By: Lorenzo Simpson
It was announced at this year’s New York Comic-Con that the comics department of Milestone Media, the labor of love of Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan and several others, would be revived in Spring 2018. This return of their original characters as well as the introduction of several new heroes marks a new era in the Dakotaverse called Earth M. Icon and Rocket, two figureheads of the comic book world, were unveiled with sleek new costume designs as well as early sketches for other Milestone heavyweights such as Hardware and Static.
Now Milestone Media doesn’t have the popularity of a DC or Marvel, but their very existence is monumental. In a comicbook consuming world filled with prominently white protagonists, Milestone comics dared to push their own roster of fresh and electrifying black heroes. Milestone’s influence has been felt throughout DC Comics, especially the animated universe. So before they bless our local comic book stores next year, let’s take a look into the creators and the characters that make up the multicultural comicbook marvel that is Milestone Media.
Milestone Media was formed in 1993 by Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle and the late great Dwayne McDuffie. Half of the original team cut their teeth at Marvel and DC before creating Milestone, with Denys Cowan being the primary artist on The Question series in 1987 and McDuffie creating the Damage Control series in 1988. Having worked in mainstream comics for several years, the founders came together to help rectify the issue of underrepresentation of minorities in comic books. Conducting meetings in Cowan’s living room and Davis’ basement, the creators sought to make more original black heroes who were the lead characters of their stories, not tokens or two-dimensional sidekicks. Longtime Marvel writer and editor Christopher Priest was in initial talks to become Milestone’s editor-in-chief, but left the project before any official titles were released, citing personal reasons. Even though he left the team before they began publishing titles, his contributions to the initial project were substantial. On his personal site, Priest claims to have created several of the names for the main heroes including Static, Rocket, and several names of characters from Blood Syndicate. He also states that he designed the Milestone “M” logo.
Every story in Milestone exists in a universe named the “Dakotaverse,” in reference to the city of Dakota where all the stories take place. Before any titles were released, Priest, McDuffie and other creators put together a definitive guide to the Dakotaverse, which included detailed information on all the characters, as well as Dakota’s history and geography. In 1993, Milestone published Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate and Static. These comics were published through DC, but they did not retain editorial rights. Milestone had full ownership of their properties as well as the final call on all merchandising and licensing deals. In short, Milestone Media was one of the few comic book companies owned by black people.
Milestone produced brown-skinned heroes that jumped off the pages with engaging stories that spoke to the lived experience of the black American. Most black nerds know all about their more popular character Static and his animated show in the early 00’s, but Icon and Rocket were also paramount in making Milestone a standout company in the early 90s.
Icon has an origin story similar to that of Superman’s but with a twist. Known initially as Arnus, he crash landed onto Earth, but instead of appearing as a Caucasian child the pod he was traveling in was programmed to mimic the appearance of the first life form that discovered him. The first one to find Arnus was Miriam, an enslaved black woman who adopted him as her son. Icon has extreme longevity and didn’t age past adulthood, which he covered up by posing as his own son. He has several other special powers such as flight, super strength and positron energy blasts, but never used them to do more than quiet acts of kindness. It took a young girl by the name of Raquel Ervin to watch him foil a home invasion and convince him to use his powers for good. With Raquel’s words or encouragement, Augustus Freeman became a full-fledged superhero with Raquel at his side
Icon’s human persona of Augustus Freeman is a very intelligent corporate lawyer, which often causes his blackness to be pulled into question throughout his stories. He’s very by the book, which caused him to clash with Raquel’s more progressive views. This dynamic resonates with black youth even today, speaking to the relationship many younger black people have with their often conservative mentors. It’s also a fresh take on the sidekick trope. Usually it’s an established hero that sees the potential in a young ward and invites them to join their crusade, but this time it’s the other way around. Even though the title of the series is called Icon, Rocket actually serves as the protagonist.
Raquel’s story begins with her growing up in one of the most destitute parts of Dakota. She had big dreams of making it as a writer, citing Toni Morrison as one of her main inspirations. She was actually part of the group that tried to invade Augustus’s home, which is how she saw him in action. After she convinced him to become a hero and bring her along for the ride, he made her an inertia belt, giving her the ability to manipulate kinetic energy. She used this belt to become Rocket.
The that makes her unique are the adult themes the creators included in her storyline. Rocket decided to give up her role as a superhero for some time after she became pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s son, named after Icon’s alter ego. She also had to fight an addiction to crack cocaine while being a hero. The crack epidemic of the 80s and early 90s decimated many black communities, which was reflected in Raquel’s story. Milestone creators weren’t afraid to touch on serious topics pertaining to black people, specifically black women. Rocket’s persona was not hypersexualized as Storm’s often was; she represented a more vulnerable side of black women that was scarce in mainstream comic books. She wasn’t afraid to show her soft side, but that didn’t stop her from roasting the Caped Crusader when they crossed paths.
