Retro Trade Review: Icon Vol. 1 By McDuffie, Bright & Others For Milestone

Retro Trade Review: Icon Vol. 1: A Hero’s Welcome

Contains Icon #1-8 (May – December 1993)

Written by Dwayne McDuffie

Co-written by Erica Helene (#7)

Pencilled by MD Bright

Inked by Mike Gustovich 

Coloured by Rachelle Menashe (#1), James Sherman (#1), Noelle Giddings (#1), John Cebollero (#2-3), James Brown (#4-8), Prentiss Rollins (#7)

Spoilers from twenty-six years ago

I’ve become more curious about the Milestone books in recent years, having never read them when they first came out, in the middle of the great 90s glut.  I didn’t much like Hardware when I read its first trade recently, but Xombi was a great series, and I’d like to sample more of the titles.  

Going into this trade, I know nothing about Icon except that he looks like a Superman retread.  I’m curious to see how the politics of representation play out with this character in this trade that collects the first eight issues.  Let’s find out.

This book features the following characters:

Villains/Antagonists:

  • Payback (Kevin Franklin; #2-3)

Guest Stars

  • Wise Son (Blood Syndicate; #4-6)
  • Boogieman (Blood Syndicate; #4-6)
  • Brickhouse (Blood Syndicate; #4-6)
  • Flashback (Blood Syndicate; #4-6)
  • Third Rail (Blood Syndicate; #4-6)
  • Fade (Blood Syndicate; #4-6)
  • DMZ (Blood Syndicate; #4-6)
  • Masquerade (Blood Syndicate; #5-6)
  • Dogg (Blood Syndicate; #5-6)

Supporting Characters:

  • Rocket (Raquel Ervin; #1-8)
  • Mayor Thomasina Jefferson (#2-3)
  • Roberta Chaplik (reporter; #4)
  • Josh Thompson (head of GRIND; #4)

Let’s see what happened in the comics, with some commentary as I go:

