Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans

Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans

by Jeffrey A. Brown


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A history of the trailblazing comics that broke color barriers and portrayed African Americans in heroic storylines

What do the comic book figures Static, Hardware, and Icon all have in common?

Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans gives an answer that goes far beyond "tights and capes," an answer that lies within the mission Milestone Media, Inc., assumed in comic book culture. Milestone was the brainchild of four young black creators who wanted to part from the mainstream and do their stories their own way. This history of Milestone, a "creator-owned" publishing company, tells how success came to these mavericks in the 1990s and how comics culture was expanded and enriched as fans were captivated by this new genre.

Milestone focused on the African American heroes in a town called Dakota. Quite soon these black action comics took a firm position in the controversies of race, gender, and corporate identity in contemporary America. Characters battled supervillains and sometimes even clashed with more widely known superheroes. Front covers of Milestone comics often bore confrontational slogans like "Hardware: A Cog in the Corporate Machine is About to Strip Some Gears."

Milestone's creators aimed for exceptional stories that addressed racial issues without alienating readers. Some competitors, however, accused their comics of not being black enough or of merely marketing Superman in black face. Some felt that the stories were too black, but a large cluster of readers applauded these new superheroes for fostering African American pride and identity. Milestone came to represent an alternative model of black heroism and, for a host of admirers, the ideal of masculinity.

Black Superheroes gives details about the founding of Milestone and reports on the secure niche its work and its image achieved in the marketplace. Tracing the company's history and discussing its creators, their works, and the fans, this book gauges Milestone alongside other black comic book publishers, mainstream publishers, and the history of costumed characters.

Jeffrey A. Brown is an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. He has been published in Screen, Cinema Journal, African American Review, Journal of Popular Culture, Discourse, and Journal of Popular Film and Television.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578062829
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Publication date: 12/01/2000
Series: Studies in Popular Culture Series
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 812,925
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jeffrey A. Brown is an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. He has been published in Screen, Cinema Journal, African American Review, Journal of Popular Culture, Discourse, and Journal of Popular Film and Television.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Introduction: "New Heroes"

I like the phrase "new heroes." I have heard it a lot over the past couple ofyears while exploring the world of comic books and their readers. It is a phrasethat is almost deceivingly concise. It is a simple enough combination of words,but it alludes to a culturally important change in the way we see our world."As anyone involved in fiction and its crafting over the past fifteen or so yearswould be delighted to tell you," wrote acclaimed comic book auteur AlanMoore, "heroes are starting to become rather a problem. They aren't whatthey used to be ... or rather they are, and therein lies the heart of the difficulty.We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations. We demandnew heroes" (1986, 3). In a world that is continually growing, continuallychanging, the old paradigms just don't cut it anymore.

    One of the ways the world has been changing, at least in the West, isreflected in the manner in which the traditional monolith of popular culture hassought to (re)address divergent audiences. This study offers an account of onecomic book company's attempt to address divergent audiences through newheroes and how the readers of these texts come to understand them throughinterpretive strategies and subcultural practices specific to the comic book industryand comic book fandom. Specifically, this study focuses on the AfricanAmerican comic books published by Milestone Media and how fans relate tothe stories and the new black heroes according to six fundamentallyinterconnectedprinciples and points of comparison. The interpretive strategies used bycomic book fans revolve around (1) their recognition of Milestone's corporateand creative identity as the mainstream publisher of African American superherocomics; (2) their awareness of the debate between Milestone and otherAfrican American comic book creators regarding the authenticity of creatingblack characters in cooperation with one of the dominant (i.e., white) publishingcompanies; (3) their reliance on subcultural principles specific to comicsfandom, such as the collecting principle, whereby the readers' recognition ofspecific artists and/or the potential market value of the comic book allows thefans to accumulate cultural capital within the subculture; (4) their knowledgeof the superhero genre's history and of earlier attempts to create black heroes;(5) their familiarity with formalized genre conventions and Milestone's place asan innovative publisher which retains most of the "classic" elements of thesuperhero formula; and (6) their comparison of the Milestone books to themarket-dominating comics published by other young companies which promotea popular trend of gender extremism.

