The African prince who gave up his throne to fight crime. The muscle-bound manservant acting as a sidekick to the white hero. Do-gooders whose names were prefixed with “Black” to make their defining characteristic clear. From the moment that characters of color began to appear in comic books, these were the narrow roles that they were allowed to fill.
By the late 1980s, three Black creators—Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, and Michael Davis— had seen enough of those stereotypes. All three had built successful careers in the predominantly white comic book industry, but found their opportunities limited by a business that still didn’t value diversity. A pointed, now legendary memo that McDuffie wrote to his bosses around this time mused satirically on a recent preponderance of Black superheroes who all, for some reason, rode skateboards.
McDuffe’s friend Denys Cowan, already an artist of note at the time, understood exactly where he was coming from. “Being a Black artist and surviving in this industry, you weren’t going to get the same breaks, the same kind of money, and you had to work twice as hard,” says Cowan, who had drawn books like Batman and The Question. “We were doing major things in the industry, but also running up against major frustrations.”
THE SPARK OF CHANGE
Outside comics, though, there was a revolution brewing. Throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Black voices had become increasingly prominent and influential: in film, music, and other media, artists
like Public Enemy, Spike Lee, and Reginald Hudlin were at the center of something like a renaissance.
But that renaissance hadn’t yet made its way to comics, where mostly white editors and executives didn’t quite get it.
Cowan saw this failing as a glaring gap in the marketplace—and as an opportunity not just to create his own Black heroes, but to go one step further, with a Black-owned company that could control its own destiny.
As Michael Davis now puts it: “Every Black kid on the planet who has ever read comic books, from the day they realized that every superhero was white, has wanted to do a Black comic book company. We all had that dream.”
It’s one thing to have a dream. It’s another to put it into action. But despite the challenges they knew they would face, Cowan, McDuffie and Davis decided to take a leap of faith, also enlisting Derek Dingle—a journalist and childhood friend of McDuffie’s who had the business background that the other three believed would complete the picture— as their fourth partner in the endeavor.
With the team assembled, all the pieces of what would become Milestone Media were in place. The next step was more difficult, though also considerably more fun. Now, they just had to build a universe.
FROM THE GROUND UP
With each founder continuing in their day job, the four friends began to put together the Milestone
bible, a creative blueprint containing the basics of the ambitious, ongoing, and interconnected story
that they were intent on telling.
It was here that the Dakotaverse—named for the fictional city of Dakota, the home of the Milestone Super Heroes—came to life. Soon-to-be-iconic Super Heroes like Static, Hardware, Rocket, and Icon were given designs, origins, motivations, and core personality traits. Villains began to emerge from the shadows. What started as a few pages of loose ideas took on a life of its own and grew into a tome.
By now it was 1992, a time when the comic book industry was undergoing a period of intense growth. The big two publishers, who had long dominated the newsstands, were suddenly facing stiff competition from upstarts who had been able to capitalize on increased reader demand. This meant more opportunity for Milestone to find a readership, but also more challenges when it came to bringing their comics to market.
If Milestone was going to make it in this increasingly crowded landscape, its founders knew they were going to need an ally—a big one. That could only mean one thing: it was time to call DC, the comics juggernaut that was home to the most recognizable and celebrated superheroes in the world—including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and hundreds of others.
Paul Levitz, then DC’s executive vice president and publisher, was among the first to get his hands on the Milestone bible. He liked what he saw, and was even more impressed by the Milestone founders’ boldness. “Both Jenette [Kahn, DC’s president and editor-in-chief at the time] and I believed these guys had the courage to try, so let’s back them,” Levitz says.
On the strength of this enthusiasm, DC took a leap of faith and agreed to enter a partnership. But there was one term that Milestone wouldn’t budge on: ownership of both its creations and the company itself. So the founders reached a unique agreement with DC under which Milestone would maintain its independence while granting DC publishing and distribution rights—which meant instant, prominent rack space alongside books like Superman and Batman.
