Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans

Jeffrey A. Brown,
Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
ISBN 1 57806 282 9 (pb)

(Review copy supplied by University Press of Mississippi)

Uploaded 1 December 2001
Why read this book?

Jeffrey Brown’s book ought to interest anyone interested in contemporary popular culture. For the past fifteen years, comics have occupied a place in Anglo culture comparable to the place occupied by films in the fifteen years from around 1958 to 1973. They have been the locus of an astonishing creative burst which has attracted an influential audience of knowledgeable amateurs who talk, write and exchange ideas outside the academic and cultural mainstream. To complete the parallel, this “new era in comics” had its origins in Europe (especially France and Italy) and in Japan, just as the most interesting films of the postwar period came from those places. For myself, I must confess that the excitement I used to feel almost every time I went to the movies in the sixties was replaced decades ago by the excitement of opening up an issue of PiloteMétal hurlant, Ah Nana! or A suivre – and recently it has attended the latest issues of comic books like Sin CityTop TenKabukiHellboy, The Dirty Pair, PlanetaryNinja High School v2, Static Shock and English language manga reprints such as Blade of the ImmortalDragonballNo Need for Tenchi! Gunsmith CatsAqua KnightSteam Detectives, and X/1999.

Comics have begun to generate a respectable secondary literature, just as films began to do in the sixties. Perhaps the most important book on comics in the past decade is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993). A comic itself, it describes something of the current grammar of comic books, drawing on both Anglo-European and Japanese practice. It is also the best introduction to visual editing in general that I know, and ought to be assigned in every introductory film course. And, as might be expected, there have been recent academic books on comics and ideology, comics and society, comics and censorship as well as books on the history and/or aesthetics of comics. Using the facilities of the internet, I have compiled a fairly cursory list of such volumes and appended it to this review for anyone who wants to read further. One of the things that is immediately apparent from my list is that the University Press of Mississippi is perhaps the most important – and certainly the most prolific – publisher in this academic field. Mississippi is the publisher of Brown’s Black Superheroes.

Brown’s book is very ambitious. It attempts to deal with the fictional universe generated by the comics published by one unusual company, Milestone Media, to supplement and extend the writing on comic book readers, and to discuss ethnicity and masculinity as they are figured in comics. In each instance, it seems to me, Brown has something interesting to say, backed with canny quotes from comics and from fans. If this book is any evidence, he is a good reader and a sympathetic observer. Even if one’s primary academic concern is the cinema, television, digital imagery or some other area of “screen history”, I cannot imagine not being struck by what Brown has written about fans, about the attractions of heroic fantasy and about the ways in which such fantasy articulates possible identities.

In my case, Black Superheroes has made me ask what I know about comics – or, rather, what I think is worth knowing – and I find that it is both the same and different from what Brown appears to think worth knowing. And so, as sometimes happens, I am not writing a review, but a series of fragments occasioned by a certain concentrated and distracted reading. I am not sure if this response properly addresses the reviewer’s task. What it seems to suggest is that Brown has written a good book because that book has prompted at least one person to think and to write. But perhaps his is not really a good book, but only a book which can result in goodness – inasmuch as certain kinds of thinking are said to delay the onset of dementia. (Or not. There is surely something demented in avoiding an author’s insight for the glint of mere reflection – dementedly reviewing a book about comics for an online journal of screen history.)

Milestone’s success [1]

The axis upon which everything else in Brown’s book depends is the Milestone Media company, publishers and creators of Milestone comics. Milestone was founded in 1993 by the comics artist, Denys Cowan, the comics writer, Dwayne McDuffie, and the comics fan (and entrepreneur), Derek Dingle, all African-Americans. The immediate goal of the company was to publish a line of comics that would take account of, exploit and celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity – “minority culture”, if you will.

Milestone comics are the occasion for Brown’s writing; without them there would be no book. He is interested in Milestone comics as texts and in the impact of Milestone comics upon their readers. First he describes something of what the “core” Milestone titles did, then he discusses the relation of those Milestone titles to comics fan culture, and finally he considers the black masculine identities offered by those titles as alternatives to the “hypermasculinity” he would like us to believe is the norm for comics.

Although his principal concern is with Milestone comics as texts, Brown recognises that Milestone’s corporate identity is very tightly bound up with those texts, and his first chapter is devoted to the nexus between culture and corporation in this case. Comics companies are not simply publishing ventures like say, Hollywood studios in the thirties – geared to put out pretty much whatever is supposed to make a profit. Comics companies are expressed textually, articulated in the fiction that bears their imprint. Their textual identities are often much clearer and fuller even than the “personalities” of say, Warner Bros. or MGM. The major, “classic” comics companies – DC and Marvel – are also diegeses, universes in which only certain fictions can take place. Superman talks regularly to Batman, but to Spiderman or the X-Men only by special contractual arrangement.

There is an obvious corporate advantage in tying a company’s identity to a specific fictional universe (so obvious, in fact, that this was the practice among some small early comics companies like Fawcett and Charlton). The most important advantage, however, may be that it allows greater freedom in the manipulation of characters. Comic books, like comic strips, are usually character-based. Their popularity, at least initially, usually has to do with the appeal of a single character or group of characters. But the popularity of a specific character will wax and wane over the years. The company’s control of its universe allows it to respond to and initiate such changes fairly smoothly, retiring some characters, introducing others, retooling still others. It also allows the use of the popularity of some characters to attempt to boost the flagging or fledgling appeal of others. Finally, diegetic control gives scope for large-scale cross-over epics in which many of the company’s titles are involved, presumably boosting the sales of all.

