Hudlin & Cowan On Why A Live-Action “Static Shock” Is “More Timely Than Ever”
On Wednesday, comic book fans were surprised to learn that Milestone Media has returned in what’s been dubbed “Milestone 2.0,” a company headed by original co-founders Denys Cowan and Derek Dingle, plus comics and Hollywood veteran Reginald Hudlin. Though specific plans have yet to be revealed, the new Milestone looks to return to comics — again pairing with ’90s publishing partner DC Comics, along with reaching out to new outlets — and also pursuing opportunities in a variety of media, buoyed by the original goal of increasing minority representation in both characters and creators.
But maybe fans shouldn’t have been quite that surprised. Back in October a live-action “Static Shock” series was announced as part of the initial lineup of programming for Warner Bros.’ new short-form digital division, Blue Ribbon Content, with both Hudlin and Cowan on board as producers. While it’s still early in the process, the show will feature Static, one of the marquee Milestone characters who gained a larger audience through the 2000-2004 “Static Shock” animated series and was subsequently introduced into the DC Universe alongside that company’s iconic roster.
Though Static is a more than 20-year-old character at this point, Hudlin and Cowan told CBR News that they feel a live-action “Static Shock” series — starring a teenage Black male science nerd superhero — is “more timely than ever,” both due to growing changes towards minority representation, and the multiple recent headlines of violence and murder towards Black youth.
CBR News: Reggie, Denys, fans were surprised when the “Static Shock” live-action digital series was announced back in October — it was the first we’ve seen from the character in a while, and not necessarily the obvious choice of a comic book character to lead a new digital initiative. What can you share about how this came to be?
Reginald Hudlin: We’re working out our deal , pretty excited about all this, and then, we get this random call from Blue Ribbon — the division of Warner Bros. “Hey, we want to do a live-action Static. What do you think?” Uh, yeah! “But we want to do this deal super-quick. We want to announce our division, we want this to be sort of the prime driver — we have a lot of exciting properties, but this is the most exciting thing.”
Denys Cowan: Part of us were like, “OK, yeah, right. I’m sure you want to make this your prime thing.” But OK, we’ll take the meeting. So we took the meeting, and Sam Register was very excited about it, and quite serious, and they made the announcement. Big picture of Static Shock. They used Static Shock to announce Blue Ribbon, basically. That’s when we knew they were very serious, because they could have picked anything. They could have picked Flash, they could have picked Superman, but they didn’t do that.
Hudlin: Every meeting we’ve had with Sam Register and the folks at Blue Ribbon has been bigger and better. We’re so in love with each other — we’re having so much fun on this property. Denys, of course, had already done tons of brainstorming of what we thought it could be.
Cowan: Reggie pitched them a story, and they loved it.
Hudlin: They said, “OK, don’t start writing yet…” So I started writing. [Laughs] Everyone’s been just so fired up and so supportive and so enthusiastic. It’s just a great process. It’s literally the most exciting thing I’m working on right now. It feels like some sort of weird summation of everything. Everyone who hears about it, they’re like, “That’s the thing.”
It’s weird, because so much of it comes from what Static is as a concept. It’s amazing, because Static as an idea is more timely than ever. Part of it is just how history moves. But in terms of social relevance and who he is and what he represents, it’s perfect. You’ve got these fans who grew up reading the comic book when they were 10 or 12, now they’re young adults, they’ve got kids. It’s a project that’s very much on the fast track. I don’t have a timetable for you, I don’t have any real details about it, but it’s moving very quickly, and literally everyone who’s in the room loses their mind. That’s what’s so crazy! No one doesn’t get it. Everyone goes, “Oh, yes. That!” It’s really been a fantastic experience.
Let’s talk a bit more about those qualities of Static as a character — of all the original Milestone characters, Static has endured the most, gained the most popularity, starred in an animated series and relatively recently was in his own DC Comics series. What do you think it is about the character in particular has contributed to that long life, heading into this new spotlight of a live-action digital series?
Cowan: To me, a lot of it has to do with the kinds of stories that we told with “Static Shock.” But a lot of it has to do with his personality, because Static isn’t a dark character, he’s not a dark, driven, blah blah blah — he actually represents light in every situation. Whenever you hear his name, there’s a positive feeling, not a bad feeling. He has a lot of the same qualities as Spider-Man, and was designed very specifically to have certain qualities that we like about that character, and we like about a lot of the heroes that we like.
Hudlin: The only thing more alienated that a science nerd is a Black science nerd. [Laughs] At the same time, we’re living in this era where nerds rule.
Cowan: And a lot of people identity with Static. He’s aspirational. He’s basically the skinny kid, the nerd, scientist, who got picked on and then got powers. And then still got picked on, but at least he had powers.
