Now on HBO Max, Milestone generations is a one-hour documentary chronicling the all-too-brief history of Milestone Media, the first-ever black artist-owned comic book company, and telling the stories of black characters. The company had a four-year run in the 1990s thanks to a publishing deal with DC, which produces this potentially telling reminder that a handful of writers, artists and businessmen were ahead over their time in pushing cultural representation.
The essential: Cliff Smith – better known as Method Man – sits behind the teacher’s desk in a staged classroom, talking about comic books. (Side note: I’D LOVE TO TAKE THIS COURSE, PLEASE.) Historically, the vast, vast majority of creators of the medium were white men writing and drawing the adventures of white heroes. It was that way for decades, until the needle started to move in the 1970s with DC’s Black Lightning hero, who voice actor Phil LaMarr liked because his afro was attached to his mask, not at his head. LaMarr has fun imitating the way he imagines Black Lightning speaking with his afro on and with his afro off.
Around the time of this character’s debut in the comedy book, Denys Cowan was a young teenager who started reading comics and dreaming of making them. In the early 1980s, he was part of the DC stable (and also Marvel, but it’s glossed over here), and made a name for himself drawing The question. He’s unplugged, dividing his time between white crusaders like Batman and Flash, and occasional black heroes, like Dethlok and…Prince? Yes, Prince, the musician and sole subject of a DC comic.
The method shifts to black history when we talk about the explosive intersection of black culture in the early 1990s: hip-hop, sports superstars, In living color. In 1992, Cowan was walking through a comic book convention, reflecting on the marked lack of people who looked like him drawing and starring in comic books, when he came up with the idea of starting his own company made up of black creators telling stories about black characters. He brought together Michael Davis, Dwayne McDuffie and Derek T. Dingle as partners, and they founded Milestone Media. And get this – they retained ownership rights to their characters when they asked DC to publish and distribute their books.
So POW! And WHAPPO! They came with Blood Syndicate and characters like Static, Icon, and Hardware, all representing black culture. No detail was spared – the books were a bit more expensive than the others due to a complex coloring system that allowed them to show a wide variety of black skin tones. The paper is a little fuzzy on the numbers, but Cowan et al. all attest to the books’ strong sales stats — and yet they haven’t gotten the respect they deserve from retail establishments and publishers. DC superiors who thought all-black superhero comics will never appeal to non-black readers. Clashes and divisions ensued. In 1997 Milestone comics ceased making books, although Static found new life in an animated television series, Static shock. The project was great while it lasted and was viewed with affection by its creators. Until 2020, when Milestone is reborn, in the form of comics (available now!) from a few founding artists as well as a host of short stories for the sometimes turbulent news. There are also big projects for films and animation. Hooray for the franchises!
What movies will this remind you of? : Well it’s not Crumb. No way. It reminds Enter the Animean anime doc that isn’t really about the anime itself, but about the anime offerings of a specific streaming company, and isn’t really a doc, but a glorified promo reel.
Performance to watch: LaMarr is the funny one who can also put the subject in context. But Cowan is the constant, constant presence of the doc, the man who tells Milestone’s story with heartfelt conviction.
Memorable dialogue: Opening narration: “When you’re a kid, you just focus on drawing comics. You don’t think “I’m a black comic book artist”. I’m going to change the industry’… the only thing that matters is what you’re trying to do. Make that thing you want to do exist, no matter what.
Sex and skin: None.
Our opinion : Be a DC-produced documentary on a DC property, Milestone generations gives off a lot of promotional vibes, bridging the gap between historical retrospective and soft-serve marketing. It maintains a serious tone with playful undertones while gently addressing systemic racism in the comics business without digging too deep into heavier content. He doesn’t name names, because DC in 2022 doesn’t want to make DC look like the mid-1990s (or the 80s or the 60s or…) too wrong.
But I also think Milestone’s story will be eye-opening for people who weren’t deeply rooted in 1990s comic book culture. The works of Cowan and co. definitely flew under the radar, partly because of discriminatory attitudes and partly because of the major comic book glut of the decade (it was a time when many creators fought successfully to retain the rights commercialization of their properties and launched enough independent publishing houses to give Marvel and DC a run for their money). Material and Spark certainly hasn’t received the marketing boost that big-name artists’ work has had. At the very least, some of us will be inspired to track down some past issues and enjoy the cutting-edge stories.
But it’s also the story of people who were so far ahead of the curve of cultural progress that their innovation wasn’t appreciated until long after Milestone’s offices closed. Milestone’s revival is clearly the result of a recent push for wider representation in many entertainment media; Milestone generations quietly asserts that this handful of black men were doing it before anyone else.
Our call: Milestone generations is a worthy, potentially educational (and concise!) watch that sheds light on some unsung heroes of the comic field. SPREAD IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
Flow Milestone generations on HBO Max