Fans turned out in droves for Comic-Con International's panel celebrating Milestone Media's twentieth anniversary, offering a chance to hear the founding creators discuss the history of their work and the importance of writing comics for people of color. Just as the panel was about to start, a representative from Comic-Con took to the microphone to present three of the panelists, Derek Dingle, Michael Davis and Denys Cowan with the coveted Inkpot award. Upon receiving his statuette, Dingle said he wanted to "accept this Inkpot in honor of Dwayne McDuffie." McDuffie, another co-founder of Milestone passed away in 2011 at the age of 49 due to complications from emergency heart surgery.
After the awarding of the Inkpots, the stage was turned over to moderator Reginald Hudlin who started the discussion by introducing the three creators along with actor Phil LaMarr, best known to comic fans as the voices of John Stewart in "Justice League" and Virgil "Static" Hawkins on the cartoon "Static Shock." Hudlin informed the crowed that LaMarr is playing, "a crucial role in Milestone" in the future.
Hudlin opened the discussion by asking the panelists about what they were doing before the creation of Milestone. Dingle had been working for "Money Magazine" when Cowan, an old friend from second grade approached him to help found the company. When he and Cowan were children, they would often talk about how, "One day we are going to create a comic company."
When he approached Dingle, Cowan had already been working in comic books for a decade, having launched his career at the young age of fourteen under the watchful eye of legendary artist Neal Adams. "I was raised by comic book artists, which is really scary" Cowan said. In the early '90s, the entertainment industry was beginning to change, focusing more on entertainment for people of color. "It was cultural forces," Cowan said. "It was all going on, except in comics." It was this lack of representation in the comic book industry which spurred Cowan forward with his project.
Cowan drew inspiration from McDuffie who had just written a Deathlok story for Marvel Comics called "The Souls of Cyber Folk." The story was a play on the 1903 work "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois. From that point on, Cowan knew he had to start work on what would eventually become Milestone. The first person he called about his idea was Michael Davis.
When Hudlin turned to Davis, it became clear to the audience that Davis had spent the past few minutes attempting to hold back his emotions over receiving an Inkpot. Tears rolling down his cheek, Davis said, "You don't know what this means to me." He then joked, "There goes my street cred. My bad boy image is done."
After a few seconds, Davis collected himself and told the audience that he was working as a corporate illustrator when Cowan approached him about Milestone. Though Davis and Cowan did not know each other as long as Cowan and Dingle, they had been well aware of each other for some time. "I knew him in high school," Davis said, "but he was a dick." A few years later ,at the fateful Comic-Con where the seeds of Milestone were planted, "We were walking across the floor and he stopped and said, 'We should start a black comic book company.' I said, 'That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard.'"
After convincing McDuffie to join them, the creators then approached Jim Owsley a.k.a Christopher Priest, who was an editor at the time. It was Owsley who eventually created the now famous Milestone logo.
"We wanted to do four books, one for each week of the month," Cowan recalled. But first, they needed to find a partner. Though many companies were interested in what the creators had to offer, it was DC Comics which seemed the best fit. With the help of Paul Levitz, Milestone found itself partnered with DC. "Paul was our biggest supporter," Davis said.
The panel then moved on to the inception of "Static Shock" and the move from comics to television. LaMarr who voiced the title character said, "At the time, I knew it was significant in a TV. It was the first African American superhero in a TV show. From the start, Static had some of that Milestone in it." LaMarr enjoyed working on the show because it was about a kid who happened to be black and that the focus wasn't purely on the characters race. "Every episode wasn't a 'very special' episode."
The ratings on "Static Shock" were exceptional. "We beat 'Pokémon' a few years," Davis recalled. Cowan attributes a lot of the success of the show to producer Alan Burnett, who would pitch the show as "Chris Rock at fourteen with super powers."
Asked what happened after Milestone ended. Dingle discussed how the company had attempted to branch out, even toying with the idea of publishing children's books. They went so far as to publish a book by Dingle about Jackie Robinson.
Another fan who wanted to know where the inspiration for the characters came from. "I just rip off people I like," Davis replied. Cowan then told the fan that he had locked himself away in his studio for about three months and worked on the designs. "Most of my inspiration came from Jack Kirby's New Gods." Cowan attributed the creation of Icon in large part to McDuffie, saying, "We wanted to make his powers close to those of Superman when he first appeared."
Asked by Hudlin to share the story of his favorite fan, Dingle said he once revieved a message from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. At first, Dingle thought it was all just a joke by Davis and Cowan, but when he called the number back it was actually the Justice's office. Thomas told Dingle he "read 'Icon' and found it very refreshing." According to Dingle, the Justice's office had copies of statements by Icon all over the place, and to this day, he swears Thomas ripped off Icon for a speech which aired on C-Span.