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The concept of the shared universe is the heart of superhero media. Superhero pop culture is one of the most rapidly changing genres in media, with new trends aesthetics being introduced almost yearly in order to keep up with the massive financial powers that control them. Shared universes have always had an appeal on comic book buyers. Readers can see all of their favorite characters come together and interact with one another. This also allows for new, broader storylines and more detailed content. In more recent years, shared universes have gone beyond cameo appeal and have delved into telling stories that can relate to the real world of the readers within the fantasy world of the comic. The 1980s-90s ushered in an era of socially relevant characters and issues, most prominent with the X-Men comics.
Despite their progressive subject matter, many of these comics still lacked in diversity. They used outcast characters like mutants as metaphors for real marginalized groups like African Americans and the LGBT community, but they seldom featured actual characters from these groups. The stories still tended to focus on heterosexual white male leads, with an occasional minority (although often not-human) as a side character.
In 1993, a group of African American artists and writers consisting of Michael Davis, Derek T Dingle, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie formed Milestone Comics. Their vision was to create a universe consisting of ethnically and sexually diverse characters for millennial readers. While the company was distributed under DC Comics, Milestone had full creative control. Their deal with DC also meant that they were able to have crossovers between the two companies, meaning that Milestone characters could interact with some of the most iconic characters ever created.
The name given to Milestone’s shared universe was the Dakotaverse, named after Dakota City, the area where most of the comics took place. Dakota was modeled to mimic Midwestern cities with high concentrations of minorities – primarily Chicago, Detroit, and Cincinnati. One of the interesting things about Dakota was that the city itself went through a kind of character change. Originally, Dakota wasn’t your typical comic book city. There were no aliens, outlandish villains or oddly convenient natural disasters. It was a very grounded city, teaming with real issues like gang violence, racism, and homophobia. It wasn’t until an event dubbed the “Big Bang”, which will be covered later, changed the city into a mecca for otherworldly activity.
The first superhero to take patrol over Dakota was Augustus Freeman IV, AKA “Icon.”
A shapeshifting alien stranded on Earth, he possesses extreme strength, longevity, and durability, as well as flight and energy projection. His story begins in 1839, when he crash-lands in the middle of a southern plantation. After being found by an enslaved African American woman, he assumes the form of an African American baby boy and grows up in chains until he uses his abilities to escape captivity and free other slaves in secret via the underground railroad. A few hundred years later, he is a successful lawyer settled in Dakota, only using his powers in secret until a young woman comes along and convinces him to go public with his powers.
Icon is essentially the black Superman. Aside from possessing almost identical powers, his reception from the rest of the Dakotaverse is also similar to Superman’s reception. Superman is the most beloved and hated superhero of all time. While he has gone on to become a symbol of hope and morality, he is constantly criticized for being a by-the-book, goodie-two-shoes “boy scout” who cares more about respecting the law than actual justice. With Icon, this concept was explored by having the citizens refer to him as a “coon” and an “Uncle Tom.” Being a well-off lawyer living in the Dakota suburbs, he is often called a sell-out and accused of not being “black enough.” Having a Superman-like figure in a black community like Dakota creates a very unique opportunity to play with themes like systematic oppression and authority. Distrust in authority is a very common social construct in lower income black communities, so having a black man fight for the law in a society that has used its law to oppress them doesn’t go over very well with the citizens of Dakota. This is a dilemma that deeply bothers Icon. He has spent his entire human existence fighting for the wellbeing of the black community, and now he’s being turned on by the very people he’s trying to protect.
Despite Icon’s unsavory reputation, he always had one true supporter – his sidekick Rocket, AKA Raquel Ervin. The first black female hero of the Milestone universe, she is responsible for Icon becoming a hero in the first place. Growing up on Paris Island, the roughest part of Dakota City, she first encounters him when she and a group of friends attempted to rob his house. Eventually, they form a bond and she convinces him to take on the role of Icon. He develops a belt out of the technology from his ship which gives her the ability to control kinetic energy. Reluctantly, he takes her in as his sidekick.
