*This post is part of our online forum on the Black-owned and -controlled Milestone Media.
In the 2018 horror film The First Purge, viewers learn how the annual ritual of impunity the franchise depicts originally began. The inaugural purge was a contained experiment combining familiar political technologies in our contemporary society: surveillance and technocratic management. By isolating the titular event on New York’s Staten Island, the purge’s engineers contain its damage in accordance with the geographic and racial ordering of life chances in the modern urban United States. The exceptional display of power also refines knowledge: select participants in the macabre festivities wear video-enabled contact lenses that transmit information to its masterminds. The First Purge is far from the first cultural touchstone to represent the possible future of a management-dominated society preoccupied with violent crime: the comic book 2000 AD featuring antihero Judge Dredd and the much-adapted Philip K. Dick story about predicting and preventing murder, “Minority Report,” are examples. These narratives illustrate the danger of reifying crime; given sufficient priority, the crusade against crime can undo the rule of law itself. No popular text offers a more gripping portrayal of these hazards and the struggle to resist them than Milestone Media’s superhero comics. Although it relies on speculative fiction, just like the stories above, the origin story of Milestone’s multicultural cast of superpowered heroes and villains shows how a scheme to make the city safe by using science to track down criminals animates the same desires that have driven ethnic cleansing, economic displacement, and political disenfranchisement in reality.
In early issues of Milestone comics, readers discover the conditions that gave many of their protagonists superhuman abilities: an apocryphal event that the characters call the “Big Bang.” The comics take place in a fictional city called Dakota in the US Midwest. Just as cosmologists use the big bang theory to understand the evolution of the universe, Milestone’s readers unravel the mysteries of the Big Bang by piecing together what happened at this momentous event. Special editions of the first Milestone comic books came packaged with sections of a large format mural titled “Secrets of the Big Bang” by artists Arvell Jones, Mike Gustovich, and Jeff Newman. Upon assembling the mural, readers would see dozens of disparate characters contributing to the proverbial big picture. In the pages of Blood Syndicate and Static, and later in other comic books, characters offer firsthand accounts of the Big Bang as a massive confrontation among rival gangs on Paris Island, the poorest neighborhood in Dakota. The conflagration occasions a decisive crackdown by the police complemented by armored mercenaries. This situation, much like The First Purge — which name-checks military contractor Blackwater and features assassination by drone on US city streets — arises out of the steady drumbeat for “law and order” that has shaped the priorities of national and local governance since at least 1968. While a few of their numbers gain the power to protect themselves from harm, Dakota’s most vulnerable pay a grim price for the city’s progress.
The Big Bang added an x-factor to the constellation of surveillance, policing, and management. With support from a powerful corporation, Dakota’s police unleashed an experimental “tear gas” that included a radioactive substance intended to function as an isotopic tracer, like those used for medical purposes. The scheme was devised to track gang members without their consent, but the gas proved lethal to ninety percent of persons exposed and transformed the rest in unpredictable ways. As a grotesque twist on the origins of heroes like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — all of whom gained their powers from weird science — Dakota’s superhuman “Bang babies” illustrate the systematic devaluation of Black and Brown lives. The death and debilitation they witness undercuts the tragedy-into-triumph narratives of other comics. The characters in Blood Syndicate are survivors from the dominant gangs of Paris Island, the predominantly Black “Paris Bloods” and the Latinx “Force Syndicate.” Each group suffers catastrophic losses at the Big Bang, and they combine forces to retain territory on which they can live without fear of repression.1 The teenaged hero Static also gains his powers at the Big Bang. Much like Isaiah, the upstart, in-over-his-head protagonist of The First Purge played by Joivan Wade, the young man who will become Static only shows up for the spectacle in the hopes of catching a personal antagonist off-guard. Static’s opponent is Hotstreak, a racist bully whose radicalization turns him into a white nationalist supervillain; in The First Purge, Isaiah seeks to overcome the neighborhood’s “super predator,” Skeletor.2
Like the clairvoyant precogs in “Minority Report” and live video in The First Purge, the gas deployed at the Big Bang promised law enforcement the power to assess threats from a safe distance. This “smart on crime” strategy prefigures the combination of corporate and scientific interests referred to as “Big Data” by allowing management techniques to penetrate urban space and city-dwellers’ bodies. Social science can easily become the handmaiden to horror by naturalizing this approach. A recent article in Economic Inquiry asserts, “Perhaps the most natural use of big data in city governance is for management. The New York City Police Department, for example, credits knowing exact locations of crimes, enabling police to target resources and find criminals as a major part of making the city safe. Data makes it easier to hold precinct chiefs accountable.” In reality, public officials continue to elude accountability in the information age by exercising control over the disclosure and interpretation of data. Police forces are prone to employing information-rich, systematic methods of tracking the behavior of city residents for immediate tactical purposes — enhancing their capacity to detain, arrest, and use force against targeted individuals without risk to themselves — rather than evaluating the impact of their practices. In Dakota, the authorities conceal the failure of the gas to serve its intended purpose, and they blame gang members themselves for the deaths it causes.
