Several months ago I did a post titled “Hawkman is now black… and that’s okay” in which I discussed how the comic book tie-ins to the Black Adam movie featured an African American version of Hawkman, and how I felt that this was a good thing. A poster with the screen name “Be Human First” left a comment that included the following observation:
“There are some really, truly amazing superheroes who were, at inception, POC. Why are we playing these games when those stories could be told?”
And I had to respond to say that, yes, they had a valid point. For instance, Milestone Media had some great superheroes who were people of color such as Static and Hardware, and it would be great if they could be adapted to live action.
Milestone Media is an imprint of DC Comics founded in 1993 by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis & Derek T. Dingle. The intention of Milestone was to provide African American creators with the opportunity to create comic books featuring minorities who had historically been underrepresented in American comic books.
McDuffie was born on February 20, 1962. He tragically passed away in 2011 at the much too young age of 49. On what would have been his 61st birthday, and on the 30th anniversary of Milestone’s founding, I wanted to look at the recent revival of one of his creations, Hardware.
I regret to say that as a teenager during the early 1990s I all but ignored the Milestone books, outside of the first few issues of Hardware, which I had difficulty relating to. I know I found the title of the first issue’s story, “Angry Black Man,” to be off-putting.
I don’t think I understood just how interesting the Milestone universe was until the Static Shock animated series. Featuring super-powered 14 year old Virgil Hawkins, aka Static, the series ran for four seasons between 2000 and 2004. It was an enjoyable, well-done show.
In 2023, looking back at my initial reaction to the Milestone line with the benefit of three decades of hindsight, I realize, unfortunately, that there was definitely some unconscious bias at work on my part.
I’ve always considered myself progressive and open-minded, but I’ve come to realize that as a white male who grew up in the United States it was inevitable that on some subconscious level I would inevitably be influenced by this country’s long, tragic history of institutionalized racism. I really wish I hadn’t been so quick to pass up the Milestone books as a teen. Fortunately as an adult I really have made a conscious effort to read a genuinely diverse selection of material, both in terms of the characters featured and the creators who are creating those stories. But, yeah, I’m still very much a work in progress. I guess the first step in making things better is in admitting your own failings so you understand what you have to work at to become a better person.
The majority of the Milestone titles were canceled in 1996 when the industry imploded. DC at long last revived the Milestone imprint in September 2020 beginning with the Milestone Returns special written by Reginald Hudlin & Greg Pak, which rebooted all of the characters. This was followed by four “Season One” miniseries featuring Static, Icon and Rocket, Hardware and Blood Syndicate.
I finally had an opportunity to pick up the hardcover which collects the Milestone Returns: Infinite Edition special and the six issue Hardware: Season One miniseries which was originally published between August 2021 and May 2022. Here are some of my thoughts on it.
Created by McDuffie & Cowan, Hardware is a brilliant scientist named Curtis “Curt” Metcalf. A teenage prodigy from midwestern Dakota City, Curt was discovered by industrialist Edwin Alva, who mentored the young man, eventually hiring him to work for his multinational conglomerate. Curt came to regard Alva as a father figure and believed that he was being groomed to be the industrialist’s heir. Curt’s inventions made Alva Industries millions; however, when Curt asked his boss & mentor for a cut of the profits, Alva coldly informed the scientist that he was nothing more than an employee, a literal cog in the machine, entitled to nothing.
The disenchanted Curt hacked into Alva’s computer systems, hoping to locate something he could use as leverage against his employer, only to discover Alva was the spider at the center of a vast web of crime & corruption. Trying, and failing, to expose Alva’s crimes, Curt finally constructs the Hardware armor in order to fight against his employer’s crooked machinations.
Hardware: Season One does tweak the setup of the series slightly. In this new reality, Alva’s refusal to give Metcalf a cut of the profits for his inventions is merely the initial wedge in their relationship. Curt invents the chemicals later used by the Dakota City police department against a Black Lives Matter protest. Those chemicals result in the “Big Bang” that causes dozens of teenagers to become disfigured & develop superpowers. Alva, realizing that he has a public relations nightmare on his hands, destroys the reports that Curt submitted stating the gas was too dangerous to be used and sets the scientist up as a scapegoat to take the fall for the tragedy. On the verge of being arrested, Curt dons the Hardware armor and goes on the offensive against the Dakota City PD and Alva’s private security forces.
Hardware: Season One is written by Brandon Thomas, based on McDuffie’s original storylines. Truthfully, I did feel that the original four issue origin story by McDuffie from 1993 was somewhat more effective since it seemed like it had more room to breathe, and to introduce the characters.
