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SYFY WIRE Vita Ayala

Indie Comics Spotlight: Static Season One's Vita Ayala is not writing your dad’s Virgil Hawkins

By Karama Horne
Static Season 1 #2 Header

The debut of Milestone’s Static #1 was almost 28 years ago to the day. Created by the co-founders of Milestone, Dwayne McDuffie, Dennis Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle, and drawn by the late John Paul Leon, the character of Virgil Ovid Hawkins would go on to be one of the most impactful characters in comics in the ’90s. The comic book series inspired Static Shock, the animated series that ran on the WB Network’s kids block starting in 2000 for four seasons. The show (also produced and written by McDuffie) influenced an entire generation who grew up with Virgil (voiced by the legendary Phil Lamarr) in their living rooms. 

The new Milestone, now an imprint within DC Comics (not to be confused with Milestone Media, the media company run by Hudlin, Cowan, and Dingle), finally returned last month with a new story, Static Season One #1. The new story, written by award-winning writer Vita Ayala (New Mutants, Shuri), features layouts by award-winning artist ChrisCross (Truth & Justice, Green Lantern) and art and color by Black Panther album designer and manga artist Nikolas Draper Ivey (XOGENASYS, Dream Vesper). On July 27, Milestone will release Static Season One #2.

To say the return of Virgil Hawkins to the comic book world was highly anticipated is an understatement. Of course, bringing back beloved characters from a favorite franchise is always a daunting task. But with the pressure of a pandemic, worldwide protest movements, and new online audiences, rebooting was probably one of Milestone's most daunting tasks.

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Primarily centered around Black characters, Milestone comics has always had a socially conscious thread through their arcs. Their stories commented on everything from teen pregnancy, to homophobia, to police brutality in the early aughts –– the latter being the source of Virgil’s electromagnetic absorption powers. But in Milestone Returns #0, Hudlin gave Virgil’s origins a new twist. Virgil is still a nerdy teen who gets bullied at school, and in this update, he still gets his powers from being exposed to a toxin that police use to break up a crowd. But that “crowd” is no longer a group of ‘90s gang members, but Black Lives Matter protestors. Not everyone exposed gets powers, either. Some die in painful, horrible ways.

Unlike most superhero origin stories, Virgil Hawkins grew up with his family intact. Both of his parents are there when he gets home from school. They’re both humans. He play-fights with his sister, and his friends Freida and Richie worry about him. 

Through Ayala’s updated story, and with Cross' traditional layouts (he drew for Milestone’s original Hardware series) and Ivey’s manga sensibilities, Static Season One has a YA/Gen Z feel with enough Easter eggs to entertain original fans of the series.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Vita Ayala about updating the story for a new generation, new characters, and what it was like collaborating with two very different artists on this project.

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How did Milestone approach you for this project?

Vita Ayala: DC Comics Senior Editor Chris Conroy approached me, and I was told straight off the bat that it was a “bake-off,” which makes me really nervous.

Competition is one thing, but I don't like fighting for projects. But I grew up with this stuff. I remember the [original] comics, the cartoon, and all that kind of stuff. 

By “bake-off,” do you mean you were offered the chance to pitch a story? 

Yeah, I had to pitch it, and multiple people were pitching. I wasn't told who, so it was a “blind bake-off.” Sometimes you have an artist, but they already knew that they wanted to work with Nik.

I came up with a pitch after talking to Reginald Hudlin, Dennis Cowan, and Chris all together. And they chose my story.

What’s it been like working with two very different artists? 

I hate just writing a document and then being like, “This is what the story is.” It makes me feel really weird because comics are supposed to be a group effort. I work with both Cross and Nik differently. 

Cross is very much an old-school artist. He's, “I got the script, I work on what I have here.” And Nik is much more like, “Okay, but why is this happening?” Which I like, actually. I like to have someone question me because I want to get to the best story. Because Nik is a very dynamic artist and I wanted that reflected in the book. Not just in his drawings but in the pace of the story, and it's been working great. So to be able to re-break the story and do it dynamically, even though we do have some bullet points that we have to hit, is great. I think it's an excellent rhythm for this particular team. 

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Was it your decision to change Virgil’s origin story, or did Milestone approach you with that?

That was already scripted and drawn before I became involved. That was a Reginald Hudlin and Dennis Cowan decision. And I think that that was a good decision. I believe that the conversations that people were having at that time were about gang warfare. 

Now, the conversations Black people are having are very public, "Hey, you literally want to kill us just for existing?!” So updating the origin, I think, puts the onus of responsibility where it belongs, on the people trying to destroy Virgil’s community and really hurt people. 

We saw some callbacks to original characters like Freida and Richie. Did you suggest them? 

Yes and No. Part of it came from Nik’s suggestions, like, “We have to put them in there!” But also, I just felt like I think that the happiest superheroes are the ones that have friends. I also really liked the dynamic between those characters. It all came back to what would their relationship look like now? And then, of course, Nik hooked them all up with the drip.

Did you create any new characters for this story?

I won't spoil anything, but there is this kind of through-line that we explore through the character of Darius that was introduced in Milestone Returns #0. I didn’t create that character, but I had a choice about whether or not he would come forward into my book. I feel he’s such a great perspective to have. And Nik and I have had extensive discussions about the parallels and the differences between Virgil and Darius. He saw the truth of what happened to Virgil, but now he's seeing how things get twisted and how the victims get blamed and get demonized, and he wants to fight against that. 

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What did you decide to keep or highlight from the original character?

One of the things that I've always really liked about Virgil that I hoped to replicate in a more contemporary way was that he's a weirdo. He's a weird, smart Black kid who plays Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. And he's kind of a fanboy.

He likes superhero stuff. He wants to be a good person, and I think that's beautiful. But, I think that looks different than it did in 1993. Partially because people have more access to information and the world has changed so rapidly in the last 30 years.

Nick and I talked about this a lot as well. What does it mean for that kind of Black kid to exist now and Black boys specifically? Also, we wanted to do a lot of stuff with his family and show that dynamic and show a healthy functioning Black family who struggles, but ultimately they are united.

Virgil needs all the help he can get. He’s been through a lot.

Yeah. That was another thing too. Virgil's accused of being too angry, too sad at first. And I was like, “Yo, this kid just watched all his friends, like melt and die!” I would not be okay. I'm a very optimistic person, and that's why Virgil appeals to me. But to see some messed-up stuff like that, I would need a minute. I would be so angry. Plus, he's scared. He has PTSD. His body is changing in ways that he doesn't understand. He's afraid that he's going to hurt the people he loves accidentally. He's gone through a lot. I think he needs to be allowed to process those feelings. 

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Speaking of processing, what was it like writing a comic about Black kids attacked by police in the middle of 2020?

This is why I don't have cable, and I only have streaming. It was a hard line to walk. I know it was difficult for Cross and Nik to be as authentic as possible and provide hope in a way that the media doesn't necessarily provide when reporting on these situations. We give each other energy. That’s what makes me want to work, even if I'm struggling. 

If this version of Static gets adapted would you rather a live-action or animated series?

Oh animation definitely. With Phil LaMarr as the voice again. 

Well, maybe his Dad.