The DC FanDome Hall of Heroes kicked off with a bang when a surprise panel announced the return of Milestone Comics to DC publishing in 2021. Even more exciting was the announcement that beloved producer Reggie Hudlin has signed on as a partner.
Moderator Marc Bernardin and DC Publisher and Chief Creative Officer Jim Lee were joined by Hudlin, Milestone partner/producer, and Milestone co-founder Denys Cowan, along with Phil LaMarr, the iconic voice of the Static Shock animated series.
The panelists discussed the origins and history of this groundbreaking imprint, as well as the indelible impact and legacy of Milestone co-founder, Dwayne McDuffie. Hudlin also discussed plans to create multimedia opportunities spotlighting Milestone characters, including feature films, animated movies and podcasts.
Milestone Comics was founded in 1993 by a coalition of African American artists and writers who felt that minorities were significantly underrepresented in American comics.
“I was a big fan of Milestone before I became a partner. Like everyone else, I’ve been dying for the return of these characters. Milestone was cutting edge back when it first debuted, but the characters and stories are more relevant today than ever before,” Hudlin told theGrio exclusively.
“We’re thrilled to announce the comics will be returning in February and we’ve made sure that the stories are just as timely and provocative as fans have come to expect from Milestone.”
Milestone co-founder, Denys Cowan, echoed his sentiments.
“DC, Reggie Hudlin, and I are really looking forward to showing all the Milestone fans what we’ve been cooking up for you! We are all very excited about the new books, some new characters and old favorites from the Dakota Universe! Milestone Forever,” Cowan said.
Milestone’s return to publishing will be led by an all-new Static Shock digital comic series scheduled for February 2021. Future offerings will include a Static Shock original graphic novel written by Hudlin with art by Kyle Baker, plus the return of Milestone heroes Icon and Rocket, also written by Hudlin with art by Cowan and more to be announced.
Blerds and newbies alike will have plenty of opportunities to rediscover Milestone before the big reveal. Beginning in September through February 2021, DC will digitize classic stories from the Milestone library and make them available for purchase at several digital retailers.
During DC FanDome: Explore the Multiverse on Sept. 12, fans will have a chance to be introduced to these characters and stories. Milestone Returns #0, a 17-page sampler, will be available to read free for 24 hours.
Written by Reggie Hudlin with Greg Pak and cover by Denys Cowan and Chris Sotomayor, the sampler will introduce and re-introduce fans to Milestone characters such as Static Shock, Icon, Rocket, Duo and others.
The sampler features art by an incredible lineup of Talent, including Cowan, Jim Lee, Ryan Benjamin, Khoi Pham, Scott Hanna, Bill Sienkiewicz, Don Ho, Alex Sinclair and Deron Bennett.
The first time Pharrell Williams heard the name Clarence Avant, the Neptunes hitmaker was still a rising artist from Virginia Beach, playing in a band (with future N.E.R.D. members Chad Hugo and Shay Haley) and being mentored by Teddy Riley. “Teddy would always talk about Clarence,” Pharrell tells EW. “You’d hear things like, ‘Oh, you don’t mess with him.’ But it was because he stood for what was right. He wasn’t movable, and his energy was immutable.”
A long line of musicians, athletes, politicians, and studio bigwigs would agree with that assessment. For decades, Avant has been the entertainment world’s quintessential fixer — a larger-than-life, behind-the-scenes player you probably haven’t heard of, who had a hand in everything you have, from launching Bill Withers’ career to getting Hank Aaron his first endorsement deal. For generations of artists, especially Black ones, Avant was seen as a protector. Or, as Diddy put it in The Black Godfather, the 2019 Netflix documentary on Avant’s life, “Clarence makes sure that you don’t get f—ed.”
Little did Pharrell know that, decades after Riley first mentioned Avant, he would be writing a song that soundtracked his documentary. Now The Black Godfather is in the running for an Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics Emmy thanks to “Letter to My Godfather,” a choir-based track produced and written by the Neptunes, with Pharrell on lead vocals.
