This article is another one of Caine's explorations into the Lost Universes of defunct companies. You can read other Lost Universe articles here. - Jim
Today were going to begin expanding the "Lost Universe" to include a few other universes; some that have never really been completely lost to us, some that have been brought back after long absences, and some that continue to be rebooted over and over again but are still being published.
Today we'll take a look at the MILESTONE books which were printed by Milestone Media with an arrangement with DC Comics (Similar to the arrangement that Wildstorm has today).
"Although Milestone comics were published through DC Comics, they did not take place in the DC Universe. Under an arrangement similar to the one DC and Wildstorm established later, all Milestone characters existed in a separate continuity that did not fall under DC Comics' direct editorial control (but DC still retained right of refusal to publish). Unlike Wildstorm, whose properties were bought by DC Comics, Milestone Media retained the copyright of their properties. Fundamental to Milestone’s agreement with DC was they would not relinquish any of the legal or creative rights to their work. Throughout the negotiations, Milestone, and their lawyers, insisted on three basic points: (1) that they would retain total creative control; (2) that they would retain all copyrights for characters under the Milestone banner; and (3) that they would have the final say on all merchandising and licensing deals pertaining to their properties. In essence, DC had in effect licensed the characters, editorial services, and creative content of the Milestone books for an annual fee and a share of the profits. All Milestone Media titles were set in a continuity dubbed the "Dakotaverse", referring to the fictional midwestern city of Dakota in which most of the early Milestone stories were set. Before any titles were published, an extensive "bible" was created by McDuffie and other early creators, which provided back-story and information on all of the original Dakotaverse characters, as well as detailed information about the history and geography of Dakota. Cowan produced the original character sketches that served as a guide for the other artists." ~wikipedia
While DC has come up with Zuda as a means to expand in today's marketplace (digital), in the comics boom of the 90s DC brought on Milestone just as Image was being founded by all of those defecting creators jumping the Marvel ship.
While HARDWARE & ICON were the first two books published by Milestone it was BLOOD SYNDICATE that first gave readers a glimpse into Dakota - the city at the heart of the Milestone "universe" and it's island neighborhood Paris.
"The Big Bang is a significant event in the fictional history of Milestone Comics, in which many of the superheroes and super villains of Dakota - including Static and the Blood Syndicate - got their powers. The concept was the brainchild of Christopher Priest, who cites African-American urban legends as the inspiration.
The event took place on Paris Island, which had long suffered from heated gang wars. In 1993, the leaders of each gang decided to settle their grievances once and for all in a massive "gang bang" confrontation dubbed the "Big Bang." Word of the confrontation eventually reached Dakota's police department. Mayor Jefferson ordered them to spray every gang member present with an experimental tear gas laced with a radioactive marker that would allow the police to track the participants down later. The mayor was hoping that this would boost her reputation for being "tough on crime."
However, the gas also contained a mutagenic compound called "quantum juice" (or "Q-juice"). Most of those exposed to it - police included - died on the spot. The rest mutated, some being deformed, some gaining unusual abilities in the process. Others not personally involved in the conflict also became mutated as well. The survivors were dubbed "bang babies." The mayor disavowed any involvement. The survivors went on to become superheroes and super villains that continued to roam the city of Dakota for years to come. The survivors of two gangs - the Paris Bloods and Force Syndicate - formed the core of the Blood Syndicate, a gang of bang babies which claimed Paris Island as their turf." ~wikipedia
Curtis Metcalf, a boy genius into an adult super science freak, finds that his benefactor (Alva) is a criminal bigot who thinks of him as little more than a cog in the machine and has actively enslaved Curtis. This wouldn't be so abnormal accept that the benefactor had a large hand in raising Curtis as a second father and paid for Curtis's multiple college degrees in various sciences & technology.
When Metcalf goes to ask for a raise or a partnership he's told the truth. Digging into the company and Alva Metcalf turns over a windfall of criminal evidence to the authorities only to discover that it would have no effect. In Dakota Alva is completely untouchable. This drives Metcalf to reapply his genius and create the high tech gadgeteer persona known as Hardware.
Dwayne McDuffie masterfully uses the "simplistic" nature of the over arching plot: revenge against a horrific wrong doing, to draw in the reader. He further uses the advanced technology designed by Metcalf for Hardware to dazzle us fans of other comics such as; Iron Man, The Batman, and still more gadget centric comic book characters we've grown to know and love. There are other elements, all common place in genre fiction, such as the older wiser guide who shows him the way, and the strong willed and smart love interest who is so much more, but these elements alone do not make up the entirety of Hardware.
During the comics boom, a time when comic characters sporting little more than stars & stipes or a trench coat sold a million copies of a single issue, McDuffie takes a step in the opposite direction with Metcalf - writing him as if he were a real human being. Metcalf is complicated, and the world he lives in is even more so.
Curtis Metcalf see's him self as a champion, a writer of wrongs, a punisher of the unjust - his genius, a gift others have been profiting heavily from, can now be put to better use as Hardware. In the first story arch (a shining example of how to re-introduce your characters without making each story into an origin issue) Metcalf gears up as Hardware, actively surprising Alva and his mighty corporation but as the story continues into issues two, three, four and beyond we see fate begin to catch up to Hardware, Alva has set a trap and is ready for him.
In the second issue Hardware must retreat, injured. Not heard from for days the people in his life go looking for him only to discover his secret. This paves the way for a comic book character right of passage of sorts: spilling the beans (finally releasing the pressure a secret identity causes) and often times earning a side kick or girl Friday in the process.
True to form McDuffie zigs when you think he's going to zag and those around Metcalf don't quite see him as a champion for justice, a righter of wrongs, or a hero at all. He's wasting his life, and throwing away his gift. He's stolen from his employer, lied, cheated, and worst of all caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage as well as killed several people in the process (that's right, this isn't the A-Team, the bullets actually connect) - and all for what? A raise that he didn't get? This revelation not only makes Metcalf think, but it makes us as the readers think as well. Where did this come from? He's the protagonist after all, the STAR of the book. This never happens, accept that it just did, and we (us the reader & Metcalf too) are all the better for it.
Breaking barriers of all sorts, in story and out of it, Hardware is a great character and his adventures are well chronicled both in his own Milestone series as well as recent stints in the JLA and a new TPB. You should check them out if you like gadget centric superhero comics. You're chance to do so may be sooner than you think..