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A View From The Cheap Seats:
Milestone at 10 By Rich Watson
This month marks the tenth anniversary of Milestone Comics, the multi-cultural line of superhero books published by DC. I was going to talk about the books themselves, but instead I want to talk about a related issue that speaks to what I believe some of the original goals of the Milestone imprint were.
Thereís been a lot of discussion these days about the need for comic books to be more inclusive: why doesnít so-and-so publisher put such-and-such characters in their books? Itís a sensitive question, to say the least, one I have pondered myself over the past few years. Some say that comics characters should reflect society in general in terms of racial and sociological makeup, and that it would do much to entice new readers. Others say that once you do include a particular group, that it opens the floodgates to include every conceivable group that can lay claim to being misrepresented and/or underrepresented in comics history, with noplace to draw the line. Still others say it all comes down to finances, and that minority characters simply do not sell books well enough to justify the effort.
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For a long time, I was heavily in favor of including minority characters Ė especially blacks Ė in established comics. I thought, and still do, that the need to see oneself represented in a popular medium of any kind, be it television, movies, music, whatever, is a legitimate one. Stan Lee has said that a large part of Spider-Manís appeal is that he could be anyone underneath that mask, and indeed, he wrote Spider-Manís alter ego, Peter Parker, as someone with everyday problems and frustrations any reader could relate to. Donít underestimate the importance of this idea; Iíll be returning to it shortly.
By creating an all-new imprint of superhero comics that focused primarily on minority characters, but included heroes and villains from all walks of life, Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, Derek T. Dingle, and the rest of the Milestone founders went outside the system, in a sense, by showing how a multicultural line of books could be done. They couldíve lobbied for DC to put Static in the Teen Titans, or Hardware in the JLA, but recent history has shown that new characters of any ethnicity have a difficult time breaking in, and are often met with indifference and suspicion at best, outright hostility at worst, for taking the place of the more established characters. (The recent hullabaloo over the new members in the JLA is one example.) Even when a ďhotĒ creator brings in a new character on a book, once that creator leaves, that character usually makes its way into limbo before long, with few exceptions. Milestone provided a stage for these new characters to shine in an environment that allowed them to grow and flourish, and to succeed or fail based on their own merits, and not have to carry the burden of replacing familiar characters.
Why minority characters, though? Well, I could talk about the near-total absence of black characters of note throughout the Golden and Silver Ages, but I want to bring up another point as well that relates to what I was saying before about Spider-Man. Thereís a perception by some that stories about minority characters donít sell because, it is assumed, white readers canít relate to the issues specific to blacks. That attitude carries with it the faulty premise that the only value of minority characters is to represent a hot-button topic, and that they cannot be whole and complete characters in and of themselves. This would be akin to associating a white character like Wolverine with European colonialism. Can you see not only how ridiculous that would be, but how detrimental it would be to Wolverineís popularity and identity as an individual? Milestone did indeed address subjects unique to the black experience, but at the same time they never lost sight of those traits which defined their heroes as individuals: Static has a nagging sister and geekish but lovable friends. Icon thinks about returning to his native home after living in a foreign society for so many years. Hardware takes orders from a boss he doesnít see eye to eye with. The Blood Syndicate feels threatened and want to protect whatís theirs while they still have it. Even if we ourselves donít have these problems, chances are we know people who do. And therein lies the crux of the matter: looking past the surface differences and seeing what we have in common.
These days, while I still think it would be nice to see more minorities in superhero comics, Iíve learned not to demand it quite so much. And Iím not crying racism or anything else like that; Iím saying that when you come right down to it, individual creators of good conscience will do as they will in their books. Not everythingís a conspiracy, and I believe one should make an effort to approach things with more of an open mind if the work is of enough quality to merit it. Iíve failed to do that on occasion, and came across looking pretty dumb in the process. Iím gonna be less judgmental in the future.
Instead, one thing I hope we can see is more diverse creators, not just in the corporate books but all throughout the industry. I believe creators from various backgrounds, be they black, white, Asian, Hispanic, homosexual, male, female, or whatever can only add to the development of the industry by bringing their perspectives to the table. Which is why I love reading about and especially writing about people like Glenn Brewer, whose praises Iíve sung in this column for quite awhile, or Darryl Hughes, or Ellen Forney or Ivan Velez Jr. or Jane Irwin or Ho Che Anderson or Jennifer Camper or Keith Knight or Tom Beland or a bunch of other people I could mention. They, in addition to the Azzarellos and Bendises and Hitches and Johnses of the rank and file, paint a much more complete picture of comics in general Ė what they are, and what they can be. The creators of Milestone, I believe, understood this principal...which is why what they accomplished is something to be treasured and never forgotten.
