In the wake of a Black History Month that has been as bizarre as it has been comically racist, here is a piece that takes a brief look at recent Black representation in superhero comics and its ties to what came before.
Following the Oscar-Winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse launching Miles Morales into the mainstream and Black Panther grabbing a few first Oscar wins for the MCU, some (white) people may find it hard to think back to when representation was ever an issue for Black and Brown comics fans. But to make things very clear the struggle has gone on since the dawn of the genre and continues today. This piece will focus one particular imprint that acted as a peak in the search for representation. Milestone Comics.
Milestone Comics was launched in 1993 to fill a void in the superhero comics landscape. Since 1938, there had been very few great representations of Black people in comics with painful stereotypes like Ebony White being examples. Later in the 60s and 70s characters like Black Panther and Falcon took the scene but with Black Panther’s adventures being secluded to Africa and Falcon being second to Captain America, they left a lot to be desired. Luke Cage, Power Man would be a huge step forward being one of the first African-American heroes with a solo title but with those stories felt like a white man trying his hardest to imagine what Black people in Harlem were like and led to stories that were frustrating at best and offensive at worst.
Michael Davis, a co-founder of Milestone, makes a powerful point in saying, “Black people have never been in control of their own stories in this country. People should tell their own stories.” And Milestone did that. The Founders were two childhood friends Derek T. Dingle and Denys Cowan along with Michael Davis, and Dwayne McDuffie. They did not just seek to add representation but a wide range of representation.
“My biggest issue, generally in writing mainstream comics, if you write a black character, he represents blackness. And that’s ridiculous.” This quote by McDuffie cites the narrow view in mainstream comics of there being one way to be Black and exactly the mindset that Milestone pushed against. A prime example of this range of representation was Icon, whose protagonist was a Black Republican and whose sidekick was a kid from the streets who would be one of cape comics only teen mothers. And on the stands at the same time would be Blood Syndicate which took the idea of a super team to the conclusion of a super street gang. Milestone was doing diversity like no one had ever done before or since. Milestone eventually fell to the decline of the comic market in addition to retailers and casual fans seeing it as a “political” book and not for the stories taking place inside. But as we all know diversity in superhero comics did not stop there.
In the past ten years we have seen a number of new heroes of color filling the pages of Marvel and DC Comics, such as RiRi Williams, Kamala Khan, Duke Thomas and Miles Morales. And while this is a great thing for seeing visual representation on the page, the movement has it’s flaws. In a piece leading up to Into the Spider-Verse, io9 writer Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote about how Miles Morales up to that point never felt like he had a distinct personality to that of Peter Parker. For me it felt that he had said something that had not been said out loud about a lot of Black characters created in the past decade. My mind turned to Wallace West, Jackson Hyde, and Duke Thomas. What other than surface level differences set them apart? No one wants to look at attempts at representation without gratitude but when that representation is consistently from white men the characterizations feels hollow. White creators like Brian Michael Bendis can have all of the good intentions in the world but for there to be so few Black creators in the industry, there’s an echo back to Michael Davis’s quote, “Black people have never been in control of their own stories in this country.”
None of this is to say white creators should never write Black characters, nor should Black people only write Black characters. Comics should represent a wide range of stories from a wide range of storytellers and currently that is not the case. As with any art, the work is how the world is seen through the lens of the artists experience and it is a very real truth that the experiences of white and Black comic book creators are incredibly different and there should be opportunity for that variety in the stories told in mainstream comics.
In terms of Black writers at the Big Two, Marvel is actually pushing Milestone’s legacy in the ways the creators envisioned. With Tanehasi Coates on Black Panther, Evee Ewing on Ironheart, Nnedi Okorafor on Shuri and Bryan Hill on Killmonger, Marvel currently provides a wide variety of titles that differ in tone and genre from a Black perspective. While at the distinguished competition, the only books with Black writers and Black leads are Bryan Hill’s creator owned book, American Carnage and David F. Walker co-writing Naomi with Brian Michael Bendis. DC has also delayed Hill’s Outsiders until May after its scheduled release December along with The Other History of the DC Universe penned by John Ridley of 12 Years a Slave, which was supposed to arrive just in time for Black History Month but has all but vanished from mention.
And for the final elephant in the room. DC’s promise of a Milestone revival that has been years in the making. Many fans question whether the return of Milestone will ever see the light of day and the disappointing but fair answer to that nothing will happen until DC settles the lawsuit between Dwayne McDuffie’s family. But bringing back Milestone would not fix the problems of race in comics. Milestone is an extremely important piece of comic’s history but DC has been using that legacy as an empty promise to solve their issues in diversity. Milestone as it was created was not a project by DC. The books were published by DC, but the books were created in spite of the landscape that DC and Marvel had created in the 90s. To truly honor the legacy of Milestone would be to actively search out Black voices to tell diverse stories from more than one Black perspective. To honor Milestone is not to promise the characters that Milestone created but to promote the vision that Milestone had.
Quotes in this piece are taken from Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics Mini-Series which can be watched here.