Review of Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans by Jeffrey A. Brown
In his 2001 survey of black superhero comics and the ecosystem in which they (sometimes) survive, Jeffrey Brown names his ideological project up front; quoting the mother of an avid comics reader, he ends his prologue, "'It's about time we got some new heroes around here.' New heroes, indeed" (xv). Brown wants to situate Milestone Media, a black-owned comic-book publishing company emphasizing "cultural diversity" (33), as a source of positive identification for the black adolescent and preadolescent boys who make up most of its readership. Black Superheroes begins by sketching the history of Milestone, its major series, and its media milieu; from there, Brown moves into a detailed overview of the world of comics fandom generally.
The center of Brown's book – literally and figuratively – is the chapter in which he profiles a handful of serious Milestone fans and quotes extensively from his interviews with them. He uses the boys' comments as a springboard for three analytical approaches: one examining race and gender, one examining masculinity, and a final chapter in which he reviews the "principle[s] of interpretation" (191) by which fans read, understand, and value comics texts. His key point, made clearest in this final section, is that comics readers construct meaning with reference to a complex matrix of "intertextual information shared with, and about, the creators themselves" (191) – information which includes the superhero books' perceived artistic merit as well as their relation to the conditions of their production, to mainstream comics, to other black-oriented materials, even to the "blaxploitation" images to which they sometimes allude. For Brown, this intertextuality suggests that comic book fans are neither passively receiving nor actively resisting the texts they read; instead, the fans "work in cooperation" (12) with the producers of the texts to negotiate new variations on existing archetypes.
Black Superheroes provides a surprisingly comprehensive introduction to the comics world, as well as a primer of sorts for the cultural studies approach to texts. Brown discourses at length on fandom and convention culture, mainstream attitudes toward comics consumption, and contemporary trends in the field, with frequent reference to the work of critics like Janice Radway and Martin Barker. These passages will prove especially useful to new comics readers from the fields of cultural studies, children's literature, or African-American studies. Brown writes simply and pleasantly, without resort to excessive jargon or abstraction. He cheerfully devotes nearly two pages to explaining the visual conventions at work in a single page of the flagship Milestone comic Icon: "The depiction of Hardware's spoken words in panel 2 – 'Dobie? Initiate flow gun assembly' – is visually represented in a box which at first glance appears very similar to the box containing the character's internal thoughts; but it is distinguished by the convention of the box's frame, which has rounded edges and a jagged point that indicates the source of the voice" (143). Unfortunately, Brown tends toward exposition rather than analysis, so that the overall effect in the early sections is that of a research paper, disappointingly limited in argument. He summarizes vital debates on representations of blackness without contributing much to them.
It is no surprise, then, that the best chapters of the book are those in which the readers (and Milestone's creators, themselves lifetime comics fans) speak for themselves. Their idiosyncrasy and enthusiasm lends the prose the verve that Brown lacks. Brown attributes his success as an interviewer to "conversation based on affiliation [...] the way fans speak with each other" (7), and indeed these chapters sound a great deal like a group of enthusiastic consumers debating which characters are the most realistic or the most awesome. In presenting these conversations, Brown lends his readers the encyclopedic knowledge of context that he claims comics fans draw on in order to interpret any new book. For instance, the beloved issue in which the teenaged Milestone hero Static defeats superbaddie Tarmack might seem to the uninitiated reader to be indistinguishable from the usual "comic book story about two superpowered, costumed characters fighting it out" (184). Only by comparison with the "hypermasculine might-makes-right norm" (183) of other popular books do this text and others like it emerge as "alternative models" (184) of manhood. Here and elsewhere, Brown affirms the validity of his reading with quotations from the boy fans who say they appreciate Milestone comics explicitly "for what they're not" (179) – in other words, for their situation within the larger comics ecosystem.
These later chapters, dominated by the voices of the creators and the fans, are great fun, but Brown is again perhaps too uncritical. He notes with amusement that fans perceive the geeky fanboy stereotype "always in those around them, never in themselves" (66) but elsewhere he wholeheartedly embraces, without further evidence, the boys' assertions that they like the comics for the "values" they embody (104), that the books have made them less racist (166), or that they have become better students as a result of their interest in comics (107). He neglects to explore the obvious ideological incentives for members of a marginalized subculture to express themselves in these terms – perhaps because he finds himself, as a writer about comics, identifying with their defensive posture. In positing a collaborative "integration that exists between the fans and the small industry of professionals" (91), Brown cites only urban legends of fans who became professional artists or whose comments influenced storylines – incidents that he admits are probably apocryphal. Brown's most troubling failure of critical imagination is that he repeats the Milestone creators' claim that they hope to avoid "preachy" or overtly political content (32), and in almost the same breath explains that they aim to "show the quality and diversity of African American life" (31). We might permit a producer of comic books to insist that his message of tolerance, multiculturalism, "resisting the lures of gang life, excelling in school, caring for younger children, developing his body in the gym, playing wholesome sports, and even helping a little old lady with her groceries" (185) is somehow universal and apolitical, but we expect sharper scrutiny from a scholar of popular culture.
Brown's strongest critical claims – regarding intertextuality and masculinity, and their relation to race – are all reprised in the final chapter, "Drawing Conclusions," where they are uncluttered by the description and summary that characterize the earlier chapters. Brown's clear prose, his extensive engagement with other critics, his inclusion of illustrations from the original comics, and his accessible conclusions make this chapter a useful model for familiarizing students with the work of cultural studies. (They will need to disregard the many editing errors that plagued my edition of the text.) In Brown's very last paragraph, students will find his most innovative suggestion: that audience studies should focus not only on how consumers rework texts after their production but also on how they "may actually be influencing the producers [before and during production] [...] in other ways that have yet to be explored" (201). As Brown implies, this exploration does not take place in Black Superheroes.