In February 1993, Hardware #1—written by Dwayne McDuffe and penciled by Denys Cowan– hit shelves, and was soon followed by Icon, Static, and Blood Syndicate. (More titles, including Shadow Cabinet, would eventually join the roster.) The Milestone books hit like a space pod crashing to earth, attracting major media attention, critical acclaim, and a devoted following.
A LEGACY OF INNOVATION
Much of this success was thanks to Milestone’s commitment to doing things differently. That meant, among other things, keeping diversity—in its most inclusive sense—as a core component of its practices. The company nurtured the careers of writers, artists, and editors from a broad range of backgrounds, many of whom had found it difficult to break into traditional comic publishing. They weren’t just looking for Black talent, but also actively recruited Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, Asian, and LGBTQ creators.
The stories, too, were staggeringly fresh. Over and over, Milestone’s books made waves by ad-
dressing topics like colorism, teen pregnancy, police brutality, and racism. “We didn’t even know we were breaking ground, we were just being real,” says Blood Syndicate writer Ivan Velez Jr., whose character Masquerade was one of the world’s first transgender heroes.
Milestone’s innovations even extended to technical advances that permanently changed
the way comics are made. Prior to the company’s launch, the limitations of existing printing processes meant that only one color had been used to represent a multitude of Black and brown skin tones. The Milestone 100 Color Process, developed by colorist Noelle Giddings, changed all that, allowing for sophisticated hand-painted coloring that authentically portrayed a full range of skin tones while also giving Milestone books a distinctive, immediately recognizable look.
THE END OF AN ERA
By 1995, the Milestone offices were considered one of the best places to work in comics. The company eschewed a typical hierarchical structure, and Dwayne McDuffie frequently sat on a couch in the bullpen rather than an office, creating a space to openly exchange ideas and collaborate.
This was a hothouse environment for comics that resonated with fans. Readers across demographic lines connected with Milestone’s topical, envelope-pushing stories as well as with the Dakotaverse’s wildly diverse cast of characters. For many fans, these titles were the first comics to make them feel seen.
“People weren’t just invested in the comics and the characters. They were invested in Milestone,” said Angélique Roché, journalist and author of My Super Hero Is Black.
Sadly, it couldn’t last forever. The challenging, mature stories that made Milestone popular with readers were often met with pushback from retailers, ad buyers, and executives. There was racism—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt—to contend with too.
And there were changes afoot affecting the industry as a whole. The speculation craze that had driven sales into the stratosphere in the early ‘90s was fast coming to an end, leaving stacks of unsold comics from every publisher languishing on shelves. Boom times were over, and by 1997, Milestone Media closed its doors.
A NEW CHAPTER
Milestone, for a time, was gone. But it was not forgotten: a generation of young creators had been paying attention, and as their careers began to flourish, Milestone’s influence could easily be seen in the work they produced. The Dakotaverse lived on, too, especially in the form of the Static Shock cartoon, which debuted to television audiences in September 2000 and was met with wild, culture-shifting success.
Then tragedy struck. In 2011 Dwayne McDuffie died. He was not yet 50. In the years since Milestone, McDuffie had become a major name in animation, both for his work on Static Shock and as a creative force on DC shows like Justice League. His death was a clarion call for the other Milestone founders, who saw it as a reminder of everything they had accomplished together.
But it wasn’t until yet another tragic event that they knew they had to act. The 2020 murder of George Floyd, and the outpouring of grief and anger that followed, were clear signals that the Milestone mission was far from complete.
Cowan and Dingle knew that it was time for Milestone to return, and were now joined in their partnership by an old friend with the ability to make it bigger than ever: filmmaker and entertainment legend Reginald Hudlin.
Milestone’s 2021 relaunch, once again powered by DC’s publishing might, takes inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement to reflect today’s reality. “This is for a new generation of readers,” says Cowan. “Milestone has always been about the times we’re in now.”