The comic book market is obviously very different than it was three decades ago. Back then Hardware, as well as the other Milestone characters, were all given ongoing series. Milestone & DC Comics are clearly cognizant that as matters currently stand the characters are more likely to be successful in a series of miniseries which are designed to quickly be collected together in hardcovers editions. As a result, Thomas regrettably has a lot less space to develop the characters & events, having to fit everything into six issues.
As someone who has repeatedly criticized decompression in mainstream comic books, it no doubt sounds counterintuitive, but I truly think Hardware: Season One would have benefitted from being longer. Really, my belief is that a story should be as long as it needs to be, whether that length be two issues, or six, or more. I feel that if this miniseries had been eight issues instead of six, it would have flowed much more naturally.
I felt that Curtis Metcalf definitely needed to be developed more fully in this story. Curt’s defining characteristic is that his parents having divorced when he was a young boy, he so badly needed a father figure that he ignored all the signs that Alva was a corrupt, manipulative bastard until it was much too late. We really don’t get any insight into how he feels about his role in the Big Bang; yes, Curt warned Alva that the gas was dangerous, but he is still the one that developed it, and you would think his inadvertent part in the creation of the Bang Babies would weigh on him.
There also isn’t all that much of a look at Curt’s relationships with his ex-girlfriend Barraki Young or his current love interest Tiffany Evans, even though both of them play central roles in the story. And I would have liked to have learned more about these two women.
Ironically, Edwin Alva feels like the most fully-developed character here. Thomas does a good job at writing Alva as a narcissistic control freak while nevertheless showing how the industrialist has managed to completely convince himself that HE is in the right, that Curt is actually the one who betrayed his trust & friendship.
Alva epitomizes an overriding, rapacious characteristic present throughout capitalism. He truly believes that because it is his company, his money, therefore HE is the creator of everything his empire produces & manufactures. In Alva’s mind, if he had not provided Curt and the other scientists working for him with the funding & opportunities for their experimentation, their discoveries, their creations, then none of it would ever have existed; therefore he is entitled to everything. And anyone who disagrees is a selfish ingrate who doesn’t know his place.
And, yes, in that way Alva definitely felt to me like a stand-in for every comic book publisher who has ever exploited its creators, with their attitude of “If it wasn’t for our company your characters & stories would never have gotten published, therefore they belong to us.”
Back when I was a teen I really did not perceive Edwin Alva to be racist. A corrupt, ruthless criminal, yes, but one motivated solely by greed. But now I see that, yes, Alva is racist. Not in a “wears white sheets and burns crosses on people’s lawns while dropping the n-bomb” manner, but rather on a much more subtle, insidious level, possessing a condescendingly paternalistic attitude towards Curtis Metcalf and all other black people, and in the fact that Alva, a billionaire, perpetuates systems of economic injustice that are especially harmful to communities of color.
Thomas reuses the “Angry Black Man” title for his own first issue. And, truthfully, it’s appropriate, because Curtis Metcalf has every right to be angry.
If there is a second “season” then I very much hope it will delve more into Curtis Metcalf and his relationships with Barraki and Tiffany and his family.
Hardware’s co-creator Denys Cowan returns to the character to pencil Season One. Cowan’s work is very stylized, and over the decades it has certainly become more abstract. That creates an interesting dichotomy, in that Hardware is a very detailed, precise, hi-tech figure, but Cowan’s work here is often almost surreal. That quality is certainly enhanced by the inking of Bill Sienkiewicz.
Their scratchy-lined work together on Hardware: Season One sort of feels like what would happen if someone drew an Iron Man adventure in the style of a particularly shadowy, noir-ish Batman or Daredevil story. It’s perhaps an unusual choice, but one that does provide the story with a palpable atmosphere of tension & paranoia. Cowan & Sienkiewicz have worked together before, and they’ve always made an interesting art team.
The coloring by Chris Sotomayer effectively enhances the mood & tone of artwork. The lettering by Rob Leigh is also well done, giving most of the characters an organic feel, while having a more mechanical sort of text for Curt when he’s in the Hardware armor, and utilizing a style between those two points for the armor’s computer system P.O.P. which is a replica of Curt’s father’s voice.
The cover artwork & coloring for the Hardware: Season One miniseries is by Mateus Manhanini. His style is a lot slicker & smoother than Cowan & Sienkiewicz, giving much more of an emphasis to the sleek, hi-tech quality of the title character. There are also some nice variant covers by Sienkiewicz, Cowan, Sotomayer, Ricardo Lopez Ortiz, Edwin Galmon and Canaan White that are included in this collection.
While not without its flaws, I nevertheless liked Hardware: Season One, and I look forward to Milestone’s creators doing more with the character in the future.