“Blood Syndicate” and the unsung superheroes of Milestone Media

The Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Justice League. Those are superhero teams. The Blood Syndicate were a super-powered gang. They wouldn’t give a shit about Dr. Doom or Thanos as long as they were out of sight. Their concerns were turf, respect, and burning down crack-houses. This was my favorite comic book growing up. 

From 1993 to 1996, the Syndicate starred in their own title, published by Milestone Media, the largest black-owned comics company (which would cease publishing in 1997) in partnership with DC. The world of mainstream comics, dominated by the purchasing power of white males, was perhaps not ready for a superhero universe in which the people that looked like them were the minority.

Seeing the expected racist pushback against “Black Panther,” I don’t want to even imagine the reaction to a Blood Syndicate film. Would even liberals want to support a team whose tagline is “America Eats Its Young”? Still, “Black Panther” has already broken multiple box office records. There have been superhero films featuring black leads before, like “Blade,” “Meteor Man,” “Spawn,” and “Steel.” But “Black Panther,” a mega-budget production helmed by a black director, starring a predominantly black cast, and dropping in the eye of the storm that is Donald Trump’s racist-friendly tenure as president, feels as though it has its own careening velocity, a trajectory flirting with historic. Yes, it’s long overdue; and yes, it will make Disney tons of money. But we all knew there would be a Black Panther film eventually. It would be a shame if the success of “Black Panther” becomes the end of the conversation. We got the one big black superhero film. Which is why the news that Milestone is set to begin publishing again in the spring with the launch of the new umbrella line “Earth M” feels like a breath of cosmic fresh air.  

Milestone Media was founded by Derek Dingle, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and the late Dwayne McDuffie. It operated as an imprint of DC but maintained editorial and creative control. They constructed a comic book universe with the audacity to reflect the demographic realities of wide swaths of America, specifically, an America that white suburban teens and Manhattan power-players weren’t all that interested in. Milestone created scores of complicated characters, super-powered and otherwise, that were not simply defined by their non-whiteness, or reliant on a “Black” prefix.

Milestone’s slate of titles included “Hardware,” “Icon,” and “Static.” Hardware was a genius inventor pulled out of poverty by a white father figure who exploited his labor. “Icon” took the “Superman but black” pitch and deconstructed it with a haughty upper-class Republican haranguing youths about the importance of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Static was centered on a teenager who could harness electromagnetism and tackled child abuse, affirmative action, and the differing roadblocks that Jews and African-Americans face in their attempts to assimilate. Again, these were comic books intended for children in the ‘90s—they were not marketed to adults like “Vertigo” or “Dark Horse”—and yet they quietly examined extremely real shit.

But “Blood Syndicate” was my favorite of Milestone’s output. In elementary school, the X-Men were my X-Men, but by 6th grade, Blood Syndicate were my X-Men. The world-building was fit for a prestige cable drama. They were a full squad of Omar Littles, except some of them could fly.

A tired complaint about Milestone was that it was the “black superhero company” and thus was a niche or gimmick line of comics that your average (i.e. white nerd) fan couldn’t possibly hope to penetrate. In addition to being tired, it wasn’t even true. Forget the Uncanny X-Men; Blood Syndicate was the most ethnically diverse group in comics. Wise Son, an invulnerable black Muslim led them, and his struggle with imposter syndrome and anger issues made him more relatable than any of his Marvel or DC counterparts. The aptly named Brickhouse was a Puerto Rican girl made of bricks who grappled with body dysmorphia. Fade and Flashback, two Dominican-American siblings, carried stigmas that would have crushed Peter Parker. There was Masquerade, a transgender Haitian-American shapeshifter; Third-Rail, a brawny Korean-American wracked with guilt over failing to save his father’s life; Kwai, an immortal Chinese warrior woman—and Boogeyman, a huge talking rat, later exposed as a try-hard white boy attempting to pass himself off as black.

As Cowan told Wizard Magazine in 1995, “I don’t want a world where you can pop over to Reed Richards’ lab and borrow a time machine. I want it to be when you see a man fly, it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.” That sense of spectacle was evident throughout the Milestone universe. DC and Marvel leaned on decades of history with which to build upon and tear down. With Milestone, we saw a world bloom and prosper and wither away in real time, just as its characters did. The subjects were heady, but the tone rarely lurched into pedantry. Authentic conversations that Americans did their best to avoid were addressed by super-powered gangsters. These were serious, sometimes nearly taboo topics. Toothless liberal do-gooders, gentrification, the savage consequences of capitalism. It was bracing and subversive, but also it was just good story-telling.

And it’s been 20 years, but the subjects Milestone sought to confront via superhero comics are as germane as ever. And since this company didn’t get the respect nor the sales it deserved the first time around, it’s a comfort that we can perhaps rectify that injustice, so long as the craftsmanship and quality matches the first iteration of course.

It’s a second chance to learn things that you didn’t even know you didn’t know.

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