When award-winning writer Brandon Thomas (Noble, Excellence, Future State: The Outsiders) turned in his first draft of Hardware: Season One to Milestone, he had no idea that legendary artist Denys Cowan would draw the comic. Especially since Cowan, a Milestone Media co-founder, was the original artist on Hardware almost 30 years ago. That was when the late great Dwayne McDuffie penned the first iteration of the character. “I’m so happy that they didn’t tell me because I feel like if I had come into it knowing that Denys was going to draw it, I really think it would have messed me up,” Thomas says.
Apparently, they also didn’t tell Thomas that the legendary Bill Sienkiewicz would do inks with Chris Sotomayor on colors. He really would have freaked out. However, the deception paid off. Thomas’ updated version of Hardware is a solid nod to McDuffie’s work and the character’s Dakotaverse (the reality in which Milestone Media’s characters exist) origins.
Some call genius, millionaire, scientist Curtis Metcalf, a.k.a. Hardware, Milestone’s Iron Man. But if that were true, then Tony Stark had a Black assistant who actually invented all of his tech and never got any credit. Because that’s precisely what industrialist Edwin Alva did to Metcalf.
According to the Hardware canon, Alva recognized Metcalf’s genius at a young age and became his benefactor. Paying for his education, Alva brought Metcalf from his low-income urban neighborhood into the world’s most high-tech lab. For over a decade, Alva made billions from Metcalf’s inventions. And Metcalf knows this, so he did what any other high-ranking employee might do: he asked for a piece of the profits.
“Alva’s reaction is, ‘Who told you that you could ask me for anything more than I’ve given you?’” Thomas explains. “I really wanted to have a scene where Alva essentially takes credit for everything that Curtis has accomplished in his life. To me, that felt like a special kind of infuriating. That was the first thing that went in the book because to me, that scene crystallized what we were trying to do with this new version of Hardware.”
This first arc of Hardware: Season One has the same title as Hardware’s first issue in 1993: “Angry Black Man.” In a 2010 interview, a year before his death, McDuffie spoke openly about how a frustrating time in his career at Marvel inspired Curtis Metcalf. Starting out as an assistant editor, McDuffie realized after a while that as much as he appreciated everything Marvel taught him, there was a limit to how far he would be allowed to go there. So McDuffie left Marvel and went out on his own. He eventually co-founded Milestone Media along with Denys Cowan, Derek Dingle, and Michael Davis.
Early in the original comic, Metcalf reminisces over a pet parakeet he had as a child. The parakeet frees itself from its cage only to fly into the window repeatedly while trying to escape its larger confines. Those pages now read more like an allegory of McDuffie’s earlier life. “The more I tried to not use [that moment], the more it became clear that I had to include it.” Thomas says, “That specific scene was so profound; that part is pretty much Dwayne’s original script.”
Milestone is in a fascinating place right now. The company is rebooting original characters like Virgil Hawkins (Static), Augustus Freeman IV (Icon), and Raquel Ervin (Rocket). All of these characters came from the creators seeing very few Black characters in mainstream comics and even fewer conversations about diversity and inclusion.
When it launched in the late ’90s, Milestone was the only imprint creating characters of color with diverse, realistic storylines with major distribution. In February 2021, the Dakotaverse got a reboot with Milestone Returns. But after two decades, the rest of the industry has caught up. Most indie imprints have more diverse rosters of characters with relatable story arcs.
In this new era of Milestone, Thomas and other writers have the daunting task of rebooting older fans’ favorite characters while simultaneously making them relevant to a whole new generation. But Thomas isn’t phased. “In our current day and age, the essence of Curtis has not really changed,” Thomas explains. “It’s just the world around him has changed.”
In Milestone Returns #0, the Dakotaverse forever changes when police raid a Black Lives Matter protest and replace their tear gas with an experimental compound. Those in the line of fire either die horrific deaths or get powers, like Virgil Hawkins, a.k.a. Static. Alva Industries created the chemical, and the company threw Curtis under the bus as a result of his perceived insolence.
“Curtis has achieved a level of status that a lot of people with his skin color and background do not have,” Thomas explains. “But the world is the world. And it’s not a coincidence that Alva knew that he could [set him up] for this.”
Curtis Metcalf’s anger in this iteration presents almost as a stage of grief. Grief born of betrayal, as the man he respected as a father figure betrayed him in such a personal way. A man who exploited him and saw him as no more than an insurance policy. Historically, Alva is not Metcalf’s only enemy. When I asked Thomas if we will get to see any of Hardware’s classic rogues like Reprise or Deathwish, his eyes lit up. “Let’s just say at least one of the characters that you mentioned is going to show up because it’s a character that I am obsessed with,” Thomas hints.
Hardware: Season One, Static: Season One, and Icon and Rocket: Season One are all out now. All have six issue arcs and a shared universe. So it looks like the Dakotaverse is going to be around for a while.
Brandon Thomas isn’t going anywhere either. Not only will he continue his Future State work with Jackson Hyde’s story in Aquaman: The Becoming out in September, but he also has Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Aquaman/Green Arrow: Deep Target, and more of his creator-owned Excellence series with Skybound in the works. Although his dance card is quite full, Thomas considers working on Hardware an honor. “I’m really proud to work on this book. And [follow] in Dwayne’s footsteps, it just felt like it was important.”