On -isms: What Milestone's Return Means

By | Thursday, January 22, 2015 1 comment
A well-linked-to article in The Washington Post yesterday heralded the announcement that Reggie Hudlin, Denys Cowan and Derek Dingle are bringing Milestone comics back later this year. A lot of the big comics news sites said "YAY!" and excerpted a few quotes, but what I haven't seen is what the return of Milestone means.

Milestone first debuted in 1993 and, as a publisher, was defunct by 1997. DC licensed the characters and several stayed in some degree of circulation beyond that, but wrapped in the blanket of DC contunity. Which meant they were frequently relegated to guest star roles behind Batman or Superman. What that means is that, effectively, no one under 20 really knows Milestone at all, and you'd have to be at least 25 or 30 for the characters to have had any sort of lasting impact.

Milestone was a fantastic idea. The characters they published were almost all minorities, and the books themselves were made by almost entirely minority creators. Not just any Black guy who can write kind of okay, but they went out of their way to hire really talented people. Who happened to be Black. That meant two things. First, the stories they produced could easily stand up on their own against anything else being sold at the time. These weren't your typical "out trying to create the next Marvel Universe" wannabes, these were really talented creators, many of whom had already worked for Marvel and/or DC. The whole company came with a good set of creative credentials.

Second, because the creators were all minorities, they could speak more personally and directly to many of the issues face by minorities in the real world. If a character in one of the stories was slighted because of some institutional racism, the artist wouldn't draw just a generic gritted-teeth angry character, they could pull from their own first-hand experiences to show the nuance of being outraged but trying to bite their lip and hold it in for the time being. They know that face from having experienced it a thousand times. That gave the characters a greater authenticity than if they were simply crafted at a corporate level for the sake of filling a self-imposed quota.

And what does that mean?

Let me share a quick story from Aw Yeah Comics that I heard this past weekend...
A family was just in picking up some books for their 12 year old son, who is just getting into comics thanks to the Marvel movies. He sees the new Captain America, and excitedly yells to his Dad... "Dad! Captain America looks just like us!"
A child just getting into comics, and he sees that one of the heroes he was shown on the big screen is now Black, just like him. He sees that superheroes don't HAVE to be white. He sees that the heroes who hold ideals he wants to live up to are JUST LIKE HIM. He sees that he has a role model reflective of him. Of his life. Of his experiences.

And that's what Milestone did. With EVERY. SINGLE. BOOK. They gave minority audiences role models to look up to and root for. They gave them not just a single hero to play second-fiddle to Aquaman; they created a whole line of comics filled with heroes that reflected who they were.

Try talking to some Black guys in their 30s and 40s who read Milestone comics back in the day. I can almost guarantee that you will hear a revenence for those short-lived comics that you might expect to hear from a Browncoat talking about Firefly. I can almost guarantee they will have no end of respect for Dwayne McDuffie and the other creators responsible. Those books were what those guys had been looking for their entire comic-reading lives.

I will freely admit that I largely missed Milestone back in the day. I was a poor student back then, and my comics reading was essentially limited to my one favorite book. The books I've read since then were good. My understanding is that they didn't do better because A) the comics market began crashing hard just as they were getting started, and B) insufficient marketing to counter the piles of cash Marvel and DC were throwing at just about everything. Just as a quick reminder, in 1993 Marvel was producing 140 titles every month (compared to Milestone's four), in 1994 Marvel bought Heroes World, in 1996 Capital City was bought by Diamond (making it essentially the only comics distributor) and Marvel filed for bankruptcy. The market was in massive turmoil, largely due to the shenanigans of the biggest players. That Milestone was as commercially successful as it was at that time is, especially in hindsight, amazing.

And that's part of what gives people so much excitement and hope for the new Milestone. Sure, there's a nostalgia factor there, but they're also stepping into a radically different market. One which is much more conducive to independent voices. (Raina Telgemeier's been on The New York Times best-selling list for how long now? Like, five or six years straight or something, isn't it?) I think there's much more potential for Milestone to reach the audience it needs in order to survive now. I think they have a shot at being much more successful this time around. And that means that many more kids can walk into a comic shop and yell to their dad... "Dad! Static Shock looks just like us! And so does Hardware! And so does Icon! And so does Rocket! And..."
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Scott said...

I can and do appreciate the broader meaning of Milestone as you so eloquently put it here. First and foremost, though, they were good comics. Among the best-written superhero comics of that period, in my opinion. I'm excited to see what Milestone 2.0 does.