When Avant’s daughter Nicole first approached Pharrell about the project, he was intimidated, unsure of how to sum up her father’s titanic career in one song. “I always had respect [for him] and never, ever thought that I would have a chance to contribute to his story,” he says. But making it was easier than expected, with Pharrell and Hugo finishing “Letter to My Godfather” in an early morning session the day after they saw the film. Since Avant’s career spans decades, the duo wanted to blend different eras of music, like the 1970s guitar work of Rodriguez (one of Avant’s signees) and hip-hop’s 808 drumbeats. Tying it all together was the choir, a representation of Avant’s connections. “If you notice at the top of the film, all these people [are shown] and then they would shrink to dots,” says Pharrell. “And then you’d see all these dots would align and connect back to Clarence. When I was watching them, I immediately heard those notes.”
Pharrell had met Avant years earlier, in search of that sage wisdom Riley used to tell him about. The experience left him humbled. “I like to help people versus burden people with the help that I might need,” he says, “but, man, I was just a sponge [around Avant]. Those kinds of people, you just want to sit there and listen to them orate.”
Pharrell must have soaked up a lot. Avant, a Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, had to navigate an almost exclusively white business world, succeeding in spite of the roadblocks America had erected to keep minorities out. His work early on helped pave the way for artists like Pharrell to stand up for themselves. In 2015, the “Happy” songwriter would channel the now-89-year-old Avant while restructuring his deal with Columbia, which gave him ownership of his own recordings.
“[Avant] was doing these things in the ’50s, when, in my own beloved state of Virginia, we had racial inequity laws being passed to prevent our white brothers and sisters’ children from having to go to integrated schools,” he says. “The history of the music business, it was always purposely not beneficial to people of color. And this man was doing that steady, hard work. He was a game changer.”
Pharrell has been looking to change the game too, particularly in the midst of a nationwide plea for equality. Two months ago, he launched a campaign to help make Juneteenth a national holiday. That fight, he says, is part of a greater push for Black men and women across the country.
“Hey, you trade on our likeness, you use our ideas, you pay some of us handsomely, but not enough of us,” Pharrell says, about predominantly white institutions and companies. “You keep calling us citizens, but you don’t treat us like that… Look at us, we ain’t bitter. We love you. And if you love us, then the same way that we fought to get your independence, you should fight for us to give us our independence and let that be an Independence Day for everybody. We ain’t trying to take your day from you.”
Pharrell has been impressed by the response to his campaign, as well as activists who have been in the streets day in and day out, proactively fighting for a better world. He’s also been heartened by the use of Kendrick Lamar‘s “Alright” — a song Pharrell produced and sings the hook on — as a continued rallying cry for the oppressed.
“What an honor and what a privilege,” he says, before attempting to explain in mystic terms what he and Kendrick were doing on that record. “Listen man, God has the juice. The problem is everybody wants to be the ice, and they ain’t got the juice. They don’t realize you just a straw. You lucky if the juice comes through you. Kendrick and I, we just straws, man. And we know that, we’re aware of it. That’s the thing, we lucky to be in the cup.”
Pharrell points to Beyoncé, a frequent collaborator (most recently, Pharrell briefly starred in Black Is King) as an example of someone doing just that. “It’s certainly beautiful to watch her understand that she has power and be generous with it,” he says. “Some people do it, some people end up realizing I’m here to inspire because they’re so good at it. The light gets shined on them and they get used to the warmth of the spotlight.”
As statues to Confederate heroes are torn down around the country, the question of whom to honor in their place poses an intriguing challenge — one that writer-director Mark Amin seems to have anticipated with his abolitionist adventure movie “Emperor.” Essentially a filmic monument to a scarcely documented American hero, “Emperor” tells the virtually unknown story of Shields Green, a descendant of African royalty who was born into slavery and later escaped, making it to freedom before risking his life in the attack on Harpers Ferry.
When history books speak of that famous raid, they tend to focus on John Brown, the white militant who planned the action hoping it would incite a slave uprising in the South — which gives an accurate but incomplete picture. “Emperor” re-centers the telling, broadening this early “white savior” story to include the Black men who joined the cause — or, in the case of Frederick Douglass, chose to abstain from what sure felt like a suicide mission.
