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Milestone Forever: Being Post-Racial Before It Was Cool

After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, talking heads started pushing the idea of “post-racial” America. “Finally!” they shouted. “America is past race!” Exactly what post-racial meant was never all that clear. Was racism over? Were we finally a melting pot? Is it cool to listen to rap in public? Who knows! A few months later, post-racial went from popular buzzword to devalued catchphrase, one devoid of almost all meaning, save the satirical. In the early ’90s, though, we had something that, if not post-racial, was at least race-conscious in a way that most comics weren’t: Milestone Comics.

Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle, and Dwayne McDuffie founded Milestone Media and began producing a series of comics with the cooperation of DC Comics. “Icon,” “Hardware,” “Static,” and “Blood Syndicate,” the first four titles, introduced Dakota, a fictional city that was something like Detroit. These books presented a world that reflected Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, where the races lived together in peace. Well, relative peace — these are action/adventure comics, after all.

Milestone became typecast as the “black” comics company, but that wasn’t even remotely accurate. Their characters were truly multicultural, ranging from white to black to Dominican to Chinese and beyond. Characters came from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds and had diverse motivations.

What’s fascinating, and what Milestone isn’t given enough credit for, is just how forward-thinking and revolutionary it really was. Milestone employed a lot of artists who are either superstars or extremely well-regarded these days. Their approach to interlocking continuity is something that both Marvel and DC could learn from. Milestone’s most important, and least imitated, innovation is in its approach to a multicultural cast in a superhero universe. Let’s take it from the top!
Continuity

Continuity, as normally defined, is all about consistency within a shared universe. If Superman knows who Batman is in one comic, he should know who he is in all other comics. If a character dies in “Action Comics,” she should also be dead in “Detective Comics.” As time has gone on, vagaries of continuity has expanded to become the focus of entire story arcs and crossovers, leaving readers faced with the choice of buying what they like or buying everything in a shared universe “just to keep up.”

Milestone’s Dakotaverse, as it was popularly known, played things a little more close to the vest. Events in one book were reflected in the others, but only if absolutely necessary. No footnotes pimping other books, limited inter-book crossovers, and a general rule to deliver a complete story, no matter what.

If you were only reading “Static,” you’d have everything you needed to read. If you were reading all of the books that Milestone put out, you’d have a look at the big picture. Reading all of the books wasn’t such a tall order, either. Milestone’s output stayed fairly conservative. All told, the full lineup consisted of eight ongoing titles at its height, which ranged from six issues (“Heroes”) to fifty issues (“Hardware”) long.

Oh, and all those books? Almost all of them came in on time. No lateness here, folks, they got it right the first time.

Creative

If you focus purely on the art, Milestone gave a helping hand to Jimmy “Jonah Hex” Palmiotti, John Paul “The Winter Men” Leon, Shawn “Luke Cage Noir” Martinbrough, Jamal “Supergirl” Igle, Tommy Lee “The Question” Edwards, Chriscross, Humberto “X-Men” Ramos, and J.H. “Detective Comics” Williams III. That is a small sampling of the talent employed at Milestone during its run, but no less impressive. J.H. Williams III is one of the most flexible and talented artists working today; Palmiotti has carved out a niche for his new reader-friendly, action-packed comics at DC; Igle is taking part in DC’s foremost super-franchise, and John Paul Leon’s work on “The Winter Men” qualifies him as a powerhouse. Not to mention Denys Cowan, who found work as Senior Vice President of Animation for Black Entertainment Television.

That’s not where Milestone’s connection to animation ends, either. Matt Wayne has written screenplays for cartoons like “What’s New, Scooby-Doo?” “Krypto the Superdog,” and the feature length movie “Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms.” Dwayne McDuffie showed that he had a firm grasp on the Justice League of America in “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” by writing or overseeing some of the best Justice League tales a fan could ever want.

The biggest example would be the smash hit “Static Shock,” an adaptation of “Static.” Over the course of its fifty-two episode, four year run, it was nominated for and won several awards, including an Emmy and a Humanitas award. “Static Shock” was second only to the almighty “Pokemon” in the ratings of its final season. When you think back on the juggernaut that used to be called Pokemania, it’s pretty clear that “Static Shock” is kind of like a big deal.

(Despite its monster ratings, good luck getting a copy of “Static Shock” on DVD. To say that Warner Bros. is slacking would be very, very kind. Me, I’d use harsher words.)

Diversity

Oh, you knew it was coming, didn’t you? It’s Black History Month, baby, pay attention!

Milestone was never the “black” comics company. Its creators, like its characters, were a multicultural blend of various races and ethnicities. It stands to reason that when your company is composed of a variety of types of people that your books will reflect that reality, doesn’t it?

In the case of Milestone’s comics, that is definitely true. “Blood Syndicate”‘s cast was composed of black, white, Chinese, Korean, canine, Latino, and alien characters. In fact, in a move that is still amazingly rare, “Blood Syndicate” featured Latino characters of different Latin ethnicities. A Puerto Rican, a Dominican, and a Salvadoran in the same book? That’s incredible, because most companies just stop at “Generic Hispanic Character.”

On top of that, Milestone published books featuring gay men, a happy lesbian couple of the interracial variety (Gerri’s a German strongwoman, Valerie’s a Japanese speedster, and they go by “Donner and Blitzen” because Valerie has a corny sense of humor), and several transvestites and transgendered individuals. Some are in relationships, others are single, some are closeted, some are out, some are happy, some are sad, but, and here is the kicker: they all existed.

Milestone, way back in the bad old days of 1993, had a world that looked like our world when the Big Two were pushing something that didn’t. Even today, Milestone puts them to shame. They represented for all races, genders, and religions. Wise Son of the Blood Syndicate is a Muslim, and sometimes struggled with living according to his faith. Other characters didn’t.

Forever

It’s not hard to see why Milestone is so fondly remembered. No matter who you were or what you believed in, Milestone had something for you. The titles ran the gamut from a comic about a single mother discovering a super man to a young black kid learning what it means to be not just a hero, but a man. Others put gangs at the forefront and emphasized the fact that, at the end of the day, they’re people just like us. That could even be Milestone
‘s driving point: “We’re all people.”

Milestone turns seventeen years old in April, and this week saw the release of “Milestone Forever #1.” This is the story of how the Dakotaverse merged with the main DC Universe, but also serves to wrap up a few loose plot threads from Milestone’s closure in 1997. If you were wondering what happened to your favorite characters from back in the day, “Milestone Forever”‘s two parts will fill you in. If you’re brand new and not sure about Milestone, this book is still for you. With words by Dwayne McDuffie and art by John Paul Leon, MD Bright, Romeo Tanghal, Denys Cowan, and other artists from the original series, “Milestone Forever #1″ is sure to be solid gold.

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