Searching for Higher Ground: A Reflection On Race In Comics

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Times are a-changin’. The lesser discussed engine of progress for comics has been the concept of topicality, beginning with the Golden Age and WWII and fast forwarding to the socially, over-teched and offense-adverse world we live in today. The in-between spaces get to the heart of the social challenges we face. Even the most recent controversy regarding the Confederate flag is a topic which creators like Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have immortalized in their book Southern Bastards, in the form of a limited run cover for issue 10 with the image of a torn up Confederate flag and the tagline “Death to the flag. Long live the South!” This may raise the ire of Southern fans who have embraced the book, no doubt, but again, reach for higher ground, right?

In the 80s, the comic industry overcorrected from many of the smackdown action of the 70s. Books became more cynical, and by the end of the decade, more deadly. This was a reflection of our own cynicism and fear. However, multi-racial characters were simply there, and not necessarily active in a meaningful way — and at a time where Blacks were at odds with portrayals in mass media, to have little to no real voice in comics was frustrating.

In the 90s, pride in the Black culture to counteract the ‘thug’ persona become increasingly more popular in all pop culture. In music, you had Public Enemy, X Clan and Arrested Development to run alongside NWA, Biggie and Tupac. They were revolutionary in different ways. In movies you had Denzel, Wesley and Will step up as viable leading men … and so on. In comics, the awareness movement had certainly begun from independent books like Brotherman and Original Man (then Omega Man), who were created as a very specific response to the need and desire of Black voices in four colors to represent the times, along with more unique characters whose identity wasn’t as direct like Spawn. Black characters were becoming more apparent, especially as more creators of color were employed.

Then there was Milestone. Milestone Comics was ultimately the focal point of the Black experience in comics in the 90s. Some would argue that because DC distributed their books, they had to sell out a bit. I challenge that to a degree. When you look at the books, even today, the stories are solid and smartly written, especially in year one. The four books launched in 1993 — Icon, Hardware, Static and Blood Syndicate — gave you characters with unique twist on established comic archetypes.

  • Icon (Superman), a hero who was the most powerful being on the planet raised during the most tumultuous time in American history. The character comes to represent the idea that a Black man could become something greater than the environment in which he was raised. The juxtaposition of him, in his civilian identity being an successful lawyer or selling out yet being judged by those in the street for “keeping it real,” was a very real issues for the Black community. This speaks to the insecurity in the community regarding success and the rules behind it, yet he would give back and protect his community from those who would seek to exploit or destroy it.
  • Hardware (Iron Man/Batman), a man of incredible skills and resources who uses them to put an end to the crime and oppression of the “system” from the inside. This puts him at odds with his mentor and benefactor, who happens to be responsible for said crime and oppression. Hardware asked the question, “Would you compromise your principles in the face of great success?”
  • Static (Spider Man), who would become the company’s most recognizable character, was every bit a character struggling with the great responsibility piece complemented by great power he used to save his city. Static was a coming of age story with all that entailed: high school, girls, parents who don’t get you, and bullies.
  • Last but not least, Blood Syndicate (team concept) which took the idea of gangs and pushed them into anti-heroes. The characters were multi-racial and had plenty of tension, along with enough ulterior motives to fill a season of The Wire.

Milestone was important for what the creators, most notably the great Dwayne McDuffie tried to build: a broadened view of what it means to be a minority in this country. The evolution of the socially conscious editorial voice into a more traditional comic book company in later years didn’t diminish the impact of their first step; however, it wasn’t nearly as ground-breaking — especially after the crossover with the main DC Universe, ironically.

That may be why the subsequent efforts to revive and use the characters feels hollow. They’ve lacked the core tension and fire that initially drove it. I’m hoping the upcoming relaunch of Milestone by the remaining original creators will result in something much more impactful and sustainable. Lord knows it’s timely.

Next: Recasting Iconic Roles