Minority superheroes muscle into comic books New line of superheroes reflects U.S. population

February 24, 1993|By Beth Hannan | Beth Hannan,Staff Writer

Superman may be dead (temporarily) but the struggle for truth, justice and the American way continues with Icon, Hardware and Static.

Who?

Icon, Hardware and Static, along with the Blood Syndicate, are a new group of heroes jointly launched yesterday by Milestone Comics and DC Comics, home of Batman, Superman and company. The difference is Milestone is actively trying to represent all Americans by creating books with minority characters created and owned by minority writers.

Minority comic book characters have been around a long time but they're often bland and generic. In fact, few superheroes tend to be ethnic. When was the last time you read about an Italian superhero who acted as if he were an Italian? Or a Jewish superhero? Or Irish?

Milestone is about diversity. Icon is a conservative lawyer with a teen sidekick from the projects. Static is a teen-ager from a two-parent, working-class home. Blood Syndicate contains former gang members.

Derek Dingle, president of Milestone in New York, says they are trying to create "high entertainment adventures but at the same time showing the entire range of thought through the black community."

This isn't a new concept but, "There's been this idea in the comics industry that black characters don't sell," says Dwayne McDuffie, editor-in-chief and writer of the Milestone books. " 'Well, how do you know?' " he asked himself.

" 'We did three and they didn't sell.' 'Well, didn't the last three white guys not sell?' "

"The same thing's true with female characters. Doing little boys' fantasies with a female character doesn't really work. If you're going to do a female character and go for a female audience you've got to do little girl fantasies."

There's a double goal behind Milestone's multicultural foundation. By reaching out to women, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and gays that aren't being served by mainstream comic books, they're giving readers heroes that look like themselves and with whom they can identify.If it works, it also helps the comic book business, says Mr. Dingle. "It's very competitive. I think the only way the industry can continue to grow is to continue to expand readership by bringing in more minorities and women," he says.

But the storytelling is key. Mr. Dingle describes it as "trying to bring the magic back" but Mr. McDuffie says it plainly. "We want people to pick this up who haven't looked at a comic book in a long time because they thought they were lame."

Milestone's superheroes are based in a city with crime, drugs, homelessness and unemployment and a mayor trying to slow the middle-class exodus to the suburbs. Sound like Baltimore? No, it's the fictional Midwestern city of Dakota.

"Everybody I talk to says, 'No, that's my city,' " says Mr. McDuffie. "There are three or four different pieces of cities in it that we were familiar with. What we tried to do was create a city where we could do any type of story. I guess the best fictional model is that city in 'Hill Street Blues.' They never told you what city it was but it certainly felt real."

Reality is another key to Milestone. Its goal is to tell entertaining stories that deal with teen pregnancy, gay-bashing, welfare, anorexia and the like without being preachy. "For me, the fun of this is making the superheroes the fantasy element and making everything else close [to reality] so you can identify with it," says Mr. McDuffie.

Milestone was founded upon the dreams of two childhood friends -- Derek Dingle and Denys Cowan. Like many boys, Mr. Dingle and Mr. Cow

an wanted to create their own comic book characters that reflected their lives. But then Mr. Dingle's family moved from New York to Norfolk, Va., and the young friends each went his own way professionally -- Mr. Dingle worked for various publications including a period as managing editor of Black Enterprise magazine while Mr. Cowan became an artist and co-plotter at Marvel and DC Comics.

While at Marvel, Mr. Cowan met Mr. McDuffie while working on the revamped Deathlok. They also worked on the Prince comic book for Piranha Press, a subdivision of DC Comics. Mr. Cowan also knew Michael Davis from their days together at the New York High School of Art and Design. Mr. Davis had been working on talent development

programs at DC Comics and with the Children's Art Carnival in New York when Mr. Cowan introduced him to the others.

"Denys has this way of convincing you that the impossible can happen. I started working with him and Derek and Michael Davis, planning what we could do," says Mr. McDuffie.

The four men created a partnership in which all four own Milestone Media Inc., as well as the Hardware, Static, Icon and Blood Syndicate series, which they jointly created. The next hurdle was how to get past the technical and business problems that can plague even the best independent comic book companies. "Now that we know what kind of books we're going to do, how can we make sure that we can do them?" says Mr. McDuffie.

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