Content Warning: This article contains frank discussion of racism, and uncensored use of the N word, in the context of the original debut issue of 1993’s Icon.
For as much as I’ve read in the years since I first picked it up, I’ve never come across a first issue that has impacted me quite as much as Dwayne McDuffie’s Icon #1. It’s not a perfect issue, by any means – hell it’s not even the strongest of the run, but it knew precisely what it wanted to say, and it said it well. It’s fair to say that McDuffie’s debut issue didn’t just set the stage, it built the whole damn theater, blazing a trail for the entire rest of the line to follow. Fortunately for everyone, Icon & Rocket: Season One #1 doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of setting the tone of the updated Milestone line.
Make no mistake, this is easily the best comic that Reginald Hudlin has put out in years, thanks in no small part to the inherent strength of the concept, and a strong, albeit safe, art team. Icon & Rocket opens with an expanded version of the origin seen in the 1993 original, with pencils by Doug Braithwaite, and inks by Scott Hanna. The rest of the issue, taking place in the present day, has Andrew Currie on inks. The pencils and inks play together beautifully, combining with Brad Anderson’s coloring to make each era (not to mention location) a unique take on a consistent theme. With Andworld Design lettering, the book is visually solid, even if it does lack an identity as distinct as Static: Season One’s mangaesque charm, or even the bold, sweeping lines Mark Bright brought to the original series. While there are nods to some of Bright’s panels, this issue’s art is a lot more grounded, foregoing dynamism in the name of practicality.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a house style, and Milestone certainly had its own back in the day, looking at each of the three offerings from Milestone’s “Season One” means I can’t help but be disappointed by how much Icon & Rocket plays it safe. Charitably, a grounded art style helps sell the idea that this book is the closest to traditional superhero fare. Augustus Freeman, after all, is essentially J’onn J’onzz by way of Clark Kent — a shapeshifting alien turned into an infant and raised by the kindly couple who found him. His resemblance to the typical superhero narrative is baked into the text! But, coupled with the writing, well…
When we started our coverage of the relaunch withMilestone Returns #0, also written by Hudlin, I expressed my concern that the line’s overall tone didn’t match the world that came before it. While Static, so far, has proven me wrong in regards to the line as a whole, I came away from Icon & Rocket wondering if Hudlin genuinely understands why Milestone made such an impact to begin with. Admittedly, I’m rarely a fan of his work, be it on-panel or on-screen, prolific and undeniably important though much of it may be. But while I can’t deny his talent, and the hard work he’s put into his career, every single piece of his resume goes against the spirit of the original series. Where McDuffie’s Icon told a story about the harm of respectability politics and the necessity of community, Hudlin’s take seems to go in the other direction. Where McDuffie’s Raquel wanted a typewriter solely to write, Hudlin’s wants one so that she can’t be watched online, continuing the anti-social media trend of Milestone Returns. Where McDuffie’s Raquel came to Augustus wanting to help people, Hudlin’s wants to stop people. McDuffie’s focused on the people who are here, now, Hudlin’s is more concerned with the legacy of those who came before.
McDuffie’s Icon was a story that warned, at length, about the trap of buying into respectability politics (as discussed by the inimitable Jude Jones), of an unimaginably privileged Black man deciding that his siblings weren’t worth saving if they couldn’t defy the odds to save themselves. For all of his strength and speed, Augustus’s real power, the one that most defies belief, is that he is effectively the only Black person in Milestone’s America who is genuinely, inherently, safe. His longevity and invulnerability, not to mention alien experience and intellect, gave him the tools, time, and safety he needed to become the extraterrestrial embodiment of the model minority. Augustus had the resources, and he spent decades thinking it should be that easy for anyone.
The thing is, in Milestone and in reality, it’s nowhere near that simple. It ain’t safe to be Black in America, unless you’re bulletproof, unless you can remove yourself from institutional violence, unless, unless, unless. The point of McDuffie’s Icon is that he was wrong, and grew out of the mindset of being the respectable negro. When McDuffie’s Raquel, the true protagonist of the series, pointed out the inherent flaws of trusting the police to react calmly when “a flying nigger drops out of the sky and does their job for them,” I was as shocked as Augustus. Not just because of the language used, but because of the truth packed in every word. It was a book more concerned with being true than it was with being polite about it, and it didn’t pull punches for the sake of civility. Icon & Rocket, on the other hand, is nothing but pulled punches, the sort of “Pull-Ya-Pants-Up-And-Ya-Hood-Down,”-ass, “Luke Cage ‘Not-Tired-Enough-To-Let-Nobody-Call-Me-That-Word”-ass, “Herman-Cain-Catching-Covid-And-Dying”-ass, “we-got-enough-of-this-from-Sam-Wilson”-ass preaching and internalized nonsense that you’d expect from the man who ran BET for three years. In 2021, after all Black folks have been through, after all we’re still going through, an Icon that doesn’t just miss the mark, it shoots itself in the foot. I can’t see Hudlin’s Raquel dropping that phrase, not just because of the slur, but because I can’t see Hudlin’s Raquel needing to be told to “show respect for the authorities.”
When all’s said and done, I still hope I can look back at this in five issues and say that I was off the mark. With any luck, this reimagining will prove me wrong and end up being the Icon story we’ve all been clamoring to see for decades. From everything I’ve seen so far, though, well… at least we have Static.