Bin There, Found That: Milestone ComicsA column article, Bin There Found That by: Chris Wunderlich
It seems like every generation gets at least one decent superhero cartoon. My younger brother got Teen Titans, my little cousin got The Sensational Spiderman and I got ... well, the motherlode. I was raised on a steady dose of Batman: The Animated Series, Spiderman, Superman and (perhaps most importantly) X-Men. Eventually all of these came to an end, but before they did, another little mystery popped onto my radar—Static Shock. I had no idea who this superhero was, where he came from or even which comics I might be able to find him in. Years later, I discovered that if I’d simply switched the channel over to the ever present Fresh Prince of Bel-Air re-runs, I might have glimpsed Static’s portrait (the cover to his first issue) hanging in Will’s pool house. Go ahead and see if you can spot it. You’ll notice there are three other pictures hanging around it, Icon, Hardware and the Blood Syndicate. If you are completely unfamiliar with these characters and find yourself wondering what they’re doing hanging around with the likes of the Justice League and Will Smith, you’ve probably never read a book published by Milestone Media. When it comes to awesome characters, we’ll never forget our Batmen, Spidermen, Supermen or X-Men, but give Milestone’s output a chance and I guarantee they’ll be added to the list.
I first encountered a number of Milestone books in a local shop’s quarter bin. I’d frequented this bin plenty of times, usually only grabbing a few overstocked Marvel and DC titles. I almost always skimmed the small Milestone section, writing it off as some cheap 90’s stuff I didn’t want or need. As I gradually whittled the box down, getting less and less picky, I considered grabbing a Milestone book or two, but fell victim to some cheesy Excalibur issues instead. It was only when the shop was closing down to move locations that I gave Milestone books their due. The quarter bin became a dime bin, and I grabbed everything that looked like it might entertain me in the slightest. At worst, I figured the Milestone books would be overly preachy about race issues and would read like some after-school specials. At best … I didn’t really know what to expect. I won’t dive too deeply into plot or the Milestone universe, but it’s worth mentioning that the Milestone books sucked me in and never let me go. They cranked out great original ideas (as well as great riffs on some overly familiar concepts), amazing colouring, a training ground for some truly fantastic artists and some of the best dialogue written in comic book form. So why should you snatch up anything a buck or cheaper with the Milestone logo on it? Let’s take a look.
Written by Dwayne McDuffie and Robert L. Washington III, Pencilled by John Paul Leon, Inked by Steve Mitchell, colours by Noelle C. Giddings
There’s a lot to be said for expectations. Bargain bin divers rely on these expectations to filter out the bad and hone in on the good. What does the cover look like? What can we assume the book is about based on the cover? Are the creator’s names on the cover? Do we like those creators? Do we need this issue? A keen collector asks all these questions, sometimes in a fraction of a second as they flip through long-boxes. When one comes across this first issue of Static, what do they think?
If you’re at least vaguely familiar with the character of Static Shock (as I was), either from the aforementioned cartoon or the short lived new 52 series, you’ll notice this guy looks a tad different. For one thing, he’s Static, sans “shock.” There’s also a baseball cap in place of his trademark dreadlocks. Some may think (again, perhaps in a fraction of a second as they flip through) that the cover’s art looks dated, that the character’s original incarnation is irrelevant or that they need to collect this character’s first appearance. This is issue number one and I’ve seen it in a few bargain bins. Ignore those negative expectations and pick this book up!
Inside, we find out that Dwayne McDuffie and Robert L. Washington III will be our writers with John Paul Leon handling the pencils, Steve Mitchell on inks and Noelle C. Giddings on colours. Wait a sec. John Paul Leon? If you read Earth X or took a look at some of the better DMZ covers, you know his work and you know it’s brilliant. Before I read this issue from back to front, I flipped through a few pages. The artwork looks like sequential graffiti, but more accessible. The inks range from thick to thin and add perfect shape to every line. Even the colouring has a graffiti vibe. This stuff is super-detailed in all the right ways. It gives off a very early 90’s hip-hop feel, which I imagine is exactly what they were going for.
"And almost every page is this good.”
The story gets off to a roaring start as well. Virgil and his superhero alter-ego Static are introduced to us as if we’re in the second arc of the series. The usual first issue groundwork stuff is very carefully (and cleverly) hidden here. We meet the love-interest, the villain, the supporting cast and it all feels very natural. I’d compare the experience to meeting a new group of friends. Everyone there already knows each other, but when you’re plopped right in the middle of their conversations, situations and relationships you still want to know more. Similarly, Static #1 is a first issue done right. By the end of the issue you know the score, the players and can’t wait to get on to the next part. The plot may strike you as nothing overly fancy, and snarky readers may assume (again with the expectations) that we’re being given an African-American riff on Spider-man. The question for them is, “Did you read the dialogue”?
