Milestone Media revolutionized comics. While today it’s probably most remembered with it’s popular character Static, it helped promote diversity in an industry in desperate need of it.
Josh and Allan discuss the founding of Milestone Media, the creation of its world, the controversies, the rebirths, and more.
Now for the show notes!
NOTE: Many things I found have some conflicting information. This was almost 30 years ago, so it’s no surprise that the specifics each creator has could vary slightly from one person to the next. While I find the details interesting, in the end, what matters that it exists.
In 1992, Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Christopher Priest (previously known as Jim Owsley), Derek Dingle, Michael Davis came together to create something that would revolutionize the comic industry. Cowan had the idea to start a company that featured black characters that were creator owned. So during San Diego Comic-Con in 1991, he called up Michael Davis and told him to meet him in the lobby where he told him the idea. He thought it was crazy, but they called Dwayne to meet them as well and they roamed the halls of Comic-Con to run down the plans of what would become Milestone.
From there, they would reach out to DC or Marvel and see which would publish it. Cowan went to McDuffie to see how he felt, and McDuffie liked it, but wanted to make a change – expand it past black characters to minorities, gay characters, etc. Milestone would come to represent the underrepresented.
Just prior to the meeting with DC, everyone met up in a donut shop down the street from the offices. It was there the revised proposal by Christopher Priest was provided to Dwayne McDuffie along with the “M” logo as they had all decided on the “Milestone Media” name already, with Milestone being named after Cowan’s son “Miles”.
The first goal was to tell stories without influence from editorial. This was THEIR stories. Ones they wanted to tell without sweeping changes from the bosses. They also wanted to create a multi-cultural world in a way comics weren’t at the time. Dwayne’s specific influence on this type of world came from Black Panther that showed him not only could black characters be heroes, but they could be other people too from villains, doctors, etc. So he wanted to do something similar to give kids the same feeling he had that “they” could be anyone too.
Dwayne saw Milestone as a storytelling company. He wanted both the writer and artist to work together to craft a story instead of one or the other really taking the “lead” role. However, all of the founders really wanted to give new creators, especially diverse creators, a shot at the industry. Most new comic companies try to gain readers by bringing established big names, Milestone would approach new talent and help teach them storytelling methods and more. This came partly from Michael Davis who was teaching at the School for Visual Arts and could see this talent just waiting to be given a chance. Because Milestone did this, artists like ChrisCross and John Paul Leon made names for themselves and would see continued work in the industry for years.
On the writing side, Robert L Washington III would come in and help flesh out the Static character and refine aspects of the character already set in place by the original co-founders. He would go on to write a good amount of the Static issues after co-writing with Dwayne at the beginning. When it came to Blood Syndicate, nobody had any takers there. However, Dwayne had been meeting up with Ivan Velez Jr. at several NYC conventions over a few years. Ivan had one small story in Adventure Comics prior to this and had gay comics in his background. Between that and him being Latino, he didn’t think he would get a shot at mainstream comics. However, Dwayne gave him the shot he deserved. He offered Ivan a chance to write their team book they had planned, and after discussing it with Dwayne who helped clear up any worries, Ivan would become part of the Milestone family.
They worked out distribution and licensing rights with DC Comics. DC would help distribution which was a major boon for Milestone, but in turn, DC had the licensing rights. Outside of a crossover that was required in the contract (see our Worlds Collide episode for that crossover), Milestone was given free rein of their universe as long as it still fell within certain guidelines made by DC (such as the Static cover story – read letter?). Other than that, the Dakotaverse would exist outside of the DCU. DC did have the right to NOT publish something, but they wouldn’t push any creative control outside of that. For the most part, they would deal with distribution, marketing, and merchandise.
With that…Milestone Media launched on February 23rd, 1993.
