Milestone Comics has a well-deserved reputation for its incredible work in bringing diversity to the comic book industry. Its most popular hero, Static, is still a cultural icon 16 years after the Static Shock animated series ended and eight years after the last of said comics. But what isn’t quite as well-known is that the small imprint was also a major innovator in telling the stories of LGBTQ+ characters in the realm of mainstream superhero comics.
In 1994, Static had a five-issue storyline called “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” revolving around main character Virgil finding out one of his close friends, Rick Stone, is gay. The drama starts when Static is patrolling the town and hears a pained shriek from below. Rick and a friend are in the middle of a brutal attack by a group of skinheads. Static scares away the thugs, and when he asks Rick why they were attacked, Rick drops the bombshell that the skinheads targeted the two boys because they were gay.
Earlier issues had shown that Rick had long suffered homophobic mockery from his friends. But for Rick to come out as gay to his friend (for context, in the comics Rick does not know that Virgil is Static) is a shock. Even as Static transports Rick and his friend to the hospital while fighting off his wannabe rival Palisade, it’s all the hero can think about. In the following issues, Rick comes out to his entire school and asks for support in organizing a gay pride rally.
Static got a lot of well-deserved praise for portraying Virgil as an extremely relatable teenager, and his reaction to Rick coming out is a part of that. Think about how many readers in 1994 opened up the comic and saw Virgil acting just like they would in that situation—valuing his “reputation” greater than being a friend to Rick. Being so paranoid about others thinking he was gay too that he has to unnaturally police his affection for not only Rick, but all of his other male friends. Now think about readers’ attitudes shifting as they see Virgil go through a journey to realize how wrong he’s been. Virgil starts out practically kicking Rick out of his life; he actually thinks that he is the victim here.
But through personal reflection and a stern scolding from his friend Frieda, he realizes the errors of his ways. Not only does Static attend Rick’s rally, but he defends it from his nemesis Hotstreak and the white supremacist group Sons of Odin. Virgil apologizes to Rick and saves their friendship.
“What Are Little Boys Made Of?” made the brilliant decision to put both the wrathful homophobia of the Sons of Odin and the casual social homophobia of Virgil and his friends side by side. It tears down the absurd notions of the “I don’t care if they’re gay as long as the keep it to themselves” attitude. While Virgil’s homophobia might be milder than bashing in heads with a flaming hammer, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Either version is bad. Virgil’s journey in this arc is to realize that.
LGBTQ+ representation wasn’t just limited to Static. It came up in several other books in the Milestone roster. Blood Syndicate is about a superpowered gang whose members mostly got their abilities from the “Big Bang,” the same event that gave Static his powers. That series was written by Ivan Velez Jr., who also wrote the final two issues of the “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” arc. Prior to writing for Milestone, he created a comic series about the lives of gay teenagers called Tales of the Closet. Members of Blood Syndicate included Fade, a gay man with the powers of flight and intangibility, and Masquerade, a trans man with shapeshifting powers. Introduced in 1993, it’s worth noting that Masquerade is one of the very first trans, and very possibly the first trans male, character in mainstream superhero comics.
Just like Static’s group of friends, the Blood Syndicate isn’t exactly a safe space. And unlike Virgil and Rick’s gaming buddies, the Blood Syndicate members are actual killers. Fade and Masquerade both have to hide who they are. Things get even more tragic during a run-in with a villain, when they learn each other’s secret. Fade is more than willing to respect Masquerade’s privacy; unfortunately, Masquerade decides that Fade’s word isn’t good enough, and threatens to out him as an insurance policy.
Ivan Velez Jr. is a master at creating compelling and complex characters, and these two are no exception. Fade is a man being pulled apart from all directions. Living with his powers is a constant struggle to not literally fade into nonexistence. He still feels the sting of the death of the Syndicate’s first leader, Tech-9, for whom Fade had romantic feelings. And always hanging over his head are the big questions of what the Blood Syndicate’s purpose on Earth is and how they’ll survive the future.
Masquerade’s desperation and distrust is what led him to blackmail Fade and eventually betray the Blood Syndicate. His character is a perfect representative of the unique dynamic that exists in the Blood Syndicate. This isn’t the Justice League. The Blood Syndicate consists of gang members, drug addicts, and killers; all of them had secrets. It sprung from a gang war that killed most of its participants. They want to be a family, but learning to trust isn’t always easy. It isn’t always safe.
If you’re looking for even more Milestone comics featuring LGBTQ+ characters, try to get your hands on their four-issue miniseries Deathwish. It was written by the late Maddie Blaustein, whom you may know as the former English dub voice for Meowth in Pokémon. The story followed trans female police lieutenant Marissa Rahm as she hunts down a serial killer who targets trans female sex workers. You should also keep your eye out for the books Shadow Cabinet and Heroes for the lesbian superduo Donner and Blitzen.
Even decades later Milestone comics are still impressive. They did more for representation and storytelling than many mainstream outfits are doing even today. There’s so much we can learn from reading their work, so hopefully some day soon the catalog will be made widely available in digital form.
Originally published on June 30, 2020.