I’m going to be straight with you. I never got myself into reading superhero comics no matter how hard I wanted to be that type of teenager after I watched The Dark Knight as a 14-year-old. Then, much later and already a college senior, I consciously picked up an iconic DC comic book ready to be blown away and hooked on this art. Instead, I was left feeling extremely uncomfortable and… ashamed? The comic book in question was Batman: The Killing Joke, a 1988 graphic novel that is supposed to be Joker’s origins story. Not going to go into too much detail but I remember interpreting a widely discussed plot twist as a rape of Barbara Gordon. The use of sexual violence against women as a tool to progress the plot and add depth to the male characters turned me off comics and the Joker character in particular.
The Other History of the DC Universe is supposed to be an alternative look at the established characters, which exposes their stories and struggles to the realities of the modern world plagued by inequalities and violence. It is also the first time I read a superhero comic since the Killing Joke.
The series’ third issue focuses on Tatsu Yamashiro, a.k.a Katana, and her origin story as a wronged woman whose husband and children were murdered turned mercenary turned superhero. She introduces me to her world and the world of the Outsiders. Given that the only major appearance on the silver screen Katana has had so far was the Suicide Squad movie, I have not been acquainted with her character before. I have a feeling that Katana as known from other comic books would have left a different impression on me compared to who she is from her P.O.V. in The Other History.
The way The Other History re-imagines how its heroes would feel about certain issues, what would move them, what would enrage them, and what would make them cynical is what makes it worth reading. This is where the story of Katana, a Japanese woman who came to America in the 80s, comes off as timely as ever. Who would think that a comic book could be a quick and informative way to learn about the history of anti-Asian hate in the U.S. and even the interracial tensions between Asian and Black communities?
The solidarity and empathy that Katana extends to some other women present in the story are also insightful, especially for someone who has no preconceptions about them. It is a pleasant and necessary change from a one-dimensional portrayal of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke whose pain is sensationalized and forgotten by the end.
When it comes to the core of her character, Katana’s sword bears no magic power in this graphic novel. She does not believe that her late husband’s soul is trapped inside of it. Instead, Katana makes it abundantly clear that what makes her so good at what she does is her own skill, a sharp weapon, and a lack of fear. It is a small but crucial detail that breaks the bond originally created between this fierce female character and her husband who was made to be the main driving force behind her action and basically a secret ingredient to her power. No, here, it’s all her.
The comic doubles down on its message by bringing Katana close to death and, therefore, reuniting with her husband and children in the afterlife. Instead of hanging onto what she appears to have wanted the most, she chooses to live. Katana is not a martyr and she is not biding her time secretly longing for love and family in the most conventional sense. She is a warrior full stop, which is a luxury not often awarded to female superheroes out there.
I know that The Other History is an alternative take on DC characters but I wish this kind of more intricate storytelling was the norm rather than an anomaly.
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