Because of their focus on diversity in comics, they had to approach inking much differently than other companies. With comics out of DC and Marvel, it wasn’t unusual to see skin tones being poorly reflected in the ink. Asians were this weird yellowish color, blacks would be purple, latinos would be grey. So Milestone went a different route to expand their color options to be more accurate with skin color. They would use doctor martin dies that would then be reproduced on water color paper. From there, they would be hand painted. It was a similar approach to how Valiant would do it and while their colors could be described as “muddy”, it did exactly what they set out to do by showing the world what diversity SHOULD look like in comics instead of the poor representations they were visually.
Diversity was expanded outside of skin color though. Milestone wanted their world to be contemporary and be as close to the real world as possible. So the diversity wasn’t just surface level. They had characters with different religious views. Different backgrounds. Different political views. One notable example is Icon. One might imagine he would be more liberal given his backstory, but in fact, he was very conservative. In one issue, he even mentions that people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” like he did.
Quotes on what Milestone stood for:
“an entire multicultural world, with Asian-Americans, Latinos, women, everybody. We want a rich environment with all colors and genders represented.” – Derek Dingle
“I didn’t want to become the black version of my criticism of mainstream comics. One of the major things I was trying to accomplish was reproduce that feeling of belonging in a younger generation of readers.” – Dwayne McDuffie
“We are touching on issues that have never been touched in this medium before. Our heroes are not born heroes; it’s something they have to grow into. Life’s about change, overcoming obstacles and becoming more than your environment, and that’s what our characters have to do.” – Denys Cowan
Once everyone was together, they all started brainstorming the core group of characters. So they joined Denys Cowan in his studio in Manhattan or Michael Davis’s basement and worked out different characters based on already existing archetypes in other companies. This would lead to long marathons of knocking out character ideas, some of which would be 13-hour long sessions.
One thing to come from the sessions was the idea of the “Big Bang”. This large explosion using gas created by Alva Industries would give rise to metahumans by mutating their bodies and giving them powers. Like so much of Milestone, the “Big Bang” was based off the Philadelphia police bombing of the Black radical group MOVE in 1985.
Shortly after Milestone was given the go-ahead with DC, Christopher Priest would bow out of Milestone Media and instead remain focused on DC. However, while there, he would be their “inside man” to help get things done. That would fall by the wayside though when Priest would leave DC to help mend a failing marriage.
Creating the Archetypes:
Icon = Superman
Christopher Priest would come up with a good majority of the premise and backstory for Icon, although he was originally called Paragon at the time of creation. They couldn’t get clearance for the name, so it was changed to Icon. Icon’s wife Estelle was actually based on Priests grandmother Estelle Young.
He also came up with the idea that Rocket would be the first unwed mother super-hero sidekick in comics. Dwayne proposed her to be without superpowers, but Priest “forced” him to give her some which in the end, worked out great. Though Priest recalls it slightly differently as he says he didn’t care Rocket had powers, but thinks that may have been more MD Bright’s suggestion. Dwayne was the one who came up with the idea of Icon’s ship being rocketed to Earth and found by a slave owner in the 1800s. Between the two of them, they created a character who hid his powers until a woman named Raquel Ervin tried breaking into his home, and in the end, convinced him to be a superhero with her as his sidekick.
While Icon was the “star” of the show, the book was always about Rocket. It was always her perspective. McDuffie and Cowan did this to subvert the genre and write a girl book hidden in a “boys” superhero book. Cowan notes, and I haven’t checked to confirm, but you never see a thought bubble from Icon. You saw what he did, but you never knew how he thought.
Rocket had a similar purpose for black women that Static did for black teen men. The first black female lead in comics started in Marvel a year before Rocket (Captain Confederacy), so Rocket following immediately after was still a huge matter for black women.
Static = Spiderman
While working at Marvel, Dwayne felt Spider-Man sort of lost who he was (married to a super-model, living in a loft, etc). So he started planning out a character that would match his vision of what Spider-Man “should” be. It never got off the ground at Marvel, but when Milestone came around and they needed a Peter Parker/Spider-Man like character, Dwayne went back to that character. And we got Static – a name Priest would also take credit for after a James Brown song popular at the time called “Static”. Even a part of the song “Don’t start none, won’t be none” was reworked and appeared on the first issue . The crew all thought this was a great idea to have a character to represent them, especially one that would have been similar to them when they were kids.
