[Edit @ 23/02/11 I was very sad to learn this morning of the death of Dwayne McDuffie. An immensely creative and inspirational figure within both the comic and general entertainment industries, his prolific output contained positive messages for his audience that eschewed cynicism. Often noted for his critical assessments of the comic industry in particular, as mentioned below, made for very entertaining and inspirational writing. I never had the opportunity to meet McDuffie at any conventions, but saw him frequently online, trading stories with fans on message boards and dispensing his insights on the importance of good storytelling. He will be much missed. My sincere condolences to both his family and loved ones.]

Milestone was a semi-independent comic book company back in the 90’s that offered a more interesting spin on superheroes than most. Its characters were drawn from a broader racial mix than offered by books from the mainstream comic companies. DC Comics helped publish the books, produced by African American writers and talent. The company has since been merged with the DC comic book line, which I feel is unfortunate, as Milestone had a distinctive voice all of its own. Most of the stories are set in a city called Dakota, rife with crime and corruption. Hardware was the first book to be published by the line, written by co-founder Dwayne McDuffie.

The book opens with young Curtis Metcalf relating a story from his childhood. He once owned a parakeet that would often escape its cage and then slam itself into a closed window. It could never understand that it was trapped by a bigger, invisible cage of glass. Then McDuffie brings us to the present day. Metcalf has become a techno-savvy superhero named Hardware, who fights not for any single ideal of justice, but revenge. He feels compelled to avenge himself on the man who trapped him in a glass cage all of his own. That man is his employer, mentor and surrogate father – Edwin Alva.

Metcalf’s technological genius earned Alva’s millions in patents and yet when he asked for a bigger role in the corporation he was told in no uncertain terms what his status really was:

“You are not respected, Curtis, you are merely useful. This was an interesting experience, Curtis. Rather like having one’s dog suddenly announce that he’s displeased with his living arrangements. You may go now.”

Alva is involved in multiple criminal conspiracies, laundering drug money and bribing law enforcement. As Hardware, Curtis has been targeting his illegal operations, eliminating any opposition he encounters.

Utterly consumed by his mission, Hardware begins to lose touch with his humanity, becoming as cold and calculating as the high-powered weaponry he uses. McDuffie introduces love interest Barraki who is very unimpressed with his campaign of terror against Alva. Her role in the book is to challenge the tendency of modern comics to indulge its audience’s vicarious enjoyment of violence.

“Let me see if I got this right…You built a secret underground lab and outfitted yourself for a high-tech war […] You’ve destroyed millions of dollars in property [..] You’ve killed people. Ended their lives without any visible remorse […] And you did all this because your boss wouldn’t give you a raise?”

It’s a great moment, one of many strewn throughout the issues collected in this volume that illustrates the critical sensibility of McDuffie’s writing. Issue eight focuses on a nightmarish vision where Hardware’s is interrogated by a doppelganger of himself that echoes Barraki’s critique. He is confronted by the phantoms of the men he has killed; witnesses his own development as a child (all the while wearing a cute toddler version of his armour); attends a lecture by Barraki on his resemblance to the mythical trope of the Trickster figure; and is interviewed by ‘Opra’ on his lovelife, a sequence which features my favourite quote in the book –

“Well, that just about does it for today. Be with us next time for a special show, live from the Houston Astrodome, where our audience will be made up entirely of white people who think that Curt has a chip on his shoulder.”

I laughed out loud after reading that. There is a fantastic metatextual undercurrent to the book. After all, the very first issue is titled ‘Angry Black Man’. In one issue McDuffie introduces a bloodthirsty vigilante named Death Wish. However, while his origin does involve rape and murder, McDuffie has Death Wish eschew the ‘Rape as Backstory’ trope by having him himself be a victim of an assault. His subsequent psychotic behaviour is therefore defined as a traumatic reaction and not the typical ‘vigilante empowerment’, so prevalent in the 90s.

Denys Cowan’s art works well with the material, although there are regrettable flashes of Rob Liefeld’s popular, at the time, style of oversized muscles and scratched lines over faces. Still the overall impression left by this collection is of a new, hungry series eager to make an impression. I am desperate to track down later issues.

DC Comics please reprint Hardware and/or put him front and centre in your books! An excellent collection for a very innovative superhero character.