Hudlin: It’s his personality, it’s his attitude about life, and the fact that the Milestone Universe, in a lot of ways, just feels more grounded in the real world than a lot of superhero characters. A lot of times when people talk about “grounding,” what they mean is grim and gritty, which turns into a shock effect approach. As opposed to, just being really honest about the complexities of being a young person and all the choices you have to make.
Cowan: Having to figure things out.
Hudlin: When you deal with ethnicity, with class from an inside-out way — not like, “What are those people doing?” but, “Here are experiences that we went through, that we can just take on a larger scale once you add superpowers.” When you look at the world that young people are living in today, and the diminishment of opportunities, the vilification of being young, of being of color, certainly of being a young Black male, where you’re presumed guilty until proven dead — and then we’ll really talk about you.
Cowan: Or you’re taking your life in your hands every time you go outside. There’s a lot of powerlessness that comes with that feeling.
Hudlin: That’s a great way of putting it. So what happens with this kid when he gets a little bit of power? What are those choices? When there’s not clear right or wrong, how do you know what to do? What’s your relationship with your parents? What’s your relationship with the world? What is it you really desire?
Cowan: And, what does it mean to be a hero, and how do you use your powers for good? And why? And how do you measure good? These are all the things that we talked about in “Static Shock,” and that we’ll continue to talk about in the [live-action] series.
Hudlin: It’s all about, “Y’know, these choices really aren’t that easy.” We really tried to create as many moral dilemmas as possible. If you’re any kind of writer, you try to make the antagonists as relatable as possible, and I really love our antagonist in this series. We try to never take the easy way out, and give them all very good reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing, so you can feel conflicted even as the hero may be winning or losing — because what’s really the win, or what’s really the loss, here? All those actions are the ripple effect that keeps going on — we’re not going to have clean resets, everything goes back to normal at the end of that storyline.
It’s also the fun of having your own universe. It’s great to have the extraordinary legacy of DC and Marvel Comics, where you have characters that have a 75-year history. But there’s also something great about [not having] to feel insecure because you don’t know about all these stories and characters that were created before you were born. I know I like that when I read new characters and new comics.
Cowan: It’s easy entry, as opposed to this complex thing.
Hudlin: And as popular as those characters were in their first incarnation, there’s no doubt they’re all going to be bigger now, because frankly, the mental health or our nation just keeps getting better. When my 10-year-old daughter has play dates with her friends in Beverly Hills, amongst the pile of Barbie dolls, there are some Black Barbie dolls, because people are just less racially hung up. People just want the cool thing. They just go, “Oh, that looks cool.” We know that our audience is really broad, and we’re going to make multiracial comics for a multiracial generation.
Cowan: One of the reasons why Static, and a lot of the Milestone characters, are popular, is that he’s an original character. We gave them qualities that we liked in other things, but he’s an original character, from a very distinct point of view, and not derivative in terms of being “the Black version” of anything.
People responded to that, and that’s why they responded to “Blade.” Even though he was a vampire hunter, you hadn’t seen a vampire hunter like that. He wasn’t the Black version of Van Helsing, or something.
There definitely seems to be increasing diversity in high-profile comic book-based adaptations — shows like “The Flash” and “Arrow” have major Black characters — but minorities haven’t been the lead character yet, as opposed to in this instance, and a few other upcoming projects. That seems like a huge part in the move forward.
Hudlin: People clamor for “Black Panther” or “Luke Cage,” and the incredible response when the “Static” show was announced — that wasn’t just Black fans going “yay, about time.” That was fans going, “yay, about time.” Everyone knows diversity is good. We want Black superheroes, we want female superheroes, we want Latino superheroes. That makes things better. And they don’t have to be sidekicks or buddies, they can be rock stars themselves.
Cowan: Original rock stars.
“Static Shock” is relatively uncharted territory in that it’s a superhero show released in a digital format, with short-form episodes. It’s early still, but how has that shaped things, creatively?
Hudlin: I’ve been lucky enough to work in movies, in TV shows, in comic books, in music videos, in commercials. One thing I’ve learned is, you just have to respect the rules of each medium. Everything is different. Doing short-form is important, and you have to make it work, so when you sit down and click on it, and it may be the first one you click on, it works as a standalone piece. At the same time, when you watch it, you’re going to want to see more, for sure. My job is to hook you.
At the same time, that property is probably going to have an afterlife. You’re going to see all those pieces, and they may form like Voltron at the end of it. It’s a tricky process, but as we’ve been working on it, it’s been really satisfying.
The thing I also love about digital, quite frankly, is the speed. I’ve worked in movies and TV a long time, and there’s a lot of thinking, there’s a lot of masticating, and digital is, “Sounds great, let’s do it now. How fast can it be on? How fast can you make another one?” It’s just not so slow. I don’t know if all that overthinking is making better product. Most pilots fail, right? I like the idea of, “Let’s just go do it.”
Sometimes you just have to go for it, and that’s what makes thing happen. The attitude, the spirit of digital production, I think is really helping us. You just got to make moves.