When Milestone launched its line of comics back in 1993, Hardware #1 was the first book out of the gate. In a reversal, Hardware Season One #1, which arrives in stores and digitally today, is the last title to be released as part of the much hyped Milestone 2.0 relaunch. Hardware is the story of Curtis Metcalf, a genius black inventor who, after being betrayed by his former mentor, Edwin Alva, dons high-tech armor of his own design and wages a one-man crusade against the man who wronged him. Last week The Beat attended a virtual press roundtable with writer Brandon Thomas and artist Denys Cowan, the creative team of Hardware Season One, as they discussed the development and themes of the project.
As you might expect, the late/great Dwayne McDuffie, original Milestone co-founder and writer, came up quite often during the conversation. Considering the story was a meta-narrative for the frustrations of McDuffie and the other Milestone creators with their mistreatment in the comics industry, it was hard not to feel McDuffie’s presence.
“It’s a very kind of out-of-body experience sometimes,” admitted Thomas. “I try to do my best with every project but this one is a little more. It’s a little headier. It takes a little more time and thought. I really want to do a great job because there is an additional level of responsibility for this project and these characters and this world especially because Dwayne isn’t with us anymore.”
The core concept of Hardware is still quite relevant in the eyes of the series creative team. “I’m a different person than I was 30 years ago. The things that made me mad then just make me madder now,” revealed Cowan, another Milestone co-founder and the artist who drew the original ’90s Hardware series. “Until society changes we’re going to still be talking about this stuff. It’s all important. While I find myself not looking at some things the same way, I look at some of the things in a much sharper way. It makes drawing this book as vital as ever, because all those things that upset me and Dwayne still exist in society and the comic book world.”
Thomas, who began his journey trying to break into the comics industry over 20 years ago with his online news column Ambidextrous, recalled a time in 2005 when McDuffie blew his mind after he informed him that Thomas was the first black person to write Marvel’s First Family with the Fantastic Four Tales comic for kids. Incidentally, McDuffie would be the second just a few years later when he began his stint writing the main ongoing Fantastic Four title. Moreover, working on Hardware and DC Comics in general for the last two years is a very “meta” experience for Thomas, who coyly cited “specific intentional reasons” that made it impossible for him five years ago. In any event, Thomas is relishing in the moment.
Cowan assumed that returning to a character he helped define would be like “riding a bicycle again” but found it was the opposite. “I had completely forgotten how to do it, what he looked like,” he conceded. “I had to get the old Hardware comics to get back into that world. It has not been nostalgic. It has been revisiting an old friend but with new eyes. With Brandon writing, it has given it a new twist and I have to approach the stories differently. I will say it’s the same spirit that Dwayne brought to it [and] Brandon brings to it tenfold. It’s just brilliant writing. It’s been an experience drawing Hardware again but it’s been an experience in a way that I didn’t expect it. I didn’t know it would be so challenging and yet so fulfilling.”
Readers may have been surprised to see Hardware sporting armor very reminiscent of the original ’90s series, in contrast to the redesigned costumes for Static or Rocket & Icon. However, it’s a purposeful decision according to Cowan, who teased that Curtis Metcalf is on a personal journey and by the end of if it he will have a different look. McDuffie set out to challenge audience assumptions by writing the “anti-Deathlok” i.e. turning Hardware from a selfish person into a true hero over the course of the series. Thomas echoed Cowan, revealing that his blinding anger towards Alva will lead Hardware to rebuild himself emotionally.
As a character, Curtis Metcalf hasn’t been completely retooled for the Hardware Season One. “I feel like we didn’t need to revamp Curtis Metcalf. What has happened is the world around him has changed,” described Thomas. “It has changed but it’s also stayed the same in some fundamental ways. I think his perspective fits in even more in the world of 2021 than it did in the early ’90s. Especially as we slowly and painfully try to understand and reconcile our country’s horrible history with racism and oppression. To me it makes a lot of sense for a character like this who is in a relationship with Alva and how that evolves to have this reaction to it.”
The original Hardware #1 opened with a flashback of a young Curtis Metcalf remembering his pet parakeet escaping its cage only to be stopped by a barrier of glass, mistaking “being out of the cage for being free.” A brilliant meta-commentary, Thomas believes that it is “one of the greatest monologues in the history of comics,” and perfectly captures the entire story of being black in America. He knew that the parakeet metaphor needed to be part of the first issue of Hardware Season One, but was initially hesitant about incorporating it in its entirety.
