Of all the comics on my syllabus, this was perhaps the one I had the least familiarity with before I started designing the course. This was also one of the comics I was most looking forward to teaching, and the one I was most surprised by when we got there. The same appeared to be true for a lot of my students. And that wasn't entirely a good thing, since Icon proved to be at once groundbreaking and utterly conventional.
The series starts off well with a brilliant first issue. Dwayne McDuffie immediately locates his book within the larger currents of both superhero comics and African American literature, citing Superman and Song of Solomon with equal confidence. Mercifully, the latter doesn't play out as a shamefaced bid for literary respectability ("Trotting out the Nietzsche and the Shelley and the Shakespeare to dignify some old costumed claptrap," to quote the next writer on our schedule) because McDuffie doesn't just drop those references to Toni Morrison, he improves on them--or at least adapts them to his chosen genre, literalizing Morrison's flight-as-freedom metaphor while also metaphorizing the flights of fancy that superhero comics had dulled through fifty years of poorly executed routine. It's a move that adds originality and depth to both of its contexts, and it yields a surprisingly versatile metaphor--the flight can embody Rocket's aspirations for freedom and opportunity, but also Icon's haughtiness and privilege.
The whole issue is full of clever little turns like that: the way Icon's first appearance foreshadows his costume, right down to the empty circle in the center; the way that circle points out the empty symbolism of a hero who knows he stands for something but doesn't yet know what that is; the way that emptiness is even mirrored in Rocket's own cut-out where her emblem should be, although McDuffie has the good sense not to try to justify the boob window in his script. (Power Girl writers, take note.) The first issue leaves an open question as to which values its heroes are going to promote, and tasks them with finding it out for themselves.
It's a shame the issue looks so dour, with what appear to be early digital colors applied to the same old cheap newsprint. The colors wash together, an effect not helped by the dark palette of purples and grays. It's possible this was deliberate--everything seems to brighten up once Icon debuts his costume, and later issues are colored in a manner more suited to their printing. But then again, as I've been reminding my students all semester long, we also have to take the creative labor into account: that first issue of Icon had three colorists, and none of them made it to issue two. It's hard to argue with the results, but I have to wonder how many readers picked up the first issue, saw the murky visuals, and decided not to stick around.
Jeffrey Brown's excellent book Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans spends a fair amount of time diagnosing the reasons why Milestone never reached a wider audience. I can't disagree with his conclusions that the line was hurt by retailers and fans who ignored the comics because they viewed them as too political or simply too black (an unfortunate consequence, he argues, of their own unprecedented and largely favorable press coverage). But Brown doesn't spend as much time discussing another possibility: for all the radicalism of their efforts, maybe the Milestone books were actually too traditional.
Because the smart literary references, the deft symbology, and the clever variations on their sources all fade quickly after the first issue of Icon, to be replaced (at least initially) by a depressingly formulaic superhero book filled with pointless fight scenes and painful dialogue. I know it's a cheap and easy trick to wrench dialogue off the page and let it stand on its own as an indictment of the scripting; that's why I love it. But seriously, how many comics have you read where every character sounded like this:
"Kevin, whatever's happened to you, you've got to let us help you."
"Help me? You better help yourself!"
"My business is with the mayor, little girl. If you leave now, you won't end up like your friend."
"I'm taking my friend to the hospital. You may want to catch a ride with me--you look like you could use a doctor yourself!"
Basically all of issue 3 is like that. The fight against the Blood Syndicate is little better, although I can't lay that at McDuffie's feet as the main fault seems to be the design of the Blood Syndicate themselves. (My favorite member being Flashback, the superhero who apparently has to shout her own name every single time she uses her powers. I mean, it's not like Captain Marvel screams "Shazam!" every time he crashes through a wall--although now that I type that out, it sounds a hell of a lot more amusing than Flashback.)
In short, these scenes could have been written for any characters in any superhero comic published in the previous twenty years. M.D. Bright's art is similarly pitched to a post-Neal Adams tradition that had great purchase two decades earlier but almost no pull in the fevered market of 1993. Icon's cape, of endless billows and no fixed length, seems to be the only concession to the Image style.
Brown mentions that Milestone didn't cave in to prevailing trends for cover gimmicks or bad girl art, but this is presented as a point in their favor (and so it was). He does mention they were criticized for being too traditional, too close to their superheroic inspirations, but these criticisms are mostly voiced by the Ania comics artists, who lace them with a toxic combination of racism, homophobia, and the presumption that they and they alone are the sole arbiters of blackness. These terms offer little room to criticize Icon for playing it safe without calling its lead "Superman in blackface."
The blackface charge is nonsense--as Brown points out, the similarities are there to highlight the differences--and yet the comic's earnest message-issue scripts aren't so different from the socially relevant comics McDuffie once derided. He had a great quote in his afterword to the Marvel Masterworks collection of Don McGregor's Black Panther, one I shared with the class when we read Green Lantern/Green Arrow:
In those days, when black characters in comics weren’t busy being angry, they appeared either as faithful sidekicks, or worse, as helpless victims who begged white superheroes to rescue them. ‘How come you never did nothing for the black skins, Mr. Green Lantern?’ And this was actually considered progress.
I can't dispute a word of it--and yet, some of my students were as bothered by McDuffie's decision to make Rocket a teenage mother as they were by anything in GL/GA, seeing it as another kind of stereotype. Arguably the Milestone books represented a collision of many different stereotypes. Just as arguably, that collision represented a major step forward in terms of diversifying black representations in comics.
The series follows other scripts from the Denny O'Neil era as well. McDuffie pitches Icon and Rocket as ideological sparring partners à la Hal and Ollie--and much like those hard-traveling heroes, Rocket's liberalism almost always wins the day, to the point where it's not even clear why Icon identifies as a conservative. After all, he comes from a multicultural utopia (called the Cooperative!) that has eliminated all material needs, his legal system tries to maximize gains for society as a whole, and he supports Raquel's right to get an abortion, to the point that he offers to pay for it. Other than his tough-on-crime rhetoric and his stance on self-sufficiency--both of which are part of mainstream black political discourse--he sounds more like an establishment liberal, conservative only in relation to his partner.
Not that I have any problem with McDuffie's politics, but they don't exactly break the mold. Neither do they shake Milestone's reputation for valuing didacticism over entertainment. The critical discussion could do more to acknowledge that the line's failures may not be chalked up solely to racist readers, timid retailers, or a comics market in freefall. For all their considerable merits (and Icon was one of the best) Milestone comics were stuck in the middle, too radical for the direct market but also too traditional to stand out on the shelves--other than the reasons they would always stand out.