    For many fans the reading of a comic book is far from a passive activity.That does not necessarily mean that comic book fans are active resisters ofhegemonic meaning, as several audience ethnographies have argued (mostnotably, Radway 1984; Jenkins 1992). Rather, for the devoted comic book faninterpretation is a complex process shaped by inter- and intratextual informationshared with, and about, other fans and the creators themselves. As populartexts, the reading of comic books is interpreted according to the ideologicalencodings of the producers and the socially positioned, fandom-based, decodingsof the audience. For readers familiar with the history and/or the conventionsof comic books, the Milestone superheroes function as a focal point forinterpreting revisionist notions of African American characters in comparison tomore mainstream comic book ideals; and, further, they facilitate a progressiveinterpretation of black masculinity which incorporates intelligence with physicality.In other words, there is a sort of "contract" of meaning that exists betweenthe two sides and positions any interpretation of textual ideology asboth a personal and mutual concept. In this case, the contract is such that theproducers have created black characters who fulfill a need for new heroes andoperate according to certain principles of non-extremist racial politics, thusallowing the readers to interpret the texts in cooperation with the producers'intended meanings as revisionist black hero texts and personally as alternativemodels of masculinity, models which stress holism rather than the one-dimensionalhypermasculinity found in other contemporary comic books.

    Because the comic book industry is a medium very clearly dominated bysome of modern popular culture's most quintessential images of heroism, it isalso one of the most obvious examples of unequal representation. Since itsinception more than sixty years ago the world of comic books has been populatedwith the same type of characters in magazine after magazine. Chiefamong these ever popular characters is the seemingly endless variety of Superman-likecostumed crusaders. Almost without exception these archetypal do-gooders,these modern mythological heroes—Captain Marvel, CaptainAmerica, Batman, Spider-Man, Thor, etc.—have been white-bread defendersof "truth, justice and the American way." Like most other forms of NorthAmerican mass media in the twentieth century, comic books have more or lessmanaged to erase all evidence of cultural diversity. For decades young readershave encountered a defining and idealized image of heroism that was explicitlyhonest, law abiding, chaste, excessively masculine, and above all, white. Forthe majority of readers these caped avengers who could fly, bend steel barswith their bare hands, and deflect bullets with their broad chests were theultimate power fantasy played out in flashy monthly installments. Yet for comicbook readers from different ethnic backgrounds there were no heroic modelsthat they could directly identify with, no heroes they could call their own. Instead,they were required to imaginatively identify across boundaries of racesince the only depiction of visible minorities in most comic books were thenameless criminals and barbarous savages that the real heroes defeated monthafter month. But just as the "truth" and the "justice" of the American wayhave begun to be questioned by voices that have previously been suppressedor marginalized, the heretofore unchallenged privilege of the white-breadcomic book hero is on the decline.

    The potentially harmful racial bias of comic books was so obvious by theearly 1970s that the Black-Owned Communications Alliance (BOCA) soughtto capitalize on this image of unequal identification in their public service advertisementpromoting the need for responsible racial representation in themedia (fig. 1.1). "What's wrong with this picture?" asks the advertisement'scopy in bold letters under the photograph of a young black boy striking aheroic pose in front of the bathroom mirror—a towel tied around his neck fora cape, chest puffed out, fists defiantly resting on his hips. But instead of hisown idealized image staring back at him, he sees the reflection of a generic,white costumed hero. "A child dreams of being the latest superhero. Whatcould be wrong with that?" the promotional copy continues. "Plenty," is theanswer, "if the child is Black and can't even imagine a hero the same colorhe or she is." The concern of the BOCA advertisement is clear. Children areimpressionable and learn from what they see. And, the copy text goes on toargue, with the traditional white images of heroism that dominate popularculture, black children rarely get to see "Black men and women doing positivethings besides playing basketball and singing songs." The BOCA advertisementis a call not only for more frequent and more diverse positive black images inthe media, but also for the development and support of black-owned mediaproduction companies that would best be able to provide these much needednew heroes. On numerous occasions during the course of this study I wasreminded of this advertisement, whether it was while rummaging through academictexts, talking to superhero fans, or self-indulgently reading huge piles ofcomic books. This advertisement, although dated, seemed to crystallize the alltoo common discrepancy between young comic book readers and the one-dimensionalheroic types usually portrayed within those books.

    In the 1970s the two major comic book publishing companies, DC Comicsand Marvel Comics, both tried to create legitimate black superhero characters.Both companies failed to achieve any long-lasting success because their blackcharacters were too closely identified with the limited stereotype commonlyfound in the blaxploitation films of the era. More recently, in the spring of1993, Milestone Media, an African American-owned and controlled comicbook publishing company, began to provide the world with some new heroes.Included in their monthly roster of heroes are such popular characters as Icon, asuper strong and straight-laced hero in the Superman mold, and Icon's partner,Rocket, the first unwed teenage mother to don the costume of a superhero;Hardware, a genius inventor who has constructed his own high-tech armor;and Static, a wise-cracking high school nerd by day and an electricity-wieldingsuperhero by night. Where once visible minorities were almost exclusively depictedon the comic book page as villains, indistinguishable petty criminals,screaming savages, and occasionally as comic relief sidekicks, today's charactersof color are finally starting to emerge as real heroes, as new heroes, demandedby new audiences.