  • The series opens in 1839, and an alien ship passing near Earth is in trouble.  One alien manages to escape in a pod, and crashes in a rural area, where he is found by a black woman (it’s implied that she is enslaved or very poor).  The alien takes the form of a black male human baby, and the woman embraces him. In the present, aka 1993, Augustus Freeman, the grown baby, is contemplating some shackles in his office, where he works as a highly paid lawyer.  He talks about how a recent run-in with a young woman has gotten him thinking about how he helps the world. This young woman, Raquel, had gone with her friends when they decided to break into a large mansion to rob it. It turns out to have been Augustus’s mansion, and he surprised them while they were burgling.  Lenny, the group’s leader, shot Augustus, but it had no effect on him. Flying, he rounded up the fleeing robbers, and threatened them to forget that they had ever been there. Raquel, who dreams of being a writer, can’t stop thinking about Augustus’s wealth, large library, and the fact that he does nothing with all this.  She goes to see him, bringing a design for a superhero costume for him as Icon, and for herself as Rocket, his sidekick. He feeds her some “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” nonsense, and she leaves. Later, he drops off a costume for Raquel, having thought about what she said, including a belt that would give her abilities and keep her safe.  He notices the number of people living in poverty in Dakota, and so meets with Raquel, and they head to help out with a problem downtown. They arrive at City Hall, where there are tons of cops surrounding the building, and when they announce to the officer in charge that they’ve come to help, they are surrounded by heavily armored cops with guns.
  • A man named Kevin shows up at City Hall after having not come to work for six months.  He makes his way to the mayor’s office, and pulls a gun on her, sparking the hostage situation Icon and Rocket walked into last issue.  Now, they are threatened by all the police, and when Rocket mouths off at one of them, he tries to hit her (her forceshield protects her).  She punches him, which leads to general violence. Icon is angry that the cops are putting bystanders at risk. Kevin and the Mayor hear the shooting, and he threatens to kill her.  Icon decides he needs to calm things down, so he sends Rocket away, and surrenders, even though being cuffed triggers some things for him. The police attempt to breach City Hall, but the people Kevin is with (whom we saw no sign of before this) are ready for them.  Icon breaks his bonds to go save some cops, and Rocket swoops in to save another (Icon knew she hadn’t left, and called her back). Kevin tells the Mayor he wants her to admit to using gas on some kids in Paris Island (this must be referring to something that happened somewhere else).  Icon and Rocket walk into her office, and when Icon tells Kevin to give him his gun, he complies, but then transforms into a large yellow monster.
  • The monster is apparently called Payback, and he manages to cut Icon with his claws, raking him across the chest.  Rocket does better against him while Icon is stunned, and Payback realizes that he is not going to get the confession from the Mayor that he is looking for.  He flees, and Rocket is sent by Icon to follow but not engage. Icon’s wounds are healing quickly, which shocks the Mayor. They are joined by a group of gunmen.  Rocket follows Payback into a sewage tunnel, and he attacks her. Icon makes quick work of the gunmen, then clears the rest of City Hall of assailants before returning to the Mayor and flying her to the ground.  Payback gives up, and returning to his human form of Kevin, he explains to Raquel that he used to work for the Mayor, and when the Big Bang happened (I don’t know where or what that is), he tried to keep her from using an experimental tear gas on rioters.  When she refused he went to warn people, and got caught in the gas, which is what turned him into Payback. Icon was listening in the shadows while Kevin explained this, and promised that if he gives up, he’ll make sure there’s a proper inquiry. A couple weeks later, Icon accepts the key to the city from the Mayor, and gives a speech about potential.  Joining Rocket, who I guess doesn’t deserve a key, he tells her that she should stay on the sidelines, revealing that she’s pregnant, which is news to her.
  • Rocket stops a robbery in a bodega, while struggling with the idea that she might be pregnant.  Hanging out with her friend, she admits that she might be pregnant. The friend takes her to the pharmacy to buy a test, where Raquel is humiliated by a price check.  Icon stops a car jacking then heads in to work, where his partner Saul is reviewing Payback’s case. Augustus decides he should investigate what happened on Paris Island, but his research in the public record doesn’t help much.  He suits up and goes to visit Roberta Chaplik, a reporter, but she is terrified of what could happen if she talks to him. Next he goes to see Josh Thompson, who runs GRIND, the Dakota police gang task force. He warns him away from getting in touch with the Blood Syndicate, who live on Paris Island.  Raquel’s test confirms she’s pregnant, and as she and her friend talk about it, Raquel’s grandmother walks in on them. Icon, flying around Paris Island, is called over by Wise Son, one of the Syndicate. He punches Icon, and they fight briefly. The rest of the Blood Syndicate shows up.
  • Icon squares off against the Blood Syndicate, which consists of eight people and a talking dog, named Dogg of course.  Icon doesn’t want to fight, but Boogieman pushes things, and soon enough, he’s trading blows. Brickhouse knocks him far, into an abandoned car, and DMZ comes to get him.  Raquel’s grandmother finds her sitting in a park and talks to her about the struggles she’s faced, and makes it clear to her that she’s done raising babies. Icon recognizes the patterns in DMZ’s clothes, and tries to get him to talk, but that Syndicate member doesn’t speak.  The others arrive, and when DMZ flies away, Icon tries to follow, but Flashback uses her powers to back up his personal timeline so he can be stopped from leaving. Icon overclocks Third Rail’s ability to absorb energy, then sends Boogieman flying into some other Syndicate types.  Raquel goes to find Noble, the boy that got her pregnant. When she tells him her condition, he asks how she knows it’s his, and she hits him. Combined, the Syndicate gets Icon on the ground, and Wise Son says they should kill him.
  • The Blood Syndicate have a brief debate about killing Icon, but are interrupted by the arrival of Rocket.  They don’t want her to leave with Icon, and she makes it clear that while she can’t win against them, she’s going to do her best to hurt one of them.  Brickhouse sends her flying, but she returns having absorbed the force of the punch, and knocks into the massive Thing-wannabe. She pushes back Boogieman, but is facing down Brickhouse and Third Rail when Wise Son stops them.  She says she’s going to kick them all in a sensitive place, and everyone is amused. Wise Son is going to let Rocket leave, when Icon, recovered and glowing from his hand, interrupts them. He tells Wise Son that he’d like to talk to him “like men”, but first wants to chat with DMZ in private.  He speaks to him in an alien tongue, surprising the silent man, but realizes that he is also stranded on Earth (although, if Icon can fly, why can’t he just fly to another planet? Also, it’s not like they don’t have rocket ships…). DMZ leaves, and Icon and Wise Son almost get into it again. Rocket suggests they meet elsewhere, so they go to the bridge and finally talk.  Icon wants to know what really happened during the Big Bang, and makes it clear that he’s a lot older than he looks, having lived through war, deprivation, and racism. Icon appeals to the Syndicate to do more than act like a gang, but Wise Son says they have to look after their turf. Rocket points out that the police don’t go there, so it’s already theirs and asks what they intend to do with it.  Wise Son calls a truce, and the Syndicate leaves. Icon and Rocket fly somewhere, where he gives her grief for fighting in her condition. He also gives her a mask like his, so she won’t be recognized. Raquel thinks that Icon’s glowing hand is a bluff, but he blasts the water, proving he’s more powerful than she thought. She wants to know all about him.
  • Icon explains to Raquel how the starship he was on had difficulty, forcing him to use the escape pod.  He explains that it altered his DNA to match the woman who found him (funny it didn’t make him female then), and that he’s been stranded on Earth for over 150 years.  Raquel doesn’t believe him, and gets emotional about him lying to her. Later, she writes in her journal about how alone she is in deciding what to do about her baby. She goes to a clinic, and meets with a doctor.  Icon stops a purse snatcher. The doctor confirms that Raquel is pregnant, and they have a very honest and well-written discussion about her options. The doctor shares that she had an abortion herself, and still wrestles with the decision she made.  Raquel meets up with Icon, and tells him that she wants to talk to him as Augustus Freeman. They go to his house, and he changes into a suit. She asks to borrow $500, and he asks about her pregnancy. He tells her that he was once married to a woman named Estelle, and when she became pregnant, he was surprised, since he didn’t believe their physiologies were compatible.  When he discovered, using his life pod’s equipment, that the pregnancy wasn’t viable, they secured an abortion. He tells Raquel he’ll give her the money, and support her in whatever decision she makes. She gets angry, expecting him to tell her to keep the baby, which is what she wants to do, even though she knows she’ll be doing it on her own. Later, writing in her journal, she decides that this is the best decision for her.
  • We learn that Raquel is writing a book about Icon.  They meet at his house again, and while she waits for him to take care of some things, she writes a pretty good recap of the first seven issues.  He takes her to a secret basement, and while they walk there, he recaps the events that led to him coming to Earth in more detail than we’ve seen before.  We learn he was on his way to a vacation when the starliner he was in suffered problems. He helped the authorities (dressed like the Blood Syndicate’s DMZ) to save some people before taking the escape pod.  He opens a secret door to show Raquel the escape pod, which has very little energy left and cannot be recharged on Earth. Raquel finally believes him, and learns about the society he was raised in, which is basically utopian in nature.  He worked to settle disputes there, basically serving as a lawyer, like he does on Earth. Noble goes looking for Raquel, and ends up telling her mother that she’s pregnant. Raquel learns that the belt Icon gave her is basically a seat belt from the escape pod, and that there’s another one out there that was stolen (I’m not sure what powers the belt).  After leaving, Raquel reflects on Icon’s life – working to help slaves escape, fighting in the Civil War, starting his practice, getting married, fighting in World War II, and having to fake his death a few times over. This discussion has inspired Raquel.

