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This week, the first round of new series launches in the Milestone Returns line at DC Comics draws to a close with Hardware: Season One, a relaunch for the brilliant, armor-designing title character helmed by writer Brandon Thomas and artist Denys Cowan. Like the other relaunch titles, Static: Season One and Icon and Rocket: Season One, Hardware merges newer comics talent with veteran contributors, in this case giving Thomas a chance to work with the artist who co-created Hardware alongside writer Dwayne McDuffie back in 1993.
Though Thomas has his own impressive bibliography covering both Big Two superhero titles and acclaimed creator-owned work, he was always aware that he was following in the footsteps of icons, as he explained last week during a press roundtable that SYFY WIRE attended.
"It's a humbling, kind of sobering feeling. It is very surreal to me even now to see Hardware pages that Denys has drawn, showing up in the email, and I'm like, 'Wow, did I write this?' It's a very kind of like out of body experience sometimes," Thomas said. "I try to do my best with every project that I do, obviously, but this one is a little more...It's a little heavier, it takes a little more time, a little more thought, because I just want to really do a great job. Because there's an additional level of responsibility for this project and these characters and this world, especially since Dwayne is not here with us anymore."
McDuffie, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 49, is a figure whose legacy looms large over all of modern superhero comics, but particularly in Milestone stories. Like the writers of Static: Season One and Icon and Rocket: Season One, Thomas was following directly in McDuffie's footsteps with Hardware, and he wanted to pay tribute to the late creator in a very direct way. Readers of Hardware: Season One #1 will find some key structural and thematic similarities to the original Hardware #1 in Thomas' script, along with one particular monologue about a parakeet trying to escape the house it's kept in that Thomas lifted directly from the original series in tribute to McDuffie.
"The first script kind of starts off with me, and then it's Dwayne, and then by the time you get to the end it's Hardware," Thomas explained.
For Cowan, who collaborated on the art for Hardware: Season One with the legendary Bill Sienkiewicz, coming back to the character he brought to life in 1993 was a very different experience, one more challenging than he'd perhaps anticipated. To hear him tell it, though, Thomas' scripts made it all worth it.
"With Brandon writing, it's certainly given it a whole different twist and I have to approach his stories differently. But what I will say is that the same spirit that Dwayne brought to it, or Dwayne and I brought to it, Brandon brings to Hardware, tenfold," Cowan said. "It's just brilliant writing. I can't say enough. So it's been an experience drawing Hardware again. but it's been an experience in a way I didn't expect. I thought I'd get back on, and people would be like, 'Oh man, Denys Cowan's back on Hardware!' I didn't know it'd be so hard, so challenging and yet so fulfilling. So that's what it's been like, getting back to this story. It's been a great experience."
Hardware is Curtis Metcalf, a brilliant inventor who caught the eye of wealthy scientist Edwin Alva. Alva took the child prodigy under his wing, gave him resources, and used his genius to build tremendous wealth and power. When Curtis, now an adult secretly using his spare time to become the superhero Hardware, asked for a larger piece of Alva Industries' success, Alva turned on him. In the Milestone Returns continuity, the event known as the "Big Bang," during which experimental chemicals killed numerous protestors and gave others (including Static) superpowers, marked the perfect opportunity for Alva to distance himself from his former protege. The chemicals, it turns out, were Alva Industries products, and Curtis turned out to be the perfect scapegoat.
"I wanted to reflect how it feels to think that you have something with another person, but once you get to the point where it feels like you are threatening, or you are encroaching on their status or their position, they can turn on you in an instant, and you had no indication that that is how that was going to go," Thomas explained, calling the idea of "deserving" and Curtis' own journey to feeling he deserved credit a major part of the book's emotional core.
For Cowan, the meaning of the Curtis vs. Alva struggle also digs just a little deeper, back to the roots of Hardware as a character. Milestone Media was founded as an avenue for Black creators and other minority groups to build better representation in American superhero comics, and some of the frustration at the state of the industry at the time is reflected metaphorically through its early characters, Hardware included. For Cowan, a comics veteran who still remembers those early days, those metaphors still hold.
"It was a metaphor for our experiences in the comic industry as Black creators, which is not to put anybody down, but it's really to tell the truth as we saw it about the glass ceiling that existed, about the way we were treated, and about exploitation and about, you know, using one's talents and abilities to one's best advantage," Cowan said. "All those things are the core of the characters, so they're all still the same."
He continued, "Are we bringing that same kind of angst or whatever, anger, to the books now? I'm a different person in a way than I was 30 years ago. So the things that made me mad then just make me madder now [laughs]. So yeah, we are bringing the same things back. Until society changes, we're going to still talk about all this stuff, right? Because it all means something. It's all important. So, while I find myself not looking at some things the same way, I look at some of the things in a much sharper way. So it makes drawing his book as vital as ever, because all those things that made Dwayne and I so upset still exist, in society and in the comic book world."
The backbone of Hardware: Season One is full of those exploitation metaphors, as Curtis tries to take the fight directly to his former benefactor even as Alva tries to declare him a public enemy. For Thomas, much of the first arc is about Curtis' attempt to "rebuild himself emotionally" as he recovers from Alva's betrayal, but the writer also stressed that this isn't just a replay of the same struggle we read in 1993.
"There will be new things. There'll be new characters and new threats, and some very familiar characters and threats to look out for in this first story arc," Thomas said. "And I'll just say, this first story is chiefly about Curtis and Alva, but it will also try to answer the question of: Hypothetically, let's just say the Curtis and Alva thing is settled. Why does Curtis stay in the suit? So that will be a big part of what this story is about."
Though Cowan -- who's one of the "producers" of the Milestone line overseeing the relaunch as well as taking on art duties -- teased that discussions about Milestone Returns "Season 2" are already underway, no other titles in the line have yet been announced. For the moment, at least, Hardware: Season One stands as the concluding volume in an event that began last summer during DC FanDome, and has seen the successful return of several of Milestone's most popular characters. It's something some fans never thought they'd see at this scale again, and while Cowan is happy to have pulled it off, the artist also made sure to stress that readers are in for much more.
"It's been extremely gratifying to see people's responses, and I'm very excited about what we have to bring them, because we've all been working really hard on this stuff," Cowan said. "And it's good to see it finally, finally, coming to fruition and seeing people's responses has been good. But people have no idea what's in store for them. This has just been...the tip of the iceberg. What you're going to see is stuff that's going to literally, it's going to make everybody in this panel room write us and go 'You didn't tell us about you was gonna do this! I can't believe you guys did this!' Because there's going to be some...we want to do stuff that makes DC even go: 'Are you guys sure you want to do this?'
"You have to challenge them," he added. "How are they going to let us take them on this journey? So far, they let us take them pretty far."
Hardware: Season One #1 is in stores Tuesday.