    This study offers an examination of contemporary comic book fandom as itrelates specifically to the texts published by Milestone Media and the particularlyloaded and problematic representation of the black superhero. As the fieldof audience studies has developed in the 1980s and 1990s, in both the class-orientedBritish and the populist American traditions, numerous critics haveincreasingly emphasized the role of the audience as active interpreters in theireveryday use of mass media, interpreters who can, and do, construct uniquereadings contingent upon their own cultural position and personal experiences.However, most of these audience studies, which I will return to in more detaillater, are critically informed by where they consider the "true" meaning of thecultural texts to reside—with the producers or with the consumers. Since theprimary concern of this study is how the adolescent members of the comicbook reading audience use mass-produced genre texts in their personal andsocial lives to construct an understanding of race and gender, I feel it is importantto focus not solely on either the creators, the text, or the audience members,but on all three. Yes, the media can exert power and influence over theaudience but only in so far as that audience might allow them to, and it isthe readers who negotiate the degree of that power and the direction of thatinfluence.

    The research presented here is based primarily on such qualitative methodsas participant-observation, textual analysis, and most importantly, interviewswith several comic book creators, retailers and over a hundred fans. For morethan four years now I have been deeply involved in the somewhat transientand loosely structured world of comic book fandom. Comics fandom is a subculturethat I have known of since I first began reading comic books as a child,but I had never become unconditionally involved with it because I, like manycomic book readers who remain on the periphery of fandom, often thought ofit as a little too fanatical for my own tastes. As a subculture, comic fandom isan overwhelmingly male enclave (see appendixes for a detailed breakdown ofthe informants by age, race, and reading habits). There are female fans, butthey are much less in number and usually much less demonstrative about theirpassion for comics. While there is a wide age range among comic book fans, Ihave focused here on the younger and still the most common enthusiasts:preadolescent and adolescent males. I have been reading the books and thefanzines, frequenting a variety of comic book specialty stores, attending thelocal and national and international comic book conventions, and cruising variouscomputer chat lines devoted to comic books. I have experienced the anticipationthat many fans savor when they rush to their local comics shop onWednesday afternoons eager to discover what has become of their favoriteheroes, who more often than not were left in the clutches of evil arch-nemesesjust a month before. At more than one convention I have witnessed firsthandthe awe in the eyes of young enthusiasts who have just spoken with theirfavorite writer or artist after standing in an autograph line for hours. I havehaggled over the price of back issues I needed to purchase, and I usually lostthe negotiation, except when a particularly knowledgeable twelve year oldconsented to be my price advisor. And I have commiserated with fans andretailers over the demise of comic book series that were abruptly cancelled dueto low sales figures and the highly competitive nature of the market.

    In conjunction with participant observation, I have relied heavily on interviewsas a source of insight into what these fictional adventures mean to individualreaders. Most of this research was conducted in and around the greaterToronto area and was supplemented by stints in New York City and Chicago.The research in Chicago proved especially fruitful because it coincided withone of the world's largest annual comic book conventions. Since my centralfocus involves the contribution of the producers' intended meaning in collaborationwith the consumers' interpretation, I was fortunate to have been able tointerview the cofounders of Milestone Media. I was amazed and grateful atthe cooperation and encouragement that they and their corporate publishingpartner, DC Comics, afforded me. As the creative forces behind a new publishingenterprise, the Milestone founders were quite aware of the complexity oftheir relationship with fans and about the intentions, political and otherwise,of their comic books. I have tried to supplement any holes in my interviewswith the Milestone executives through the numerous pieces that have appearedabout them in both the mainstream press and the fan-based magazinesand newspapers.