To write of diegetic creation in this business-oriented way (which is the way in which we write of all popular art creation), downplays its aesthetic significance. No one would dispute that a part of Dante’s artistic achievement in the Divina commedia was the creation of a fictional cosmos of impressive scope and dimension. But this sort of critical attention to diegetic construction is not common, or not commonly recognised, in western literature, outside of “allegorical”, utopic and satirical texts like Dante’s, or Thomas Moore’s, Swift’s and Wagner’s. Yet by the nineteenth century such popular writers as Eugene Sue were primarily in the business of creating diegeses; and that model classicist, Honore de Balzac, is one of the few “realistic” novelists regularly cited these days in highbrow publications for the excellence of his diegetic construction.

In certain genres of twentieth-century popular art diegetic construction can be crucial. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, Frank L. Baum’s Oz, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth are three obvious examples from popular fiction, but the creation of visible fictional universes is essential to certain kinds of comics and to at least some films as well. Aelita (Jakob Protazanov, 1921) fails as science-fiction (which it is not anyway) insofar as Mars fails to establish a diegetic presence of its own. By the same measure, Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) would seem to have succeeded almost beyond anyone’s ability to analyse precisely because of the effectiveness of its diegesis. “Weimar cinema”, “poetic realism” and “film noir” (related not by coincidence) evoke the visions and sounds of diegetic worlds, not really “styles” or “genres”. “Musicals” and “Star wars” too, of course. And, as they say, much, much more.

Milestone’s ambition was to create a comics universe. McDuffie and Cowan put together a is not page “bible”, outlining the setting, characters, and initial storylines for Milestone comics. Other writers and illustrators were hired to give specific form and substance to the outline. In time, of course, the new writers and illustrators did gain some measure of control over the direction of their work – but always within the constraints of the Milestone universe, which I think ended up in practice as McDuffie’s.

And I think the Milestone universe was the company’s most important achievement, one of the most significant achievements in comics during the 1990s. Other writers and artists, other companies, attempted the same thing during this period (and still are doing it). At Image, the most important of the companies formed in the early ’90s, Jim Lee put together what has become a very successful and long-lived universe, now marketed as Wildstorm and partly under the DC company logo. Alan Moore, a gifted and influential writer, has made a career out of fashioning diegeses in which fictions face themselves. Some of them are The Watchmen (based on the Charlton comics universe), Supreme, The League of Extraordinary GentlemenTop Ten. Writer-artist Kurt Busiek is engaged over the long term in making a comics universe based in Astro City. Ben Dunn, whose work is much influenced by Japanese manga, creates wildly improbable diegeses for improbably talented teens, cute sword-wielding nuns and the like.

But none of them has done what Milestone did. Milestone made a universe that was both as mainstream in its feel as the Wildstorm universe and as archly postmodern as anything that Moore, Busiek or Dunn have dreamed up. Since Frank Miller’s 1986 rewriting of Batman as the Dark Knight only Grant Morrison’s refashioning of the Justice League of America last year, and this year’s spate of Ultimate Marvel Comics, has come close in scope to what Milestone did in the early nineties. But these examples had the advantage of building on known diegeses, whereas Milestone was starting from the ground up – that is, with new characters as well as a new point of view – much as Jack Kirby did with his eccentric, truncated New Gods universe for DC in 1970-72.

Historically in comics, characters precede diegeses. Moreover, characters generate diegeses. If Superman, then Metropolis, not the other way around. In the early forties, DC, the company of Superman and Batman (if Batman, then Gotham City), began making a DC universe by combining characters and their diegeses in crossovers (where two or more superheroes appear in the same story) and super groups (like the Justice Society of America, a group that has included over the years Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Spectre, Superman and Wonder Woman among many others). Timely, the company that eventually provided Marvel Comics with its superhero base, had actually initiated crossovers – and thus the assumption of a common diegesis – by putting the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner into a single story in 1940. The “classic” corporate diegeses then, are really the results of character annexation rather than creation sui generis.

Milestone did not annex its universe through appropriating anyone else’s characters. On the other hand, the Milestone universe did not spawn its characters either (that is, it was not a case of if this universe, then these characters, which was Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek’s strategy). Cowan and McDuffie first designed characters and their separate implicated diegeses and then sketched out a meta-diegesis, the city of Dakota, to contain and link the modules they had fashioned. In this the company’s “bible” was merely following and adapting the same kind of mainstream procedures as Wildstorm’s Jim Lee and others before and since.

However, this procedure by itself does not account for the completeness and effectiveness of Milestone’s principal characters. It must have been Cowan and McDuffie’s original character concepts and the company’s commitment to fostering characters that allowed Milestone’s superheroes to spring so fully rounded and instantly memorable from the pages of their inaugural issues. With the exception of Kurt Busiek’s characters for Astro City, none of the universes I have mentioned seems so character-driven and character-devoted as Milestone’s – none so “humanist” in that sense.

And this is much of what makes it seem so mainstream as well. In a mainstream comics universe, like DC’s or Marvel’s, the readers are usually only aware of the portion of the larger common universe covered by the particular comic that they are reading. In Alan Moore’s books and in such titles as Warren Ellis’s Planetary, on the other hand, attention is constantly directed to the (unknown) universe itself, its relation to other fictional places, its particular inhabitants, sights, sounds, secrets, rules. Reading becomes a detective activity with the disclosure of the universe as its goal. For Milestone, however, the diegetic universe was just the backdrop, not the raison d’être.

What did give the Milestone diegesis a definite postmodern twist was its signifying African-American slant. Everything in the “Dakotaverse” was just slightly disturbed, a bit clearer and even a little better for having been modified historically and culturally by Cowan, McDuffie and co. This was primarily a question of the characters. Each of Milestone’s principal “humanist” superheroes – Hardware, Icon, Static and the supergroup, Blood Syndicate – commented on social realities and cultural myths by virtue of their ethnicity and the divergent realities and myths which that ethnicity set in train. The commentary was pointed and often ironic. It added dimension to what are too often represented in flat identities and formulas – in comics and in discourse about identity, culture and history.