One of the most important things about Rocket’s character was that she played into many of the traditional tropes of the black female stereotype while still striving to be better, which made her a good example for African American female readers, a demographic that usually isn’t considered among comic book readers. She is a teenage mother who grew up in a dysfunctional home in a low-income urban area, however, she dreamed of becoming a writer. A lot of characters within the Dakotaverse play into stereotypes in an attempt to show them as real people who still have the potential to be better.
Despite Icon and Rocket’s efforts at justice, crime still ravaged Dakota. Gang activity was a huge problem in Dakota, and Milestone portrayed the gang lifestyle in a way the most comic books never did before. Instead of just painting them out to be groups of mindless thugs out to kill everybody in their path, Milestone highlights the familial bond shared by gang members and the concept of why people join gangs in the first place. These issues were primarily dealt with in the Blood Syndicate series. The Blood Syndicate is a group of gang-affiliated mutants who gained superhuman attributes after being exposed to an experimental tear gas during an event dubbed “The Big Bang.” One big issue that the series deals with is unity. Gang activity in the real world has turned black communities against one another, even though many gangs were actually formed to protect black communities from racism and corrupt police. In Dakota, the Blood Syndicate is formed when two rival gangs – the Paris Bloods and the Force Syndicate unify after realizing that the Big Bang has put them in a situation where they have no choice but to rely on one another.
The Blood Syndicate introduced dozens of characters into the Milestone universe, creating endless possibilities for diversity. In many ways, the Blood Syndicate relates to the X-Men series in that it builds a dynamic between mutants and humans, in which mutants are marginalized. Also like the X-Men, the concept of mutant pride is played with, and is often used as a metaphor for pride within marginalized groups. After the Big Bang, the mutated individuals were nicknamed “Bangbabies” by the general media. Many wore this as a badge of honor, while others were embarrassed and just wanted to be normal again.
One of the key things that sets the Blood Syndicate apart from groups like the X-Men is that the characters were actual minorities instead of simply being metaphors for minorities. This allows readers to get a more detailed look into the lives of minority heroes instead of just learning about what it’s like to be a minority in general. While the characters were predominantly black, other ethnic groups were represented in the blood syndicate. The group featured two Asian characters; Kwai, a Chinese woman with supernatural powers and Third Rail, an energy absorbing mutant born of Korean immigrants. There is also a character named Aquamaria, a water controlling mutant whose story represents the Hispanic community of Dakota. There is even a white member of the group. Martin Berger, AKA Boogeyman, is a mutant with the ability to shapeshift into a giant humanoid rat-like creature. He often feels insecure being the only white member of the group and likes to use his rat form as a way to hide his race.
While the Blood Syndicate series (and Milestone as a whole) wanted to introduce traditional white readers to more diverse characters, the platform was also useful in exposing black readers to issues within the black community that aren’t commonly highlighted or respected. Homophobia has always been a serious problem within the black community, and the Dakotaverse was one of the first places where LGBT black heroes were given representation. Fade, a time-traveling mutant, was the first gay member of the Blood Syndicate. He was deeply in love with Tech-9, another member of the group, but stayed in the closet out of fear that he would be judged by his fellow gang members. He also had a bad relationship with his father, who disowns him for his lifestyle even after Fade rescues him from another dangerous mutant. The Blood Syndicate also featured the first black transgender superhero. Masquerade, a shape-shifting mutant, was born female but used his shape-shifting abilities to assume the form of a man, in which he felt more comfortable. Having queer African American characters in the Dakotaverse was a very bold choice for Milestone, but it broke barriers in representation for comic books as a whole.
One very interesting dynamic of the Blood Syndicate was the dilemma as to who they were against. Were they heroes or villains? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Much like real gang members, most weren’t in it for blood. They were involved for protection, a kind of brotherly bond that was formed to shield them from abuse by authority. Many of the characters had a by-any-means-necessary attitude and were trying their hardest to survive, even if it sometimes meant getting violent. However, many of the members used their abilities to break up riots and other violent disputes among other, non-mutant gangs. Regardless, they were still vilified by the mainstream media for operating outside of the law. The Blood Syndicate often clashed with Icon and Rocket over their difference in views over justice. However, Dakota’s urban black community was more fond of the members of the Blood Syndicate than they were of Icon, mostly due to relatability.