    For logical reasons the Milestone audience was much more difficult to pindown than were the Milestone creators. I am now well aware of why JaniceRadway (1988) has referred to ethnographic studies of media reception as theproblems of dispersed audiences and nomadic subjects. There is no single centralevent where comic book fans can be observed. The most likely places tofind comic book readers is at comics specialty stores and at conventions. Buteven with these identifiable locations there is no guarantee that you will comeacross the same subjects more than once. Moreover, conventions are typicallyloud and energetic environments, and while this can provide a wealth of observationalmaterial it also proved very distracting for fans. It is not easy to get aten-year-old boy to answer a question about why he prefers one characterover another when a model dressed in a skimpy Vampirella costume is walkingby. Initially I attempted to organize relatively structured interviews with comicbook fans through connections I had established at local specialty stores. Thatstrategy turned out to be entirely unsuccessful. It was next to impossible toarrange meetings, I was frequently stood up, or when the meetings did occurthere was often an obvious lack of enthusiasm for the subject of comic books,an enthusiasm which I had previously seen the subjects display in abundancein the stores or at conventions. Ultimately, most of my ethnographic researchwas conducted "on the hoof," as it were, talking with comic book readersanywhere I could get them to talk to me—in the stores, at the conventions, inshopping malls, and even while standing in line at the movies. On occasion thisproved to be more than just a little frustrating because it limited my opportunitiesto revisit some particularly insightful informants. Eventually many of thepeople I interviewed became very familiar faces, popping up at the same storesat the same time each week, or frequenting every comic book convention inthe area. Of these familiar faces, a core group of twenty-five spirited comicbook fans from different parts of the city became particularly important informants—alwayswilling to help illuminate my understanding of their readings,to clarify my mistakes of interpretation, to provide background informationabout characters, story lines, and creators, and even to offer their market expertiseon several occasions when I needed to buy hard-to-find comic books.

    Rather than a formal interview, which all too often implies an unequal relationshipin favor of the interviewer, who controls the subject, the tempo, andthe very language used, I consider my interactions with the readers to be moreakin to conversations. In this case conversations were much more effectivebecause the age difference between myself and the majority of the subjects,84 percent of whom were between five and nineteen years old (see appendixA for an exact breakdown of informants by age), proved even more distancingin a formal setting. I wanted to avoid the fans' perception that I was an authoritywith some sort of judgmental agenda. Instead of trying to "get at" certainperceptions that I was developing through direct questions, I found conversingabout a shared interest to be much more conducive in a collaborative sense.Here I have taken a cue from Lindlof and Grodin (1990), who discussed thepractical advantages of the collaborative, unstructured style of interviewing asespecially effective when faced with the difficulties of studying a dispersedaudience and a system of media use (e.g., reading) that can not be observeddirectly. Moreover, conversation based on affiliation seemed to encourage thereaders' enthusiasm because it is the way fans speak with each other, a waythat, as previous audience researchers have often pointed out, is very similarto gossip.

    Where possible I have tried to include the age of the informant, and whererelative I have included mention of their ethnicity (see appendix B for an exactbreakdown of informants by race). Although this study is concerned primarilywith the development and the reading of black superheroes, I did not want torestrict myself solely to black comic book readers. Instead, I think it is importantto consider how readers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds respond to, andmake use of, these new heroes as they are incorporated into their understandingof cultural concepts such as race and gender. It would have been too transparentto write about these new black superheroes as a one-dimensionalgesture against the status quo, or as a hegemonic means of colonizing imagesof black anger and/or masculinity. It is much more interesting to look at howthese new heroes rework existing paradigms by including African Americanidentities within the conventional narratives and iconography of the superheroformula, and to consider how these new heroes reflect audience members'interpretive practices by keying on their subcultural knowledge of the mediumand the genre and how the texts facilitate an alternative reading of black masculinity.I want to emphasize that this study is an exploration of young malereaders from a diversity of cultural backgrounds and how they read symbolicallyloaded texts across, and along, racial lines rather than just a look at howthe comics speak directly to black audience members.

    As a point of clarification, I should explain my use of the terms "AfricanAmerican" and "black" throughout this study. While I realize that there arevery real political contingencies inherent in the use of particular names forvisible minorities within the current social climate of contemporary America(see, for example, Baugh 1991), a thorough examination of these contingenciesis beyond the scope of this study. I do not, however, use the terms interchangeably."Black" is used as a general term of reference, and "AfricanAmerican" as a specific term of reference. In other words, because much ofthis study was conducted in a Canadian context, the phrase "African American"was effectively inaccurate as many of the informants who identifiedthemselves as black were from non-African or non-American slave-descendantcultural and historical backgrounds (e.g., those with a Caribbean heritage resistedthe label of African American if I accidentally used the phrase in conversation).Even the phrase "African Canadian" rested uncomfortably with manyof the fans whom I spoke with because they felt it portrayed them as merelyin the shadow of African Americans. Thus I use the term "black" more liberallyhere than a study solely about race might because it is a term that can transcendcertain cultural boundaries which the fans deemed relatively unimportantto their understanding of the texts. When I do use the phrase "AfricanAmerican" it is because I am specifically referring to a person or a characterwho is clearly identifiable as such.


Excerpted from Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans by Jeffrey A. Brown. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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