Recently on Twitter, Joseph Illidge posted the following about Hardware #1 (1993). He said, “One of the best first issues of a superhero comic book series ever produced in the American Direct Market.” As a fan of Milestone Comics and Hardware, I’d have to agree. I’ve been meaning to write about Hardware #1 for a while, and now is the time, specifically because I am teaching the first few issues of the series this semester. For me, this issue tops other inagural issues such as G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel #1 (2014) and even Christopher Priest and Mark Teixera’s Black Panther #1 (1998), two of my all-time favorite issues. There is a lot that makes Hardware #1 a masterpiece, and today I want to look a just a few of those components.
Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan’s opening salvo for the Hardware series lay the groundwork for what’s to follow, and they do this in a masterful way from the get go, specifically Jimmy Palmotti’s cover which shows Curtis Metcalf, wearing his Hardware costume, holding his weapons, attached by a chain, with technological machinery behind him. The subheading reads, “A cog in the corporate machine is about to strip some gears . . .”
Initially, this image reminds me somewhat of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #1 (1972). They are different, with Luke Cage drawing heavily from Blaxploitation and Hardware drawing for technology, and I would even argue characters such as Deathlok, which McDuffie and Cowan worked on in the early 90s. What stands out to me, though, is the chain. In Luke Cage, the chain serves as part of his costume, and as a reminder, even though we as readers never know what type of reminder, for Cage. That reminder could be the history of slavery, his wrongful imprisonment, or both. That aspect of Cage’s costume has been challenged a lot, from Priest and M.D. Bright’s work in the 1980s run of Power Man and Iron Fist to David F. Walker and Sanford Greene in their Power Man and Iron Fist series from 2016.
Rather than the chain serving as merely a piece of Metcalf’s costume, it becomes a weapon with one end containing a scythe like instrument and the other with three blades. In this manner, the cover begins the work of deconstructing the publication history of characters such as Luke Cage by reframing aspects of his costume. This allusion is not overt, but whenever I see a Black male superhero with a chain I immediately think of Cage and the chain that serves as his belt. The semiotic connections exist, and while Hardware is not a critique on Cage in the same that Buck Wild would be in Icon, he nevertheless works within this semiotic web of symbols.
McDuffie and Cowan pack a lot into the first three pages of Hardware #1, setting up tropes that recur throughout the series. The first page contains six horizontal panels depicting a young Curtis Metcalf letting his parakeet out of the cage then the parakeet running head first into the window, smashing “his head on the windowpane.” The images and Metcalf’s narration serves as a metaphor, one that has a long tradition in African American literature of the caged bird who, no matter how hard it tries, cannot escape it’s confinement. Metcalf states,
When I was a kid, I used to have this parakeet. And sometimes, when I’d open up his cage to clean it, he’d escape. The little bird would see the backyard and make his move. Invariably, he’d head straight for the window, fast as he could. And inevitably, crack his head on the windowpane.
In the next to last panel, we look into the window as the bird approaches, and we see the glass that hinders its escape. We know that it will hit the window, and neither the bird nor us, as readers, can do anything about it.
Even though the bird crashes into the window, it continues, again and again, to escape. The second page changes the layout, consisting of six vertical panels, three on each row. The first three show the bird repeatedly hitting the window, moving closer in on the bird’s face until we see it’s defeated expression slamming into the glass in the final panel as Metcalf said it was “spent and defeated.”
The bottom three panels show Metcalf walking over to the collapsed bird that rests on the windowsill and gently picking it up, cradling it in his hands as he returns it to the cage. All the while, Metcalf says, “My bird made a common error. He mistook being out of his cage for being free.” Metcalf knows that freedom does not arise for the bird once it leaves the cage, another barrier awaits it, keeping it stuck within the room. It sees the sky outside, but it cannot reach it.
The parakeet becomes a metaphorical symbol for Metcalf, as we see on the third page. This splash page shows Metcalf, in his Hardware uniform, busting through a skylight, glass falling to the earth beneath him as he narrates, “The boy grew into a man, who spent many years bumping his head against a similar barrier: a ceiling of glass unseen and incomprehensible to him. The lesson is clear: escpae is impossible until one perceives all of the barriers.”
About Reconstruction and its end, W.E.B. DuBois said, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Barriers remained, as a result of enslavement and racism, that barred upward mobility and true equality. Mainly, white backlash forged a new cage to maintain African Americans, and the bird returned. In “Sympathy,” Paul Laurence Dunbar writes about the “caged bird” seeing the outside world from inside its cage, beating its wings furiously to stay in the sun, flying free, but it cannot. Instead, the bird “sends from his heart’s deep core” a prayer to heaven, singing for its freedom.
Systemic racism hinders Metcalf’s ability to break through the glass, to see all of the barriers that hinder him from true equality. Iris Marion Young argues that the birdcage does not represent one form of disadvantages due to racism. Rather, we need to thing of each wire in the birdcage, working together, to form racist systems that keep the individual captured within the cage. To truly eliminate racism, the cage needs to be dismantled, wire by wire, because each, in its own way, works to maintain the structure.
McDuffie and Cowan draw upon this metaphor to show the inequalities that still exist, even for someone as gifted and intelligent as Metcalf. Along with the birdcage metaphor, they also play upon Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and it is this thread that I want to pick up on in the next post. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.