The Big Bang was an event that would forever change the face of Dakota City. While the event left dozens of mutated youth roaming the streets, not every Bang Baby was gang affiliated. The Big Bang also gave rise to Milestone’s most famous character, Static. Fourteen-year-old Virgil Ovid Hawkins (named after both the Roman poets and one of the first African Americans to go to law school) was one of the few Milestone characters that didn’t conform to any of the typical stereotypes of urban African Americans. He was a nerd who was obsessed with comic books and role-playing games. He was also a straight-A student and even somewhat of a genius. But like most teenage superheroes, he was outcast and bullied. After taking a brutal beating from a neighborhood bully, he decides to join a gang for protection. However, his initiation just happens to be on the night of the Big Bang. After his exposure to the gas, he gains the ability to manipulate electricity and immediately abandons the gang life.
One of the best things about Static was that he was always the odd man out. He was neither Syndicate affiliated or a light of justice like Icon. He was simply a kid who loved superheroes and saw his gaining powers as an excuse to finally be one. He also had his fair share of violent run-ins with other Bang Babies, including members of the Blood Syndicate, but he also formed allies with many of the cities mutants, some of them even romantic. He was the neutral power of the Dakotaverse.
Statics fame is mostly due to his award-winning animated series, which aired from 2000 – 2004 on the Kids WB and Cartoon Network. While a lot of the subject matter had to be watered down to make it kid-friendly, the show still dealt with heavy themes like gangs, domestic violence, and even mental illness. While the Blood Syndicate was never mentioned in the series, he still interacted with various characters from the group in the show. What really made the show unique was that it was set within the very popular DC animated universe. This meant that Static got to crossover with Batman, Superman and the Justice League for various episodes. Having a series where a generally unknown character, and an African American one at that, gets to interact with the most iconic characters of all time was a really important milestone in diversity for both children’s media and comic book media as a whole.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Static Shock animated series was Virgil’s best friend, Richie Foley. The most prominent white character on the show, Richie was Virgil’s right-hand man who eventually gains superhuman intelligence and becomes Static’s sidekick, Gear. Richie is one of the most beloved characters on the show for his wit and loyalty to Virgil. He also played an important role in outlining the racial dynamic between he and Virgil. In one of the earlier episodes, Virgil is invited to Richie’s house for a sleepover, only to overhear Richie’s father making racist comments about him from the other room. However, Richie’s role in the show has also been the subject of criticism. In the comics, Virgil had near-genius intelligence and designed all of his own gadgets. In the cartoon, Richie is the genius who builds all of Virgil’s gadgets. Having a white character overshadow the intelligence of the black protagonist the wrong way. Richie has also been accused of homosexuality by some viewers. The character of Richie Foley is based on a character named Rick Stone from the comic books, who was openly gay. That character helped Virgil face his homophobia in various issues, including one where he stops a villain for sabotaging an LGBT rally. While there were rumors that Richie was gay on the show, Static co-creator Dwayne McDuffie actually confirmed that Richie was supposed to be gay on the show. They obviously weren’t allowed to make him openly gay, but they did drop subtle hints aiming at his sexuality throughout the series.
The fourth major character released by Milestone was Curtis Metcalf, AKA Hardware. His series had a high focus on authority and standing to corruption. Metcalf was a brilliant inventor, making him another character that broke traditional stereotypes of African American men. He was employed under Edwin Alva, one of the overarching villians of the Dakotaverse. Alva Industries was responsible for the mutagenic gas at the Big Bang. Metcalf was a brilliant scientist and inventor who had a close relationship with Alva. Alva paid for his education and in return, Metcalf worked for him. But after years of creating brilliant inventions and getting no credit, Metcalf confronts Alva, who degrades him and tells him to stay in his place. In an attempt to take him down, Metcalf researches Alva and discovers that he has connections to organized crime, arms dealers and money launderers, making him too powerful to take down alone. Metcalf uses his extensive technological knowledge to build a robotic suit and an arsenal of weapons to fight Alva and his men.
In an era where diversity is in a higher demand than ever before, now is as good of a time as ever for DC to revisit these characters more modern adaptations. There is certainly a high demand - talk of a live-action Static Shock film/series has been circulating for years. Perhaps Dakota can be the basis for the next massive cinematic universe.