I like this trade much more than I did the first trade of Hardware.  We are slow to learn about Icon, but Raquel is an incredible character who propels this book with her sense of justice and unflagging optimism and energy.  She has a way of cutting through problems and posturing, to get at the core of what needs to happen.  I’ve always liked McDuffie as a writer, but feel like he tapped into something next level with this book, which must have felt very unique when it came out.

Icon is an interesting study in contradictions.  Basically, he’s Superman, were Superman raised as a slave in the 19th century.  Yet, after all of his life experiences, Icon subscribes to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” school of respectability politics.  He lives alone in a mansion, and has somehow missed out on seeing how people of colour have faced systemic discrimination in American society.  Even after touring Raquel’s neighbourhood or hanging out on Paris Island, Icon lectures purse snatchers for preying on the weak, and shows naivety when interacting with the police, expecting them to be happy receiving his aid.

But then, when Raquel wants him to help her get an abortion, he’s okay with it and supportive of her.  Maybe these first eight issues of a series that ran more than five times that long are not enough to fully understand this character, but that is also the biggest reason I have to now start seeking out the rest of this series.  I want to see if he starts to recognize forces that work against certain communities, or if he continues to blame people for their choices.

Raquel is great, and I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance and complexity of how the issue of her considering an abortion is handled.  I assume that’s largely due to the co-writer of issue seven, the one that has a doctor speaking plainly about both abortions and the law. Nothing about this issue feels preachy or heavy-handed, and the reader can empathize with the difficulty of what Raquel has to consider.

Even though in eight issues Icon only deals with one real antagonist (and even he turns out to be a decent guy who was caught in a bad situation), I’m curious to see more of a how a character like him, as much an out-of-time Captain America type as a Superman, interacts with the 90s, and the gang culture that seems to have taken hold in Dakota City.

I find myself more and more intrigued by the Milestone line.  Sure, Hardware didn’t work for me when I read his first trade, but the appearance of the Blood Syndicate in this trade has me wanting to check out their own title (I have the Wise Son mini in a pile somewhere, but haven’t looked at them past that).

MD Bright’s art is well-suited to this book, although the 90s cape on Icon makes me laugh at times (especially given how much it appears to change in size and volume throughout the run).  I love the colouring system used on Milestone books, that stayed pretty consistent even though there were a number of colourists on these eight issues.

I will definitely be adding the rest of this series to the list of comics I’m hunting for at shows and sales, so you can expect another column on this some day, but I can’t predict when.

In the meantime, you can check out my Retro Review archives here.

If you’d like to read this trade, follow this link:
Icon: A Hero’s Welcome

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