Academy Award winner, John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) can do it all! He can explore the harsh reality and truths of history. And he can even take a trip into the fantastical worlds of gods and heroes within the DC Universe.
But the one thing Ridley truly excels at is keeping his themes, his stories, and his characters grounded to the real world. And that’s what makes a mini-series like DC’s GCPD: The Blue Wall such a terrific one. We had a chance to discuss the project with Ridley, and get some insight into his amazing contributions into the DC Universe.
Ridley’s work within DC covers a vast amount of projects. His work on big projects, such as The Next Batman, I Am Batman, The American Way, and the Batman: One Bad Day stories have made him one of the most consistently popular writers working for the company today. And with GCPD: The Blue Wall, Ridley once again took to the streets of Gotham, alongside artist extraordinaire Stefano Raffaele to discuss to tell a grounded story centering on Renee Montoya, but really examining the trouble with law enforcement today.
NOC: John thank you so much for having us. When your name came up to chat with you about GCPD and Batman in general, I freaked out! They’re the most relevant topical stories ever, and I’m so grateful you’re having us!
Ridley: Well thank you! It’s a pleasure. I know that all this real estate… is all very precious. But I love what I’m doing, I love the team I get to work with. And it’s a pleasure now to be talking about it.
Absolutely. And to go from Future State and I Am Batman, and continuing in the world of Batman but in a different way with GCPD: The Blue Wall, I have to ask what was that like exploring this side of Gotham through Montoya and the recruits versus the superhero angle? Did it feel different for you? Was it exciting for you?
It’s kind of like the old saying goes. It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. And it’s tough because a.) they’re outside of the superheroes… there aren’t a log of characters like Renee that are grounded and have proven themselves to be really durable characters, like Renee, Commissioner Gordon, Lois Lane, who are adjacent to the heroes. But they built up their own mythology. They built it up over time. Certainly with Renee, a lot of that mythology was built up during Gotham Central, which was one of the great anthology, ongoing series that dealt with the polic who dealt with the characters around Batman and around Gotham City. But again very grounded characters. So all of that is very exciting. It’s very challenging. It is very precious elements of storytelling. But to try to do it in a way that’s honorific, nuanced, and brings in very real-world issues about community, about policing, about responsibility; it does take on a lot. So I’m thankful for the opportunity to do it. I’m thankful that DC is interested in telling stories that aren’t the “typical” superhero stories… but then to make it about Renee, Gotham City, policing, and introducing any new characters — that’s always tough. Introducing the new characters and hoping people find value in it. But all the way around this series for me was unique, it was precious, it was special, and for the readers that found it in weekly and monthly issues, and certainly now readers who will get to read it as a collected series, I think they’re going to feel all of that moment by moment, page by page, panel by panel, in what was a very special series in GCPD: The Blue Wall.
When you brought this series up with DC, with it being as topical as it is today, was there any pushback? Were people hesitant to do it, because it’s so close to home and speaks to a larger issue we’re seeing today with law enforcement? How was the process of pitching that?
Well I’ll be honest, DC came to me. And I was at work on The Other History, a really really terrific editor, Arianna Turturro — she’s amazing. They wanted to do a story that challenged them. And they understand the value of reminding fans that there are elements of story telling, particularly in the Batman universe, that as extraordinary as they are sometimes, they really do deal with law enforcement and regular issues that police would deal with. And for me the challenge is, as a Black man in America, I get it. I see it. I’ve seen it over and over. These issues with policing the community. To say they’re painful and heartbreaking is an understatement. We talk about it and see it a lot, but if you’re not outside of the prevailing culture, and I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t people in the prevailing culture who get it, and understand that we need better relationships between community and policing. But until you get profiled, until you’ve been through it… you don’t know what it’s like, and you don’t know how important it is to make sure you’re telling these kinds of stories and acknowledging certain realities, even in hyper unreal spaces. But I come from a family of service. My dad was in the military. My mother was a teacher, my uncle was a Tuskegee airman, I have a cousin who served in the military until recently… So I understand you can’t just indict. And that as cliché as it sounds… it’s always true there are people out there who want to serve, and are pained when they see these negative interactions. So to me, it’s one thing to have that space. It’s another thing when that nameless faceless soulless company actually show up with a name, a face, and a soul saying, “hey look, we see the value in this type of story.” It’s going to be challenging to bring readers to it. But they understand the value of it. And then give you the latitude to try and be responsible to all sides of these tough issues when you talk about policing a community. And to me that’s where the challenge really lays… It’s trying to be as complete and complicated in that storytelling as real life presents itself.