Hardware, for example, is the superhero identity adopted by a research scientist, Curtis Metcalf, who uses his genius to create a supersuit of power armour monitored by a computer. Encased in all that hardware, he fights crime in Dakota. This, plus Metcalf’s being the son of an honest cop, would be pretty much all the background one would get on a (flat) mainstream character. However, Milestone’s Curtis Metcalf is black – an African-American scientific genius George Schuyler would have been proud to have imagined. [2]  Black Superheroes are rare in comics, and black scientific geniuses even rarer. In this instance, Metcalf’s Milestone-dictated race promises us something: it adds a dimension of difference.

Moreover, Metcalf is estranged from his real parents. His strongest filial feelings are reserved for his mentor, Edwin Alva, the white man for whom he works and who has sponsored his scientific education. When Metcalf asks for a share of the profits his innovations have brought to Alva, his father-figure turns him down in a particularly insulting manner. Metcalf then discovers that Alva is heavily involved in criminal activities as well as legitimate corporate business. Hardware is Metcalf’s response to this discovery; and Hardware’s real purpose is to take revenge on Alva by destroying his criminal operations, not to fight crime per se.

Metcalf’s race deepens and broadens this quasi-Oedipal structure with another kind of resonant cultural trope – the figure of “The Angry Blackman” (McDuffie’s title for the first episode of Hardware), a story retold in different ways by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, Charles Mingus and Dr Dre, among many others. Metcalf is exploited (“enslaved” is not too strong a word) by Alva, whose benign paternalism masks a self-interested manipulation of all forms of power. The only way to counter Alva’s oppression appears to be physical rebellion, urban guerilla war.

However, in the first issue of Hardware McDuffie also introduced a recurrent, elaborate metaphor in which Metcalf as a boy frees a parakeet from its cage only to find that it batters itself insensible trying to fly through a clear glass window to the world beyond. This story’s hermeneutic relation to the angry blackman figure is clear, but throughout the series McDuffie adds narrative episodes to the basic tale parallelling the directions taken by the Metcalf character. Among the first things that Metcalf learns is that his violent pursuit of vengeance damages others, perhaps even himself, far more drastically and directly than it does Alva. He begins to recognise that it is justice, not revenge, that he really wants.

Matters become more complicated when Alva offers Metcalf a deal: he will sign Hardware on as his personal corporate bodyguard with carte blanche to clean up all organised criminal activities in Dakota, including Alva’s own. Hardware will be able to pursue his quest for justice with all the resources of Alva’s corporate empire, but at the cost of his freedom. Metcalf accepts the deal even though he is well aware that Alva’s overriding motive is still the pursuit and acquisition of power.

Hardware has become a goal-oriented pragmatist, willing to sacrifice immediate freedom in the interests of justice and knowing full well that his alliance with power is likely to be a temporary one. This fraught relation is played out over many issues in which images showing people enslaved by (white) technology are a recurring feature. Hardware’s passion for justice pits him against such people, who are shown to be at times unwitting, even unwilling, instruments of crime and injustice. During the same period, he is directly compared with a grim white superhero called Deathwish whom past trauma and present obsession with violent justice has turned into a psychotic killer.

In the event, however, what might have been expected to have been an apocalyptic confrontation between Hardware and Alva is averted by the latter’s sudden death. Alva leaves his purged and tainted empire to Metcalf. Surely now the window is open and the parakeet can fly free. Metcalf recognises that he has always “defined himself in terms of Alva” and that now he must find a post-Alva identity. Some of that identity continues to be provided by what Hardware finds himself opposing: sometimes a secret criminal organisation called “SYSTEM”, but almost always also “the system” itself – the duplicitous power establishment – often, like Alva, most corrupt when it appears most benign.

But as the series nears its end Metcalf creates a complex AI (Artificial Intelligence) out of his own memories and personality. He intends to consult the AI about the ethical and personal dilemmas that continue to plague him. Unexpectedly the artificial construct manifests itself as Alva – a rather comical Alva whose power in the real world is severely limited by its prime directive to help Metcalf. In the last issue of Hardware this virtual Alva/Metcalf is installed into Hardware’s latest suit of power armour as its resident and controlling AI, and it would seem that in this way the filial Hardware is now on the way to incorporating Daddy Alva into/around himself with a gesture signalling the end of true mourning.

At the same time, Hardware’s complex cultural myth has found a resolution of sorts. White power is incorporated, even subordinated – but not denied or destroyed. Now Metcalf will be able to use it as it once used him. It has become merely an aspect of an identity that he can choose to assume or to leave alone. The last issue of Hardware, which was also the last Milestone comic until the line was revived briefly in conjunction with the Static Shock television series, showed a picture of a parakeet spiralling up out of a cage against a background of blue skies in the space where readers had come to expect a preview of the next issue’s cover.

The terrible question of the justice of vengeance, often posed in Oedipal terms, is a common thematic stream in contemporary comics that seems to have one source in Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil (1979-86). Other comics, notably Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, have used race as a kind of decorative motif in a revenge-related structure. However, in Milestone’s Hardware race is an integral part of the structure: all questions are black and white even when the answers are grey.

Moreover, African-Americanness is constantly deployed to add dimension to the details of Hardware’s diegetic universe. Needing a book manuscript as the Maguffin for a plot involving an attempt on the life of Metcalf’s lover, Barraki Young, the diegesis produces Tribes by Johnson Stroman – a hommage to Larry Stroman and Todd Johnson’s black cyberpunk comic series, Tribe. In Hardware’s world the Latin phrase “Hora decubitus” sends us to Charles Mingus, not to Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary. [3] A story which takes Hardware into outer space begins with a scheme to genetically modify animals into super slaves codenamed “Dr Moreau”. In a plot ostensibly about child abuse, Hardware confronts Cyberbwana, a safari-outfitted android with a poorly-realised pukka accent, who is the physical manifestation of thirteenth century Teutonic paedophilia. And so on.

