Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi and Reginald Hudlin were among the winners at the final night of virtual NAACP Image Awards, which honored podcasts, writing and directing. Mescudi took home outstanding writing in a TV movie or special, alongside Ian Edelman and Maurice Williams, for “Entergalactic.”
Hudlin’s work on “Sidney” earned him the Image Award for outstanding directing in a documentary. The award marked the first NAACP Image win for both Mescudi and Hudlin, though it was Hudlin’s fifth nomination.
Other winners included the podcast “Beyond the Scenes – The Daily Show” and Angela Barnes for her directing in “Atlanta.”
Thirty years ago this month, Milestone Media launched and the comics world listened. Hardware #1 from legendary creators Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan was the company’s first book in February 1993. It was nothing less than a statement of purpose, a book about a Black genius fighting his white industrialist boss (who’s secretly a crime lord) to get pay and recognition for his inventions.
But it wasn’t until the Static Shockcartoon launched on TV in 2004 that Milestone made a broad cultural impact. “For so many of us in that generation, Static [Shock], the cartoon, was the door that opened a lot of things up,” Jordan Clark, a member of the Milestone Initiative’s inaugural class, tells Den of Geek magazine.
Milestone Media and the superheroes it developed—Static and Hardware, Icon and Rocket, the Blood Syndicate, and so many others—turn 30 this year. The Milestone Initiative, a program designed by Milestone’s current leadership to bring new talent into an industry that’s almost constitutionally resistant to change, just wrapped up its first cohort. Doors are being kicked open, and the comics line is arguably better than it’s ever been—high praise for characters created by incredible talents like McDuffie, Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek Dingle. But before this revival, the line and the company seemed to have been stuck in a state of perpetual near-relaunch for the better part of a decade.
Milestone Media was founded in 1993 by McDuffie, Cowan, Dingle, and Davis. Others were there and involved in its formation—Christopher Priest, the incredible mind behind one of the best Black Panther runs of all time as well as a brilliant recent run on DC’s Deathstroke, was working behind the scenes to launch the company, as was the media mogul who would eventually be instrumental in its return, Reginald Hudlin. “When we first started Milestone, Reggie was one of the original people who was invited to be part of the company, [but] he couldn’t do it because he was directing a movie called Boomerang with Eddie Murphy,” Cowan says. “I couldn’t believe that he would turn us down for something like that.”
The company was part of the mini-labor revolution in early ‘90s comics that saw superstar creators breaking away from traditional superhero publishers and striking out on their own. “Thirty years ago, everyone was younger, all the ideas we had were gonna be great, and we were gonna do everything to change the world,” says Cowan. For others in the creator rights movement, it was about controlling their own ideas and stories. That was a big part of the goal for the Milestone founders, but it was also about making more Black superheroes. “I’ve had people who were very heavy into collecting comics at the time,” says Clark, “who would just talk to me about what it was like going into the stores, picking up Blood Syndicate, picking up Hardware, picking up Icon. I could feel the love and passion from them.”
The founders formed their company and made a deal with DC for distribution and promotional support, and they were initially very successful. The characters they created resonated. Icon is a super-powered alien who crash lands on a plantation in 1839 and is adopted by an enslaved woman, takes the form of a Black child, grows into his powers, and doesn’t age beyond adulthood. Hardware, aka Curtis Metcalf, is a young genius inventor whose patron is a mega-industrialist and who uses his brilliance to create technology to fight crime. He breaks away from his patron after being denied a share of the profits from his labor (sound familiar?). There’s the Blood Syndicate, a group of people who gain superpowers after a gang war in Dakota City is broken up by police using tear gas laced with an experimental chemical. And there’s one bystander to that police attack who became Milestone’s biggest character—Virgil Hawkins, the beloved Static.
The line sold like mad for a bit and grew to include new titles like Shadow Cabinet, a super team dedicated to protecting humanity, and Xombi, about a Korean-American scientist named David Kim who got loaded up with nanites and became nearly immortal. But after that early success, the comic industry took a turn, and so too did Milestone’s publication fortunes. Static remained broadly popular because of the cartoon, but by 1998, the comics ceased publication, and there began a decade-long struggle to return the characters to the public eye.
DC worked to integrate the characters into the main universe, with then DC Editor-in-Chief Dan DiDio announcing Static would join the Teen Titans at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008; the publication of a new Xombi series in early 2011; and Static Shock as a launch title for DC’s big New 52 reboot later that same year. But despite those green shoots, the comics never took a firm hold, and with McDuffie’s tragic passing in 2011, it seemed like Milestone’s return was going to be a heavy lift.
