By Kenneth Laster
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Dwayne McDuffie described Static’s appeal in an interview with World’s Finest:
[Static] is a straight-ahead empowerment fantasy, featuring a character who’s a lot like his audience. He’s a science fiction and adventure-loving kid who becomes a hero not because of tragedy but because it’s both fun and the right thing to do. He’s personable, funny and a good guy. You can see yourself behaving as he does (you know, if you had powers). He’s a hero who could be you, which strongly suggests the converse, don’t you think?
While this was in the context of the promotion for the animated adaptation Static Shock, the appeal remains true throughout all incarnations of this character. Much in the way of his forebear Spider-Man, Static’s appeal is at its core a power fantasy – which is why, when the original Milestone Media lineup was being considered, McDuffie insisted on having a teenage character that harkened back to that teenaged version of Spider-Man: the high schooler with a double life. He saw a relatability to that iteration of the character that was lost in his market during the 1990s and thus Static, a character McDuffie had toyed with introducing in his time at Marvel, was recreated to fill that niche he felt missing.
In the looks at Black Comics History I’ve done in the past, I’ve primarily focused on the singular Black creator on a title but in discussing a Milestone book it complicates things as the whole line is a monument of Black comics history, despite only the writers of this title being Black. Both late creators, Robert L. Washington and Dwayne McDuffie provide the script and plot for Static #1 and steer the ship for the book for the first 18 issues. The late John Paul Leon provides pencils for these early issues making the credits page of this comic much more somber – all three of these pillars of comics are no longer with us.
Dwayne McDuffie is often discussed in terms of great Black figures in comics, for great reason of course, but it’s quite tragic looking at the two writers listed and finding so little on Robert L Washington III. Despite passing on a year after McDuffie (both in the young age of their late 40s), Washington left us in more trying circumstances. In his final interview with CBR he had to speak under false circumstances at his job at a call center, detailing the ways he’d received assistance from the Hero Initiative. His career suffered in the comics bust of the 90s, leaving him to depart comics in search of work to pay bills.
In his career not only did he co-create Static, but he was the sole writer on Shadow Cabinet from Milestone along with issues of Extreme Justice, The Batman Chronicles, and JLA: Secret Files. While his career in comics wasn’t incredibly extensive, it’s impossible to read Static and not see the potential in his voice and bravery in writing. That voice is evident in one of his final comics work he did for the Hero Initiative, who would go on to fundraise his funeral costs after his passing. In this one page comic, we feel a radical honesty that’s uncomfortable, which puts the questions raised back into the hands of the reader. It’s hard hitting in just the way Milestone was, and just the way Static was.
In his interview he remarks on feeling that not having a backup plan was a fault which led him into the position he was in. But, in looking at the larger labor movement happening now and how the comics industry is on the cusp of its own reckoning, it’s easy to see how the situation Washington ended up in is endemic to an industry known for discarding its own. Even during the uptick in popularity of comics Washington struggled to get his work seen by editors at Marvel and DC. Milestone was the perfect place to uplift his voice – but in it’s absence creators like Washington were left discarded. It’s still difficult to square that with the stronger bend towards diversity in current cape books – it’s excellent to see now, but what about Robert Washington and the creators like him?
It’s absolutely damning for the co-creator of a character that has been so incredibly influential beyond comics, animation, and soon to be live action, to have experienced homelessness multiple times before his early passing. It’s easy to go into the what if’s – what if Washington got scripts seen and published, would he have had a more comfortable final years, regarded as a respected elder in comics by his passing? As great as the Milestone revival has been, the tragedy of Robert L Washington’s passing needs to stay in the consciousness of those at Warner Brothers: DC’s formative creators are not expendable and Washington’s situation should have been avoidable.
Because the thing is that entirety of Static #1 is an excellent superhero introduction through and through. It manages to feel classic and inventive all at the same time in all aspects, from McDuffie and Washington’s script, Leon, Mitchell, and Gidding’s artwork and Steve Haynie’s letters. Static #1 remains an excellent template on introducing a new superhero and their supporting cast.
The structure of this first issue is remarkably simple. Some gang-bangers harass a young woman called Frieda Goren, and Static shows up on the scene and trounces them, next day they come back again, Static jumps in and gets taken down by their superpowered boss. Far from the reinvention of the superhero wheel, but the story really sings in how it stretches this structure to allow us to see the personality of the title and in Virgil’s supporting cast.
From the opening scene, we get Static fully formed. He’s playful, confident, and – looking back with the hindsight of the Static Shock cartoon and other Static appearances – he sounds perfectly on model. We get a joke in nearly every panel, even if it’s not verbal, Leon plays up the slapstick in Static toying with these goons. We also get a good showcase of his powers with cheeky narration from Static himself. All this and flirting with his newly rescued crush. It’s not necessarily the most progressive trope but it’s a part of the perfect introduction to a classic power fantasy with a new type of character. One would think that in a world with Miles Morales and a retelling of Static happening currently, this type of introduction wouldn’t feel as unique in hindsight but its brevity, effortlessness, and indescribable classic feel makes it feel so incredibly singular. And that’s just the first handful of pages.
