Retro Trade Review: Hardware Vol. 1 By McDuffie, Cowan & Others For Milestone Media & DC Comics

Retro Trade Review: Hardware Vol. 1: The Man in the Machine

Contains Hardware #1-8 (April-October 1993)

Written by Dwayne McDuffie

Pencilled by Denys Cowan (#1-7), JJ Birch (#8)

Inked by Jimmy Palmiotti (#1-5), Mike Manley (#4, 6-7), Joe Brozowski (#6-7), Joe James (#7), Jason Minor (#8)

Coloured by Noelle Giddings

Spoilers from twenty-five years ago

When the Milestone Universe launched in 1993, I ignored it.  There were some creators I really liked involved in it, such as Denys Cowan, but it was a time of massive expansion across comics, and teenage me only had so much money to spend.  It was just before I headed off to university and had to cut my purchases to the bone, so not getting started on Milestone was the best way to deal with it for me. Also, there were so many books, and I had the impression that the shared universe meant that reading them all was important, so that deterred me from sampling (although, a few years ago, I did read and love the Xombi relaunch that DC put out for a few issues).

Anyway, there are so many comics that I know I’m going to get to eventually, and when I saw a cheap Hardware trade, I thought it was time to give this series a shot.  Like I said, I’ve loved Cowan’s art for a very long time, and have always had a lot of respect for Dwayne McDuffie. As well, I’ve been thinking a lot more about representation in comics these last few years, and have come to realize that Milestone was ahead of its time.  So, what did I think in the end? Let’s find out.

This book features the following characters:

Villains/Antagonists:

  • Edwin Alva (#1-4)
  • Reprise (#1-2)
  • Indigo Team Commander (#3-4)
  • Deathwish (#5-7)

Supporting Characters:

  • Professor Barraki Young (#2-4, 8)
  • Deacon Stuart (#5-6)

Let’s see what happened in the comics, with some commentary as I go:

