Today, I want to continue the discussion I began in the last post on Buck Wild in Milestone Comics’ Icon. Specifically, I want to look at the ways that Dwyane McDuffie uses Buck Wild as a metonym and commentary on Black comic book characters that appeared in the 1970s. To do this, I am going to focus on Buck Wild’s initial appearance in Icon #13 and explore the ways that he thinks about himself in relation to the larger history of Black superheroes such as Luke Cage.
After we see Buck Wild on the cover of Icon #13, the title page shows him crashing through a window as bullets hit his impenetrable skin. He serves as the narrator for this section, and the first words we get from him directly relate to his position as a caricature. He thinks, “There’s this old, played-out record that I can’t get outta my head.” The “old, played-out record,” of course, is Buck Wild himself. His speech mirrors the jilted dialogue of Luke Cage, and the title of the issue, “It’s Always Christmas,” even plays on Cage’s catchphrase, “Sweet Christmas.” Along with this, the credits’ list at the bottom of the page plays up 70’s era blaxploitation by inserting signifiers such as “Trouble Man,” “Dolomite,” “Godfather of Soul,” and more between the artists’ names.
As Buck Wild battles the men shooting at him, one aims a gun at his face and pulls the trigger. The bullet stuns him, and the next panel shows a close up of Buck Wild holding a hand to his eye. Still pondering the “played-out record,” Buck Wild thinks, “And I can’t get it outta my head. The music or the picture.” The next panel shows a close up on Buck Wild’s face, and in his right eye, the one that took the bullet, there appears to be a tear running down his cheek. Teeth clenched, eyes ablaze, he continues to think, this time about the pictures: “Pimps in platform shoes. Big black studs. Fat, sloppy, rag-headed mammies.”
While these panels show Buck Wild enduring physical harm, the perspective and narration also call upon us as readers to think about the psychological aspects of his narration. The stereotypes that Buck Wild mentions continue to have an effect on him, mentally, and by having him grab his head, as he mentions that he can’t get the song out of his head, the panel highlights the ways that these stereotypes have seeped into his brain and continue to influence him. The closeup panel of him face presents an image of a man that is ready to fight back against the “played-out record.” Even though he does not do this right now, he does begin to do it later.
Buck Wild continues to fight, and as he does, thoughts continue to enter his mind. The record may be played out, he thinks, “but nothin’ new ever came to take its place. So I keeps that song runnin’ through my head.” Since the 1970s, what Black characters from the major two publishers deviated from the blaxploitation model? Black Panther may be the only one, but he went in a different direction in the late 1970s when Jack Kirby took over the series. Between the 1970s and the early 1990s, the image stayed the same, playing up urban environments and treating readers to tours of the ghetto laced with stereotypes and inaccurate representation.
Fist raised, Buck Wild concludes his thoughts as he screams it’s time to get paid. He narrates, “It ain’t much. it ain’t even good. But it might be all there is.” Buck Wild acquiesces to the fact that maybe the images he works within are all there is, and at least that is something. We need to recall that Luke Cage was one of the first Black superheroes, but he existed as more of a caricature than a true representation of Black Americans. He was a way to cash in on the blaxploitation films, and I would even argue pulp fiction, of the era, genres that subverted the system but that also dealt in stereotypes.
Thinking back to the Black-Owned Communication Alliance‘s ad that I wrote about a few posts ago, what did Luke Cage bring to the table in regard to representation? As McDuffie noted, he didn’t buy into Luke Cage, partly because he was “the bastard child of a 10,000 blaxploitation movies.” Likewise, creators such as Christopher Priest didn’t buy into Cage either in the 1970s. He stated, “most of that work seemed disingenuous, having not much in the way of anything that was true to my experience as a black youth in America.”
Priest continues by pointing out that the majority of super-heroes are written by whites, “and the larger body of African or African-American characters bear not much resemblance to any real black culture. A great deal of it is an appropriation of black culture and voice; it seems to be what white people think black people are.” Priest’s thoughts echo what I was pointing to in the last post, that Luke Cage’s initial appearance portray him as a cultural tour guide to Black life in America.
Steve Englehart mentions that Archie Goodwin, Luke Cage’s first writer, would go down to the theatre and watch films such as Shaft and Foxy Brown, taking what he saw and transfering it to the pages of Luke Cage. Thus, Goodwin’s presentation became filtered not through his own experiences or interactions with Blacks but through media representations. This means that he took bits and pieces of what he saw and incorporated them into the series, appropriating the images, like Priest says. This is what Quentin Tarantino does as well, something I have written about some in regards to Priest’s Black Panther.
Buck Wild’s initial sequence ends when he gets captured by Lysistrata Jones, and he thinks, “The music in my head started again. And that’s the last thing I remember.” The next page starts a new record because we see a new hero, a new representation, in the form of Raquel Ervin (Rocket). She stands on a rooftop overlooking the city. She narrates, “I’m fifteen years old. I’m a superhero. I’m pregnant.” Within these statements, Rocket counters the stereotypes of Buck Wild. She continues by talking about her life, missing school, and the conflicts with her mother after telling her about the pregnancy. These conversations and thoughts are grounded in reality, not in stereotypes of pimps and mammies.
As the issue progresses, Rocket and Icon encounter Buck Wild, who is under the control of Lysistrata Jones. During the fight, members from the community gather and begin to throw cans and yell at Icon. They tell him to get away from Buck Wild because he’s “one of the good guys.” One panel shows the crowd telling Icon that Buck Wild lets them pay in installments and that “he’s the only hero we got!” Here, again, we see the “played-out record” that Buck Wild references early on in the issue. If Buck Wild is the only representation, what does that do? What does that say? What mentality does that create? These are questions that Icon #13 works with.
Buck Wild tells his origin story, which is basically Luke Cage’s, and Icon and Rocket break Jones’ control over him. He tells them, “Now, I remember ever’thin. It was 1972.” Rocket asks, “Your brain froze in 1972?” Buck Wild tells her, “Thas right.” The image of Buck Wild remains trapped in the past, unable to escape, move forward, evolve. He works in the realm of stereotype and eventually even nostalgia. Jones’, to a certain extent, represents this control as well, especially with her “P-whip.” It traps the person it ensnares in her control, a control steeped in blaxploitation stereotype.
After they defeat Jones, Buck Wild tells Icon and Rocket, “Seein’ you taught me a lot. . . . Lookin’ at you makes me think. Mebbe if I hadn’t been frozen, I wouldn’t have to be like this. Meebe I can still be more than what I is now.” Icon and Rocket show Buck Wild that he does not have to exist as a stereotype, he can be his true self. Even with this recognition, though, the issue ends with Rocket telling him, “I wouldn’t count on it, Buck. You are what you is. And 1972 was a long time ago. Maybe it’s just time to move on.” Rocket’s comments signal that Buck Wild’s and Luke Cage’s time has passed. They do not need to change, they just need to fade away.
Initially, Buck Wild was going to be a one-off character, and Icon #13 would be it. However, after fan response, McDuffie and crew brought him back, and readers began to see the change in his character that his interaction with Icon and Rocket sparked. All of this culminated in Icon #30 with Buck Wild’s funeral. Next post, I will continue looking at Buck Wild, focusing on his turn as Icon and on his funeral.
Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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