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Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans

Jeffrey A. Brown

(University Press of Mississippi)

The Return of Black (Super)Power

“...real geeks, you know, nerdy, pimply, either really skinny or fat. They definitely don’t know how to dress: Bi-way jeans and shoes, bad haircuts, T-shirts that don’t fit, the whole geek uniform.” (an anonymous informant, from Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans)


Maybe the life of an academic and a comics fan aren’t that different after all. Both are often accused of obsessing endlessly over obscure texts, collecting worthless bits of cultural effluvia, laughing at bad jokes, and attending conferences in ill-fitting clothes (at least that’s what the students are saying). The stereotypical similarities might lead one to think that an academic study of comic book fandom would be a simple task, but this is not the case. The world of comic book fandom is very well-developed and arcane, with its own language, criticism, and culture, which often places it at odds with interlopers who might misunderstand or criticize its most sacred stories or transgress its unwritten rules. Similarly, academics have their own language, theory, and culture, making any jargon-filled readings doubly alienating to an already skeptical comics community.


This is why Jeffrey A. Brown’s Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans is an amazing accomplishment. Eminently readable, Brown’s text presents academic theory without falling into impenetrable language. Basically, as Brown puts it, he “focuses on the African-American comic books published by Milestone Media and how fans relate to the stories and the new black heroes.” Brown discusses this by looking at six main points: 1) the way Millstone has established itself as “the mainstream publisher of African-American superhero comics; 2) the debate between Milestone and other African-American comic book creators; 3) the comic book subcultural community; 4) the history of black superheroes; 5) the superhero comic as a genre; and 6) the comparison of the Milestone books to the market-dominating comics published by other young companies which promote a popular trend of gender extremism. Fortunately, Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans follows this clearly outlined agenda, answering many questions and provoking some new ones along the way. Anyone interested in racial politics or comics will find Brown’s book incredibly interesting, as it documents the creation and reception of Milestone comics, the first “mainstream” comic book company owned and operated by African-American creators and featuring a truly diverse cast of heroes. Brown has taken advantage of a crucial and exceptional moment in the history of comics and, through detailed discussion, offers new insights into the field as a whole.


More significantly, Brown’s study explodes into a number of areas that anyone in cultural studies would find interesting. The story of Milestone explores the history of comics, employing subcultural theory to discuss the intricacies of the “makeshift community of comic book fandom.” Within this community, Brown identifies certain generic conventions to discuss the ways that comic fans read and understand superhero books, situating the Milestone characters within a tradition and explaining how fans are able to make meaning of the deviations from that tradition. From here, the analysis works through issues of gender and race, leading to a fascinating discussion of black masculinity and how Milestone readers and creators alike have actively renegotiated the terms of this masculinity to move beyond the limited and racist depictions of the past.


Using interviews with creators, fans, and retailers, as well as an acute understanding of the books themselves, Jeffrey A. Brown is able to provide a very detailed, interesting, and useful analysis of Milestone Comics. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans is a perfect example of what scholarly writing should be. It presents a balance of theory and practice that offers specific information on its subject while providing useful insights into the culture at large. But best of all, it is fun to read.


An interview with Jeffrey A. Brown, Associate Professor of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University.




Davin Heckman:



For starters, what’s your background?




Jeffrey A. Brown:



I am an anthropologist. That’s my Ph.D. at University of Toronto—I am Canadian. My BA is in anthropology. I got my Master’s here [Bowling Green State University] in Popular Culture. And my Ph.D. is in anthropology. So I consider all my work anthropology, whether its ethnographic or not, I consider it the anthropology of modern culture.




DH:



How far back do you go with comics?




JB:



Childhood. [laughing] As my mother always likes to remind me, I wasn’t a good reader in, whatever it was, grade one or grade two. And through comics, I developed those skills. And I have been a lifelong fan ever since.




DH:



Yeah, I started reading comics when I was young and my parents never stopped me…I’ve been a good reader ever since.




JB:



I don’t know how many people I’ve met that have their Ph.D., or were doing their Ph.D., that say, “I got into comics to develop reading skills, now here I am doing my dissertation on comics.”




DH:



What titles did you read?