“They don’t give Oscars to comic books-- silly Virgil.”
I can’t say I’ve ever read better teenager-focused dialogue. Everyone sounds realistic, as if they aren’t hashing out lines for the sake of advancing the plot, but naturally talking to one another. We aren’t fed anything typical, clichéd or even poetic. It’s all very down to earth and at times very funny. We got some hokey stuff here and there; at times a bad cliché or a weird quip during battle, but it feels like the characters would actually say that sort of thing.
“I love that they use the word cleave here.”
With all that being said I barely get to talk about the little things I love about this book. If you pick up this book I urge you to read the columns throughout. The Company Line gives great insight into the inner-working of the company and makes it seem like your favourite indie band reporting on their first tour. They don’t call this book Static for nothing, there’s energy between the pages! Take the time and read the Feedback column — young Milestone’s excitement is tangible! A list is provided in the back listing things Static will face in upcoming issues and with topics like “crack mothers” and “teenage diet obsession” one might assume this book would offer nothing but preachy lessons wrapped in racial tension. One might assume, but one would be wrong. If Static isn’t proof enough that these writers know how to handle their material, go out and grab some more bargain-bin Milestone reads, like ...
Written by Adam Blaustein and Yves Fezzani, Pencilled by J.H. Williams III, Inked by Jimmy Palmiotti, Coloured by J. Brown
Let’s re-examine our expectations. This book is called Deathwish. The cover features a tough-looking, masked, trench-coat wearing thug wielding a pistol. The subtitle? “Paint the Town Dead.” I also chose issue 2 of a 4 issue mini-series. This is bargain-bin hunting and that’s the way it goes. Now what would our expectations be? “A Punisher clone” might be a popular answer. “Something gory and stupid” might be another. “Typical 90’s crud, and who cares because we’re coming in on issue 2 and won’t be able to follow it anyways” is another option.
I won’t say that this issue shattered all expectations, but it certainly has its share of originality. In fact, break some comic reading rules right off the bat and flip right to the last page (for the sake of checking up on the credits). Adam Blaustein writes with plot assists from Yves Fezzani. I’m not familiar with either writer, so I had no expectations going into the issue. Jimmy Palmiotti inks, J. Brown provides painted colour and all is well. Oh, and J.H. Williams III pencils. That’s right. Sure, it’s a younger, still blooming Williams, but already you can form some expectations.
“Honestly, I just wanted to show you how Williams draws a rainy day.”
In the first scene of the book, we find out Deathwish is the killing machine we expected, and he’s targeting johns who utilize trans-gender brothels. We’re then introduced to the narrator (who surprisingly isn’t Deathwish), but a pre-op transsexual police lieutenant named Marisa. I automatically assumed we’d be dealing with some heavy-handed messages about tolerance and such, but quickly found the book’s topic handled with a healthy dose of levity. There certainly are themes of acceptance, but not at the expense of a great story.
The character of Marisa is instantly interesting. She’s teamed up with an outspokenly offensive sidekick, Thorne, who is certainly ignorant and (as described) “a puke,” but not entirely evil. The two were acquaintances when Marisa still went by Marty and we get some great interactions as a result. Marisa’s lover is introduced and the world of characters we dive into is something rarely seen in comics. These aren’t stereotypes meant to represent two sides of an issue. Everyone feels real, and again I’m convinced Milestone knows how to handle their material without a heavy hand.
“See? He’s a puke.”
Of course, things do get serious what with a psychopathic serial killer (perhaps the least interesting character) on the loose, and Deathwish forming an uneasy alliance with Marisa. I won’t go too deep into the plot, but considering this is the second issue in a 4 issue mini, I was completely satisfied with the amount of information provided and never felt lost.
There isn’t much to say about the artwork, except that it’s J.H. Williams III. This is 1995 Williams though, and he provides solid work that looks like it would fit in with the Valiant house-style. Nothing groundbreaking here, but the choice of angles, the layout of panels and the expression of each character is still way above average. I love to see the evolution of an artist, especially when it’s someone as prolific as Williams in a book as ignored and (if you can find it) inexpensive as Deathwish.
