By Lucius Illuminux
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Superman was dead. Long before Doomsday was even an idea, our world had tossed Kal-El aside in favor of new books with new heroes. It was 1992, and it seemed like superhero comics had outgrown the character that launched the genre. Clark and Lois had been engaged for two years, and the creative teams felt like they were putting out some of the best work in the character’s history – yet sales of Superman books paled in comparison to the year’s biggest books. It was a year that gave us the launch of Image Comics; whilst on the other side of the road Marvel was finding new success with its 2099 and X-Men books. These books were selling millions of issues while Superman titles struggled to crack the top 100 in comic sales each month.
It seemed like the people of today had forgotten the importance of the man of tomorrow. So the team at DC decided that it would show us “what the world would be like without Superman.” In Superman #75 (November,1992), they killed an icon. The impact was felt across the medium as the book, which had previously struggled to keep up with the excitement of a fledgling Image comics, had suddenly sold 6 million copies and became the best selling comic book of the year. The world remembered how important the man of steel is.
The only problem was that Superman was dead… for real this time.
The mourning was experienced in the hearts of readers and on the page. An 8-part story titled “Funeral for a Friend ” ran across all four Superman titles with the final issue releasing January of 1993. Then all of the Superman titles went on break. There would be no new Superman titles on the shelves until that June. The publisher did everything to make sure readers felt the void left in comics without the man of steel.
Whether through serendipity or clever timing, the shelves would not have to go long without a caped hero flying through the sky. In April of 1993, while all the Superman titles were on break, readers walked into their comic shops still mourning the loss of their favorite hero. As they looked across the shelf of new releases, their eyes would eventually come across the cover of Icon #1. The book featured its own caped hero with glowing hands and the caption under the title read: “She’s got your hero right here”, as if the girl in front of him is presenting readers with the hero who would fill the void on their pull list.
However, there was one difference so noticeable that it made the New York Times.
“Although Icon, a red-and-green-clad comic-book superhero, bears similarities to the Man of Steel, there is one big difference: he’s black.”
A new publisher, Milestone, presented its third comic series with laser precision as Icon was able to occupy a unique space in a small window. What’s more is that the creative team consisted of M.D Bright – who had just penciled Superman stories in Action Comics – and Dwayne McDuffie, co-founder of Milestone and one of the few Black writers who has found success at major publishers. The timing, the creative team, media coverage and alluring cover were all part of a recipe that begged readers to give this new book a chance.
A Black Superman
The first pages depict an alien escaping to Earth and being adopted by a farmworker. While the origin is Kal-El… esque, the alien is adult, does not look human, and only begins to resemble one when he adopts the infant form of the woman who finds him: an enslaved African-American. The story seems familiar, yet exciting and new. The impact of a super-powered alien being found and raised by a Black woman during chattel slavery immediately captures the imagination: how that man would come to impact his adopted people starting in the 1800s may very well change the course of history. The endless possibilities coursing through the reader’s mind builds anticipation every page turn.
Unfortunately the page-turn after this introduction may be a bit of a disappointment. That alien became Augustus Freeman and lived for over a century as an adult Black male – yet the future is largely the same. Augustus seems okay with that, and he’s working as a lawyer. Despite his power and an awareness of the social conditions of Black people, he has never felt the impetus to do more. Even after living as an actual enslaved person, he has no sympathy for the social condition of the group’s descendants and believes that “if you aren’t doing well, you aren’t trying hard enough”. Despite having longer than any human’s lifespan to earn his social standing, he believes he pulled himself up by the bootstraps.
The only reason he even dons the cape and costume is because a teenage girl convinced him to… and when he finally does? He decides he’s just going to pull up to the police station and ask the cops if THEY need help.
The story that many had hoped for when they picked up the cover of Icon #1 is nowhere to be found. The fact of the matter is that despite living in his body for more than 150 years Augustus Freeman does not think of himself as Black. If he chose to walk the earth in his true form he wouldn’t even be wrong. He wasn’t exactly raised by the woman who found him because he was a mature adult by the time he crash landed on earth, only taking the form of a baby for his own survival.
If you looked at the cover and hoped for Black Superman you will no doubt be shocked by what’s inside the pages, but a closer look reveals that the book was never really about Augustus Freeman. In a time without Superman, the core of the book is easy to miss.
While Icon is centered on the cover and baits readers in, it’s the placement of the frame and the caption that reveal the secret of the book. When you look carefully at the thin white lines that frame the cover, you will notice that the frame creates two distinct planes in the foreground of the cover. Icon is notably behind the frame while Rocket stands in front of it in the foreground. It’s as if she’s presenting him as a piece of art, placing her hand on her face in a pose reminiscent of the civil rights icon Malcolm X. Then the caption. The caption reads “She’s Got Your Hero Right here”. While it looks like a book about Icon at first glance, while Icon is the title; the frame and the caption work together to reveal the true nature of the book. The cover use that alongside the first few pages of the book form a clever bait-and-switch for readers needing a Superman.
An Icon for Her People
Consumers of comics have become accustomed to a certain rhythm and cadence that is present throughout the medium. Augustus’ flashback seems to set up an establishing shot that reveals our could-be Superman lived more than 150 years on Earth and lived through chattel slavery. When a page turn lands us in the present where Augustus Freeman is holding the shackles that binded him when he was a slave, we expect to land on the protagonist of the story. However this is still a part of the framing narrative. Augustus sets up the true story in a conversation with his white law firm partner. He mentions an encounter with a young woman who he describes as “impoverished, impassioned, angry” and who “sees the world differently.” A wide panel over page 8 finishes the introduction to the true protagonist of the book: Raquel Ervin.
