Podcast: Vita Ayala takes on the return of Milestone’s Static

static, virgil hawkins, theblerdgurl, Blerd, vita ayala, karama horne

Podcast: Vita Ayala takes on the return of Milestone’s Static

If you are a fan of Milestone’s most famous character Virgil Hawkins, then this is the episode for you. Vita Ayala ((New Mutants, Shuri), is the new writer on the series Static Season 1, and I talked to them about what it was like updating the character and how they got the gig. 

The debut of Milestone’s original Static #1 was almost 30 years ago. (No he’s not a young Black Lightning). It was created by the co-founders of Milestone, Dwayne McDuffie, Dennis Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle, and drawn by the late John Paul Leon. Now the character of Virgil Ovid Hawkins would go on to be one of the most impactful characters in comics in the ’90s.

Vita Ayala is updating Virgil Hawkins for a whole new generation

vita Ayala, theblerdgurl podcast, static,milestone, comics
Vita Ayala
photo credit: Carla Cain Walther

Comic book series inspired Static Shock, the animated series which ran on the WB Network’s kids block starting in 2000. The show ran for four seasons (also produced and written by McDuffie) influenced an entire generation who grew up with Virgil (voiced by the legendary Phil Lamarr) in their living rooms. The new Milestone, now an imprint within DC Comics finally returned last month with a new story, Static Season One #1.

(Fun fact: It wasn’t Vita’s idea to update Vigil’s origin story, that came from Milestone partner Reginald Hudlin.)