Each of Milestone’s core characters is similarly elaborated, and each is sculpted to fit a different alcove of contemporary And political consciousness (Icon is an establishment man, Static is a wise-ass kid, Blood Syndicate is a gang). Each subtends a set of references and interactions appropriate to the character. And each exists warily in relation to the others, not entirely trusting their rival strategies. The result is a diegetic universe crossed by motivations that are intellectually and politically intriguing – and much more compelling than the earnest “mirror of our world” diegeses that have informed so many mainstream comics since Marvel discovered drugs in the sixties. The serious ethical/political dilemmas that structure Milestone’s fictional world reached a discomfiting apogee in a complex mini-series, Wise Son, scripted and drawn by Ho-Che Anderson, in the course of which virtually every course of action taken by the superhero leader of the Blood Syndicate gang produces unintended evil, making things worse rather than better. [3]

Jeffrey Brown provides clear and accurate summaries of the characters headlining the four core titles of the Milestone universe – Hardware, Icon, Static and Blood Syndicate. Moreover, he relates Milestone’s treatment of black and minority superheroes to the way in which such characters used to be represented in mainstream comics (in the form of such heroes as Luke Cage, Black Panther and Cowan and McDuffie’s own Deathlok). He grounds his comparative analysis in blaxploitation movies like Sweet Sweetback’`s Baadassss Song (Melvin van Peebles, 1971) and Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971) and finishes the chapter by (somewhat egregiously) comparing Milestone’s titles to a range of short-lived “alternative” black comics produced under the Ania imprint.

If his discussion and its conclusions are fairly predictable, they are nonetheless a necessary and fundamental move for any contemporary cultural positioning of Milestone’s achievements. Whether Milestone’s comics were any good or not (which is what interests me), is of far less importance academically than the company’s position within the shifting spectrum of African-American culture. Unfortunately, Brown’s analysis stops short with those movies and comics. Nothing is said about other areas of black achievement that might be relevant in understanding what Milestone accomplished – in popular music and in television, for example – and nothing about the gangsta films whose concerns and fortunes in some ways parallel Milestone’s venture into comics.

Given the size and scope of Black Superheroes, it is a bit unfair of me to criticise Brown for not having been more ambitious. In a two hundred page book about comics and fans and identities, there may not be enough room for a very much more nuanced positioning of Milestone than Brown offers here. There is, however, room for the following:

it should be pointed out that en masse the Milestone titles have proven neither an incredible success nor a disappointing failure. In the few years that the books have been on the market they have garnered a relatively large amount of media attention, praise from critics, and numerous fan awards . . . They have managed to outlast many of their competitors, most notably the Ania group, none of whose books made it past the first issue.

But the Milestone line folded entirely in March 1997, having lasted just four years. No more Milestone comics appeared until this year, when three (excellent) issues of Static Shock appeared as a tie-in to the cartoon series of the same name derived from Milestone’s Static character.

Milestone’s demise is simply not dealt with in Brown’s book. Black Superheroes was published this year, yet throughout the book Milestone comics are referred to in the present tense, as though they were still appearing regularly. Moreover, some presumption of the line’s lasting popularity appears to underlie the book’s chapters on fandom and on Milestone’s supposed contribution to the construction of “alternative” masculine role models. This omission is, it seems to me, at the least a very serious error of judgement which can do no credit to the academic reputations of both Brown and his publisher, the University of Mississippi Press. I would go further than that and argue that Milestone comics’ failure may be the most significant thing about the company, and is certainly the aspect of it most clearly demanding thoughtful attention.


In many ways the major strength of Brown’s book is in its treatment of what he calls at one point “comic book fandom”. His description of fans, although obviously written five or more years ago about the fan community in Toronto, is a recognisable facsimile of fans in Melbourne today (the customers of the Alternate Worlds shop in Windsor, for example) – and I imagine it will fit other times and places as well. Ever since the advent of “direct sales” stores specialising in comics (and often in related items like games, trading cards, models, fantasy books and the like), comics have occupied a kind of semi-hip position within youth-oriented masculine popular culture – simultaneously geeky and cool. As Brown points out, not very many academics have actually talked to fans and fewer than that have paid serious attention to male fandom, except as a kind of Other-Everyone-Knows – a foil for alternative or minority audiences.

So Brown’s technique of observation and conversation, documented in two chapters filled with quotes and capped off with “in depth” portraits of eight Milestone fans, is something unusual, welcome, and much needed. Clearly, he has treated his informants with the respect they deserve, and they have rewarded him in the way of all informants by telling him what he wanted to hear – along with some posturing, some self-revelation, and quite a lot of commonsense hermeneutics and informed cultural observation.

One reason for paying so much attention to this aspect of comic book culture is an interactive relation between creators and fans that Brown postulates rather than demonstrates. The model for this relation reminds me very much of what is proposed in Herbert Gans’ well-known article, “The creator-audience relationship in the mass media”, [5] although Brown does not mention Gans. The idea is that fans influence the texts they read. Gans sees this as occurring mainly as the inchoate desires of audiences are mediated through the conscious and unconscious work of individual “creators” (writers and artists in the case of comic books).

But this leaves a lot open to question. Everyone knows that when a producer turns down something a scriptwriter has written because “the audience won’t stand for it”, what is really at issue is the producer’s own anxious taste. For some then, the critical question about Gans’ piece is the mechanism of the mediation between audience and creator – even whether the creator-audience relation in the end matters at all. Nowadays, for example, I imagine that in big-budget television the mediation between fans and creators is achieved through focus-groups. Focus groups can explain anything I do not like about the most recent series of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or The Sopranos, even if every decision was actually taken by producers acting contrary to everything their focus groups had told them.