Much of the foundation for Static was built on the life of Michael Davis. Davis’s mom Jean Lawrence would be changed to Jean Hawkins. His step-father Robert would be Robert Hawkins – Static’s dad. Instead of the name Virgil, Static was originally named Alan after Michael’s cousin. Like Static, Sharon was his sister’s name as well. Even the name Hawkins was a surname on his step-father’s side of the family. However, Dwayne wanted to make one change to the namesake and that was to switch out Alan with the name Virgil. The name is the same of a black man who was denied entry into the University of Florida School of Law and had fought decades for his ability to practice law.
One major difference McDuffie saw between Spider-Man and Static is that Static isn’t a hero out of guilt. He does it because he thinks it’s fun. All of that growing up with science fiction, reading comics, etc – all of it propelled him to be a superhero. To give a Spider-Man comparison again, he gave him the static powers similar to Electro, and they were good to go.
McDuffie would be credited for much of what came out of Static, but he did have help. When Milestone first got underway, he was a little overwhelmed (writing multiple books, co-running Milestone, etc); McDuffie reached out to longtime friend Robert L. Washington III (passed away in 2012). Dwayne’s original 4-issue outline for Static was improved upon by Washington not only by improving written dialogue and infusing more nerdiness into the character, but also making big changes as well. Washington was the man who came up with Tarmack and re-worked the villain Hotstreak (better known as F-Stop). Static once had a brother, but Washington replaced the sibling with two sisters (Not sure how accurate this was – sounds like Sharon was always there, can’t find anything on two sisters). And possibly most importantly, he forced McDuffie to watch an incredible amount of Digrassi Jr High to get the feel he wanted between the characters. So after being impressed with what Washington did with Static, he gave him the opportunity to write him fully starting with issue 5.
Hardware = Iron Man/Batman
Denys may be the one behind Hardware because he really liked Iron Man. Hardware would turn out to be Cowan’s favorite as well. There’s also a quote from Matt Wayne (former Milestone Managing Editor) who spoke with Dwayne about having an angry Batman character who used gadgets. So there’s a chance both Cowan and McDuffie were on the same page and brought it together to form Hardware.
Much of the story of Hardware came from their treatment at previous companies. Curtis Metcalf is a genius who was mistreated by a white businessman who would then come up with the Hardware persona to fight criminals and megacorporations. The way it was written was to show similarities to how workplaces treat their black employees.
Christopher Priest takes the credit for creating the name Hardware.
Blood Syndicate – The Blood Syndicate were gang members who were affected by the Big Bang. Their makeup of identities was like nothing comics have seen at that point.
Denys came up with the “Blood” part of the name but someone else threw out “Syndicate”. Priest believes he was the one who put them together. Priest also came up with many of the names here such as Tech-9, Third Rail, DMZ, and Wise Son. Wise Son was named after a childhood friend who would become a member of The Five Percent, a Black Muslim sect.