The introduction continues following classic tropes as we follow Virgil’s race home to talk to Frieda in his civilian ID. The countdown of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…” in addition to the introduction of Virgil’s mom and sister continues a playfulness to this introduction issue and the jumps in time between Mississippi’s lets us stretch our Understanding Comics muscles as we get the sense of time passing and increasing the tension. The characterization of Virgil’s mom and Sharon feel very authentic to a Black experience and again ties towards this being a power fantasy to a Black, teenage boy audience. Your stern mother making sure you aren’t skipping out on your lesson and a mean older sister always on your back, all while trying to talk to your crush? It’s a relatable scenario made all the more natural by McDuffie and Washington’s dialogue that feels authentic without effort. There’s never a feeling of “grasping” at making this feel authentic, it simply is.
In the next scene as we get to see the two writing teens and, Larry’s line “Damn. Can’t you say ‘Hi,’ like everybody else?” in regards to Virgil’s loquacious greeting still gets a laugh from me. The following two exchanges enter the realm of showing their age in pretty interesting ways. First we get the instances of casual homophobia towards Rick and his rebuttal. It’s easy in the context of this one issue (and of the broader 1990’s) to write it off as a bit that aged horribly, but for those not in the know, Rick is gay and it is very much a story this book is going to tell, in classic Milestone fashion. It doesn’t shy away from subjects that more mainline superhero books would and it would approach them in ways that were novel, and sometimes a bit messy – we get to see Virgil himself tackle the homophobia ingrained in him and work to be a better friend. It’s a hard story to tell and we see the seeds of it planted here.
It echoes the hard hitting questions that Washington himself asks in his final work and feels real to an uncomfortable extent. It’s then fascinating to compare this exploration to Ayala’s rebooted Static run where Rick is just out and accepted as a reflection of the relatively more accepting days that we’re in, or more so the different battles that need to be fought.
Less gracefully aged is a crack about Virgil looking up Frieda’s skirt before asking Larry for advice about dating her. It’s a very jarring reminder that this book is for teenage boys and that teenage boys have never been the best, but particularly less great in the 1990s. Women at large don’t fare particularly well in this issue with the gangbangers returning, smacking the female teacher, and kidnapping Frieda, putting her back in the damsel role. On top of Sharon and Virgil’s mom filling in the role of nags, it’s a particularly not-amazing consequence of the power fantasy. Frieda does hold her own in her damsel role, talking smack to the excellently horrible villain Hotstreak, and shouting back up to Static.
Speaking of Hotstreak – what a villain. A white, racist, gang banger who speaks in AAVE that puts some corners of Tik Tok to shame. What’s been a pretty traditional superhero story up to this point is turned on its head when Hotstreak beats Static and Frieda discovers the wounded Static is actually Virgil. Until the ending Static is the most formulaic superhero book in the Milestone line up, beat for beat, but to end with the stakes of any traditional superhero story (beat the bad guy/maintain the double life) thrown out the window pushes this standard superhero fare into uncharted waters. It feels a little less impactful now, as secret identities are (sadly) going out of fashion in mainline hero books, but here it’s evocative of that Milestone willingness to break expectations.
Static #1 also serves as an interesting look at the early work of the late, great, John Paul Leon. While we can see the roots of the black and white style that would elevate Leon to his legendary status, what really stands out is his influence from Walter Simonson (as he studied under the artist in New York’s School of the Visual Arts). That influence can be seen in the way he and inker Steve Mitchell render Static’s abilities: the jagged, arcing, and dynamic way the lightning frames the pages feel very reminiscent of Simonson’s work on X-Factor in the decade before. Even the facial expressions feel very similar to Simonson’s work. Despite this, the graphic quality and understanding of shadows comes through in background work and in occasional unexpected spaces. Another unsung quality to the art work is Noelle Gidding’s color work. I’ve always been struck by this issue’s water color look which feels distinctly of this era. The wash of colors give everything a natural feeling and just give it such a unique look.
Static #1 is the quintessential power fantasy for folks who never got to see themselves in that fantasy. It’s trope-y sure, but it’s authentic to its audience. It’s effortlessly relatable and has an incredible energy throughout. It’s easy to read this issue and see just how easily this character can endure purely in his simplicity and charm. All of this is thanks to a creative team that is clouded with many early deaths.
John Paul Leon’s loss is most fresh; McDuffie’s feels monumental; but Washington’s stings the most deep. It feels all the more tragic because it’s not uncommon. Comics as an industry consumes creators and spits them out with so little support that it’s necessary for an organization like The Hero Initiative to exist. The concept of corporate exploitation in comics is nothing new but it hits different when Static is finally being recognized as an icon to Black readers everywhere by the powers that be. Is it too little too late? Or would the recognition of the character supersede the recognition of the man who helped bring him to life? It’s a tough question to ask and a tough industry that forces us to ask it.
Written by Dwayne McDuffie and Robert L. Washington III
Pencilled by John Paul Leon
Inked by Steve Mitchell
Coloured by Noelle C. Giddings
Lettered by Steve Haynie
Published in 1993 by Milestone Media
Kenneth Laster is a cartoonist and critic who has written for sites including Multiversity, ComicsXF, and Comic Book Herald. You can find Ken’s comics available (for free!) here, and follow Ken on Twitter here!