Focus groups aside, it is a pity that so little work has been done to substantiate, or even to think critically about, the specific relation between comics creators and fans. This may be because, as Brown points out, comics fans are treated as if they were important by comics companies, and both fans and those who write about such things may assume that the treatment signifies some kind of working relation, a relation that works.

Much editorial time in comic books is devoted to reading, editing, reprinting and replying to fan letters. Selected fans are sent preview copies of new titles. Companies spend money to maintain a striking presence at the (huge) comics conventions attended by fans which always seem to be taking place somewhere in the United States. Artists and writers sign autographs for fans, conduct seminars for audiences of fans and answer the same fan questions over and over, day after day. All of this impersonal, corporate-driven attention must be both gratifying and frustrating for the fans themselves, but I doubt that it in any way reflects direct, quantifiable fan input into the making of comic books. Rather, in the absence of any other evidence it seems reasonable to me to regard all of it as sweetener – a way of bribing customers to buy books, very much on the same level as the label “collector’s Item” which used to appear on almost every other comic book cover in order to attract the gullible and the mercenary.

But, just as Milestone’s failure does not mean that Milestone comics were no good, so also the failure of fans to substantially influence comics does not mean that fans are lacking in taste or discrimination. The importance of fans, I would argue, is not properly understood either as a factor of their ability to change the texts they read or as a factor of the degree to which they are manipulated by the makers of those texts. Rather, fans are important first of all insofar as they are like the readers of academic books about films or the readers of this journal – that is, an unworking community called into being by writing.

We really do not understand very much about such communities, the “readership” of a text or texts. But it may be that the community of readers, of fans, is the final cause of writing. If this is so, of course, it should not be surprising that some fans of comic books from time to time dress up as superheroes. Rather, what is surprising – or at least what I think demands explanation – is how these communities of taste actually function, how they call themselves into being. [6] How does “everyone know” what is good and what is bad in a comic, for example – especially since between any two fans there will never be complete agreement on these questions? As I read those sections of Brown’s book I was struck again and again by how closely the judgements of the young fans he had talked with parallelled my own. We know which issues of which Milestone comics were good and which were not – but how do we know this? We have never talked about it (I do not talk to fans and they do not talk to me). We do not subscribe to the same tenets of criticism, much less the same journals. And probably none of us would change our opinions because of anything the others might say.

This is the kind of thing we do not think about in relation to the readership of academic journals, most likely because ours is a community in which the commanding power of argument is reckoned a central article of faith. But at the same time we know very well that really powerful arguments are made in journals to advance claims we do not accept and, if we are honest, we know that we have accepted some very weak and unconvincing arguments in support of claims we simply know are true. Argument then, does not function to forge community in the way we academics imagine that it does. I think this is so at least in part because our communities are made inadvertently in the act of reading before any reasoning begins.

It seems to me that the idea of a community, an unworking virtual community arising out of reading, actually goes quite a long way toward providing a foundation for thinking about the unwritten, unexpressed values which are articulated in the behaviour of fans and academics alike. In the same way that one is inescapably an “Australian” even if one was not born or brought up here – and at the same time that one is also a “mongrel” in body and mind – so the writing we read impels us into unimagined communities, communities that neither toil nor spin.

Masculinity, hyper and alternate

Black Superheroes begins by discussing a magazine ad that appeared in American publications in the early 1970s. The ad claimed that there were no African-American superheroes to act as role models for young African-American males and its message was that this was a sorry state of affairs. Brown points out that in strict point of fact the ad was wrong (there were a pitiful few Black Superheroes), but he is in basic agreement with the message. That is, he believes that an important function of superheroes, perhaps even their most important function, is that they act as role models for boys. It is this commonly-held belief which fuels the last section of the book.

Traditionally in the United States and in most other countries (but not Japan), comics have been read by boys. [7]  As Brown indicates, this readership is a source of embarrassment to academics, who have failed to give it the serious consideration it deserves. The embarrassment and the failure come, I think, from some of the topics that seem to interest the boys who read comics, or at least from two topics routinely presented for their interest in comics: violence and sex. What makes the embarrassment and the failure more acute is that the violence and sex in comics are exaggerated to a grotesque degree. Cartoon violence and sex – how embarrassing! Academics, like many other people, apparently do not really know what to do with grotesque exaggeration, except to treat it as a kind of simple index of quantity, a sign of more.

It is very depressing that this should be so in the first year of a new millennium when all things ought to be seen anew. And it is particularly depressing after so many decades of linguistically-based analysis that ought at the very least have alerted people to the endless deception of language and writing. Even most bourgeois Victorians understood the difference between Strewwelpeter and The New Ladies’ Tickler – although both are examples of exaggerated sado-masochistic violence – and gave one to their children to read while consigning the other to the underworld. They knew what we ought to know: that context is all (or, at least, some) and exaggeration is not just one thing.

When I was one of the target market for comics, I did not read them (except for titles like Mad and some E.C. horror comics that my friend Otis was allowed to buy). So I had no comic book superhero role models. Instead, one of my role models was Illinois Jacquet. He was an African-American man who made intensely rhythmic honks and squealing noises with a tenor saxophone, and at the time I would have given anything to be like him (except on drums). Jazz fans hated it when he played because of the unmusical, populist exaggeration of what he did – that is, the violence and sexuality in it – but at concerts people just went crazy; and he made a modest living as a culture hero for a little more than a decade. [8] For me, he was right up there with Socrates and Robin Hood and somewhat ahead of James Dean. (Who is Elvis?)