JB:



I was always a DC fan more than a Marvel fan. Classic Batman was by far my favorite. I liked Superman. I liked Spiderman and Daredevil, too. But I was always into the DC characters. I like the underground stuff, too. But I’ve never been a big follower of it. I’ll pick something up if it looks interesting, but I like the mainstream things.




DH:



Do you still read comics?




JB:



Every week. Although I read fewer now because I can’t afford it, but Batman is still my favorite. It gets expensive. Twenty bucks a week’ll only get you six comics.




DH:



At the time you were writing, you mentioned that Milestone had to scale back its line. But what about the failure, or successes?




JB:



I hate to call it a failure, but they did stop printing. But they are coming back now, because of the TV show mostly [Static Shock, Kids’ WB]. And that’s supposed to lead to Static, Icon, and maybe Hardware coming back as regular titles. The failure of it is too bad. It was one of those things, after I finished my research, there was some time lag. But I was glad when the book came out, they were coming back. I think what happened, enough people didn’t give them the chance, by writing them off as too political or saying that they were just for black kids. And industry-wide, there was such a glut. They got swept up in that—I don’t want to call them crappy—but the crappy books. All flash and no substance. All those new companies went under. Initially, it was good timing because everybody seemed to be doing it, but, eventually, most of them went down.




DH:



Are they going to start up as Milestone again?




JB:



Yeah. And they will still be in association with DC comics.




DH:



Do you have any current projects that you’d be willing to talk about?




JB:



I was teaching a course on superhero comics as a genre, and there was a smattering of articles here and there, some of which aren’t that great. So one thing I am trying to put together was a call for papers for a superhero reader. I want to get a collection of good essays together that can be used as a beginner’s text for an introduction to comic books studies for an undergraduate or even graduate level. A section on the history and origins, a section on, say, fascism in comics, or homoeroticism in comics, and things like that—a well-rounded sort of thing. I want it to be wide open enough so that people can submit a range of things.




DH:



What are some of the things, the issues that haven’t been addressed that you think should be, either in your own study or more generally?




JB:



A lot of stuff has been addressed in magazine articles, not too much scholarly stuff. And half the time, the scholarly stuff ends up being defensive, like, “These aren’t homoerotic,” or, “They are.” Where there seems to be a lack is on the positive side of the mainstream comics. Most of the articles seem to be dissecting Batman or Spiderman or Superman or whoever in the mainstream comics. And you get the sense that it’s sort of apologetic or subliterate. I don’t think that’s the kind of scholarship that gets written about the underground books that fewer people read. There is a lot of great work on those, but what about the five million people who read Batman last week? Post-adolescent comic book fans do get written off as some inferior subculture, and it’s a lot more mainstream than that. That’s why I want to do a superhero reader.




DH:



How would you like to see Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans used?




JB:



In classes. What I wanted to do was to make it accessible enough so that non-academics could read it and get something out of it, but that it could also be used in classes to raise certain issues. What I’d hate is to see it just be used in ethnic studies courses. But I want it to cross that boundary, it could be ethnic studies, it could be literature or popular culture.




DH:



I was thinking of using it in a class—as a core text to organize a class around, to provide ways in to many issues.




JB:



That’s one of the things I thought of when I broke it down into chapters. This could be the race, this could be the genre, this could be gender. When I wrote it, I thought about how I would use it in a class. I always hate theory just on its own. How does it work now? Show me something that I can go to the store and buy that shows me how the theory can make sense. I have gotten some positive feedback from professors who want to use the book in their class.




DH:



One of the things that I found interesting, and I don’t know what’s been done in the area, was your discussion of masculinity, specifically black masculinity.




JB:



There’s some stuff out there. There is a fair amount, but it’s always discussed in relation to white masculinity. It gets all Freudian, about lack and compensation. It’s interesting, but very one-dimensional. That it’s all masculine posing to make up for not having access—very one-dimensional. The posing, is something that’s relatively clearly defined and easy to perform, even a white kid from suburbia can perform “tough black masculinity.”




DH:



Has there been anything interesting on collecting comics, as an act?




JB:



There’s been some stuff. A lot of the library journals have little two- or three-page articles on collecting comics. There’s more information on collecting rare books, consumerism, and fetishizing objects and so on, but nothing that’s just on comic books.




DH:



I there anything else that you’d like to say? I need to shut this [tape recorder] off, it’s driving me crazy—




JB:



No, not really.

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