(And for the record, my favorite books were Icon, Static, and Shadow Cabinet. The Superman crossover was so-so, though it had its highlights. And the cartoon show Static Shock is the bomb.)
An item of note that I'd been meaning to mention before now: Tellos artist Thor Badendyck, whom I wrote about months ago, has a website of his artwork up now - it's www.thorsartwork.com. So far, the site consists of only his art, though according to the homepage, he promises to have more stuff there at some point. So go check it out - and prepare to be amazed at what a guy that draws with only his mouth can do.
OFF THE RACK:
Some recent comics Iíve read: I found the Key Issue of Crux (CrossGen) to be a bit of a disappointment. Stellar art, but bland and uninteresting characters, which comes as a surprise from the normally solid Chuck Dixon (who did have a stellar debut with the long awaited Brath)Ö
Ed Brubakerís new book Sleeper (WS/Eye of the Storm) is off to a decent start. I like the premise here better than this bookís predecessor, the mini-series Point Blank, and while itís not at the same level as Catwoman or Gotham Central, it left me interested enough to come back for issue two at least. And Sean Phillipsí unusual layouts provide a distinctive look as wellÖ
A book I picked up on impulse knowing nothing about but ended up enjoying a great deal is this manga-ish title called Neotopia (Antarctic) by Rod Espinosa. It reminds me a great deal of Meridian Ė teen girl in a position of authority on her native world, in a fantasy setting (there are even flying boats). The difference is that the girl is not quite what she seems, and this particular twist is one I found very clever and makes me want to know more about her and this world in general. The artwork is stunningly beautiful Ė full color, and very intricate. I have very high hopes for this titleÖ
Samson: Judge of Israel (Metron) is an OGN recounting the Biblical story of the guy whose hair gave him super-strength, and itís handled not unlike a superhero story in some respects (the Angel of the Lord looked very much like the Spectre, in fact!). Newcomers Mario Ruiz and Jerry A. Novick present Samson as a fallible, yet believable character who must learn the hard way how to properly use his talents, and the result is a compelling and visually spectacular adaptation (much better than Kyle Bakerís disjointed King David). No matter what religious persuasion you may be (or even if youíre not religious at all), this is worth picking upÖ
Jay Faerber posted on the CBR Image board that the printing problems in Venture (Image) will be straightened out by next issue, which is great Ė I hate to see Jamal Igleís wonderful artwork suffer so. Reggie, the photojournalist, isnít a leech, which is nice (I almost expected him to be based on what I read about this book). This is the only one of the new superhero books from Image Iíve picked up so far, primarily because of Faerber. Nice set-up so far; letís see where he goes with it.
AROUND THE CITY:
Finally, hereís a story I have to share. In the Sony building in midtown Manhattan, thereís a public atrium where people can sit around and read, or have lunch. One of the attractions in the building is a childrenís science and technology museum. The entrance is inside the atrium, and beside the entrance is this robot that interacts with people. Itís no C-3PO, though; itís an ugly looking monstrosity with no limbs, just an arch-shaped head with bulging eyes (a lot like X-51 from Earth X) on a swiveling torso, atop a base with wheels. The kids love it, naturally. Anyway, one Wednesday afternoon I was in the Sony Atrium. I had just come from the comic shop and was reading my new purchases there. Suddenly I hear an odd-sounding voice coming from afar, asking me if I was following the current Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee run on Batman. I turn and who do you think it is but the robot itself! It asks me the question again, and I look around at first to make sure itís talking to me Ė it is Ė and I say sure, itís okay so far. Then the robot starts telling me about its favorite books (it has a big thing for Ultimates, apparently). I recall not thinking about the absurdness of the situation at the time Ė and in all honesty, I long ago figured out that this ďrobotĒ is probably not an actual artificial intelligence, but a remote-controlled automaton with hidden cameras and a microphone.
It wasnít until afterwards that this somewhat bizarre conversation hit me. I mean, it was less than a half hour ago that a real live human being talked to me about the new issue of Gotham Central I was reading, and now this. It made me realize that weíre going about it all wrong. The industry needs more AIís reading comics! AIís have been a staple of comics for years, from the Vision to the Red Tornado to HERBIE! If we could only get more of them reading comics, surely that would save the industry, wouldnít it? Well?
A graduate of New York's School of Visual Arts, Rich Watson has been a self-published cartoonist since 1993, and whose output includes the superhero drama CELEBRITY and the romantic fable RAT: A LOVE STORY. He currently resides in New York and gets his comics weekly from Jim Hanley's Universe and Midtown Comics. Talk to him and comment on his column by visiting his message board.