Although I am not black, I am sure that many male African-Americans around my age shared my hero worship of Illinois Jacquet. But many more did not. After all, they could choose role models from so many cool guys – Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, Paul Robeson, Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Chuck Berry, Joe Turner, Otis Williams, Earl Carroll, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young (I will stop for breath here). And, like me, they had all those whitebread models too – from Dwight Eisenhower to Charlie Starkweather. If they could use them. The situation is not different in African-American culture today. Indeed, black America is richer than ever in the variety of the role models it offers for both boys and girls. (And on television at least, one of those models is the admirable Milestone character, Static).

It has always seemed to me that it is not black America that is culturally impoverished anyway, but white America. White quantity simply does not compare to black quality. But you do not have to go all the way with my cultural-cringe chauvinism to acknowledge that African-American boys were not deprived of, but rather inundated by, role models in the early nineties. (In the movies alone: Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Mario van Peebles, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, James Earl Jones, Ice-T . . . I am not done, but I will stop here.) All Milestone did was up the ante in comics.

In both the lists of black men that I have made there is a range of possible roles, from good to bAAad, from hypermasculine tough guy to languid trickster and beyond. To avoid extending this lengthy discussion too much further, you will have to take my word that one can make the same kind of list of mainstream comic book superheroes. Not every superhero is a Big Red Cheese like the muscle-bound, intellectually-challenged and terribly lovable Captain Marvel. Not every superhero is admirable, even. For obvious reasons having to do with extending market share and anticipating shifts of taste, comic books always present a range.

But the last chapter of Black Superheroes expresses some alarm about the supposed popularity and possible pernicious influence of “hypermasculine” superheroes among the boys who read comics. By “hypermasculine” Brown seems to mean a particular kind of superhero common in the work of such artists as Erik Larsen and others who were important in the early years of Image Comics (that is, at the time Milestone was founded). These were big, grotesquely musclely dudes with attitude problems. (I mean, they were always really, really mad about something).

I bought an issue or two of one of those books, about a superhero called “Union”, because I thought that maybe there would be some interesting politics in it, but the stories were dull and the artwork pedestrian, so I stopped. I was not alone. The fad for angry inarticulate guys with pecs is behind us, and the point is that it was a fad. Prior to that fad there had been a fad for psycho-sadist vigilantes (Wolverine, The Punisher). Around the same time as that fad there was a resurgence of the fad for (mutant) teen supergroups that reached some kind of off-the-wall culmination for awhile in Gen 13. There has been a vampire fad (mercifully short-lived). And currently, the really bad thing going on in comics is babes-with-swords. There must be a thousand-and-one titles featuring images of women with grotesque chests and incredibly big weapons who wear very few clothes and chop up bad guys. You can see why that would be deplorable. The only one of these I have read is Ben Dunn’s Warrior Nun Areala – but you can tell by the title he was not really as serious about the genre as he should have been, and I am not sure if the book is published any more.

Of course, there are still hypermasculine superheroes in comics, just as there are still vigilante sadists, teenage mutant groups and vampires (and there will still be a woman with a sword somewhere a couple of years from now when that fad is over). But, pace Brown, there was not much that was “alternative” about the masculinity in Milestone comics. Sure, the most “hypermasculine” of Milestone’s superheroes, like Hardware, were sometimes shown questioning the direction of their anger and the violence of their methods – but this was, and is, commonplace elsewhere in comics. (For example, it is characteristic of the superhero, Spawn, whose sales have underwritten Image Comics from the beginning).

But the real point is that the “hypermasculinity” of some superheroes has no greater effect on the impressionable boys who read comics than more responsible heroic images projected by Milestone and other more (and less) legitimate media now or then. Bad stuff does not contaminate any more effectively than good stuff immunises. And if these guys are dreaming of hitting things and humping things, they are also dreaming of saving things and comforting things. I generally approve of Milestone’s notions of masculinity just as I generally approve of their ethnic politics – but that does not mean that I think that anyone’s masculinity was redeemed by Hardware’s angst about his inability to control his propensity for violence – or doomed by the many, many images of Hardware punching guys into the middle of next week. Culture does not work like that. Indeed, as I wrote earlier, it seems to me that culture does no work at all.

Bits of superheroes, bad bits and good bits, digested and undigested, dispersed throughout their fans, pieces mostly forgotten or assimilated and never one real thing in one real person – just like the body and blood of Jesus. Actually I think the process of cultural transmission resembles what Emmanuel Levinas (not a Christian) describes as alimentation in the sections on enjoyment in Totality and Infinity, and this might prompt us to reflect on what happens to the things we ingest – or, if you prefer, incorporate. Not all of Hardware is nourishing, but even the most non-nourishing bits are unlikely to cause mutation, blindness or hairy palms in a healthy organism. Those bits are usually transformed and excreted after they have spent a little time in the body. Not everything we take in is good for us and not everything stays with us. Most, in fact, does not – even the stuff that temporarily makes us sick.

Milestone’s failure

The young, mainly high-school age, fans with whom Brown talked tended to approve of Milestone’s slightly distanced treatment of superheroics. Fans everywhere (even fans of scholarly discourse) like writing that assumes an intelligent, knowledgeable, discerning readership, and this is precisely the audience to which Milestone’s comics were addressed. Reasonably, Brown thinks that the fan approval he found ought to be evidence of Milestone’s “success”, and his prose – indeed his diegetic universe – does not leave any room at all for the line’s actual failure.

His assumption is that fans and readers are the same thing – or as near as never mind. This is an assumption that seems to fuel the comics companies’ wooing of fans – and the equation appears completed in those specialist comics stores, so like the stores that used to stock model aircraft and boats and so unlike Toys R Us. Anyone who buys a comic in a comics store must surely be a fan.

The stores literally trade on this assumption, for the stores more or less define fandom. Buying at a specialist store can give a boy who reads comics a sense of additional status in something like the same way that buying a recognised brand name can give any fashion-conscious teen a sense of superior status. It can transform personal interest into collective identity.

