Thursday, February 28, 2019

Black Superheroes: Icon & Rocket

Batman & Robin can go to hell: it's Icon & Rocket's time!

Names: Arnus/Augustus Freeman IV and Raquel Irvin

First Appearance: Icon #1 (1993)

History: Arnus was an alien adjunct who, while on vacation, was stranded on Earth after the ship he was on was attacked and destroyed. He survived in a malfunctioning life pod that landed in the American south, circa 1839. The pod reconstructed his body and DNA to match that of a nearby slave, a woman named Miriam; the process left him reborn as a human infant. Miriam adopted the boy, naming him Augustus, and he grew up as a slave. As he got older Augustus realized the process had mutated him, giving him superhuman abilities (including super strength and speed, flight, and a healing factor) and a greatly extended lifespan. He used these powers to covertly help others. Surviving throughout the decades, and periodically assuming the identity of his own son, Augustus became a successful and wealthy lawyer but became distant and reclusive following the death of his wife in 1977.

Enter Raquel Irvin. Growing up in Paris Island, the poorest ghetto of Dakota City, the teenage would-be writer ended up joining her friends in trying to rob Freeman’s mansion. Augustus stopped the teens and shooed them away, but a combination of his powers and his words deeply affected Raquel. She soon returned to the home to try to convince the long-lived alien to fight crime as a superhero with her as his partner. Initially hesitant, Augustus eventually relented, gifting Raquel the Inertia Winder, a belt that allowed the teen to manipulate kinetic energy. The two donned costumes and set out to become the protectors of Dakota City as the superpowered Icon and his teen sidekick Rocket.

Beta Says: I suppose one could argue that Icon might not count as a black character since he’s an alien, but I would say that considering he possesses the DNA of a black woman, was raised by said woman as her own child, and grew up as a slave I’m unsure if there are in fact any blacker comic book characters that exist. Anywho, Icon and Rocket were created by Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan and were among the original batch of characters featured in Milestone Comics, published by DC Comics. While it’s safe to say that neither of these guys are all that well known, they are in fact contemporaries of the hero Static, star of the animated series Static Shock. Static enjoys a tremendous amount of notoriety, especially among those who grew up in the 2000s, and is one of the most recognizable black superheroes in the world. Meanwhile Icon and Rocket have nowhere near as much fame, despite being created by the same group and published a full month earlier. Which is a shame because for all the trailblazing aspects the original Static comic had the Icon comic had just as many. So why is Virgil Hawkins famous enough to be a reoccurring figure in DC Comics and other media and meanwhile I, with all my useless comic trivia knowledge, had to double-check what Augustus and Raquel’s real names were?

More on this iconic duo after the jump.

I have no idea what that tag line is trying to say
Before we talk about Icon and Rocket we need to very quickly (Ha!) talk about Milestone Comics, which was an important experiment that isn’t spoken about nearly as much as it should be. Simply put, in 1993 a collective of comic writers and artists, including McDuffie and Cowan, formed a company called Milestone Media and took it upon themselves to create a new line of comics that featured a diverse cast of non-while, mostly black, superheroes; something sorely lacking at the time (and also still today, really). Thus Milestone Comics was born, as was the Dakota-Verse continuity. The books were published by DC Comics though Milestone retained the rights to the characters, an incredibly rare scenario in the cut throat world of comic books. The initial books included Static and Icon, as well as Hardware and Blood Syndicate.

While the books did reasonably well in sales, a combination of a bloated industry and retailers’ assumption that the books were for black people and no one else (thus affecting how much product they bothered to order) hurt the company’s long-term success. Milestone ultimately only managed to exist until 1997 when it closed its doors for good.

But Milestone doesn’t end there, as Milestone Media lived on as a licensing company whose primary licensed was in fact Static. The animated series based on the character, Static Shock, was a commercial and critical success.

What was it about Static that was so much more appealing than the other Milestone characters? That’s hard to say, but Static was referred to as a modern-day Spider-Man, a teen superhero with problems, and his book tackled realistic modern issues including gang violence, drug use, and sexual orientation, for which it was celebrated for. The thing is, so did Icon’s book.

A character wearing a jacket is a classic sign of the 1990s
Most of the Milestone Comics dealt with issues that were taboo in mainstream comics and Icon was no exception. For one, Augustus was a former slave which would have colored everything he did and said. What’s more, Icon was a conservative Republican and was often in disagreement with the more liberal Rocket. And Rocket herself very early on in the comic’s existence realized she was pregnant and had to soon deal with a teenage pregnancy and then life as a teenage single mom, a first in comic book history (she might still be the only teen mom superhero to this day). Icon faced some pretty heavy topics as well and was no less lauded for it.