The first stream of consciousness narration in the issue does not come from Augustus but Raquel. The reader doesn’t have to infer her aspirations like they did Augustus’ profession because she lets us know directly. Raquel Ervin is a young girl from the Paris Island projects who has aspirations to be a writer. On the fated night that she meets Augustus, she gets in with the wrong crowd, makes a wrong decision to rob houses in the suburbs… and almost ends up an accessory for murder. Fortunately for Raquel, her so-called friends picked the wrong house.
Her first encounter with Augustus is a sequence of incorrect assumptions which continually escalate the situation. When Raquel’s friend runs into Augustus, he assumes he is a housekeeper because he can’t imagine a Black man owning that house. In turn, Augustus looks down the barrel of a gun, assuming the young man wouldn’t fire.Both of these assumptions turn out to be very wrong. After shrugging off gunfire, Augustus reveals his powers of invulnerability and flight to scare the kids into secrecy. He lets them go, but not before pontificating to them about hard work and calling them criminals, common thugs, and poor reflections of “our people”.
In such a violent and emotional escalation, most people would be happy that it’s over and never speak of it again. Yet, while no one else could see past their fear and the moment, Raquel saw hope and was able to look to the future. Augustus was flying, but it is Raquel’s vision that makes her super.
The one thing we know about Raquel Ervin is that she wants to be a storyteller, and the night she sees a flying Black man she sees the potential for the greatest story ever told. Augustus is content keeping his head down and looking down on “his people”, and had been doing so the length of several lifetimes. He may have stayed that way until he left the planet if Raquel returned to his house with sketches of two superheroes: “Icon and The Rocket”. She is clear that she wants Icon to serve as an ideal or example, while Augustus is clear that he believes in bootstrapping. That’s why she places herself as his side-kick “The Rocket” to make sure that Icon becomes what the hero she imagines. Icon holds all of the supernatural abilities and social standing resources to have an impact, but Raquel has an outline for a story she wants to tell and that is the difference between who Augustus has been for the last 154 years and who Raquel knows he could be.
Raquel is Right
In the final pages of the inaugural issue Icon and The Rocket finally take flight on a beautiful full page spread as it appears Icon is finally starting to come around. However when Rocket exclaims they are going to set an example for the downtrodden, Icon simply tells the young woman to be quiet and follow his lead. When Rocket tries to warn him about the optics of a black man flying to city hall in the middle of armed police, Icon tells her not to racialize everything. The scene harkens back to a common interpretation of Icon as a book about generational conflict expressed through the older conservative Icon and the young progressive Rocket. Yet this interpretation ignores a few crucial facts about their first night out.
Black people have reported issues with the police for as long as there have been police. Even more important to the nature of the series is that Rocket was right. If Augustus had spent any part of the last century feeling he had a responsibility to “his people” he would have been present for the social conditions under which police mistrust arose. Instead he flies a teenager into the middle of dozens of armed officers, where they are told to put their hands above their head with all of the officer’s guns pointed at them.
The issue ends with our heroes “one wrong move” from a barrage of police fire with Rocket uttering the clever line “But I bet this never happens to Superman”. It almost breaches the fourth wall and nods to both the racial realities of living in this country as Black Americans and the expectations of readers who picked up the book expecting to read Black Superman.
The First Truth of Icon
Superman was dead. Yet, in his absence we got a comic book that could offer us more. Augustus Freeman had not seen Black people as they are in some time; Clark Kent never had a cause to. An alien who grew up in a society where race did not negatively affect social condition may have every reason to believe in meritocracy. Likewise, an alien who grew up white and felt himself to be an outcast may not give a ton of attention to the ways race operates in the US. However Augustus took the form of a Black man… and with it, all of the baggage of the racial caste system.
The realities of race are hard to confront, and for a century Icon chose to opt out, clinging to whatever reality he comes from. However, Augustus was eventually fortunate enough to cross paths with a storyteller that told him he had a responsibility to do more.
Of all of the Milestone titles, Icon is the only book that Dwayne McDuffie stayed the regular series writer on for the life of the book. I suspect that it is because the true nature of Icon eludes many creators. There are some common interpretations of the nature of Icon that the first issue seems uncannily aware of. The idea that Icon is a book about Black Superman or generational conflict amongst Black people is alluded to and quickly dispelled in 27 pages.
The truth of the matter is that any interpretation of the book that does not center Raquel Ervin has missed the point. The book is not called Icon & The Rocket because her name doesn’t need to be in the title. , the book is not called Icon because it is the alter-ego of Augustus Freeman. Most importantly, it is a book about Raquel Ervin and the icon that she created for their people to propel them to a better place like some kind of rocket. Icon is the narrative created by the teenage Black girl looking to change the world.
All the best Icon stories highlight that simple message from Icon #1’s cover: that “She’s Got Your Hero Right Here”.
icon #1 “By Their Own Bootstraps”
Written by Dwayne McDuffie
Pencilled by M. D. Bright
Inked by Mike Gustovich
Coloured by Rachelle Menashe, James Sherman and Noelle Giddings
Lettered by Steve Dutro
Published in 1993 by Milestone Media
Lucius is a contributing writer to PanelxPanel, and co-runs “The Power of You in Fiction” Podcast. As a structural engineer in his career and at heart, he is fascinated by the pieces that make up buildings, stories and our system of ethics, and has an aptitude for breaking complex structures into its constituent parts. His writing normally discusses how certain series make unique use of their medium or how Black people like himself exist within the medium. Find him on twitter here, or on Instagram here!