There has been a lot of discussion lately involving Joss Whedon, feminism, and issues of representation in the newest Marvel Film Avengers: Age of Ultron. The online community has engaged in extensive dialogue concerning women’s representation in superhero movies, particularly concerning the portrayal of Scarlet Johannson’s Black Widow.
All this conversation reminded me of Milestone Media from the 90s how it came up with original (as in non-racebent) protagonist and antagonist characters who were diverse in race, gender/sex, and sexuality.
For context, Milestone Media is a company founded in 1993 by a group of largely Black artists and writers who knew that people of color were incredibly underrepresented in comics industry. Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock, Justice League Unlimited, Ben 10: Alien Force) and Denys Cowan (The Question, Hardware) were chief amongst the creators. Amongst its diverse talent were Ivan Velez Jr (a Queer Puerto Rican), Maddie Blaustein (a transwoman), and Christopher Williams (a Black man) to name a few, all whom were previously overlooked until they gained their big break into comics from Milestone Media. With a publishing deal with DC Comics (home to Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman), Milestone debuted with several original titles such as Icon, Static, Hardware, the Blood Syndicate, and Shadow Cabinet.
The brilliance of Milestone Media was that the creators devised a fictional universe (in the city of Dakota) that was populated with large scores of characters from a myriad of diverse ethnic, sexual, and gendered backgrounds. For instance, The Blood Syndicate was a group of multi-ethnic metahumans who weren’t superheroes in the strictest sense as their methods were often brutal and their inner-group conflicts were aplenty. On the other hand, Icon was an older conservative Black Republican in the vein of Booker T. Washington who masqueraded as a public superhero similar to Superman, whereas his partner Rocket was a young liberal Black woman whose ideology was shaped by W.E.B Du Bois’s “Souls of Black Folk.” Meanwhile, in their adjacent comic titles, Hardware dealt with an older Black scientist of a working class background who fought against capitalistic corruption in the form of Alva Industries; the titular hero of Static concerned a teenage superhero who had to balance his super-heroics with growing up as an adolescent in Urban USA.
Milestone’s willingness to engage across the entire spectrum of identity, culture, and politics allowed for even greater storytelling. Therefore, you saw clashes between the liberal Rocket and conservative Icon over Black respectability, socioeconomic status, and countless other issues within the Black community. You would also see a difference of methodology between the crass vigilantism of the Blood Syndicate and the more organized action by Shadow Cabinet. You would also read of the difference between both Hardware and Static’s fight against the same problem-urban decay. Whereas the former would fighter against the capitalist forces behind urban squalor, the latter mostly battled with the smaller level street gangs (non-powered and metahuman alike). All characters had different understandings of what it meant to be a person of color, a woman, or queer in addition to being a costumed crime-fighter. As a result, unlike Black Widow or Nick Fury in the Avengers film series, no one person was representative of an entire group.
Milestone Media never lasted long due to the comics industry collapse as a result of the over-speculation boom in the 90s. In addition, the comics industry (poorly) characterized Milestone as being limited to only Black audiences, and both nerds and journalists largely dismissed them as such. Many of these heroes were long forgotten until 2000 when Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan created Static Shock, resurrecting the hero and launching him into mainstream popularity. These characters were later integrated into the larger DC Universe, but with varying levels of (non)success. Recent developments suggest that it may be coming back under the direction of Reginald Hudlin, but no further announcements have been made since then.
Milestone Media is proof of the potential that comics have for greater character development and balanced representation of traditionally marginalized groups when you allow writers of diverse racial, gendered, and sexual backgrounds to tell their stories. We’ve seen the great work done by intersectional feminists of color (which Joss Whedon is not) in science-fiction novels, most famously with Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany – two pioneers in the Afrofuturism aesthetic who both explored topics concerning race, class, gender, and sexuality while situating them in the stars. Milestone continued this tradition albeit in the fictional city of Dakota and under the extensive superhero trope.
This is not to say that certain cishet white men haven’t done excellent work in representing marginalized groups (see Gerard Jones’s Green Lantern: Mosaic). However, publishers and producers cut down the potential for even greater representation and storytelling when they restrict the access talented writers who aren’t cishet white men to publish their stories. Instead, we’ll receive a lazily rehashed racebent or genderbent version of a previously established White male character. Or worse, tokenized background characters who are either racially stereotyped or oversexualized.
Problems of which Milestone Media, despite its brief run, were seldom subjected to.