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Show Notes

Ep50_Vita Ayala on Static and Milestone
[00:00:00] Karama: What's up, folks! I'm Karama, aka, The Blerd Gurl, and today I have the pleasure of speaking with award-winning comic book writer Vita Ayala. Now, if you haven't already, please take a moment to subscribe to The Blerd Gurl podcast over on iTunes and leave a nice rating. It really helps the show.
Now, if iTunes isn't your thing. That's fine. You can always find The Blerd Gurl on your favourite podcatcher.
Now, if you're a fan of Milestone Comics’ most famous character, Virgil Hawkins, then this is the episode for you. Vita Ayala is the new writer on the series Static: Season One. And I talked to them about what it was like updating the character and the very interesting way that they got the gig.
For those of you who don't know what all the fuss is about. The debut of Milestone’s original Static: Number One was almost 30 years ago. It was created by the co-founders of Milestone. Dwayne McDuffie, Dennis Cowen, Michael Davis, and Derek T Dingle. And drawn by the late John Paul Leon.
Now the character of Virgil Ovid Hawkins would go on to be one of the most impactful characters in the comics of the nineties.
The conflict series inspired Static Shock, the animated series, and it ran on the WB networks’ kids block starting in 2000 for four seasons. The show, also produced and written by McDuffie, influenced an entire generation who grew up with Virgil— voiced by the legendary Phil Lamarr.
[00:01:30] The new Milestone now, an imprint within DC comics. Not to be confused with Milestone Media, the media company run by Hudlin, Cowen, and Dingle, finally returned last month with a new story, Static: Season One.
Now by the time, this drops Static: Season One #2 will also be out. Now, this new story which is written by award-winning writer, Vita Ayala was laid out by award-winning artist, ChrisCross and drawn, uh, I believe this is his first Milestone comic by Nikolas Draper Ivey. A lot of you know him as the guy who designed the Black Panther album. And he's also done a lot of work with noirCaesar, a Black-owned manga company.
So I'm going to pay some bills, and then up next, my conversation with comic book writer Vita Ayala.
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Karama: When you first got this project, first of all, did you put in for it, or did they come to you? Did Milestone come to you?
[00:02:41] Vita: I was approached by Conroy, I think by Chris Conroy, um, the editor, uh, and I was told, I believe I was told straight off the bat that it was a bake-off, which makes me really nervous.
It's a very stressful thing. Cause I, at this point, I know so many people, like, I don't want to, I don't [00:03:00] want to like fight for like this stuff. You know, I grew up with this stuff. I remember the comics. I remember the, you know, the cartoon and all that kind of stuff. So I was like, all right, like. I was going to say no, and then I was like, no, this I have to, I have to try. Right?
[00:03:17] Karama: So, but by bake-off, you mean, do you have to pitch something?
[00:03:21] Vita: Yeah, I had to pitch it and there was multiple people pitching. Um, I wasn't told who, so it was a blind bake-off. I hate that term, though, so I just call it a bake-off. So you're kind of just developing a pitch with, sometimes with an artist of mind and sometimes not.
They did tell me like this is the person that we would love to have you work with, and it was Nik. So yeah, I kind of developed something after talking to Reggie and Dennis and Conroy all together. Um, and they seem to like it because they chose mine.
[00:03:50] Karama: But that's great! So what was one thing that you definitely wanted to do going in that, you know, like you grew up with this character, but you knew? I mean, look, we can all look back at Milestone and go; some of this stuff might not hold up right now.
[00:04:06] Vita: Right, right. I, you know, I re-read a bunch of that stuff too, to kind of get into the mindset, to find the core of the character to bring forward. And that's really what I wanted to do. I, I think that the stuff in the past was of its time in a good way. You're like; this is what was going on at the time.
These were the conversations. And I was like; we need to do that for now. What are the conversations that we're having? What are the struggles that, you know, [00:04:30] Black kids are having and, you know, right now? And then taking the core of Virgil, you know, of his character and translating that into a more contemporary context.
I think that like one of the things that I've always really liked about the character that I hoped to replicate in a more contemporary way was that, you know, he's weird. He's a weirdo. He’s a weird smart Black kid who plays like Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. And like, you know, like he's, he's, he's kind of a fanboy.
Like he likes superhero stuff. He wants to; he wants to be a good person. Um, and I think that. That's something that is really beautiful. Um, I think that looks different than it did, you know, in 93. Right now, partially because people are just-- have more access to information. So you, you make different decisions based on that, but also just because the world has changed so rapidly in the last what? Thirty years, 20 years?
So yeah, that was kind of what I wanted to do. And Nik and I talked about this a lot as well. Like what does it mean for that kind of Black kid to exist now and Black boys specifically? Right. But also we wanted to do a lot of stuff with his family, and, and show that dynamic and show a healthy functioning Black family who struggles, but like ultimately they are a united force, together.
[00:05:53] Karama: Right. And which, which sadly enough, is very rare because a lot of Black characters too, you know, I don't know my [00:06:00] parents or one of my parents was killed.
[00:06:01] Vita: They got shot down.
[00:06:03] Karama: They got shot down, or they have a drug overdose, or they had whatever. Right. That's also...
[00:06:07] Vita: and, and, and I think those stories are really important too.
But I think for me, I was like, Hey, that's not everybody's experience, and that's okay! We should; we should show multiple experiences. And one of the things that I thought was really important was to show how a family that has very different people. Who have very different opinions can still work together, who can still support each other, even if they don't always agree.
Like you said like often, the family dynamic is one of, of, not chaos, but one of struggle. I just want to be like, yeah, like, but also this is what this looks like. Again, no, no judgment on any of those other things. Um, that was just something that was important for everybody working on this book to do.
[00:06:54] Karama: Who made the decision to change the quote-unquote Bang Baby's origin? Was that you, or did they come to you with that?
[00:07:01] Vita: That was already scripted and being drawn. That was a Reggie, Dennis decision. I think that that was a good decision. I think that the conversations that people were having in the past at the time were, you know, in the news, and all this stuff was about gang warfare. But then, that book then went on to show like, but it's not as simple as you think it is and all this kind of stuff whereas, now, the conversations we're having are like, Hey, uh, you literally want to kill us just for existing. [00:07:30] Like, can we not? And it's very; it’s very public.
Karama: Very overt, yeah…
Vita: the conversations Black people have been having, but now everyone has to deal with it. Right. So to update the origin in that way, um, I think puts the, puts the onus of, of responsibility, where it belongs on these people that are trying to destroy this community and, and hurt these people— playing off of that. Uh, one of the things that I wanted to do, and Nik is super into it too. And, so it was Conroy was played with how information then gets twisted. Right. Um, and I, I won't spoil anything or anything like that, but there is this kind of through-line where. That we floor through the character of Derrius, where he saw the truth, but now he's seeing how, how things get twisted and how the victims get blamed and get demonized and that kind of stuff, and he wants to fight against that. Um, whereas Virgil is living that experience.
Karama: Right! And, and he's also living with trauma.
Vita: Yeah, and that was, another thing too, that like, to me. They accused him of being too angry and too sad at first. And I was like, yo, this kid just watched all his friends like melt and die. Like I would not be okay.
I'm a very happy go lucky person. You know, I'm, I'm a very optimistic person, and that's why Virgil appeals to me, personally. He sees really, you know, messed up stuff. And then he's like, but we can do better. But, I would need a minute. Like I would be angry. I would be so angry. Um, [00:09:00] and he's scared, right?
He has PTSD. His body is changing in ways that like, he doesn't know what's going on, and he's afraid that he's gonna either hurt people. Right. Or, or cause someone to be hurt. Like he's, he's gone through a lot. I think he needs to be allowed to process those feelings.
[00:09:17] Karama: Yeah, no, absolutely. And I also think that the dumpster fire that was 2020, God. It's like from zero to 2020. Is this that violent? Like?
[00:09:29] Vita: I think that people were expecting him to bounce back immediately. And to me, I was like, he’s going to get there because that's who he is at his core. But we cannot expect children to go through these traumas and immediately be okay.
We can't expect anybody.
Karama: Yeah!
Vita: Nobody, but especially not children. It is okay to be angry, to be confused, to be sad. It doesn't make you a weak person. It makes you someone who's experiencing stuff.
Karama: makes you human.
Vita: Yeah, exactly. It makes you human. And, and this was something that resonated, I think, with Nik as well. Cause we have all these conversations about the underlying themes, and it's just like, we can show him lying about how he feels. Right? But like, we have to be authentic about his internal life when we go forward. Like, yo, it's a bummer this takes place like very, very quickly after the big bang.
Like it's a lot.
[00:10:21] Karama: What I'm also curious about is because there's some amazing, uh, other characters that are, that really care about him, like his sister.[00:10:30] But towards the end of the first issue, we get to meet some people that were in the animated series.
Vita: Yup.
Karama: Now, was that your idea? Cuz this is kind of exciting.
[00:10:41] Vita: Yes and no part of it was like conversations with Nik, and he's like, but, what about this person? I was like, all right, we, we goin do it. Like we have to put them in there.
Um, but also I just felt like. I dunno, man. I think that the the happiest superheroes are the ones that have friends. Right. And I really liked the dynamic between those characters when we see them. So I was like, again, like, what does it look like now? Um, and then, of course, Nik hooked them all up with the drip.
They look great. They all look incredible.
[00:11:07] Karama: No, they do look great! But yeah, like when I saw Frida and Richie, I'm like, wait a minute. Aren't they, the animated series?
[00:11:15] Vita: I know that that Frida was, uh, in the, in the OG comics, but she's different. Right. She looks different she's, you know, but it's a teen book. We had to have a little bit of that. Like, uh, romance drama.
[00:11:28] Karama: Yeah, no, absolutely. Also, the interesting thing, we touched on it a little bit, is working on a comic like this; you did work on it in 2020.
[00:11:39] Vita: I sure did.
[00:11:41] Karama: So, what was that like? What was that experience of drawing this child going through this trauma with very obvious and violent police brutality, and you know, and you're writing it? You're coming up with this story, and then, you know, to relax, you turn on the TV and oh, look, it's more police brutality.[00:12:00]
Vita: Listen, I don’t have cable; I just have streaming. I can't; I’m not sure. You know, it was a, it's a hard line to walk. Um, and I know it's gotta be difficult for Cross and for Nik as well, to be like, we want to be as authentic as possible. But, also, we want to provide hope in a way that the media doesn't necessarily provide when reporting on these situations.
[00:12:22] Right. I think that we, we kinda come at partially through his internal, um, his internal life and how like he's working through it, but you see that he's going to make progress. Um, but this is all a lot. It's hard; it’s hard still. Like we're not going through as many mass protests, but like everything's very difficult.
[00:12:46] Karama: It is, it is tough. And how about staying creatively motivated right now?
[00:12:54] Vita: Honestly, I struggled, but one of the things that I'm really blessed with is I get to communicate pretty regularly with my collaborators and sort of feel kind of where. We feed off of each other for work, I would give each other energy, and it goes back and forth.
And that really makes me want to work, even if I'm having, if I'm struggling with anything, in particular, just the idea of being able to give something to my collaborators and have them be excited is very motivating.
[00:13:24] Karama: And collaborating, have you like you said, this was like sort of a, you said it was a bake-off in the beginning and [00:13:30] it was like a non-traditional way of sort of how you've written before.
What about the experience of sort of working with two artists? Working with both Nik and Chris, did you all come up with your own rhythm?
Vita: I have been, one of the things that we've been doing is Cross very much of like the old school where he's just like, I got the script, I work on this, what I have here, you know, I'll change up things here and there, but like mostly like, that's what I'm doing.
And Nik is a much more like, he'll be like, okay, but why is this happening? Which I really like, I like, I like to have someone like question me because I want to get to the best story. So one of the things that actually, um, that we've been kind of doing. I'm re-breaking a lot of the story. I wanted to accelerate some stuff.
Nik is a very dynamic artist, and just person, like a very energetic person. Um, and so I was like, all right, I want that reflected in here. Not just in his drawings but in, in the pace of the story. Um, and so we've been just like, all right, we have a couple of things we know we have to hit, let's rebreak um, and then every, every two issues, or so we check back in in terms of like, does this still work? Yes. No. All right. Well, let's, rebreak the next issue or two.
Um, and it's been working great. I think that, like, we got to a place, I hate just writing a document and then being like, this is what the story is. It makes me feel real weird because comics are supposed to be a group effort. And so to be able to do this, you know, dynamically, even though we do have some bullet points that we have to hit is really great.
I think that that's a great [00:15:00] rhythm for this particular team.
Karama: Cause it sounds like you have somebody that's very sort of rigid and somebody who's very like let's draw outside the lines. Let's be a bit more organic, but I think the quality of the product is, is worth it.
How many issues are we getting before the volume? We're getting full six?
Vita: Yeah, I think we're getting a full six.
Karama: Oay. So issue two is about the drop. Think, back to issue two. Let's see, uh, Virgil's house is blown up.
Vita: It's on fire for sure.
Karama: It's on fire. Yeah. I don't know if it's blown up, but he's got these big anime tears in his eyes.
[00:15:35]Vita: It's so good.
Karama: Moving into issue two and even the the subsequent issues. What are some of the most fun things that you got to write?
Vita: That’s a good question.
Um, each issue, I try and find a thing that makes me laugh. Um, it's hard, right? Because this is still a very like heavy, the beginning of this book is certainly going to be heavier than that at the end, um, I think.
So issue two, oh my God, thinking back. There's a scene that Chris and Nik, absolutely. Like, it's just a single page that made me laugh so hard that when I wrote it, I was like, this is kind of fun.
Like, you know, uh, he's skateboarding along. I think that we've seen previews, uh, online, and I didn't write this part into the script. I don't remember it, but like, they drew these birds, like these pigeons, just scattering. And I saw that art and started cackling. I was like, this is great. Like we need these moments.
Um, [00:16:30] and there's another scene that I thought was personally, for me, really, it was really fun because it felt very like this is Virgil, where he, he is find something that really tickles his science senses, and he's just like, whoa, this is so cool. And he forgets for a second all the stuff that's happening, and he just immerses himself in that.
And I really love that.
[00:16:51] Karama: It feels like we're going to be in his world for a minute, and it also, there’s a very tangible feeling from this version of Virgil that I really, really like.
Well, which would you rather, the Virgil that you're writing? Would you like it to be animated or live-action?
[00:17:10] Vita: Oh, animated.
[00:17:10] Karama: Okay. So who would be the voice?
[00:17:13] Vita: It's still Phil Lamarr. What? Are you kidding me?
[00:17:17] Karama: No, because some people say it should be somebody younger, and I'm curious.
[00:17:21] Vita: I don't know because I am of a certain era and age.
[00:17:27] Karama: Uh, so I mean, no, I think Phil Lamarr should be in. And I'm just curious whether or not maybe he should be the dad.
Vita: Yeah! He should be the dad, that’s a pretty good--
Karama: Because his dad is a present, very present in his life. Um, I'm just thinking of all of our anime-- Honestly, I was thinking of Zeno Robinson, the anime voice actor.
[00:17:45] Vita: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That would actually be great.
[00:17:47] Karama: He'sHawks on full metal. Not full metal. My God! My Hero Academia.
[00:17:52] Vita: no, I think you're right. I think that would be really great.
[00:17:54] Karama: And he's also Ogun on Fire Force. I'm thinking of the way Ogun sounds. [00:18:00]
Vita: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah
Karama: But. Yeah, no, I, I'm excited about this, this whole new story.
Everybody is doing a really good job of bringing this character forward. And even if it's not always in the language. In the art, it feels like it's right now. Because a lot of the stuff that he's going to, we've gone to other people who've gone through who are older. Do you have discussions besides what you mentioned already about moving forward with this character and making it more in the world of gen Z?
[00:18:36] Vita: Yeah. When, when I first got to speak, actually whenever I've spoken to, to Reggie and Dennis, especially, um, talking about all the things, thematically that we wanted to do, that was, that was one of the things that was really important is to make it feel, you know, as relevant as possible to right now, while still kind of giving it a little bit of timelessness, right?
Like people are always obsessed with these evergreen stories. And I think that you can have evergreen stories that are really great. But you can also have very specifically contextual stories that are really great. Um, and so it's coming out now and like. Yes, there are a lot of fans that are my age that want to buy this book, who, who, you know, they're all about the cartoon, are all about the the original comics. But that's not our target audience. This is a this is a book for teens right now. So it should be something that is relatable to them right now.
So yeah, like that's [00:19:30] really what we wanted to do. And then working with Nik, I think is. He gives me, like. I’m much older than him. He gives me that vibrant now energy, like. You know, he's, he's in his twenties, so he's still, he's still much more connected to that kind of feeling, um, than I am. So I take a lot of that from him.
Karama: Well, also I think it also comes out in his work. I know you're a manga and anime fan. Manga was your first love. Definitely his first love. So, here are these moments, especially in the action scenes and stuff that definitely feel have that manga feel. How excited were you the first time you saw the art that he created
Vita: Oh, I flipped out. I flipped out when I saw his designs that he had just done for fun. Like, like I was like, oh, this, this is perfect.
Like this guy gets it. Even as pinups are dynamic. Jokes about Black characters, all having electric powers aside, right? Like this kid has electric powers. He should feel like that. He should feel dynamic and kinetic and maybe a little bit all over the place, but not too much. Like still, you know, you can still follow what's going on.
But that energy, when I saw his stuff, I was like, oh, this is it. This is perfect.
[00:20:38] Karama: Like, this is the one, also!
[00:20:39] Vita: The one, yeah.
[00:20:42] Karama: The last question that I would give you is, what is the one thing that you wish people would ask you about this book that nobody ever asked you?
Vita: I wish that we as a team got asked more about why it was important to build, not just virtual's character, but his family and [00:21:00] friends, the way that we did. Why we introduced this other character, Darius, to me, um, I didn't create that character.
That was Reggie. I had a choice about whether or not he would come forward, into the book, as opposed to just staying in, in the, you know, in the zero issue. And I was like, no, that's such a great perspective to have. And Nik and I have had extensive discussions about the parallels and the differences between Virgil and Darius and what we get from adding a character like that to the story.
And I wish people would ask more about that because Nik has a lot to say about that too. Um, we talk a lot about anger, but also about, about the opposite. About finding peace and how these two characters are coming at it from, from different, you know, different directions. And we want them to kind of meet in the middle and find balance.
[00:21:45] And that all that stuff is going on behind the scenes, right? Like we want the comic book to be super entertaining, but we also want, we want to kind of show perspective of, uh, the perspectives of lots of different Black people and how no one has it a hundred percent right. You have to find a way to find that balance in yourself.
But that's, that's a lot for a teen comic, I guess.
[00:22:10] Karama: No, but I, I liked that, and I liked the fact that you're giving Darius that presence, And I really feel like I got a family dynamic.
[00:22:18] Vita: Yeah. Like, like there's a scene in the first issue that is these two double-page spreads of like the family at the dinner table.
Karama: Mhm
Vita: And like that to me was like the core of the issue. And I think that [00:22:30] Cross and Nik really gave it their all there because they wanted to, they wanted to be like, this is it. This, this is the conversation we're having right now.
Like there are scenes coming up in, in subsequent issues that we'll, we'll touch back on these family dynamics in ways that like we want, we want it to feel nuanced, even though all the characters are very different. Um, we want to want to show them being a family. They're on the same team, right?
[00:22:55] Karama: Yeah, no, absolutely. And, and unlike a lot of, again, superheroes where they're missing a parent or that they just seem to be...
[00:23:03] Vita: I can't tell my friends, I can't do this. We were like, no, we can’t do this.
[00:23:06] Karama: Right, right.
[00:23:07] Vita: I think that the idea is to pull it forward in a way where you're like, these were the things that made this relevant and great. Let's, let's do that. And then let's try and do as good a job at doing these well-rounded characters as we can.

You must check out Static: Season One, if you haven't already along with the new Hardware: Season One. And! The new Icon and Rocket: Season one out now as well.
Also, a little shameless plug. I got a chance to talk to Hardware: Season One writer Brandon Thomas for Nerdist. So, definitely look out for that and thank you so much for listening. Please comment over on iTunes and subscribe while you're there or on your favorite podcatcher.
[00:24:00] Don't forget to check out our sponsor, the Self Credit app, in the show notes. And please follow me across social media. I'm @TheBlerdGurl everywhere. And don't forget support me on Patreon, so we can get more quality content out there to you at patrion.com/theblerdgurl. See you next time!

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Hi! I'm Karama! I'm a Brooklyn blerd, journalist and content creator fueled by coffee and comics. Anime is my orientation. Read More

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