Static Shock – A Neglected Gem

For the generation that grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, Static Shock was a household name. Yet, despite the success of the animated series, Static has not been given the chance to truly reach his potential a decade later. With the vision Dwayne McDuffie had for the character, why has Static been mostly in the background, or worse, on the shelf?

Static’s name started to drum up noise in the comic industry in the early 1990s. The character was one of the key launch heroes of Milestone Comics in 1993. Milestone was the product of four visionaries, Derek T. Dingle, Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, who believed that the comic industry was in dire need of representation for minorities and disenfranchised groups.Static quickly became popular within comic circles and early Milestone readers but it wasn’t until 7 years later that the character would become a pop-culture icon with the animated series Static Shock. It has been 15 years since the final episode of the series aired and the character has not gotten the same kind of love since.

The Spider-Man of DC Comics: Dwayne McDuffie’s vision for Static

Dwayne McDuffie’s legacy reaches far and wide in the realm of comic books. He had left his imprint on DC and Marvel comics before becoming one of the core founders of Milestone Comics. McDuffie saw a severe underrepresentation in comic books for minorities, particularly African-Americans and Milestone became the tool to start a change. Static became one of the key characters for Milestone but it was not always the case. Originally, McDuffie pitched the character as a Marvel hero in the same sphere as Spider-Man.

It was not until the character was rejected by Marvel when McDuffie decided to use Static as the primary hero for the Milestone brand. As mentioned above, Milestone was published and distributed by DC Comics. While DC did not mix the Milestone characters into their existing universe, there was a sense of collaboration between both to make the new agreement work. McDuffie continued to build and shape Static into the character we know today and continued to use Spider-Man as an influence. Speaking on the character, McDuffie said:

“Everyone agreed that we should have a teen aged hero and I’d previously tried to develop something along those lines, strongly influenced by Spider-Man, in the late-eighties when I was over at Marvel. I’d always been partial to Spider-Man as a child, particularly the teen version. I wanted to do a contemporary teen hero to fill that then-empty niche.”

McDuffie speaking with The World’s Finest

What are the elements that made Spider-Man so popular for Marvel? Universal relatability with a social and economic status many can relate to, being a teenager and going through everyday human struggles which tie the character to the core readership base. Finally an unmistakable charm in rooting for the underdog. Spider-Man was never the richest or the most powerful like other famous heroes, he was, at his core, just a kid with the responsibilities of being a hero on his shoulders. This core message is also embedded in Static, yet amplified even further.

Virgil Hawkins is a fourteen-year-old kid living in Dakota City. Much like Peter Parker, Virgil carries all the same trials and tribulations that a poor kid would face in Urban America, except now his race becomes a key factor in how he is treated. An urban Black teenage superhero has all the makings in being an instant hit, yet that was not the case. Milestone had stopped publishing new issues in 1997 and all the characters were put on the shelf. Until the year 2000, where Static would find himself more popular than ever before.

The Jump to Mainstream: Static Shock

In the late 1990s, Static was one of the Milestone characters pitched for an animated series. Animation was extremely popular for comic book characters in the decade and Warner Bros. Animation ordered a pilot of the character. The series had incredible talent behind it from the start, utilizing much of the same production team as Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. Dwayne McDuffie was also brought on as a story editor and writer while Static co-creator, Denys Cowan, was brought on as well. The results led to one of the most unique television experiences and the first superhero show to feature an African-American as the lead.

Static Shock did not hold back on featuring episodes that dealt with real-world consequences. While the show was aimed for children, it would not shy away from episodes about race, guns, disabilities, economics and more. Static Shock’s made history with the episode “Jimmy” on May 4, 2002. The episode discussed the effects of bullying and gun violence in schools before it became a recurring event in today’s society. While the standard superhero show had the hero face off against a supervillain and ultimately save the day, this episode did not have a supervillain or flashy action. Instead, it opted for a slower-paced look at what kids go through at the hands of gun violence and bullying. With all his abilities, Static felt powerless when his best friend Richie was shot and that led to anger and frustration for the hero that simply had not been explored in the superhero medium.

Static Shock also dealt with race head-on in “Sons of the Fathers,” the ninth episode of the series. In it, Virgil was invited for dinner at his best friend’s house, not knowing Richie’s dad was harboring racist and bigoted thoughts about both Virgil and “his kind.” The episode was considered a hallmark for the series and one of the most memorable since. While this episode did feature more action and superhero dynamics, it did not hold back on showing racism and the effects it can have across all levels. Once again, Static Shock was doing things that no other children’s television series even dared cross and continuously broke the boundaries established by the medium at the time.

Blending Static into the DC Animated Universe

With much of the same production crew and overseers as the popular DC Animated Universe, the question of crossovers quickly came to fruition. Ultimately having Static meet Batman became one of the priorities for the series to reach. To reiterate, while Static was published under the DC banner through Milestone, he was never actually part of DC continuity, instead opting for the DakatoaVerse concept. While writers and showrunners wrestled with the idea of inter-dimensional travel, they instead simplified it into the audience simply assuming Static exists in the DC Universe. In this case, the DC Animated Universe, which was airing Justice League on Cartoon Network. With the idea set to fold Static Shock into the DCAU, the first crossover episode “The Big Leagues” aired as the season premiere of the second season of the series.