And yet Static was still Milestone’s signature character. While I cannot say exactly what happened since this was back in 1993 and I wouldn’t start collecting comics seriously for another year or so, I suspect that Static was a more relatable character and therefore easier to like. I think that Icon, a Superman-analogue/former slave who by designed was supposed to represent the upper-class black experience, was less of a likable character and more a character that wins you start digging over time as you read his adventures. While Rocket was probably cut from a similar cloth as Static the fact that she was not the title character, despite being the actual protagonist of the comic, may have made it a bit harder for the average consumer to know this.

This tagline appears to reference Dr. Seuss and it confuses me
Weirdly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if Static Shock had featured Icon and Rocket in supporting or guest roles, as either would have increased their publicity, but for some reason almost no character from Milestone actually made it to the cartoon. Strange.

Milestone Comics haven’t been completely erased however, as in 2008 DC Comics declared that the Dakota-Verse would be integrated into the DC Universe, much like Captain Marvel and the Charlton Comics characters (Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, etc.) had been in previous decades. The characters were merged into the DC continuity as if they had always been there, mostly giving Static an excuse to join the Teen Titans, but technically speaking Dakota City, and all its inhabitants, now existed alongside the likes of Gotham City and Metropolis. Icon was retconned as having been friends with Superman for years, in fact. Later both characters learn the truth of how this arrangement came to be (a being merging both worlds to save them from mutual destruction) but decided it was fine and didn’t bother telling anyone else.

Would you believe that Superman is the progressive liberal here?
Here’s the problem: despite Static being prominent for a bit, the rest to the Milestone characters have barely seen the light of day. Icon and Rocket popped up now and then at first, but their appearances slowed considerably over time. By 2011, during the giant reboot known as the New 52, both have seemingly mostly vanished and have not made any major appearances since. I often wonder if DC doesn’t see any value in this duo or if there was some other, perhaps legal, reason behind their absence. I’m actually unsure who currently owns the rights to the Milestone characters. It might be DC but I hadn’t actually heard if they properly bought the rights from Milestone Media or if they simply got permission to use them. If it’s the latter, then perhaps they can’t use the characters without some sort of royalty payment and therefore the publisher concluded that it wouldn’t be worth the money to do something with them. Marvel Comics has a similar issue with Malibu Comics and thus won’t use any of the Ultraverse characters despite technically being legally able to. Or maybe DC is of the same mindset as the retailers from back in the 90s and feel that only black fans would be interested in reading new adventures of Icon and Rocket and aren’t interested in pursuing that demographic.

Regardless as the “why” the fact is that the world, possibly more than ever, needs Icon and Rocket. I would heavily argue that a new Icon book would be a worthwhile venture, even if you didn’t bring back the whole of the Dakota-verse. Icon and Rocket represent some very different, very fresh voices that simply do not exist in mainstream comics. Even though consider myself to be very liberal I think there’s a lot to be gained by having a character like Augustus commenting on the social upheaval of modern race relations in America. I also think there’s a lot of vale in Rocket. What would it be like in 2019 for a black, teenage mother who is trying to balance raising a child with school and trying to save the world? A book like this wouldn’t be for “black readers”; it would be for all readers who are looking for a different perspective. Not to mention that comic books have a severe lack of black women as superheroes; bringing Rocket back is a no-brainer.

I would have two caveats for this, however; 1) the title must be “Icon & Rocket” or preferably “Rocket & Icon.” Raquel is the main character of the book after all and I think her lack of title billing likely played a part in the book not being as successful as it could have been. 2) I think it needs to be a separate continuity than the main DC Comics. As a Superman-expy, Icon’s existence on an Earth where the Man of Steel operates makes him a bit…redundant. A fresh reboot on a fresh, modern version of Dakota City, where the only superbeings in the world mostly operate there, would be the best way continue their adventures. While Static can function in DC Comics I think Rocket and her partner need a bit more room to breathe.

Pictured: Young Justice, not starring Icon and Rocket
I should point out that it’s not all doom and gloom: both Icon and Rocket appeared in the cartoon Young Justice, with Rocket actually being a member of the main team…for maybe two episodes before there was time skip and she was suddenly not part of the cast anymore. But still, the fact that the two were able to make it to an adaptation is a great sign, even if no one seemed to utilize them with any care at all.

At the end of the day I would be all for this crime fighting duo making a comeback in their own title. That said, if Icon at any point utters the word “SJW” in a derogatory fashion then I believe the comic should be immediately canceled and the writer be punched in the mouth. Zero exceptions.

That giant cape in unacceptable
For more on Rocket and Icon check out their bios at World of Black Heroes, here and here. That’s it for this years’ edition of Black Superheroes Month. I can’t say for sure we’ll be doing this again next year, but I hope that you have learned a few things about this particular section of underused heroes.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...