But in a way, it was McDuffie’s death that helped set the stage for Milestone’s huge return, even if it took several more years. Cowan, Dingle, and Hudlin spoke at McDuffie’s wake and resolved to get these characters back into print. “Derek said, ‘It’s been too long. We’ve got to restart the company’,” Hudlin told the Washington Post in an interview in 2015. “So the three of us have been working…on sorting out all the business, and now we are the core of Milestone Media 2.0.”’
Flash forward a decade, and Milestone is on fire. The whole line is back in regular publication and being created by some wildly talented people. Icon & Rocket, by Chills, Hudlin, and Doug Braithwaite, follows Augustus Freeman and Raquel Irvin as they try to use their powers to change the world for the better. Hardware, by Cowan and Brandon Thomas, has Curtis Metcalf fighting his crime lord ex-boss to protect his own creations. Blood SyndicateSeason One paired original Milestone talent ChrisCross with Geoffrey Thorne to tell the story of Dakota’s super-powered gang war. Duo updates the old Xombi concept with star creators Khoi Pham and Greg Pak. And Static: Season One matched Vita Ayala’s thoughtful character work and sharp dialogue with thrilling, energetic visuals from Nik Draper-Ivy.
While the characters and the concepts are familiar, the execution is very different. Back in the day, you “…couldn’t walk out of a burning house [with Jefferson Davis’ severed head],” Cowan laughs, referring to the page in Icon and Rocket Season One #2 that sees Icon doing just that. “I love the direction it’s going in… it’s just taking all those things [we were trying to do] and pushing even further.” The fresh talent—Chills, Draper-Ivy, Ayala, even Hudlin, who is only now finally getting to play with the toys his friends set up—are taking these stories in fun new directions. “When we have our brainstorming sessions, [Reggie’s] extremely excited,” says Chills. “It’s his first time getting to actually write for Milestone, even though he’s been part of the history for so long.”
Case in point: Icon vs. Hardware, the new crossover written by Chills and Hudlin, with art from Cowan. “The book is about the battle between two ideologically different superheroes and their approach to creating a utopia,” Chills tells us. “And there’s a time machine.”
Hardware gets his hands on a time machine created by 18th-century inventor Benjamin Banneker and plans to use it to right wrongs in the past. But while there, he runs into the nigh-immortal Icon. “Icon comes from a utopia, in Terminus,” Chills tells us. “And then, with the time machine, Hardware has the ability to make changes, to create what he hopes will be a utopia. He certainly thinks he’s smart enough to make those changes with no consequences.”
It’s safe to assume that those consequences will be the crux of the story. “With Curtis… there’s an element that because he’s Black, there are certain atrocities that he feels like he can potentially effect to create a better future for his people,” Chills says. “[It’s] him trying to do what’s best for his people.”
And then there’s the other piece of the returned Milestone’s work: the Milestone Talent Initiative. In partnership with Ally Bank and DC, Cowan, Hudlin, and Dingle have brought in a new generation of talent from historically marginalized backgrounds to teach them about the comics industry. You see the Talent Initiative starting to bear fruit in this year’s DC Power: A Celebration anthology.
The Milestone Universe has had a resurgence over the last few years thanks to DC launching a new initiative for the characters. Said initiative has brought in a mix of Milestone founders and new creative talent, and seen the characters updated for the modern day. And now, Icon vs. Hardware #1 seeks to shake up the world of Milestone yet again – in more ways than one.
Icon vs. Hardware builds off of the events of Icon and Rocket: Season One and Hardware: Season One, as Augustus Freeman/Icon attempts to mold his protege Rocket into the leader the future needs. Meanwhile, Curtis Metcalf – aka the armored hero Hardware – remains suspicious of Icon and decides to investigate his alien tech. This leads him to make a drastic decision that not only alters his fate, but that of the entire universe – and puts him on a collision course with Icon!
Though this is billed as a “versus” book, it doesn’t have the two heroes interacting until the very end of the book. But that’s less of a bug and more of a feature, as returning Icon and Rocket writers Reginald Hudlin and Leon Chills choose to show how the two differ in their approach to superheroics. Icon is more methodical, seeing things long term. Hardware, on the other hand, lives in the now and is concerned with his own welfare. It’s a great way of pitting the two against each other without resorting to fisticuffs first.
The book also delves into time travel, which has been a bit of a double-edged sword. Most of the time, it’s used to set up alternate universes or storylines that rarely have a lasting impact. But here, all the rules are thrown out the window. We have a time traveler in Hardware who’s willing to change the past to suit his own needs, and the implications toward the end are massive. Considering this is launching a major Milestone-focused storyline named “Worlds Collide”, it should be fun to see how far those implications reach.