However, Ivan Velez Jr would come in and add so much to Blood Syndicate. According to Ivan:
“I did some research and added some of the social political elements of a depressed urban area like my beloved Bronx. I added the history of the immigration to Dakota and Paris Island, as well as defined certain ethnicities that dominated the landscape. Before I got to them, the Blood Syndicate (even the entire Dakota Universe) had a problem with real diversity. All the heroes were African American. Even Xombi was originally black, and later changed to a Korean man. The only Latina was Icon’s maid (and never used. Dwayne was very kind, and told me the reason I was hired was to bring real diversity to the characters. So I rolled up my sleeves and went wild. I made Fade and Flashback Dominicans with dark skin (since Afro-Latinos were invisible in comics), and Tech became Puerto Rican. Third Rail was already Asian, so he became Korean. Masquerade (originally male and named Morph) became a secret ftm transgender, and Brickhouse became a Puerto Rican woman. There was a dictate to make one of the members of the Syndicate white, so I changed one of the nebulous monsterish characters into Boogieman, and made his whiteness a secret as a commentary on the order for above and cultural appropriation. I added a couple of my own characters like AquaMaria (based on a water deity from my family’s Santeria background) and Kwai, a Chinese fairy from my love of Hong Kong fantasy movies. My decision to have Aqua only speak Spanish as so many immigrants do was fully supported. I was even allowed to design a couple of the characters (Like Kwai), and could sketch ideas for Boogieman, Brick, Tech-9 and Third Rail that were incorporated for their final looks. In this way, I took the Blood Syndicate very seriously and still consider it one of my babies, even though it’s an adopted child. “
The initial pitch of Blood Syndicate to Ivan Velez Jr. was “X-Men meets Boyz In Da Hood” or something along those lines. However, he was given the chance to mix it up how he saw fit both with new and already designed characters. He took this into account to try and stray from the stereotype of black kids being predators and wolfpacks which is what they were commonly associated as at the time. He used the dynamic of disaffected youth and would think of them as family members to each other while making their gang culture similar to what he recognized growing up in the Bronx as a child.
Some of what Ivan Velez Jr. would pull from for Blood Syndicate were gang members he was surrounded by as he grew up in the Bronx.
The Milestone Bible
The Milestone Bible was a 400 page collection of “mini-bibles” based on each character and the world around them. For example, Michael Davis worked on the Static portion of the bible. During the final stages of the bible, Robert Washington III and Ivan Velez Jr were brought on to work on their parts of the bible in Static and Blood Syndicate respectively.
Once all of those were done, Christopher Priest and Dwayne McDuffie sat down and worked through the backbone of the Milestone universe piecing it all together. The original document that was typed up was what was pitched to DC, although it would later be expanded upon into something larger when Dwayne McDuffie would revise and edit it.
Called the Milestone Bible, this contained sketches of characters in the universe, origins of these characters. It would create a shared universe with multiple locations that were multi-faceted such as Dakota, Paris Island, the Tenth Avenue Bridge and more. The city of Dakota alone was 100 pages of the bible breaking things down such as the ethnic makeup, tensions between people there, neighborhoods, and more.
Static #25 – The Souring of DC
For the most part, Milestone was given free rein to do what they wanted in their books. However, Dwayne and the gang were not afraid to test those boundaries, and that was tested with Static #25.
Static #25 would be where the relationship between DC and Milestone would start to hit the rocks. More specifically, the cover for Static #25. Within the book, the team was tackling teen sex within the issue and the cover would reflect that. On the cover, beautifully illustrated by Zina Saunders, was Virgil and his girlfriend making out on the cover. They were in the process of undressing themselves and Virgil was holding a pack of condoms.
The book was meant to be special. Dwayne had the idea for Virgil to lose his virginity and Ivan took it very seriously as having worked previously at a youth social service agency. During this time, AIDS was a major talking point (that hit people of color particularly hard) so this wasn’t something they wanted to write about as flippant as possible. It was important for them to nail this issue the best they could.
A few months prior, Dwayne heard rumblings of DC not printing the cover. He didn’t believe it because of the supposed freedom Milestone has, and nobody reached out to him directly. It wasn’t until he saw something in the “Coming Comics” section where it was showing a different cover. He reached out to Paul Levitz to clear this up, and Paul’s defense was it was “too sexual” and DC has a policy about not showing sex on covers. Dwayne obviously doesn’t believe that (even today comics have women in some very sexual positions on covers), so he ran the cover anyways, because it was in line with the rest of Milestone – it was true, and it was real. The only difference is that it was black sexuality.