“It’s not Hardware if it’s not referenced,” argued Thomas. “It felt inappropriate not to be a big part of that first issue. I was thinking about someone who hadn’t read it. I didn’t want to essentially take credit. This is Dwayne’s monologue and it is Hardware and it had to be there.”
Make no mistake that Thomas is not simply cribbing Dwayne McDuffie and is seeking to merge his own voice with the essential aspect of the character. For instance, the issue opens with a young Curtis Metcalf attending a protest and seeing social justice despite not fully understanding it. “When people start the first issue of Hardware it was very important for them to see a black boy smiling. I felt that was something Hardware fans, myself included, would not be expecting. That opening sequence is me trying to find my Curtis voice.”
Thomas further added, “I was trying to be respectful but upfront about my inspiration about being a comic book writer in general. I didn’t want to try to hide that. It didn’t feel like something that needed to be hidden. I had to remove the ego from it. It wasn’t important for me for people to feel like this is Brandon’s version of Hardware or his perspective on Hardware.”
Milestone’s armored avenger garnered quite a rogues gallery during his original comic series with villains such as Reprise, Guillotine, and Fuselage. While Cowan hinted that fans may see some familiar faces, the main focus of Hardware Season One is the antagonistic relationship between Curtis and Edwin Alva.
In an update to the origin that seems very appropriate to Thomas in this modern world, Alva basically gaslights Curtis by placing the blame for the Big Bang event, a chemical incident that killed numerous protestors while mutating others into having superpowers, squarely on his former protégé. “He’s pretending he didn’t have anything to do with it,” explained Thomas. “As the story evolves you’ll definitely see there is a public and private face to Alva. In public he pretends he doesn’t believe these ridiculous charges against Curtis Metcalf and there is no possible way he could be responsible for all this. He pretends that he’s being very helpful and supportive to him but in private he is not.”
“Curtis thought that he and Alva had an understanding,” elaborated Thomas. “I don’t know if you want to say that Curtis thought that Alva was ‘one of the good ones.’ But he thought that they had a real relationship that was about real things and real emotions and his real accomplishments. Their relationship was fine for probably over a decade. When Curtis gets to the point where, ‘You know what? I deserve more than what I’m getting and I’m going to ask for it because I deserve it.’”
Part of the goal for Thomas was to let readers understand why Alva feels “legitimately offended” by Curtis’ reasonable desires. “He believes that he made Curtis Metcalf. So the fact that Curtis would turn around and would ask to profit more and ask to be more of a shared partner is so offensive to him. As someone who’s been on the receiving end, that’s how it feels. It feels like such a personal emotional violation to believe you have a real relationship with someone and to learn that your relationship is based on where you sit on the totem of status. And once you’ve gotten to a certain level, now you have become a threat to someone you thought was your friend, mentor, and advocate. It’s a horrible feeling and something I really wanted to try to accurately reflect in this relationship.”
Cowan is ecstatic about the fan response to the Milestone 2.0 books thus far. “It’s been extremely gratifying to see people’s responses. It’s good to see it finally come to fruition. People have no idea what’s in store for them. We want to do something that makes even DC go, ‘Are you sure you guys want to do this?’” It’s a far cry from initial reviews of the original Hardware book called McDuffie “racist” and “ungrateful” and even led to Milestone receiving two letter bombs.
Considering, Hardware #1 in 1993 sold over 400,000 copies, eight times Milestone’s projections, and the success of the previous two Milestone 2.0 titles, Cowan is a bit nervous about the reaction to Hardware Season One. “I’m sweating this one,” he admitted. “We’ve created our own worst competition with the other excellent books. I don’t want to be judged next to them but we will be. And we’ll see how we come out. I want all the books to succeed of course. There is no secret part of me that wants my book to do better than others.”
Looking forward, Thomas teased to expect to see Curtis in the Hardware suit “in environments and locations you never imagined before.” And while it’s still too early to say anything about Milestone Season 2, Cowan assures that plans are already underway.
Hardware Season One #1 is available at now your local comic shop