For a little history, Milestone Media began publishing in 1993, wherein series such as Static, Icon, Hardware and Blood Syndicate were published regularly for between 35 and 50 issues. The company shut down its comics division in 1997. Since then, Milestone comics have been irregularly collected — Static Shock: Trial by Fire in 2000 and Hardware: The Man in the Machine in 2010 — with the books being impossible to find digitally or in most comic shops. Now with Milestone’s relaunch on the horizon, DC and Milestone have begun re-releasing the classic series.
Thus, most readers who are familiar with Static probably are because of Static Shock!, the character’s Humanitas Prize-winning animated cartoon which aired for four seasons from 2000 to 2005. Those readers might be surprised to find out though, that in some ways Static Shock: Trial by Fire is quite different from the Static Shock! cartoon.
Static in the light…ning!
Dwayne McDuffie, Robert L. Washington III and John Paul Leon are telling the traditional teenage superhero narrative, but are unabashedly filtering it through the racial conflicts of the time. It’s a narrative that pulls no punches about what they believe it would be like to be a Black superhero in the inner city, and the book is infinitely better because of it. There’s an innate reality they brought to the page that no one else was doing at the time, but everyone should be able to recognize, even if it’s simply from the fact that Static and his supervillains talk trash like real people, not with focus-group approved quips and references.
In the four issues that make up this book, McDuffie and Washington III find a high degree of success in crafting a unique and layered character out of Virgil Hawkins himself. Whether it’s a manner of speaking that denotes and implies a serious commitment to education, literature and pop culture, or the genuine questions he has about violence, wealth, and the place for those things in his community, there’s never a page where it feels like Hawkins is existing in some cookie-cutter superhero scenario, or like his response is the default superhero thing to do. It’s all filtered through the nuanced character he is, and the world that defines him.
This commitment to detail extends to Hawkins’ supporting class and villains as well. Each one supports, belittles, jokes with, and deceives in the same complicated ways that real people do. They’re full of contradictions, at once courteous and murderous, compassionate and distant, prideful and embarrassing. It’s a level of detail that allows Static to have complicated conversations about what kind of man he wants to be, in which there can be multiple wrong answers, and not everyone is diametrically opposed.
One element of the story fans of the show might find themselves critical of is the depiction of Hawkins’ parents. Whereas the show infuses a certain level of drama into Static’s origin by having gang violence be the thing that killed his mom, the book has both of his parents alive and well. It’s a change that in my opinion makes his origin a little worse. It also seems like a strange omission in a work that is as committed to the depiction of racial struggle as this one is.
Throughout the book, it’s something that’s infused into the dialogue on every page. Readers might find themselves taken aback the first time someone calls Static a monkey, but it helped appropriately define this world of racial inequality that McDuffie and Washington III are depicting. It seems intrinsically part of the reality of a teenage Black superhero in the ‘90s.
The conversation around racial justice is turned up to eleven though in Static #4, with the introduction of Holocaust. It’s here where Static is asked questions and brought into conversations that Americans are still dealing with today. It’s also here that the classic trope of an older antagonist trying to convince our young hero that he should be profiting off his work comes into play. As the two are combined, though, the desire for personal recompensation and the fight for moral righteousness, Holocaust’s arguments become seductive manifestations of McDuffie and Washington III’s incredible character work.
The two also show incredible restraint and patience as they let Static work through his thoughts on the issue on the page. Instead of having a violent reaction to anything Holocaust is saying, as if Static is unequivocably more righteous and can’t be tainted by his ideas, he takes pages on pages, interaction on interaction, to develop his opinion on what Holocaust is saying. It’s a wonderful piece of character work that exemplifies why Staticworks so well, both as a character and as a series.
Shock the ’90s
Now Leon’s work, more than McDuffie or Washington III’s, is absolutely exemplary of the style of the times, meaning each page is depicted with a distinct amount of energy that propels the reader through the book. From the very first couple pages, Leon is allowing Static to burst on the stage in scenes that steal readers’ eyes again and again. Even with what amounts to a somewhat minimalist style at times, Hawkins is continually electrifying.
The world around him is also rendered with all the right details to remind the readers when this book was created. It perfectly grounds the story in a time and place that contribute to its feeling of authenticity. The attention to detail with what characters are wearing solidifies this, and helps attach the characters to that time period, too.
It’s more how the super-powered characters are dressed that might draw readers out of the book. Static looks fine, but readers might find it hard to move past the thought that his now-classic design from the show creates a better sense of his personality as a hero, and is just better designed in general.
This isn’t to say elements like the character’s Malcolm X hat, or long, yellow overcoat don’t give him a distinct flair, but that it simply doesn’t match the show’s design. Holocaust is the major offender in this category, though. Truly a product of the times, more than any other, his design does not hold up. Covered in pointless buckles and pouches, and conspicuously missing a shirt, readers will find themselves wondering what the rationale for this look was.
Throughout the book’s quieter moments, Leon shows a great ability to capture characters’ body language in a way that helps add to the story. It infuses characters with even more personality than McDuffie and Washington III are giving them, which is why so many of the characters are so well rounded. In contrast, there are times where Leon’s facial expressions can become smudgy. Bouncing between a David Aja-esque minimalist style, and some straight-up wrong proportions, there are evidently some panels that could’ve used another pass. It’s not nearly enough to hurt the quality of the script, though, and often the book steamrolls right through these moments without a second thought.
Static Shock: Trial by Fire is directly comparable to the first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man. They’re both origin stories for new heroes and their first adventures which came out in the same decade. Static Shock: Trial by Fire is better in every way. From the layered and effecting script, driven by real conversations about race in America, to the energetic and grounded art, it’s impossible not to recommend this book. It should be everyone’s hope that a new generation discovers this gem.
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