Figures like Green tend to have been scrubbed from American history for reasons both practical (obstacles to literacy, lack of documentation) and political (deliberate attempts to suppress stories that might inspire uprisings). Or, as the opening narration of “Emperor” puts it, “The history of the Civil War was written by white men to serve their own agenda. It’s time for a Black man to tell his own story.” But unlike “12 Years a Slave,” adapted from the personal account of a free Black man kidnapped and sold into servitude (albeit 20 years before the Civil War), Amin’s conception of Green’s exploits relies largely on his (and co-writer Pat Charles’) imagination.
Many of the characters are composites or invented out of whole cloth, and the script fabricates an upbeat last act after Harpers Ferry (including a mind-boggling stunt in which Green can be seen leaping from an exploding bell tower, over a 100-foot cliff into the saving water below) that belies the fact he was captured and hanged for treason. No matter.
In the vein of Nate Parker’s ill-fated Nat Turner biopic “The Birth of a Nation” (a powerful film whose potential cultural moment was hijacked by unresolved rape claims against its director-star), “Emperor” has found a Black hero to champion during this dark chapter of American history. Broad and occasionally too simplistic at times, both films look to the Mel Gibson model in depicting a figure forged by suffering who rises up to lead a rebellion, although Amin doesn’t lean quite so heavily on victimization and revenge to hook his audience. Then again, that restraint may owe more to the film’s PG-13 rating than to any particular ideological convictions.
A striking discovery, Dayo Okeniyi will be unfamiliar to most in the lead role. He played a small part as District 11 tribute Thresh in “The Hunger Games,” and appears opposite Jennifer Lopez in “Shades of Blue,” but “Emperor” is effectively his breakout, which makes him feel as much a revelation to audiences as Green’s story will be. Okeniyi comes across proud and upstanding, his spirit resilient despite years of slavery, which puts him in the company of such silver-screen heroes as Spartacus and Ben-Hur. Cross those classic heroes with the Wakandan king of “Black Panther,” and you’ve got “Emperor,” a figure mightier than the movie Amin has created for him.
Given his roots, Green holds a position of some respect on his South Carolina plantation, for which he is targeted and made an example — strung up and branded with a hot poker — when a new owner (M.C. Gainey) takes over the property. Green accepts the abuse that’s heaped upon him, but snaps when he discovers that his son Tommy (Trayce Malachi) has been lashed for reading; he confronts the foreman (Brad Carter) responsible, killing several white men in his rage. With blood on his hands, Green makes a break for it, sparking an escape that will remind some of last year’s “Harriet.”
Where Harriet Tubman paved the way, Green must improvise his own path. With an oddly glamorous Texas bounty hunter (Ben Robson) on his tail and the price on his head steadily climbing, Green heads north, meeting up with many colorful characters — too many, one might argue — on his trek, including a bank robber (Keean Johnson) a bit too eager to see his face on a wanted poster, a helpful house slave (Kat Graham) and Underground Railroad ally Levi Coffin (Bruce Dern), who shelters him for a time. These interactions feel rushed, but then, Green has somewhere to be, and Amin doesn’t show much aptitude for suspense.
The director teases the Harpers Ferry raid at the outset and circles back to it late in the film. Amin imagines how Green met John Brown (James Cromwell), but doesn’t have to extrapolate much about his interaction with Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix), as that meeting has been documented. It makes for one of the film’s most stirring scenes, as Green explains his motives for joining Brown in such a dangerous mission. “This man will never be a slave,” he says. “And yet he’s willing to risk his life and the life of his sons so we can be free.”
Green’s words serve as a declaration of solidarity between African Americans and their allies — those who join the crusade for equality even when it may not benefit them directly — that has only gained in relevance amid the summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “Emperor” was made before the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and should have been released in theaters on March 27, were it not for the coronavirus outbreak. The storytelling may be imperfect, even clunky at times, but it’s curious that Universal seems to be dumping the film to DVD, considering what “Emperor” represents at this moment. As problematic figures fall, here’s one who is deserving of a pedestal.