With one season of terrific content under its belt, season 2 took the character to more classic comic book heights. The meeting with Batman jump-started the show to become the glue that ties the DCAU together. Static ended up crossing over with every single DCAU show. Over the next several seasons, Static met with Batman multiple times, tag-teamed with Superman, fought side by side with the Justice League and even traveled through time to save the Batman Beyond future. Static Shock never cut corners when it came to quality writing. While the budget could have been higher to put it in the same class of animation as the wider DCAU, the writing, voice acting, creative direction and heart of the character kept the series memorable and everlasting.

Despite strong ratings, Static Shock was not renewed after its fourth season and 52 episodes. It was a shame because the series was the second most-viewed Saturday morning cartoon on the network, only trailing Pokemon by slim margins. At the time, networks did not care much about ratings when it came to kids cartoons, rather the merchandise that followed. If you weren’t selling enough toys, you weren’t going to last. Static suffered in the merchandise department and it was not at the fault of the creatives behind the series. McDuffie spoke on the cancellation and added this.

American animation costs more to make than can be recouped from network licensing fees. That means that for a show to be profitable, it needs other revenue streams like toys, clothing, novelties, et cetera. Static Shock enjoyed massive ratings throughout its run. Despite this, Static was unable to attract toy companies or other licensors. After five years, we had a Subway value meal, two Scholastic book adaptations, one DVD and a Gameboy Advance game. We couldn’t even get DC to do a Static Adventure-style comic book. Without these coming in, it was a gift to get to do 52 episodes.

McDuffie speaking with The World’s Finest

With the series unable to uphold the merchandise quotas, Static Shock ended with season 4, episode 13, “Power Outage” in 2004. The character had one last swan song in the DCAU afterwards in the Justice League Unlimited episode “The Once and Future Thing Part Two: Time, Warped” in 2005. In the episode, the Justice League traveled through time and met a dystopian future to save. In it, Static was a full Justice League member and considered one of the greatest heroes to ever live.

The New 52 – Static’s Failed Relaunch

While the mix of the series popularity and guest appearances should have propelled Static into superstardom, the comic books did not catch lightning in a bottle. In the early 2000s, Geoff Johns expressed interest in bringing Static to the Teen Titans but was met with a no from DC Comics. The character did not enjoy time in the spotlight for several years after that. Small storyline appearances, an eventual team spot with the Titans in 2008 and cameos became Static’s legacy for the rest of the decade, a far cry from the vision McDuffie had for the character for the medium.

Static almost received a new series in 2011 but was canceled after the passing of Dwayne McDuffie. 2011’s New 52 relaunch also tried to give Static another jump start and unfortunately hobbled its way to only a few issues before being canceled by DC. The character was once again shelved, enjoying only limited screen time in Young Justice for the next several years.

The Potential of Static for DC

At NYCC 2017, DC announced that they are relaunching Milestone characters within the DC Universe with EarthM. Fans were excited that the Milestone characters would be making a return and in the vision of the original creators. It was promised for 2018 showing and today, there have been little updates on the project. At SDCC 2019, DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio simply said “We’re Working On It.” when asked about Milestone. If the project ever gets off the ground, Static, and many other Milestone characters might indeed have another real shot at getting the respect they deserved.

The problem is, it should have never come to this point in the first place. Dwayne McDuffie wanted Static to be the next Spider-Man and equipped the character with all the tools, personality traits, and background to be a surefire hit. At the character’s best, he could have been the DC Comics equivalent of Spider-Man. A relatable teenage superhero with wide market appeal. The fact that the character only has a couple of comic runs, a decade-old television series, and glorified cameos is an injustice to how great he is. Static should have his own comic title, and if EarthM launches correctly, he might have that. The potential of his character is even greater than that. WB and the DCEU should readily be investing in a film with the character. If the DCEU made a Static film within the confines of its wider universe, it would be a surefire billion-dollar hit.

There is no true telling what Static’s future of the character will be but that does not define his legacy. The character spawned an animated series that continues to win the hearts of the people who grew up with it and surprises newcomers to this day. Static is the crowning achievement of Milestone and something to be proud of. While the ceiling is still much higher, there is no doubt Static has the potential to reach and surpass it. Thought of no better way then to close with one more quote about Static from Dwayne McDuffie.

13 years ago, me and some friends sat in a restaurant all night and daydreamed about the kinds of stories we would tell if we had the chance. We wanted to expand the concept of superhero to include characters that kind of looked like us, who had some of the same background, experiences and dreams as we did. We wanted to create something fun that a new generation would respond to the same way we responded to our childhood heroes -and damn if we didn’t succeed beyond my wildest dreams. Today, Static Shock is a household name with millions of fans of all ages. Static is the most successful thing I’ve ever helped create and I’m both proud and gratified that people have taken it into their hearts.

McDuffie speaking with The World’s Finest