Where did the characters of Park, Wells, and Ortega come from?
That’s a really good question… As a writer there’s always a part of you that’s in some character. And looking at these three characters, entering this world with this idealism, their desire to serve, their energy. It reminds me of me when I was younger… you come in and you think you’re going to change the world and connect in an interesting way. And you get to a place where…there are those days where you see in Renee. You talk about this character who was a side character in Batman: The Animated Series, but she kind of embodied the street level, foot patrol officer. Very different from Jim Gordon, who’d been around for a while. Now decades later just Renee in general is commissioner. She’s looking at a world that there are no easy answers. So I wanted to add my foil. If Renee was the foil for Jim Gordon, who’s going to be her foil now? And you have these three characters, that represent three different ways: the beat cop, the parole officer, and the officer who’s on his way to being a really good officer and a detective one day… but when your ideology hits reality what happens? For all of us. Do we give in to that reality? Do we maintain our ideologies and enthusiasms? That’s what I wanted to represent for these characters. And ultimately in these characters, how do they remind Renee of who she was, who she is, what she wants from that department, and do we get back to that place you always wanted to be? Or do you live in your realities and say that idealism doesn’t work and doesn’t cut it? That’s what this whole series is about. Renee being faced with realities in the world, both as a commissioner and an individual… and then the realities she’s faced with as an officer all these years. What does she say, what does she do, what does she represent? And how does that representation run counter to the realities she lives in? It was a challenging series and I hoped all of us on the team lived up to that challenge.
What was the collaboration like working with Raffaele to craft the gorgeous artwork in this series?
Well all that praise is deserved. He’s a phenomenal artist. In general I’ve been blessed working with artists who just elevate. And I love graphic novel writing. I try to be objective about my own work. But the look, the artistry in comic books is paramount. You could have a good script and great artwork will elevate what’s on the page. Stefano I’d not worked with previously. Ariana [brought together] a complimentary team of individuals. I hoped what was on the page was really good, but like I said the artists and so much about graphic novels… I really believe it’s that look [that convinces audiences to want a book]. Nine times out of ten it’s based on the artistry. And Stefano’s work — I call it maximized minimalism. In that everything is on the page but there’s not one thing more that is necessary. And there are artists out there… that are really good at details, cars, tools, weapons. They shoot to a reality. Then there are some where the reality is not there. I like a very neutral level to it. It’s not overplayed. It’s not over done. Not saying one style is better than the other but it’s a personal preference in what you believe is correct for the book. And a book like GCPD: The Blue Wall, that is meant to live in a more real space, and what happens isn’t this big, grand super, stylized heroic moment, but the little moments, the painful moments, or the truly graphic moments. We don’t have a lot of violence, but when that violence arrives you’re like “this is something that can happen in the real world.” And it’s a little painful. To have an artist that can interpret all of that and do it from a very instinctual space, a lot of it’s second nature for Stefano. It was just a pleasure working with him, It turned out very well.. we’re working on a new series we’re doing — Ministry of Compliance. So it’s one thing to discover a new artist to have the opportunity to work with that individual, but when their work is really good. When you have a groove together… that’s really, really special. And I’m thankful I got to meet Stefano, very very thankful I got to work with him once, but so incredibly thankful I get to work with him and Ariana a second time. I’m lucky. I don’t know what to say. I’m a really lucky individual.
Well they’re lucky to work with you. GCPD: The Blue Wall is really really powerful, and hits close to real life, and yet, it’s a lot of the characters and settings we grew to love, in a light that ties it closer to us and makes it feel more real. So for that, and all your work within and outside of DC, as well as for your time, we want to say thank you.
You can now pick up the collected graphic novel experience of GCPD: The Blue Wall on sale now here!