Much of the problem came in the editorial at the end of the issue where Dwayne brought all of this to light. You can see the editorial on the page for this podcast on vgu.tv. That would lead to Dwayne being removed from Editor-In-Chief for a few weeks, and Denys Cowan took over that responsibility. Shortly after, Denys Cowan went to Motown Machine Works with his friend Michael Davis who had, by all accounts, been forced to leave Milestone. Matt Wayne had quit. Dwayne would return. The Milestone offices were hit hard by all of this fallout and many became bitter with DC and working relationships were affected because of it.
Paul and Dwayne didn’t see eye to eye on this topic. Never did, and they had numerous conversations over the years about this. But Dwayne wasn’t going to be swayed and he stuck to his guns.
It was hard for Milestone to shake itself away from being “The Black Comics” company. Even though they tried to represent everyone, they were categorized as something completely different. This could be contributed to Dwayne McDuffie’s “Rule of Threes”, but on a larger company wide scope as opposed to comics. His rule of threes is that once a book hits three black characters, it’s considered a black comic. So if we look at Milestone and see far more black characters in lead roles, it’s possible that the rule of threes makes this company a “black comic company”.
Milestone also received some pushback by the black community. The “Who’s more black” problem would surface with Milestone as well. Despite all of the benefits they received by DC for purely business reasons, some in the black community felt they weren’t black enough because they were working under a “white” company. The idea that “working for the man” was influencing their stories, which wasn’t the case at all.
End of the Line:
At the end of the 90’s, the comic industry was in trouble. Sales were plummeting. Places of distribution were starting to dwindle. Companies were panicking. The comic line of Milestone lasted about 6 years. The comic market was suffering, and it’s best noted by distributors. When they started, there were 12 distributors, and by the end there were only “really” three. So at the end, they noticed their books being cut because retailers weren’t going to give up Batman or X-Men for Static or Hardware. The market had fallen out of the collectors market, and Milestone suffered and ultimately went under because of it.
Funnily enough, despite his success in later years, Static was Milestone’s worst selling book of their four major books (Hardware, Icon, Static, Blood Syndicate). Icon on the other hand was the best selling book seeing anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 books by the end of the run. While it pales in comparison to the mainline comics that could near one million copies sold, Dwayne still viewed it as a success. He also felt the difference in sales came from the timeframe they were in. During that period, comics were selling best with dark/gritty characters. Meanwhile…Static just wasn’t. He was fun.
Milestone would eventually be moved into the DC offices and folded into the company itself before being phased out. Dwayne stayed the entire time, and after that iteration of Milestone was officially no more, he would go on to other things such as working on the animation end with things like Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, animated movies, Static Shock and more. But we’ll discuss that next week.
The 2015 and 2017 Relaunch
In 2011, at the wake of Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek Dingle and Reggie Hudlin came together and discussed reviving Milestone in memory of Dwayne. This would be discussed for some time and the first meeting with DC even took place just a few weeks after Dwayne’s wake.
Then…Milestone 2.0 is announced in 2015. However, Michael Davis was no longer a part of it for reasons he is unsure of. Not only that…nothing actually happens. Most things were silent for 3 years until in 2018 at New York Comic Con there were creative teams announced for books with Hudlin and Cowan overseeing story direction of the titles. They consisted of:
Milestone (Icon and Rocket) – Denys Cowan and Reggie Hudlin writing with Ken Lashley as artist
Static Shock – Denys Cowan and Reggie Hudlin writing with Kyle Baker as artist (Static reboot)
Duo – Greg Pak (a new twist on the Xombi series) – Jim Lee would be doing covers
Love Army – novelist Alice Russell (secret worldwide organization that kicks ass)
Earth M – Alice Russell and Reggie Hudlin
There were also plans for a second wave of books.
But that would all stall with a lawsuit from Charlotte McDuffie because Dwayne’s 50% for Milestone rights wasn’t being reflected. So none of these books saw the light of day.
