otherwise. But at the same time in America, there have been certain systems built up particular towards immigrants or individuals from other countries who represent differently. So to me, it's in this storytelling, all I'm trying to say is, we want to be part of this, and the things that we have to struggle against, these are things that are put in front of us. So I'm not going to deny those things. I'm not going to embrace those things. But at the same time, you're going to have people like Jace, you're going to have people like Renee Montoya, you're going to have people like these three rookie officers in the GCPD who are like, "I still want to serve. Why are you making it so difficult for us to do our jobs?" Because that's the system that's in place. And unwinding that system is more than just changing racism faces. It's really breaking that system apart.
How can you address this in comics in a way that you can't address this in film and television in other media. What do comics give you? Why are you here?
First and foremost, there's a joy to writing graphic novels and comic books that is very different than other spaces I had the opportunity to write in. And I'm very thankful for that. Why is this storytelling maybe more true in its language? I don't know, because I'm honestly surprised sometimes. I am Batman and Black Panther are very mainstream books. With Black Panther, Wakanda has always been elevated. It's the best of the best. But at the same time, what I appreciate is even in the first Black Panther movie, there were conversations about what's the point of being the best of the best if we're withholding that?
If you're shut away from the rest of the world. With I am Batman, there was always that desire, and my editors and the publishers were always like, "No, do more, say more. Don't feel like you have to hold back just because it's a mainstream book." Obviously with the Other History of the DC Universe, which was [DC Black Label], and The Blue Wall, they operate a little outside of the mainstream, but honestly, I can't tell you why, but the editors and publishers have never been, it's never been like, "Well that's good, John, but you might want to dial it back." I've truly had conversations where they've said, "If you're going to go there, go there. If you're going to talk about it, talk about it." So I can't tell you why, but I'm very thankful that there's a tolerance for the storytelling that I think I do best.
Beyond all of that, I am Batman also feels a very playful book, in terms of your approach. You have Jace’s entire family and you tell these different stories with them. I love his sisters a lot, but I’m curious, what do they bring to it? It’s different from the traditional Batman, which is honestly a very masculine book — you bring different energies with the supporting cast. What do characters like his mother, his sisters, bring to you as a creator?
You actually hit upon it in the question. If you're going to write, whether it's Batman, who happens to be black, if it's Batman, who happens to be Latinx, if it's a female version of Batman, what is the differentiator? It's not enough just to say, "Well, hey, he's black. Please buy this." Bruce doesn't have a family. Bruce lost his family in the most tragic way that anybody can imagine and that informs everything that he does in terms of why he fights for what's right, in terms of why he distance themselves from some people.
It's Bruce, I saw my family murdered in front of my eyes. Jace is the exact opposite. I have a family, I'm estranged from my family. I had issues with my dad. I've held secrets from my mom and my sister. So for me, it was really about not just making it a Batman story. It's a family story. It's a family dynamic. It's the kid who's pushing away. But at the same time, what you're pushing away from in some ways, well, if you're pushing away from your dad, you still got to acknowledge your dad is a big part of your life. If you're leaving Gotham to be with your mom and your sister, what happens when you have these secrets from your family? So for me, it was really, that was the differentiator. It wasn't just, Oh, he's black Batman. He's Jace Fox.
Yeah. He's his own character.
He's the son of the guy who works for Batman. They're super rich. Okay, they're all of this. Now go, and how does it make a difference? And I appreciate that you feel like it's fun. It's fun because yeah, there's a lot that's heavy in it, but I want it to be enjoyable. I want it to be engaging and I want to have a few laughs, but that are well intended as opposed to just frivolous.
You brought him to New York. We're at New York Comic Con. I know what, as a reader, what the shift did for me, but for you as a creator, why New York? What did that change of venue do?
For me, we've had a scene that was in the Hudson Yards over here. We've had scenes that were on the Highline. We had scenes in a story at Queens. When I first came to New York years ago, I lived in a store, I lived in Long Island City. So for me to be able to call out real locations and then have to say to the artist, "Hey, it needs to really look like this. Here's some references." Here's the things that have to be consistent in and week out or month in and month out I should say. That to me was very exciting. But again, it's also an opportunity to differentiate this Batman from Bruce Wayne.
Bruce is the king of Gotham City. He always will be. And he should be. I have no problem with that. But if it is going to be Jace Fox as Batman, let him be his own Batman. Let him be the Batman in New York City. And for me, it's exciting, because every month it's like, "Okay, well what part of the city have we not been in? What space is interesting? What's going to be a great backdrop?" I love being in New York City. I'm very happy to still be able to tell stories like The Blue Wall that are in Gotham. But when my editor came and it was actually Ben Abernathy, my editor, he's like, "John, this is going to sound crazy. You're going to hate it." Ben does that with every pitch. It always begins with, this is going to sound crazy. You're going to hate it. And it always ends with, "Ben, that's great. How quickly can we get to that narrative?"
Last question, how does your comics work interplay with everything else you do? How does this inform what you're doing on the screen?
Sometimes it doesn't fit in very well. When I was writing The Batman One Bad Day: Penguin one shot, I was in the middle of filming. I was writing and directing a film and I was filming with Regina King, a very good friend of mine. And I felt a real responsibility, obviously, to do the best that I can, to show up every day, to do my prep and all of that. But when they put this opportunity in front of me, how do you say no?
Initially, I was talking to David [Wielgosz], the editor on the project, and I was like, I don't know. I don't think I can. And then you go to bed at night with what few hours you have and you're like, "But I got to. I have to be part of it." So there's a little, not a little-- there was a space in time where even in the best circumstances, there are obviously so many hours in the day, but for me it was like, well, I want to tell this story. I want to be part of it. And it was just working crazy hours. But I would do it again. I would do it in a heartbeat. I loved working on it. I loved working with Giuseppe Camuncoli, the artist on it.
The Penguin book is really fun.
That one was hard because it's hard enough working around… I mean, everywhere you walk in here, there are incredibly talented individuals. So it's hard enough just being in and around that. But when you know that you're going to be one of several high profile books.
Oh yeah, it's Tom and Mitch and Mariko Tamaki and Javier Fernandez, and then you.
That was the other thing is as they started coming out, you're like, "Oh fuck! This one was great. This one's going back for a second printing. Oh, Penguin they tried."
The Penguin book made me greedy. I was like, can we get a series of this? You build up a cast that I wanted to see again.
That is the highest compliment. I mean, look, the other thing also is we're all working under the shadow of The Killing Joke. You're showing up to a baseball game. You don't have a bat, you don't have a glove, but you're going to go play. So for me, there was always, it was already, then the first couple started coming out and you're like, "Oh my God, these are great." You're third up.
For me, what I wanted to do, I want it to be honorific of the past. For people who have no idea who Oswald is, give them a taste of his origin story. Do something that's immediate. But yeah, the best thing you can hope for is people go, "So when are we going to see Lili again? When are we going to see Freida and her gun gals?"
To me, the most wonderful thing is if the corporate power called up and [went], 'Listen, how quickly can you do a limited series or any kind of a series with this characters?' I would love that. Everybody knows how seminal Killing Joke was and how much that was part of the canon for so many years. If any of us, if any of these characters, if any of these moments can be part of the wider storytelling, it's drop the mic, it's walk away. How wonderful would that be?
Throughout all of New York Comic Con 2022, Popverse is going to be keeping up with everything that happens, from panels and breaking news to interviews and the best cosplay on the show floor. We’ll be sharing everything as it happens — including exclusive livestreams from the biggest panels at the show — so let us keep you in the loop all weekend.
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