Michael Davis (264843)

On the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains sits a nondescript ranch house, identical to many in the San Fernando Valley, and southern California in general.

We have driven out here on this spring day to meet Michael Davis, a name not familiar to the public at large, but a cultural force non-the-less. Since graduating from Brooklyn’s prestigious Pratt Institute in the 1980s, Davis has made a more that respectable living as an artist and visual communicator in advertising, publishing, and related fields.  We’ve arrived there several minutes early to project the aura of being professional. When he comes out, Davis sarcastically admonishes us about the folly of two Black men loitering around in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood before ushering us inside.

A Progressive Breakthrough

“I’m considered by some to be uppity. Hell yes, I’m uppity when expected to kiss a and pretend like I’m not a grown a man.”

—Michael Davis

By the 1990s, he and a group of like-minded African Americans working in the art-graphics-publishing world reasoned that 1) there was a dearth of ethnic characters in the fiction and popular culture realm; 2) that this deficiency in turn underscored a potentially lucrative void in readership; and 3) they had the talent and expertise to do so. In 1993, Davis and cohorts Derek T. Dingle, Denys Cowan, and the late Dwayne McDuffie founded Milestone Comics under the umbrella of the DC Comics chain.  

A major factor in its success was the creative freedom DC gave its creators.

“Milestone set the standard for diversity and changed the game for the comics industry,” Davis remembers.

“Nobody did it better, and we never missed shipping. No comic book company has done that trick,” a fete he attributes to founder and editor-in-chief, Dwayne McDuffie, abetted by DC editor Matt Wayne.

These astute business practices were balanced by the creative vision of veteran artist Cowan.

“Denys Cowan’s vision is what fueled Milestone’s unique character development,”  Davis  continued. “Without Denys there would be no Milestone.” 

Acknowledging the part his colleagues played in this success, Davis stresses his own contributions in recruiting new talent.

“Off the top of my head (Milestone) alumni include John Paul Leon, Shawn Martinborough, Bernard Chang, and N. Steven Harris,” were among the talents assembled by Davis. 

Milestone’s introduction of ethnocentric superheroes caught on, especially the title “Static Shock,” which became an animated television series. By 1997, friction between its parent company and dwindling sales prompted Milestone to suspend its retail distribution. Simultaneously, a fissure occurred among the principals within the company, regarding creator rights and interpersonal squabbling.  

Overall, Milestone became a landmark in the push for diversity in all media, and its legacy has been kept alive through the efforts of bloggers and fans within the comics’ community on the Internet. 

Davis personally has kept the brand alive by “…squashing rumors, setting the record straight, creating opportunities, throwing parties, organizing panels and writing dozens of articles.”

Aside from this, he’s kept busy via the introduction of new material through non traditional channels such as the Black church and educational outlets, and high profile efforts including a stint as president of Motown Animation and Filmworks, and the animation component of Magic Johnson Entertainment.

The next step

“Level Next, at its core, is a media play for people of color to tell our stories.

—Michael Davis

The house we are in is not Davis’ primary residency. It serves as his creative incubator wherein he hatches upcoming projects. Within this humble abode, he has cordoned off separate areas for business, writing, and a large area in the rear as an art studio. Normally no one, including the maid, is allowed access.  Like Batman with his Bat cave and Superman with his Fortress of Solitude, Michael Davis uses this space as a sanctuary from which to operate.

Once getting used to the darkness, we become aware of a vast void cluttered with books, computer equipment (“I’m an Apple computer ho,” he confines), paintings in various stages of completion, and a vast assortment of action figures and toys, including a collection of G.I. Joes conservatively valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. My colleague later said he’d walked into a time capsule centered on the last half of the 20th Century.

Davis readily admits to being loose cannon. On his twitter account, he proclaims the titles of Master of the Universe, Lord of All Media, and Most Interesting Black Man in the World. Once we’re settled in, he bounces from subject to subject, showing us periodicals geared towards the African American Christian populace (“Where goes the church, there goes the African American community”), the inability/unwillingness of large corporations to reach ethnic communities, his exclusion from the rumored Milestone imprint reboot, and the lack of recognition for his contributions to the Static Shock franchise.

This slight is an underlying factor behind his latest undertaking, the launch of a multi-genre, multi-platform entertainment company.

Citing his past experience with Milestone, where DC concentrated on the distribution while giving the creative team full reign over its content, Davis remains skeptical about the current excitement about ethnic super heroes. 

“‘Black Panther’ works because Marvel Studios was smart enough to let Black people run that bch,” he states flatly about the importance of credibility in the success of a given product. He acknowledges the fact that Black Panther was conceived by two White Jewish creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and that the version reaching the screen was largely shaped by Don McGregor.

“I’ve called Don one of the greatest Black comic book writers of all time, and yes, he’s a White guy, but he knows his way around the culture,” he notes.

In 2005, he met actor and game show host Wayne Brady on the set of the Tom Joyner TV Show and they jelled over mutual interests in animation and comic books. Together with radio personality Karen Hunter (https://karenhuntershow.com) and the input of corporate executive and high stakes gambler Don Johnson, they have decided to establish a new entertainment platform, to be called Level Next.

“Karen, Wayne, Don and my exclusion from Milestone were the seeds that made Level Next live,” he says.

“This current fascination with all things Black Superhero will last about as long as (Donald) Trump would if the pee tape (an allusion to the alleged Russian sex video involving the chief executive) aired halftime at the Super bowl,” he suggests.

The Black Panel

“We own pop culture worldwide.”

—Michael Davis

During the time we were visiting, Davis was preparing for his annual “Black Panel” to be held at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International (commonly known as the “Comic-Con”) today through July 22.  Starting out as a gathering of perhaps a hundred comic book fans in 1970, Comic-Con has morphed into a convention of 150,000+ attendees crowding the 460,000 square foot San Diego Convention Center (tickets for the event were sold out in December of 2018).

Davis initiated the Black Panel (http://theblackpanel.com/), held annually at Comic-Con, a discussion group centered on black people and their influence on popular culture and contemporary society in 1996. Its title not-with-standing, it encourages and draws a multicultural audience who actively participate in the discourse on equal footing with the panelists.

The following passage from its website states as much:

The Black Panel is not a forum for just Black People; it’s a forum about Black Entertainment and showcases those who are doing notable work in film, TV, comics, music, etc. The secondary focus (just as, if not more important) is to reach out to as many young creators of color (and all young creators who strive for a way in) and give them access to those who have made a contribution. It’s been mentioned above but bears repeating, Black culture IS young culture.

Over the years it has drawn such notables as rappers Ludacris and Method Man, actors Bill Duke, Orlando Jones, and Michael Jai White. This year’s lineup tentatively includes actor Isaiah Washington and Parliament-Funkadelic legend George Clinton.

The Black Panel takes place tomorrow from 10 to 11:30 a.m. in Room 5AB. Admission is free with Comic-Con membership, but the convention space fills up quickly, and is always standing room only.