  • The trade opens with Curtis Metcalf, our main character, talking about his pet parakeet when he was a boy, and about how it would always try to escape the house, always hitting its head into a window.  This lesson became a metaphor for Curtis’s life. We join him as he flies around in his Hardware get-up – a cross between an Iron Man suit and Cyborg’s general look, complete with prerequisite early 90s Liefeldian boxer’s protective facial gear.  He’s flying out of a building, and chased by attack helicopters, which he spends a few pages defeating. He returns to his lab and starts to narrate his backstory. Basically, Curtis was a very gifted child who was found by Edwin Alva, a rich industrialist who likes to wear safari-style clothing in his office, and given a first-class education, and then a job at Alva Technologies.  There, Curtis created a number of inventions that made the company rich, but when, after years of seeing Alva as a father figure, he asked for some royalties on his inventions, he was rejected, and reminded of his iron-clad contract. Curtis began to look into Alva, and discovered criminal and war-crime activities. Law enforcement, politicians, and the press had all been bought off, so Curtis created his Hardware gear and decided to start shutting down Alva’s activities.  He goes to a storage facility and fights some guards before being confronted by a guy called Reprise, who is basically Jamie Madrox.
  • Alva engages in some villainous monologueing before we return to Hardware’s fight with Reprise, which goes on for nine pages, and ends with Hardware bleeding and almost out of power, and with Reprise and the warehouse where they were fighting blown up.  Curtis is flown off by his aircraft, and goes home, where he takes off some of his armor and falls asleep. At a university, a Professor Barraki Young takes a phone call from one of the women in Curtis’s lab, wondering if Young knows where he is. I don’t know who Young is, but figure she can’t be a girlfriend, since she references how many women Curtis has.  Anyway, after work, she goes by his place to look for him, and we see that the doorman knows her and that she has a key to apartment. She finds him still sleeping, and wearing the Hardware shell, so he has to tell her his secrets. She’s not impressed that he is using so many resources to try to take down Alva, and that he is killing people along the way, mostly because he didn’t get a raise.  She storms out, and he realizes that she is right, and that he needs to go kill Alva. He suits up.
  • Curtis imagines busting into Alva’s office tower and killing him, but now Barraki has put some doubt into his head.  He goes to talk to her, and she questions just what he’s trying to accomplish. He heads to Alva’s building, and tries to go in without killing any guards, although there are a lot of them.  Later, Alva arrives, having been called to his office, to find Hardware sitting at his desk. He tries to hire or bribe the hero, who he doesn’t recognize, but instead Hardware explains that he’s taken all of Alva’s data to prove that he’s a criminal, but that he’s not going to kill him right now.  Instead, he’s going to leave him destitute and come back and kill him some day in the future. He breaks Alva’s leg and flies off. Alva uses a communicator to call someone called “Systematic Indigo Team Commander”, which seems really anime. This guy, in a huge armored suit that is equal parts War Machine and the Knightquest Azrael Batman costume, is ordered to kill Hardware.
  • Curtis feels good about stopping Alva, and is flying his skytank home when he is attacked by the Systematic Indigo Team Commander in his big flying armor suit.  He wrecks the skytank, leaving Hardware to glide to the ground, roughly. They fight for a few pages, and Hardware drops a building on the guy. Thinking he’s done, he heads for his skytank wreckage, but the Indigo guy isn’t done with him.  He immobilizes Hardware, and hooks into his computer systems, looking to delete the data stolen from Alva. Hardware uses some visual typing input system to hack into the Indigo armor, immobilize it, and then trash it. Hardware brings the remains of that armor to Alva, and tells him he now knows that he’s part of something called System, and tells him again that he’s going to be watching his every move.  Later, Curtis is at home with Barraki. He shows her that he bought a parakeet to remind him of cages, and claims that he is going to use Hardware to solve other problems now.
  • A computer hacker named Deacon Stuart heads off for a date with a prostitute, but when he gets to her place, he finds her murdered.  As he holds her body, the police arrive. Hardware finds cocaine on a boat in the harbor and gives its crew a warning before blowing it up and sinking it.  He heads back home and gets a call from Deacon, who is an old friend of his that helped set up his telephone and computer systems. Deacon explains why he’s in jail, and that he’s being suspected in a string of prostitute murders.  Hardware goes to see a lawyer about the case; apparently he’s working with this guy, who agrees to help him. Deacon is released and picked up by Hardware in his fancy car that projects images onto its windows to hide his identity, and Hardware says he’s going to go look at the scene of the crime.  Some guy named Mitch prepares to go rape a woman, but is confronted by a masked Punisher type. The guy runs down Mitch’s crimes, and then tosses him a gun and gives him a choice to shoot him or to shoot himself. We don’t see what happens, but do see a bunch of gunshot sound effects, and then see the masked guy heading out to look for the prostitute killer.  Hardware is looking around the prostitute’s place when the masked guy shows up. He identifies himself as Deathwish, and gives Hardware a gun, making the same offer he made Mitch.
  • Hardware tries to talk to Deathwish, but he’s very quick, landing three punches on our hero in the time it takes for his dropped knife to hit the ground.  Deathwish tries to kill Hardware, but Curtis manages to stick him to the floor with polarized liquid metal, and knock him out. He ties him to a girder high above the city and tries to talk him into sharing information to find the prostitute killer, with no luck.  Curtis heads into work, but is so tired, he heads home instead. When he gets there, he gets a call from Deacon, who passes on all the information he got about the killer from hacking police files. He also warns him to be careful around Deathwish. Hardware placed a tracker on Deathwish’s coat, so he tracks him to a crappy hotel.  Deathwish is with a prostitute, who is consoling him for having performance issues; he gets mad, smacks her, and pulls out his knife. Hardware arrives and realizes that Deathwish, who seems disoriented, is the killer they’ve both been looking for. Deathwish comes at him with his knife.
  • Hardware fights Deathwish and gets knocked out of a window.  As he makes his way back to the hotel room, Deathwish goes back to trying to kill the prostitute who, for some reason, is still in the bed instead of getting up and running away.  Hardware tasers him, knocking him out. When he wakes up, Hardware has a giant 90s gun held on him, and makes him realize that he has been the prostitute killer all along. Deathwish explains that he had put violence behind him and was living a good life when some guy broke into his home, tied him up, and made him watch as he raped and murdered his wife and son, and then raped and shot him.  Deathwish didn’t die though, and after a long recovery, hunted the guy down and killed him, before continuing to go after other sex offenders. The problem is that he’s been impotent, and whenever he’s been unable to perform with a prostitute, he’s blacked out and killed her. He surrenders and turns himself into the police. No explanation is given for why he’s so fast and strong. Curtis heads home, exhausted, but can’t sleep.  When he does wake up, in what is likely a dream sequence, he is in his armor and finds a one-armed man who he’d hurt sitting on his bed talking to him. Hardware ends up shooting the guy, but then a bunch of corpses come out of the ground and hold him down.
  • Hardware continues to fight corpses that try to make him feel guilty for killing them.  He can’t escape them, and then he appears to himself as Curtis, and retells his own life story.  The art shows Hardware in his armor in different stages of his life, including his infancy, as the narrating Curtis paint a picture of a very smart boy who didn’t get along with his peers, and who studied martial arts to protect himself.  He talks about how Curtis abandoned his father’s dreams for him to go work for Alva, and that takes us to the present, where Curtis tells Hardware to wake up. When he doesn’t want to, he instead finds himself in Barraki’s course, where she talks about how Hardware can be seen as an extension of traditional trickster stories.  She also tells Hardware to wake up, but instead he ends up on the “Opra” show, where she talks to women in the audience that Curtis blew off or let down. Next, it’s a trip to church, where Alva ends up talking about Curtis’s characters in ways that Curtis wants to reject. He ends up fighting himself, before finally waking up and realizing that he needs to replace vengeance with a search for justice.