It can, but it does not always. Sometimes buying a comic book is just buying a comic book, not a cigar. And in addition, it seems reasonable to suppose that the sales that actually keep a title alive are made to a broader readership than fans alone. “Casual” readers, like “casual” listeners to music, are the real make-or-break factor in a popular artwork’s viability in anything larger than a niche market. In creating such an extensive, trademarked world, Milestone had willy-nilly committed itself to achieving substantial sales outside the fan market. That was the reason that the Milestone universe was so “mainstream”: it had to attract mainstream readers, casual readers, not just fans.

What little evidence there is about sales seems to suggest that Milestone never made the inroads it needed in the mainstream market. That is, Milestone’s support was almost entirely fan-based. Milestone fans were passionate, discriminating, intelligent (and maybe even growing in numbers right up to the end), but there were never going to be enough of them to underwrite the costs of such an ambitious venture. So the question about Milestone’s failure would seem in the first instance to be a question about the market for casual readers, not about fans.

Brown does feel that it is necessary to suggest reasons why the sales of Milestone titles were rarely among the top one hundred, and among the reasons he suggests is racism. Not however, racism among casual readers, but a kind of racism-in-the-second-degree among retailers who “knew” that their customers would not be interested in the kind of racial/political/social thing that appeared under the Milestone imprint.

Of course to some degree this must have been the case. To take an extreme example, I know no one in Australia beyond my immediate household who has any interest in what Milestone comics did, or who has even read a Milestone comic. I am sure that some Australian retailers simply ignored everything published by Milestone after the initial “collector’s issues” of each title, “knowing” that their customers would not buy the books because Australian comic book readers were not interested in African-Americans or their problems. It does not take a big stretch to extend this kind of thinking to the United States where culture is even more often effectively ghetto-ed. [9]

But Milestone comics were not the only ones to deal with uncomfortable ethical and social issues. Even film academics are likely to have heard of Maus (1987) or perhaps of Barefoot Gen (1972-73). By the early ’90s, when Milestone began publishing, there was a growing and clearly-defined market for “serious” comics among university students, who showed no propensity for avoiding “socially committed” material, even if that material was American and they were Australian. From Milestone’s point of view, however, the difficulty with this market was that it did avoid typical mainstream superheroes. In the Milestone line only Xombi and the Deathwish and Wise Son mini-series seemed unequivocally aimed at the university student market. I have no doubt that some retailers “knew” that the students who were buying comics about serious issues would not buy comics about standard superheroes like Hardware, no matter what colours their skins were.

That is, Milestone suffered in the eyes of retailers because it appeared to fall between the two markets it was trying to cultivate – too (racially) committed for the mainstream and too mainstream for the (socially, aesthetically) committed. What the company had to do was to find the comics committed mainstream that Public Enemy had appeared to have found at that time in popular music. But Public Enemy built its commitment on its mainstream popularity, while Milestone chose to build popularity on a foundation of commitment, and that trick never works.

A case in point is Milestone’s house art style. The look of Milestone comics (which I assume was mainly defined by Denys Cowan) is distinctive – instantly identifiable. For me this is first of all a matter of colour. Milestone colours are dark, a palette of browns, greys and blacks. Everything takes place in shadow. Even traditionally bright comics colours like reds, yellows and blues are darkened, even muddied, in the overall brown-out of the Milestone style. Now, do not get me wrong. This palette is aesthetically effective. It works perfectly in Milestone’s Dakotaverse. But it works in a committed way, emphasising the grittiness and the discomfort of the place, bleakness and despair.

It is not attractive. It is not buy-me candy wrappers.

Cowan’s figure style is similar in some ways. His characters are elaborated with many light, jagged lines. They practically crackle with tension – perfect for an angry person like Hardware or an electrical being like Static. But those detailed, sizzling lines resist the simplification that comes with big broad ink strokes. They are almost too complicated to take in with a single glance. Moreover, Cowan blends figure and ground into panel and page compositions, where the tension radiates over the entire surface of the picture. Nothing pops out of the background or pulls one into illusory depth. He makes a world of drawing, a drawn world. The artists that Milestone fostered tended to follow Cowan in this, if not in his passion for multiplying and repeated lines. In addition, they often sacrificed figural verisimilitude for composition, making characters appear “unrealistically” primitive: awkward or ugly.

Again, this kind of artwork is in no way a failure of aesthetic sensibility (although sometimes some Milestone artists did draw poorly): it is a matter of choice that aligns the Milestone house style with a more or less committed vanguard rather than with the simpler and more obviously illustrative, fetishy – and quite often dull – work of the mainstream. That is, in many ways this style made Milestone’s comics better than they would have been without it.

But the art signalled that Milestone’s primary goal was to gain a fan readership (those who would appreciate that kind of artwork and, I would argue, the commitment that the artwork suggested). In a very real sense it declared that Milestone’s books were not for the faint of heart – but faintness of heart is exactly what mainstream casual readers are notorious for.

If the art was too obviously fan-oriented, the stories (and, I should add, the covers) are likely to have been too mainstream. For many fans coolness is all, and Milestone’s postmodern retake on mainstream superheroics, as I have described in the case of Hardware, was not really distanced or twisted enough to be recognisably cool. This is likely to have been particularly true for the university student readership that was at the time getting into DC’s Vertigo line of “alternative” titles, none of which featured anything like a mainstream superhero. These kinds of “serious” comics fans are like “serious” rock fans: they like everything but the noise and the beat. Noise and beat is what Milestone stories supplied in plenty.

As I have said, none of this is dealt with in Brown’s book. Moreover, anything I say about what happened is pure speculation. Perhaps Brown chose to ignore Milestone’s failure just because there is no way to deal with it that is not pure speculation. I suspect, however, that some of the reason may be because the disappearance of the Milestone line of comics in 1997 may have seemed to him to run exactly counter to the success of Milestone that his book celebrates.

