By Jordan Clark
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.
Hardware #1 introduced us to the Dakotaverse and to Milestone’s first superhero: Curtis Metcalf, a genius inventor dedicated to using his mind and resources to fight the crime plaguing his city. While the series itself was a standout, Hardware as a character fit into an archetypal superhero mold (albeit from a Black perspective, giving him a fresh feel). What Milestone did next was something that marked a real shift from the superhero comics of the time. In April of 1993, Dwayne McDuffie, Ivan Valez Jr., and Trevor on Eeden introduced the world to Blood Syndicate, and the whole game changed.
The Blood Syndicate isn’t a team but a literal gang composed of meta-human survivors of “The Big Bang”, a sanctioned use of toxic gas on gang members fighting in Paris Island. The result was inumerable casualties, as well as the creation of many superpowered gang members and police officers.What Blood Syndicate #1 gives us is an inversion of the typical superhero origin story where an innocent, unsuspecting protagonist stumbles into either horrific tragedy or fantastic discovery and emerges with unbelievable abilities. But what if those gifts went to those society had deemed unworthy? The ones thrown away and left to fend for themselves. What would they do with these powers?
McDuffie and Valez Jr. introduce us to the Blood Syndicate in two surprising ways. First, we encounter them fully formed and active in Paris Island in the aftermath of the Big Bang, and secondly, we are introduced through the eyes of a white reporter named Roberta “Rob” Chaplik. Both choices create a sense of unease and mystery about the group. We know nothing about who they were before, what gave them these powers (it’s not until the next issue that we get a glimpse into their origin), and what their purpose is. And what we do see comes from the lens of someone expecting the worst, going into unfamiliar territory.
Chaplik follows a very familiar path to Helen Lyle in the original Candyman, an outsider coming into “the ghetto” looking to discover a story. Like Lyle, Chaplik serves as an insert for the white audience and their assumptions about gangs and inner city life. She describes her subway trek over to Paris Island as “a trip to another world that’s only one stop away” and later realises her shame in treating a homeless man on the train as “less than human” while “risking death” to cover a group of people that are “more than human.”
And she’s scared. In the beginning her editor remarks he’d sooner send her to war torn Croatia than across the bridge to Paris Island. In both their minds, there’s no more dangerous place on Earth, and it was probably that way before the superpowered gang.
For many white Americans, gangs represent an inner city boogeyman; roaming groups of “super predators” who bring terror to their own neighborhoods and anyone who dares enter them. Drug dealers, murderers, rapists, thieves. These gangs provide a justification for a war on drugs, for bloated police budgets and their continued militarization, for clutched purses and harsher prison sentences. But this just highlights America’s hypocrisy.
The earliest and most prevalent American gangs were actually started by Europeans who came to America in the 1800’s. Immigrant workers who lived in the slums and turned to crime to make ends meet. Gangs like The Bowery Boys became notorious across the Northeast. Gangs like Butch Cassidy’s were prevelant out west. There were the street gangs of the 1950’s like the Jesters, as well as The Mafia, motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels, and in modern day the many militias and white nationalist groups such as The Proud Boys.
And yet, these gangs are often mythologized and propped up in the media. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and is in the National Film Registry. West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause popularized the gangs of the 50’s and are considered classic films. Martin Scorcesse has made a career telling stories about Mafia families as well as 2002’s Gangs of New York which received 10 Academy Award Nominations. The Godfather part 1 & 2 are essential viewing. Sons of Anarchy about a motorcycle gang ran for 7 seasons and is one of the most acclaimed shows in modern television. These criminals were often depicted as romantic anti-heroes making hard choices in hopes of a better life. Even at their worst, they were flawed but three dimensional characters who maintained the possibility of redemption.
At the same time, the Black and Latino gangs of America were formed for protection against these white gangs and militias of the early 1900’s. After the Red Summer of 1919 in which whites attacked returning Black soldiers across the country and events like the Tulsa Massacre, Black’s formed gangs to protect themselves from racial violence and the police. Many Mexican gangs in California were formed in response to similar events like the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots. In the 1960’s many of the members of The Black Panther Party and The Young Lords were former gang members uniting to keep the police from harassing their communities. Both groups were infiltrated by the FBI and police and broken up. Their dissolution lead to the formation of gangs like The Bloods and Crips.
That’s not to say that the history of these gangs isn’t similarly plagued with violence and lawlessness. It’s just when it came to media depictions of these gangs, they were often shown as terrors to the moral fabric of America. In the 70’s and 80’s, films like Sudden Impact, Colors, and The Principal all featured police, rogue cops, and educators cleaning up the streets from Black and brown kids set on wreaking havoc in our streets and schools. There was also the emergence of Gangsta rap of the late 80’s with Ice-T and N.W.A infiltrating the mainstream. Suburban America was in an uproar, insert Helen Lovejoy meme.
1991 saw the release of two influential films: New Jack City and Boyz N The Hood. New Jack stars Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown, a gangster who at once gives out free turkeys at Thanksgiving while flooding his neighborhood with drugs. Boyz tells the story of a group of kids growing up in South Central L.A. and the diverging paths their lives take in the midst of drugs and violence. Both films kick started a wave of movies like Menace II Society, Juice, Dead Presidents, Fresh, Set it Off, and Belly that looked at the lives of young Black men and women caught up in a world of crime, helmed by Black writers and directors.