Although the Big Bang unfolds as a conspiracy facilitated by mad scientists, the incident reiterates collisions between opportunistic elites and disempowered constituents during the War on Drugs of the 1980s and 1990s. The infamous “high-suppression” approach of the Los Angeles Police Department, for example, grew out of desperation among residents grappling with guns and addiction. As Karen Umemoto writes in The Truce: Lessons from an L.A. Gang War, “by the early 1990s, gangs … would become a major target of law enforcement in a policy environment marked by growing public fear.” Dakota’s city government pursues escalation leading up to the Big Bang to assuage similar fears. The Milestone superhero known as Icon, who leads a comfortable life in his alter-ego as mild-mannered Black Republican lawyer Augustus Freeman, feels his conscience shocked into action upon learning that the gas killed hundreds at Big Bang, and he confronts the mayor — a Black woman whom he has been dating since before he became a superhero — about the cover-up.3 Icon and his teenaged partner from Paris Island, the Rocket, began to suspect the city’s authorities when they met Kevin Franklin, a former employee of the mayor who counseled her against using the gas. Kevin was transformed into a reptilian monster when he tried to warn Paris Island’s residents on the night of the Big Bang; he reemerges, calling himself Payback, to elicit the mayor’s confession by holding her hostage. The converging interests of different segments of the professional-managerial class in Icon, with the working poor and their advocates like Kevin caught in the crosshairs, echoes a pattern identified by James Forman in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Locking Up Our Own. As Devon Carbado and L. Song Richardson note, Forman’s study underscores the need to reconcile how “African American leaders contributed to and participated in the war on drugs,” even as “many of those leaders had unsuccessfully advocated for interventions, even beyond criminal justice-oriented or law enforcement-oriented ones, to address the growing drug epidemic.”
The Big Bang represents the human and moral cost of waging war on crime. Other comic book cities, such as Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s film noir landscape of Gotham, float free from the historically-determined features of actually existing urban spaces. Dakota is a city in multiple dimensions, including racial alterity and class stratification. The Dakota universe encompasses a shocking juxtaposition between Paris Island, where characters live in concentrated poverty, and the enclaves that protect others, such as Prospect Hills, home to Black elites like Augustus Freeman as well as the Chinese American crime family led by John Wing, a villain in Blood Syndicate.4 These segregated spaces make the structural dimensions of the urban visible, engendering a stark contrast with the dreamlike suburbia of Archie Comics’ Riverdale or the stylized New York of Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Avengers. Whereas imagery at the nexus of race and genre tends toward utopianism in comic books, as seen in the aforementioned settings and the polymorphous families of the Justice League and the New Mutants, the Big Bang conjures horror by depicting urban space as a site of undesirable possibilities. Revisiting the stratagem that set the Dakota universe in motion at a moment when dystopian fantasies are becoming uncomfortably likely provides an unsettling reminder of how genre describes the differentiation of times and places under racial capitalism.