This trade ended up being a disappointment.  The whole time I read it, I had to keep reminding myself of just how bad comics were in 1993, but even still, I found this to be too decompressed, and poorly thought out.  We don’t know very much about Curtis, and it’s hard to buy into his quest for vengeance, considering just how good his life appears to be. That he would put so many resources into creating his alter ego just to ruin a business man doesn’t make a lot of sense – why would he have a personal jet?  It’s overkill from the beginning, in a typically “extreme” manner.

I do like that Dwayne McDuffie worked to make the character more noble towards the end of this volume, and I wonder if the series got better after these first eight issues.

One thing that I think let me down is that I expected that Milestone’s anchor book would have been a little more woke.  Again, I have to remember to approach this with 1993 expectations, not 2018 ones, but seeing as Milestone was designed to place a greater spotlight on characters of colour, I was surprised to realize that Curtis could have been portrayed as white or Asian, and absolutely nothing essential would change about this comic except the colouring (okay, maybe Hardware wouldn’t have chains hanging off his lower back).  Again, there’s the chance that later issues became more political after the book was established, but I’d still expected more.  The idea that Hardware would be going up against The System was amusing, but not explored here.

Instead, we have incredibly thin characters throughout this book.  Alva is a standard greedy businessman. Deathwish is an incredibly 90s villain.  Reprise is a Jamie Madrox knock-off. Barraki and Deacon are not fleshed out beyond their agency to further the plot.  We don’t really know much about Curtis either, even after all of issue eight attempts to dig into his personality.

I’m a big Denys Cowan fan, but he falls into some easy 90s traps here.  JJ Birch’s issue is a little better realized, and I like the colouring in it, but overall, this book looks awfully generic.

I have recently picked up a run of Xombie, which I want to get to for this column eventually, but I think this trade has dashed my interests in getting into the Milestone stuff.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

If you’d like to read the stories I talk about here, you can follow this link for the trade paperback:
Hardware: The Man in the Machine

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