A year before Blood Syndicate dropped, uprisings in L.A. took place in response to four police officers being acquitted for the brutal beating of Rodney King. Dr. Dre (now a billionaire) along with Snoop Dogg and Ice-T (both now beloved by white America) were “poisoning” the minds of America’s youth (i.e. suburban children) with the release of The Chronic and Body Count’s “Cop Killer” song. This is the world that Blood Syndicate is released into and why Chaplik being our POV is so important.
Before we even see the group themselves, we get two reaction shots of Chaplik. Her initial reaction to Third Rail is that of awe and fear – and granted, he is a massive man with electricity pulsing through his body, but there’s more behind the look. Trepidation, unease, a nagging urge to turn back while there’s still time. We then see another reaction from Chaplik. This one too implies fear… but also a curiosity. Von Eeden’s panel shows an acknowledgement of a danger that she should want to run from but is simultaneously pulling her (and the reader) closer. It’s a familiar feeling to when white America first took a peek into the worlds of 2 Pac, John Singletary, Ice Cube, and The Notorious B.I.G.
The following splash page finally gives us a glimpse of our heroes. Von Eeden provides each a distinctive (and very 90’s) look, but what really stands out is the diversity of the crew. Third Rail is Korean. Holocaust, Wise Son, DMZ, and Masquerade are Black. Flashback and Brickhouse are Latina and Fade and Tech-9 are Latino. Masquerade and Fade would later be revealed to be trans and gay respectively, at a time when LGBTQ characters were seldom seen or given any depth.
The Blood Syndicate itself is a merging of the Paris Island Bloods and the Force Syndicate gangs, a fractured alliance of disparate youth, with the only common denominator being their shared trauma from the Big Bang and the new powers they possess. And instead of subverting expectations, McDuffie and Velez Jr. lean into them, asking readers to meet the characters where they are. At a time when being young and Black was the most dangerous thing imaginable, when you’ve been told your whole life you’d never amount to anything, when you’re bursting with legitimate anger at how the world has treated you, what would you do?
On the very next page, Wise Son and Brickhouse get into a fight after Wise starts cursing out her and Chaplik. Wise is young and militant, wearing the symbol for the Nation of Islam proudly on his hat. His hot headed nature often conflicts with the more disciplined approach of their leader Tech-9. They steal from drug dealers and gangs to keep their operation running. Members like Holocaust have little regard for innocent bystanders, killing gang members and burning down buildings in equal measure. Before they destroy a drug stash, Flashback grabs a handful for herself. It’s clear each member is torn between their own self interest and the possibility of something better.
The book is also bursting with a kind of violence unseen in the other Milestone titles. At one point, Chaplik literally has her head blown off by a drug dealer with a shotgun (she’s brought back to life on the next page by the time traveling powers of Flashback). Another group of drug dealers have their hands shot off by Tech-9. Masquerade rips someone’s throat out. Von Eeden doesn’t hold back, depicting these graphic moments in full detail. Life is cheap in the world of Blood Syndicate. A number of members die in horrific ways later on in the series. There was never a doubt if Superman would save the day, while readers could never tell if certain members of Blood Syndicate would live to see another.
McDuffie, Velez Jr., and Von Eeden wanted the series to hit hard. It was meant to be messy and imperfect in the same way these characters were. Blood Syndicate often found themselves helping those who despised them and trying to find a greater purpose but falling short due to constant infighting. These weren’t young science prodigies or stand outs being groomed for a future in politics, they were kids from hard circumstances doing what they thought was right, or oftentimes simply what they wanted. And they were unafraid to touch on issues that young people from diverse backgrounds were going through. If this was their one shot, they were going to throw everything into it.
There’s something to be said about not only seeing yourself reflected in the media you consume but also being seen by that media in return. To engage with something where you aren’t just a part, but the sole focus. Something that was made with you exclusively in mind. A knowing nod from creator to audience saying that not only do I see you, I am you, and I made this for us. Blood Syndicate was an attempt to reach out to those who often only saw themselves as a problem to solve or an obstacle for the hero to overcome. Now, they were front and center, and in that way it was ahead of its time. Before the nuanced characterization of The Wire (specifically with queer characters), before the 36 Chambers brought the ruckus, before the swagger of Allen Iverson and that legendary crossover on Jordan, it signaled a change was coming. To paraphrase Masquerade, Blood Syndicate hit fast. Hit hard. Took no prisoners, Showed no mercy.
Blood Syndicate #1
Written by Dwayne McDuffie and Ivan Velez Jr
Pencilled by Trevor Von Eeden
Inked by Andrew Pepoy
Coloured by Janet Jackson
Lettered by Steve Dutro
Published in 1993 by Milestone Media
Jordan Clark is a comic writer living in Baltimore, MD. His work often examines race and culture through the lens of science fiction, horror, and historical essay. He is also the co-host of the podcast White People Won’t Save You which decontextualizes the white savior trope in film and reimagines them with characters of color at the center. Find him on Twitter here!