Continuing the theme of duality, the book is evenly split between art from Denys Cowan and Yasmin Florez Montanez, with inks from John Floyd and John Stanisci. And the artists’ style once again reflects how different both heroes are. Montanez’s work has a sleek sheen to it, bringing an animated flair to moments like Rocket standing up for a classmate or Icon soaring through the air. Cowan’s art is more rugged and hard edged, giving weight to Hardware’s armor. Colorist Chris Sotomayor also plays on this duality, shifting to brighter colors for the Icon sections and darker hues for Hardware. So does letterer Andworld Design; Rocket’s narration is depicted in captions that look like scraps of notebook paper while Hardware sticks to black and red captions.
The only obstacle the book faces is that it builds upon the events of Icon and Rocket: Season One and Hardware: Season One. So if you haven’t read those books, you may be lost. It’s a far cry from Static: Shadows of Dakota, which was able to ease in new viewers. And while this isn’t a total deal breaker – in fact, it should encourage readers to check those stories out – it does present a bit of a roadblock for some.
Icon vs. Hardware showcases the difference between its titular heroes, all the while laying the groundwork for the next stage of the Milestone Universe. The final page teases a showdown for the ages, and I’m more than looking forward to it. But no matter who wins the final fight, the true victor is Milestone’s fans.
Hardware is one of the many Milestone heroes who’ve been brought back following the publisher’s return in the past few years. A technological genius who fights crime in a suit of armor, he’s known for occupying the status of an Iron Man stand-in within the Milestone Universe. While this normally might be true, his newest adventure sees him taking on aspects of another, more villainous Marvel character.
Kang the Conqueror, who’s now debuting on the big screen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is known for traveling back and forth through time. Icon vs. Hardware #1 (by Reginald Hudlin, Denys Cowan, Christopher Sotomayor, and Andworld Design) sees Curtis Metcalf not only start a rivalry with Dakota’s greatest hero but also create a disturbing chronal dissonance. Here’s how Hardware wears a new metaphorical armor that’s similar to the villain of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Milestone’s Hardware is Traveling Through Time
The series’ first issue begins with Hardware researching Icon, who he’s incredibly mistrustful of, despite his supposed heroism. Looking into him through the dark web, he uncovers information on “Augustus Freeman’s” past life as a freed slave and veritable Renaissance man. This leads Curtis Metcalf to uncover other lost information on his target, including a supposed time machine of his that had been locked away by the U.S. government. Though he questioned the device’s validity, he began tinkering with it, eventually using it to send a rabbit back in time.
Finally content with using the device himself, Hardware travels back in time to see if he can convince his father to not walk out on his family. This doesn’t have much of an effect on the future, however, with Metcalf pledging to think bigger. The hero’s next target is his former boss, Edwin Alva, to prevent him from using an experimental gas of Curtis’ creation to inadvertently cause the rise of Dakota’s Bang Babies. The result is Alva’s early death, with Curtis Metcalf taking over his company. Even then, however, superhumans still rise, only to be used as soldiers and living weapons. Somehow cognizant of his tampering with the time stream, Icon approaches Hardware, clearly upset by his actions.
Hardware Has Now Become Milestone’s Kang the Conqueror
Using time travel, namely through alien means, is somewhat outside Hardware’s usual wheelhouse. The actions remain steeped in his usual premise of getting back at Edwin Alva, but it’s also quite a step-up for someone with typically more grounded means. It makes him very much like Kang the Conqueror, who’s far more villainous than Hardware’s usual heroic counterpart Iron Man. Obviously, Kang is known for time-traveling, something which he uses against foes such as the Avengers and especially the Fantastic Four. Likewise, Hardware cares absolutely little about any ramifications of what he’s doing, even stating that he’s not concerned about a butterfly effect. If anything, he sees his time travel as justified, with the result potentially making the world a better place.
Of course, this would mainly benefit Curtis himself by way of saving his family and preventing his being associated with Alva’s biggest mistake. Such self-centered “heroism” falls in line with the ambitions of Kang, who also has no regard for what happens to others. On the other hand, Iron Man/Tony Stark’s biggest point of characterization is that he recognizes what his actions and technology do to others, inspiring him to use them in more tactful ways. Thus, the armored suits might be the only things he and Hardware have in common at the end of the day. Hardware’s suit even resembles Kang’s mask and costume more than it does Iron Man’s. Given this lack of regard for responsible stewardship of the timestream, it’s no wonder Icon is in conflict with Hardware.