The point of this part of this review has been to suggest that there is no strong, necessary relation between the quality of Milestone’s achievement and the quantity of readers it attracted, its success and its failure. The reasons that the line failed to achieve the sales it needed to survive had almost nothing to do with how good the comics were as texts, as fan objects, or as moral tracts about masculinity. Nor, I hasten to add, did Milestone fail because their comics were “too good”, somehow better than their target audience. What happened seems to me more like a classic failure of the marketplace to match potential buyers with this particular seller – that is, to capitalise on the African-American youth market that has so clearly had such a profound effect on music and fashion. Now that the comic of Static Shock has, in its turn, disappeared, I suppose we will have to wait another long time, maybe forever, before the next Milestone.

Bill Routt


Some recent academic/intellectual books on comics 1989-2001 listed chronologically by date of publication:

Martin Barker, Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics (Manchester University Press, 1989).
Joseph Witek, Comic Books as History (University Press of Mississippi, 1989).
William Savage, Comic Books and America 1945-1954 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio, eds, The Many Lives of the Batman (Routledge 1991).
Reinhard Schweizer, Ideologie und propaganda in den Marvel-superheldencomics (Peter Lang 1992).
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993).
Greg McCue with Clive Bloom, Dark Knights, the New Comics in Context (Pluto Press, 1993).
Roger Sabin, Adult Comics (Routledge, 1993).
Samuel R. Delany, Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Wesleyn University Press/University Press of New England, 1994).
Thierry Groensteen, La bande dessinée (Milan, 1996).
Robert C. Harvey, The Art of the Comic Book, an Aesthetic History (University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
Andreas C. Knigge, Comics: vom massenblatt ins multimediale abenteuer (Rowohlt, 1996).
Amy Kiste Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The history of the Comics Code (University Press of Mississippi, 1997).
Duin, Steve and Mike Richardson, Comics: Between the Panels (Dark Horse Comics, 1998). [10]
John A. Lent, ed., Pulp Demons, International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999).
Thierry Groensteen, Système de la bande dessinée (Presses Universitaires de France, 1999).
David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics (Penn State Univeristy Press, 2000).
Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (University California Press, 2000).
Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2000).
Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics (Harperennial Library, 2000).
Matthew J. Pustz, Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers (University Press of Mississippi, 2000).
Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)


[1] This may be the point to confess my own self-interest (and flaunt my expertise). I own every comic that Milestone published. In 1999 I exploited Milestone and the Milestone character, Static, in a lecture for Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography. I understand that the revised text of that lecture may one day be published in a volume edited by Stuart Koop, called Value-Added Goods.
[2] Between 1936 and 1938 Schuyler published two fantasies featuring African-American scientific genius in The Pittsburgh Courier: The Black Internationale and Black Empire. They were republished in a single volume as Black Empire (1991) by Northeastern University Press.
[3] If one were to go to Lewis and Short, one would find a conundrum. “Decubo” seems to have only one appearance in all of classical Latin literature, in a phrase from the history of Rome by Fabius Pictor cited by the grammarian Aulus Gellius. But Fabius wrote originally in Greek, so this strange singleton (translated by Lewis and Short as “to lie away from, out of, e.g. one’s bed”) must be someone else’s, perhaps an instance of faux archaism. “Decubitus”, however, has a medical history in English, where it signifies “the manner or posture of lying in bed”. It is a bit of a poetic stretch to make “hora decubitus” into “the hour of sleeping”, as Mingus is said to have done – and a bit more to make it into “time to sleep!” as Otis Wesley Clay and Denton Fixx, Jr. do in their Hardware story, “Trust never sleeps”. In point of fact, “Hora decubitus” in the proper medical sense is a very neat postural extension of the song’s original title, “E’s flat, Ah’s flat too” into new realms of language and culture – and I imagine that this is what Mingus intended, no matter what he may have told anyone else.
[4] Although the “core” characters of the Dakotaverse were predominantly African-American, other titular characters were not. Perhaps the most interesting of these were Kobalt, who was white, and Xombi, an Asian American, both written by John Rozum. It is fair to say that ethnic politics did not play a very strong role in either of these two books and, for that reason, neither seems very “Milestone” – although Xombi is probably my favourite Milestone comic.
[5] Herbert Gans, “The creator-audience relationship in the mass media: an analysis of movie-making” in Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1957), 315-324.
[6] “Communities of taste” is intended to invoke Herbert Gans again – specifically his Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste (New York: Basic Books, 1974).
[7] Even in the United States, there is some evidence that the current growing readership for Japanese manga includes many more girls than is the case for most American comics. The letters columns of Dragonball, No Need for Tenchi!, and even Gunsmith Cats have regularly printed letters and fan art by girls. More recently, the success of romantic fantasy anime like Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena and Fushigi Yûgi have inspired American manga publishers to translate the manga associated with these titles. Many of these currently appear in the magazine Animerica Extra: and I should note, in view of the discussion that follows, all the titles I have mentioned in this note contain their fair share of violence and sex.
[8] Two things. First, I still admire Jacquet and what he did; and I still play his records. Second, later in his career he transformed the superhero honker image into that of a tasteful virtuoso musician.
[9] The ugliest example of this kind of thing in the recent writing about comics occurs in Steve Duin and Mike Richardson’s otherwise excellent encyclopaedia, Comics: Between the Panels. In this book there is not one entry for an African-American in comics. Not one – even though achievements by women, Spanish-speakers and Asian-Americans are given due attention. There is also not one word of explanation about this omission.
[10]  This is not an academic publication, but it is an extremely useful one. With one crucial and troubling exception noted in the previous note, it has provided much of the grounding for this review

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →