In 1993, Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle, and Christopher Priest founded Milestone Media, an imprint that worked to bring greater representation to comics. They achieved this through the creation of characters such as the Blood Syndicate, Hardware, Static, Icon, and Rocket. Today, I want to look at a couple of issues of Icon, specifically issues #1 and #11. Each of these issues focus on the importance of representation, not just in sequential art but in all forms of media.
Icon #1 provides the reader’s introduction to Icon, and alien, like Superman, who landed in a field in the American South in 1839. An enslaved woman finds him, and before she sees him, he takes on her genetic makeup, making himself appear as a Black baby. He becomes Augustus Freeman, and as time passes, he must repeatedly disappear, acting dead, and return as his own son. At the time of the comic, he is August Freeman, IV.
Raquel Ervin (Rocket) is a teenager and aspiring writer. As the narrator, she tells us, “I always wanted to be a writer. Like Toni Morrison, but I’m only fifteen. I never had anything to write about.” One night, she heads out with her boyfriend and some other friends. They plan to rob Freeman’s house, not knowing he is Black. All they know is he is rich. Raquel’s boyfriend, Noble, shoots Freeman, and the bullets bounce off of him. Freeman then flies outside, chasing the intruders.
Raquel returns to Freeman’s home and tells him that he “could help lots of people. If only they could see what [you] can do.” She shows him the design she drew up for Icon and Rocket. At first, Freeman balks at the idea, telling her, “People don’t need any example child. If you aren’t doing well, you haven’t tried hard enough. If you want a better life, don’t look for examples. Do what I did, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!”
Freeman lived through slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rest of African American history since the 1839. He is disconnected from Raquel, both financially and philosophically. He thinks that if someone does not succeed then that person has not tried hard enough. He does not question the systemic issues that plague Dakota and call for an Icon that the community can look up to.
Freeman tells Raquel to meet him in three weeks, and on his way to bridge to meet her, he thinks about Raquel’s words that he should be an example. He walks through Paris Island, the inner city of Dakota, and ponders Raquel’s statements. The panels show him walking through an inner-city environment with run-down buildings, garbage in the street, and children playing in puddles. He questions his thoughts that the individuals who live on Paris Island and “who suffer under such conditions must have brought them upon themselves.” He concludes that he has lied to himself. As such, he thinks that he “must provide an example” to counter the hopelessness that the people feel.
Raquel and Freeman meet on the destroyed bridge that once connected Paris Island to the rest of Dakota. The bridge collapsed during the “Big Bang.” (That is another story for another time.) Immediately, Raquel quotes the opening of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Talented Tenth” to Freeman: “The Negro Race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. It is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worth, in their own and other races.” Freeman tells her he is more Booker T. Washington than Du Bois.
The two cannot finish their conversation because a hostage situation has taken place at the mayor’s office. Flying away, Rocket tells Icon, “Let’s go set a positive example for the downtrodden.” Icon responds, “Rocket, if you don’t quiet down, I’m going to drop you.” The tensions between Rocket and Icon permeate the issue. Should Icon be a symbol for the community? Should he represent the Black citizens of Dakota? This is a question we must ask even about Icon and Rocket themselves as comic book characters. Do they represent, singularly or together, all African Americans? No, they do not.
McDuffie, in “The Landmark of Milestone,” commented,
If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character . . . then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor. We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn’t do just one book. We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that’s wider than the world we’ve seen before.
Milestone did just that. Curtis Metcalf (Hardware) is a genius scientist out for revenge. The Blood Syndicate are a gang on Paris Island. Raquel and Freeman have different views on their roles as superheroes. The characters are not static. They represent various views, not a monolithic whole. This point becomes abundantly clear in issue #1’s finale when Icon and Rocket land in the middle crowd of policemen outside city hall.
As a successful lawyer, Freeman thinks he should be able to land in the crowd and ask the policemen if they need a hand. He does not consider the way they may react to a Black man, flying in from the sky, landing in their midst. He does not see the racist underpinnings that cause them to view him as a threat. Rocket points this out to him when she asks, “You think the cops are sitting around waiting for a flying nigger to drop out of the sky and do their job for them?”
The policeman tells Icon to put his hands above his head, and when he doesn’t, the officers cock their guns and aim them at the duo. Rocket has the last line, “I bet this never happens to Superman.” At play here, of course, is the discussion of superheroes and representation. Why would this scene not happen to Superman? Even with his superhuman strength, he does not appear as an immediate threat in the minds of the authorities. On the contrary, Icon’s Black skin causes the authorities to view him as a potential threat.
Writing about this final panel, Rebecca Wanzo notes that Rocket (Raquel) serves as the issue’s, and the series’s, “ideological conscience.” Rocket satirizes her and Icon’s “status as objects of abjection: they are radical Others who challenge white citizens’ visions of themselves as the only possible source of true heroism. Her humor reflexively gestures toward the history of black bodies as the antithesis of national heroes.” Here, one need only think of Dorie Miller, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and other Black soldiers who served America in times of conflict.
Ultimately, Icon and Rocket provide an image of hope for the community, and that is where I will pick up in the next post. There, I will look at issue #11 where a young fourth grader, Todd Loomis, helps Icon and Rocket battle crime in Dakota. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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