Thursday, May 20, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #19: May 1993

For Everyone, By Us

Blood Syndicate #1 
Writers: Dwayne McDuffie & Ivan Velez Jr.
Penciller: Trevor Von Eden
Inker: Andrew Pepoy
Colorist: Janet Jackson


1993 was perhaps the craziest comic book year of the 1990s, and that’s really saying something.
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.

By the early 1990s, Denys had made a name for himself with work on such titles as The Question and Deathlok. On the latter he was teamed with a Black writer named Dwayne McDuffie. McDuffie had started as an assistant editor at Marvel, but had started to build a resume as a writer as well. McDuffie, with co-writer Gregory Wright, had reimagined the original ‘70s version of Deathlok – a white soldier - as a Black cybernetics expert who also happened to be a pacifist.

With the rise of so many new superhero lines in the early 1990s, Denys decided the time was right for a line of comics about Black heroes, created and owned by Black creators. He shared his idea with his childhood friend Derek Dingle. Derek and Denys had both attended P.S. 37 in Queens and became big comic book fans. The first comic they bought for themselves was Jack Kirby’s New Gods in 1971 when they were 10 years old. They were particularly intrigued by the introduction of the Black Racer, a Black paralyzed Vietnam Vet who like the Valkyries of Norse mythology, escorts the New Gods to the afterlife. 

Black comic book characters were extremely rare at that time. In fact, you could count them on one hand and still have a couple of fingers left: Black Panther (introduced 1966), Falcon (introduced 1969), and Green Lantern John Stewart (introduced 1971). Even as – or maybe especially as – children, Denys and Derek recognized the dearth of heroes that looked like them, and they began to make up their own.
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").

Black athletes, musicians, actors, and politicians became more and more visible in popular culture in the '80s and early '90s, but superhero comics didn't necessarily follow that trend. 

After the "explosion" of the 1970s the companies introduced just a tiny smattering of new Black characters over the next decade plus, characters such as Cloak, Night Thrasher, and Rage. Existing characters began to get a slightly higher profile in the early '90s. At DC, John Stewart got his own book, Green Lantern: Mosiac, and there was a black Superman, Steel (more on him in essay #20). In 1992 Marvel relaunched Luke Cage as Cage. The company did the right thing by putting a Black writer (Marcus McLarin) and Black artist (Dwayne Turner) on the series, but their work on the title felt amateurish, and their reimagining of Luke Cage was uninspiring. Nama called this iteration of the character "about as compelling as the plainclothes he was now wearing."


The problem remained that Black superheroes were so still rare that they were inevitably seen as representatives of their entire race. So one of the Milestone's two main goals as stated by McDuffie in an interview with Wizard, was to “destroy the monolith.” By this he meant that the company wanted to introduce Black characters with a “wide range of backgrounds, points of view, temperaments” so they could be viewed as individuals. The other goal, related closely to the other if you think about it, was to portray their fictional world as realistically as possible.
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."

I probably don’t need to tell you that these concerns are damn fine examples of white privilege. Retailers like Jake considered comics with Black characters “activist” or political, but were perfectly fine with the fact that approximately 98% of the characters in the Marvel and DC comics of the time were white. They also never worried for a moment that people of color would not support white superheroes.
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.

What’s especially interesting to me now is that, though all four books had the same creative minds behind them, and all had the same Milestone 100 process that made them one of the first comics to have a modeled, painted color - they all had completely a completely different look and feel. This was somewhat by design, as McDuffie and company purposefully worked within familiar archetypes, which allowed them to make superhero comics while also commenting on them and their shortcomings. Hardware, about an engineering prodigy who discovers his mentor is evil, was like a high-tech thriller. Icon, concerning an alien who has spent the past 100 years stranded on Earth in the form of a Black man, was a mix of traditional superheroics and character study. Static was a teen drama with a quick-witted, electromagnetically-powered protagonist. And Blood Syndicate was a soap opera featuring racially-diverse (Latinx, Asian, Black) super-powered gang members.

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.

This allowed Milestone also managed to maintain its commitment to quality. Though Static and Hardware both suffered after losing their initial creative teams, Icon and Blood Syndicate actually improved over time. Icon benefited from the consistency of McDuffie and artist Mark D. Bright, and their 42 issues on the title (give or take a fill-in here and there) stand as a career highlight for both men.

And Blood Syndicate hit a stride once Chriscross came on as penciller. Brand new to the industry, his work was good to start, and it got better every issue, just as all the story seeds writer Ivan Velez Jr. planted early on began to sprout and flourish. The team would stick together for over two years, and the book itself became a textbook example of how to effectively write a comic book featuring a large cast. Velez, a gay Bronx native with Puerto Rican roots, applied the same principles of storytelling that he used on his indie book Tales of the Closet.

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.


Works Cited

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). 

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