Let’s talk about Hardware for a bit. Curtis Metcalf was a child prodigy whose higher learning was funded by a businessman known as Edwin Alva. Curtis accepted Alva’s money in an agreement that required him to work for Alva once he graduated. Curtis created state-of-the-art technology for Alva, but never saw any of the profits. When Curtis asked for a piece of the royalties, he was immediately shut down. Upon further investigation, Curtis found that Alva was ten types of crooked, laundering drug money and manufacturing illegal weapons to sell to foreign governments.
Curtis decided to use his love of tech to cut away at Alva’s crime empire, using several of his high-tech inventions to become Hardware. His suit covers him in a bullet-resistant plasticized metal alloy, along with a versatile Plasma Whip, an Omnicannon that fires concussive blasts of compressed air, and a Retractable Sword made of four magnetized blades. Hardware is an important character when it comes to Afrofuturism, a philosophy of science combined with historical fiction to address the struggles of black people. This is a black genius that used his creations to liberate himself and his community.
Ok time for the Static part, cuz that’s what y’all been waiting for.
Static was originally created to be a character in Marvel, being modeled after Spider-Man to be a young, nerdy teen hero. He ended up being a tentpole character for Milestone, constantly breaking black hero tropes during his original series run. Static, a.k.a Virgil Hawkins was named after a black man blocked from entry into University of Florida’s law school in 1949. After exposed to a radioactive mutagen gas during a gang fight in which he hoped to get revenge on a school bully, Virgil gained the power of generating static electricity. As he said in the TV show, he’s basically a walking fusebox.
With his new gained powers, he assumes the identity of Static, taking to the streets of Dakota to do some good. Static’s creators weren’t afraid to push the envelope. DC had agreed to distribute their stories, but they made it known that their subject matter made them uncomfortable, with their biggest conflict involving an issue of Static. The scene involved the titular character kissing his girlfriend on a bed with condoms in plain sight. Milestone had to cover half of the image in order to sell the comic because DC didn’t want to seem like it was using sex to sell comics, but McDuffie said DC simply had an issue with “black sexuality.”
When Milestone started in 1993, their big advantage having a major company like DC acting as their distributor, which led to their properties doing decent numbers in sales. However, they were up against a huge wave of comic artists creating universes at the same as them. In addition to a market crash in 94, major retailers and many comic book readers saw Milestone Media as “comics for blacks” and didn’t see any other demographic other than black people consuming these stories, which they used to make sense of their sales decline after the initial releases. Many refused to take into consideration the fragile market that affected all new comic book creators of that era, digging into their beliefs that no one other than their targeted demographic would consume their content.
The company pulled the plug on their comic book division in 1997, becoming strictly a licensing company and focusing on their animated show Static Shock. Airing on Kids WB in 2000, Static Shock was produced by many of the people behind Batman: The Animated Series, as well as a co-creator of Static, Denys Cowan. The show was praised for its multiculturalism, as well as the way it dealt with serious topics such as racism, bullying, and gun violence. The show lasted until 2004, the same year in which it won a Daytime Emmy for Special Class Animated Program. Static was one of the first DC animated shows to feature major team-ups with members of the Justice League, doing crossover events with both the Justice League and Batman Beyond shows. Static Shock was integral to early 00s superhero animation, and we have Milestone Media to thank for that.
In 2008, the Milestone characters were revived and merged into the DC Universe. Icon, Rocket and Static all made appearances in the Young Justice animated series in 2011 with Static voiced by Brighton James, Rocket voiced by Kali Troy(who also voiced Cita in Cita’s World), and Icon voiced by Tony Todd of Candyman and Final Destination fame.
Milestone made leaps and bounds in terms of black/poc representation, and their revival means they get to bring more new characters life along with the originals. Among the new creators added to Milestone’s roster is writer Greg Pak, who will be penning the series Duo, a tale about an Asian couple who are forced to live in the same body forever. Additionally, author Alice Randall will be working with film producer Reginald Hudlin on Earth M, a series that will introduce a new vigilante to the universe.
The new batch of Milestone comics doesn’t hit the shelves until spring of 2018, but what better time than now to pick up the old issues that made Milestone great and get some good, melanin filled superhero action? Black and POC heroes are here, and Milestone continues to put in the work to keep them punching through the pages for ages to come.
Editor: Ricardo Biramontes
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.