The 2020 Return of Milestone
The return should have been out a little sooner than it was, however there were different lawsuits that prevented it from happening. This would revolve around a 2017 filing where Charlotte McDuffie was suing the Milestone founders about the relaunch of Milestone as it would leave out the McDuffie estate’s 50% share of Milestone rights and instead create a “new entity” with this new Milestone which would bypass McDuffie receiving anything. Supposedly, even the talks to restart Milestone began at the wake held for Dwayne McDuffie in which Hudlin, Cowan, and Dingle all attended. A settlement was made at the end of 2019.
Not much is known at this time, but here’s some of what we currently know:
- Everything will be re-released digitally
- Part of the delay in this is because of how the books were originally done. Because they were done on a blue line and painted, the process to rephotograph everything takes longer to get it done right.
- There will be some stories re-released in print, but the depth of that is unknown right now. Started September 2020 and going through this month (Feb 2021)
- New Icon and Rocket story being done by Reggie Hudlin and Denys Cowan
- New Static book by Kyle Baker in digital format
- Another new Static book as a graphic novel by Reggie Hudlin and Ryan Benjamin
- New characters
- This Milestone will not be integrated into the main DC Universe, at least not “these” Milestone characters, but instead exist on their own on a separate Earth “Earth-M”.
- Both Reggie and Denys are working in equal terms on decisions, though one may take the lead from time to time. But Reggie doesn’t have any less say in comics than Denys does in tv/film.
- Static Shock movie in development
- Two Static Shock projects currently being done and several non-Static stuff as well.
- Radio Play
- 2 Animated projects
- Milestone Returns Sampler: https://www.dccomics.com/reader/#/comics/454451
- Static Shock TV Series releasing on dvd March 28th
- Reggie Hudlin is taking the helm with Denys Cowan on the return of Milestone. However, back in 1992 with the original Milestone, he was also approached to be part of the creation. However he was busy shooting a movie at the time (possibly the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang?) so he wasn’t able to be part of it back then.
- Milestone was going to try and make a return in 2000 with the help of Bob Johnson. However, after Michael Davis worked up the deal, but one of the other co-founders was not wanted to be part of the deal. This irked Davis and backed out. As he put it “If not all of us, none of us”.
- Something similar happened at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con event when they planned to do a 20th Anniversary for Milestone. However, Derek Dingle wasn’t invited/remembered, and so again, they planned on pulling out. Derek Dingle was eventually brought on and the panel went off as expected!
- In Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, you can see copies of Milestone comics such as Hardware and Static by the door to the pool house from time to time.
- During his discussion with Paul Levitz regarding the Static #25 dilemma, Dwayne McDuffie mentioned that behind Paul was an issue of Legionnaires #16 which showcased a side view of a blonde white woman with a sexy costume and her looking at the reader with a suggestive smirk on her face. Something Dwayne found quite humorous considering the discussion he was having with Paul regarding DC books not being sexual on the cover
- When WB was pitched the Static Shock tv show, the pitch by Alan Burnett was essentially “It’s Chris Rock at 14 with superpowers”. This sold them, but Denys Cowan would come in a little later and detail who the character really was.
- The big “M” icon that everyone knows for Milestone? Christopher Priest created it with the help of DC Cover Editor Curtis King. In fact, Christopher Priest is often overlooked as one of the people involved with the creation of Milestone, and it wasn’t until many years later when Dwayne McDuffie brought it to peoples attention, that he would start getting more recognition as being a founding member. However, because he left the team just before DC signed on Milestone, he is often left out of the discussion.
- With the relaunch of Milestone coming back around and talks of a Static movie on the horizon, the original Milestone comics are seeing a huge bump in price. Back issues are being bought up and sold online for crazy prices. Examples include Static #1 selling for $60-$80, or Icon #42 selling between $35-$70.
https://youtu.be/_U_B5pR4h64 – Part 1
https://youtu.be/1cDrcHZsBgs – Part 2
Follow the podcast on Twitter: @HypertimePod or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Josh on Twitter: @jmille99
Follow Allan on Twitter: @TheAllanMuir
Intro and Outro Music: “RetroFuture Clean” by Kevin MacLeod
RetroFuture Clean Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License