“An early example of Williams’ awesome layouts.”
Like in Static I urge anyone that buys this to read the columns. Here we get a great article in The Company Line and reading the solicitations for the other Milestone titles is always a joy. It’s nice to see the company in their prime with plenty of titles coming out and plenty of new talent coming on board.
Deathwish may have some elements you expect, but I guarantee the book has plenty of surprises and left me scraping every bargain bin I could find for the rest of the issues (and I did find them eventually!).
Blood Syndicate #18
Written by Nat Gertler, Pencilled by Humberto Ramos, Inked by Mike Gustovich, Coloured by J. Scott J.
Blood Syndicate was Milestone’s flagship team title. They were described as a gang, not a team, and the book often felt that way. The characters were often together out of necessity and dependence. Leadership was in constant flux. Nobody played by the rules, and by and large if these characters were going to appear in another title they’d all seem like villains. The regular artist on the series was also one of my favourite superhero artists of all time, ChrisCross. I say all this in hopes that you’ll go out and track down some cheap Blood Syndicate issues, but to be fair, none of that information applies to this issue.
Issue 18 of the series is a solo issue for the character DMZ. Readers of previous issues will know that DMZ is a mysterious, always silent (as far as I’ve read) character that hangs around and rarely gets the spotlight. Come into this issue knowing nothing about the character or series, as is often the case with bargain-bin finds, and you’ll probably leave in a similar state. Why then would I feature such a unique, uninformative issue? I chose this because we get a fantastic story, and it works even better if you know nothing because the character feels the same way.
I generally dislike revealing too much about the plot of a specific issue, but in this case I’ll make an exception. The story opens with DMZ standing vigil over the city. Suddenly a flash of light appears in the sky. Upon investigating, DMZ finds himself caught between a band of mercenaries and their prey—an escaped experimental robot. The mercenaries rain fire at their target as DMZ watches the bullets fall on a local basketball court, killing innocents (including, to the reader’s shock, a number of children).
“A terrifying view on mindless violence and its victims.”
Seeing this brutality, DMZ attacks the mercenaries, eventually destroying their helicopter in the process. This destruction isn’t played up as the heroic feat that saves the day, however, as the helicopter’s explosion leads to more innocent lives lost. In graphic (but thankfully not too graphic) detail we see the chaos that has torn through a small inner-city community. It is a frightening scene, made all the more horrific by DMZ’s seeming lack of heroics.
“Why doesn’t DMZ turn around and help the victims of this tragedy? A simple action makes me want to read more about this character.”
He approaches the downed robot that seemed to be the initial cause of the conflict and destroys it as a woman crawls from the wreckage and asks, “Why did this happen? Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys?” For her, had there been a clear conflict and an explanation of the ensuing chaos, coping with the tragedy might have been possible, but the random mindless devastation leaves both characters and readers crushed. Powerful stuff.
Nat Gertler wrote this issue, Mike Gustovich inked, J. Scott J. provided the painted colour and in keeping with our “hey I know that name!” theme of artists, Humberto Ramos provided the beautiful pencils. Unlike the other artists I’ve mentioned today, I didn’t come into this issue a fan. In fact, I don’t care much for Ramos’ art these days. That being said, his work here blew me away. The action was dynamic, the characters much less stylized than his modern work and the detail rich. I was especially impressed with his interpretation of DMZ. His actions and expressions were obviously meant to be as mysterious as they’d always been, but Ramos still managed to fit great amounts of body language into the character. I’ll be searching the bargain-bins for more of Ramos’ early art thanks to this issue.
As for extras, we get another great edition of The Company Line and a nice selection of house ads. I always appreciate Milestone house ads—I simply can’t get enough of their art! Denys Cowan and John Paul Leon both provide pin-up worthy ads, and when we flip to the ad for DC’s Zero Hour it looks downright lame in comparison.
Have I proved my point yet? Milestone comics are able to handle the heaviest of topics without getting preachy. They provide both art and story by some of the best in the business at the time, whether house-hold names or unfamiliar names to the modern reader. I’ve been able to find plenty of cheap issues, every one of them well worth a quarter. In fact, I’ve barely scratched the surface with these three issues. Go out and grab these issues, bask in the wonderful world that’s been created and soak up every little extra you can. Seeing a group of proactive comic creators come together to make comics that they believe really matter while still aiming to provide the highest quality available (and pull it all off) could be the best part about reading a Milestone comic. No matter what happens in today’s modern industry, Milestone still happened, and we can still experience it.