Making a World: Comics, Meaning, and the Dakotaverse

*This post is part of our online forum on the Black-owned and -controlled Milestone Media.

Detroit, MI – An inspiration for Milestone’s city setting, Dakota (Flickr: haljackey)

In Milestone Forever, a documentary short produced by Dr. Jonathan Gayles, Dwayne McDuffie argued that one problem that defined depiction of Black characters was their burden to represent all Black people. He explained this was “… way too much for any character to hold.” As they created Milestone Media’s titles, the creative team attempted to present “a range of characters, different socioeconomics, different backgrounds, different ages, as much of a range of opinion as you can in a little tiny model of the world.” This insight offered by McDuffie and its relation to the success of Milestone Media is worth reconsidering. While critics characterized Milestone as a Black comic book company, this is not how the creators described it. Indeed, McDuffie explained that he was inclined to make more contemporary comics, and that meant that Dakota, the universe that the milestone characters inhabited, became the vessel for a series of books that presented a world that was wider than one available to audiences at that time.

This decision calls our attention to the possibility that the one legacy of Milestone Media that we have not considered carefully enough is its unique geography. Superhero comic book geography is rooted in a particular reading of the urban imaginary, and Milestone offered something different.

The transformation of the United States from a rural to urban society shaped the relationship between urban space and comics. As Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling point out in the introduction to Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture, and Sequence, “… comics are inseparably tied to the notion of the ‘city.’” In the years before the first comic book superhero, newspaper comic strips were filled with racist caricatures based on urban ethnic groups. The superhero is often lauded as something different. Countless scholars have argued that the Jewish identity of the creators was infused within the character. Danny Fingeroth argued that comic readers, many “children and grandchildren of immigrant(s),” use the characters as a “symbolic reenactment of their own ambivalent feelings about where their roots lay and where their lives in America were taking them.” Superman was a “New Deal” whose early adventures centered on saving a wrongfully convicted death row inmate, preventing the United States from being drawn into a war, and punishing an abusive spouse. Yet, the reality is that Superman’s identity and his actions balanced dreams of assimilation with their message of antifascism. As Martin Lund explains, “By championing isolationism at first and then fighting for democracy’s survival against, ‘un-American’ ideals and activities… Superman patriotically mirrored national sentiment as it shifted from isolation to invention.” The Golden Age heroes that followed Superman merely continued this process, and the message of promoting a hegemonic view of American culture persisted. By the 1960s, the superhero revival revamped the old concept to promote nationalism and community in a Cold War geopolitical context. Civil rights activists challenged racism and prompted Black superheroes. These new Black characters always had elements that marked them as Black, but not American. The most famous Black superhero, the Black Panther epitomizes this reality. T’Challa is an African King from a mystical African Kingdom. Often lauded as Afrofuturist in its meaning, Black Panther’s African origins signaled to white readers in the 1960s that they did not need to grapple with the complexities of the African American experience. Those characters that were African American, such as The Falcon (Sam Wilson) or Black Goliath (Bill Foster), acted in a manner that reassured white readers but struggled to provide perspectives that resonated with the realities of Black life in the United States. The liberalism that defined Black superheroes could address overt racism, but rejected exploration of structural issues that defined post-1960s racial politics.

In crafting the Dakotaverse, Milestone Media opened the door to a diverse world that was a result of the modern urban experience. Arguably an amalgamation of many US cities, Detroit, with its varied African American community and complicated urban industrial legacy, seemed a powerful influence on Milestone’s Dakota. Indeed, we can “read” Blood Syndicate, Hardware, Icon, and Static as explorations of the urban imaginary that sought to bridge the gap between comic book tropes and the “city as field of experience.” Milestone’s characters, setting, and context provided a discourse about Blackness and urbanism in the American experience at a time when debates about respecting and celebrating the many cultures that created the United States dominated headlines. The culture of the 1990s placed concerns about what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. referred to as “politics of identity” that undermined national unity against critical reassessment of the human and cultural cost of settlement myths. In this landscape, debates about the legacy of Christopher Columbus, the fights over national history standards, and urgency to embrace a new Black culture opened the door to new possibilities.

The Dakotaverse gave form to the reality of multicultural transformation in the United States. Each title provided a different vision of Blackness by incorporating a nuanced reading of Black history and culture. Curtis Metcalf’s Hardware revisits the trope of the “Angry Black Man,” but recognizes that the narrative of “systemic barriers” that subvert African American achievement cannot be ignored. Hardware’s battle with Edwin Alva is a vehicle to understand frustrations linked to the realization that segregation’s end did not stop systemic injustice. For African Americans that dared strive for more, Metcalf’s story resonated. As he explains in the first issue, “The boy grew into a man, who spent many years bumping his head against a similar barrier: A ceiling of glass unseen and incomprehensible to him.”

In Icon, the conservatism within the Black community is personified by Augustus Freeman IV. The generational dialogue that defines the evolution of African American life is given a new form. “I met a young girl recently, impoverished, impassioned, angry. She sees the world very differently than I do.” The Icon and Rocket partnership is defined along ideological grounds, as Icon describes himself as “more of Booker T. Washington man …” even as he embarks on Rocket’s vision of superhero for the people. In their relationship, a historical debate is given fresh eyes.

In Static, Virgil Hawkins provides a fresh take on the teen superhero. Static confronted the reality of Black youth culture in ways that were real and hence, controversial. While his home was in many ways a haven, the fact of the dangers facing Black youth made these stories resonate. Static encountered supervillains and his doubts, but the struggles against urban violence, drug abuse, and emerging sexuality were real and poignant. As McDuffie explained in the first issue commentary, “Life as a Black teenager has as many pitfalls and cliffhangers as all the INDIANA Jones movies put together.” The goal from the beginning was that Virgil and Static “are the same person and his troubles as hero and teen ran the gambit.” A litany provided in the first issue made clear that the real world was not far away. Virgil facing the problems of “kids abandoned by crack mothers, Black Anti-Semitism, (and) gay-bashing” shared equal time with fighting supervillains.

Finally, Blood Syndicate captured the struggle of inner-city Black America. Tonally distinct from the other titles, even the editorial voice regarded this title with apprehension. Admitting, “we’re a little nervous about this one,” the first issue took the concept of a superhero “team” and merged it with the reality of street gangs struggling to protect themselves and their “turf” from a society that left them behind. Blood Syndicate was family forged by adversity. With characters whose identity mapped a range of underrepresented racial and sexual identities, the theme of finding acceptance within was woven throughout the series.

The willingness to recognize the American experience through the eyes of the contemporary audience defines the legacy of Milestone. In Dakota, Milestone moved the historic relationship between the hero and the city forward. Milestone offered a place that foreshadowed the reality of culture, identity, and modernity that informed the 21st century. They offered a superhero geography that matched the complexity of the world the majority of us live in. This vision remains important because it continues to be underappreciated. By drawing on a context and experience defined beyond an imagined urbanism of the 19th century, they created a world that feels real today.

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Julian Chambliss

Julian Chambliss is Professor of English at Michigan State University. His teaching and research focus on urban history and culture in the United States. He is the co-editor of Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, which explores the changing depiction of superheroes from the comic books of the 1930s to the cinematic present. Follow him on Twitter @JulianChambliss.