For Everyone, By Us
For one, it seemed like Marvel and DC’s decades-long dominance of the superhero market was over. In addition to Image, there was Valiant, a line of comics based around an updated take on some the 1960s Gold Key superheroes. Both companies - cheered on considerably by the likes of Wizard magazine – became immensely popular and profitable. This inspired a gold rush of new superhero universes: Defiant, ANIA, Ultraverse, Dark Horse’s Comics’ Greatest World, Legend, Bravura, and the Kirbyverse.
Marvel and DC, having been burned by their attempts at selling new self-contained lines (New Universe and Impact, respectively), instead went the licensing route. Marvel partnered with Clive Barker for the Razorline books, while DC entered a unique agreement with a new company called Milestone.
Milestone started with artist Denys Cowan, who had been working professionally in comics since he was a teenager, starting off as an assistant for assistant for penciller Arvell Jones. He arrived to the studio one day in 1977 to find fellow Black artists Keith Pollard, Ron Wilson, and Aubrey Bradford gathered to talk about creating their own Black heroes and selling them to Marvel and DC. This didn't materialize, but the idea of Black heroes by Black creators stuck with Denys.
After elementary school, Derek moved to Virginia, and wouldn’t see Denys again for over a decade. He’d go on to study journalism, and write for the Black Enterprise magazine and the Wall Street Journal. When Denys told him his idea for a line of comic books starring Black superheroes, Derek saw it as a continuation of what they’d done as children. They brought in McDuffie and Michael Davis – founder of a company that mentored up-and-coming artists and writers, Bad Boy Studios – and began brainstorming the specifics of would come to be known as Milestone.
Cowan took on the role of creative director and character designer. McDuffie was editor-in-chief, and took at least partial hand in writing all of the line’s inaugural titles. Dingle and Davis handled the business side of things. Rather than go fully independent, they made a deal with DC for licensing and distribution, while retaining ownership of the characters. This allowed them the best of both worlds, as being under the DC banner would allow them the wide availability and aggressive promotion.
Though the idea of Black creators doing Black superheroes was a simple one, Milestone had a pretty complex and ambitious mission. For one, they were trying to completely redefine what a Black superhero could be. Though incremental progress had been made with the introduction of nuanced Black characters such as Storm and Cyborg, Black superheroes were still under the shadow of Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s. Luke Cage, with his unconvincing “street” talk and problematic origins, was often held up as a clownish negative stereotype (though in his book Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes scholar Adilifu Nama makes a convincing case for Luke Cage as "politically and socially profound").
This latter aim meant not just introducing lots of Black characters, but Asian, Latinx, female, and gay ones as well. And they were committed to having those stories told authentically. “We’re looking for women, Asian, and Hispanic creators,” McDuffie told Previews. “We want people to bring their own specific voices to characters in a way that hasn’t been done before. What I’m hoping will happen is, as this is successful, Marvel, DC, and all the other companies will start doing characters of color and more female characters.”
A commitment to have comics that represent the racial diversity of the real world shouldn’t have been a controversial thing, but it was. Some fans, and worse, some comic book store owners, saw Milestone as a “political” company, and refused to support it. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans (which is not a history of Milestone, but rather an ethnography of Milestone readers), a retailer named Jake said he under-ordered Milestone comics because they were “activist” books about “politics and race problems.” This sentiment was not based on the content of the books themselves (though Milestone storylines did occasionally explore issues of race), but simply the fact that the characters were mostly Black. Others worried the line would only appeal to Black readers or that a line of Black comics was "reverse racism."
But it this perception – asinine though it was (and still is) – was a real problem. Milestone’s founders had the unenviable task of trying to promote the line as being for everyone, while also expressing their desire to bring more representation – and more accurate representation to superhero comics. And some people saw these two messages as mutually exclusive. Marketing people will tell you that a nuanced message is one that’s easily misunderstood or muddled, and that’s sort of what happened. In promotional interviews, the guys mostly ended up repeating over and over that their biggest concern was telling good stories. That sounds like a very “duh” statement, but in superhero comics in 1993, that was nothing to take for granted.
As a 16-year-old fan I was looking for good stories amidst Image’s narratively impenetrable output, and Marvel and DC’s shameless chasing of Image's "extreme" art style. And I don’t recall a single moment’s hesitation about the fact that most of the Milestone characters were Black. I don’t say this to celebrate my teenage self – I was not an especially enlightened on matters of race – but to point out how the fears of comic shop owners like Jake were unfounded. And once I read the first couple of issues of each of the Milestone books, I was hooked right in.
But as different as each title was - a fact underscored by very different artistic styles on each book - the universe itself was well-coordinated and interconnected in the same thrilling way the early Marvel comics were. Virgil Hawkins (Static) has an Icon poster on his wall, and he got his powers from the same event that the members of Blood Syndicate got theirs. Augustus Freeman (Icon) is Curtis Metcalf’s (Hardware) lawyer. After being expelled from Blood Syndicate, Holocaust tries to recruit Static into his new enterprise, and turns out to be responsible for the bad guys Static had to face in the first couple of issues of the series. And DMZ (from Blood Syndicate) is from an alien race with which Icon is familiar.
In spite of ignorant retailers and heavy competition, Milestone books sold fairly well to start. And DC, to their credit, stuck by the company even when sales dipped during an industry-wide slump developed in late 1993.
There’s a lot more to say about Milestone and diversity in comics, but I’ll save it for another essay. I’ll wrap up this one by saying that for all of its innovation, Milestone in many ways typified 1990s superhero comics: A new, creator-owned superhero universe that defined itself at least initially by being the anti-Image. And it was initially very successful, causing it to grow a bit too fast, and having to pay for that later.
Benton, John. "Little Bang." Hero Special Edition: 1993 In Review. February 1994.
“The Birth of Milestone: An Interview with Denys Cowan.” Previews, Vol II, No 12 (December 1992).
Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. University Press of Mississippi. 2001.
Christensen, William and Mark Seifert. “Four-Color Culture: Minority Diversity In Comics." Wizard, number 20 (April 1993).
Dingle, Derek T. “Building a Milestone." Milestone for Kids Magazine. 1994
“A Milestone in Comics History: An Interview with Dwayne McDuffie.” Previews, Vol II, No 12 (December 1992).
Nama, Adilifu. Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. University of Texas Press. 2011.
O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. “Marking Milestones." Wizard, number 20 (April 1993).