A Complicitous Critique: Reading Dwayne McDuffie’s ‘Icon’ in the Wake of ‘The Death of Superman’

*This post is part of our online forum on the Black-owned and -controlled Milestone Media.

Icon and Superman – Screenshot from Young Justice (Cartoon Network)

The year 1993 proved a watershed moment for DC Comics. The comic book publishing stalwart — along with the other predominant comic publisher, Marvel Comics — found itself facing significant competition. The upstart Image Comics, created by a small group of former DC and Marvel artists and writers, posed the strongest threat to the established oligopoly, while independent publishers Continuity, Dark Horse, and Valiant also sold hundreds of thousands of comics in an era of rampant speculation. While Marvel mostly weathered the storm, DC languished a bit during the late 1980s–early 1990s.

The relatively middling sales of and interest in the various Superman titles exemplified DC’s struggles. Though still popular, The Man of Steel’s sales performance lingered behind his DC counterpart Batman, whose popularity soared in the wake of the 1989 eponymous film. To revitalize Superman, DC did the unlikely: it killed Superman (albeit temporarily) in the pages of Superman #75 (1992). In “The Death (and Rebirth) of Superman,” Marc Kipniss argues that “The Death of Superman” story arc allows for the legendary hero to shift from being a modernist superhero to a postmodernist one. He posits that this shift was necessary, particularly given that the so-called “American century” was coming to a close, and a Superman who represented “truth, justice, and the American way” became archaic and unnecessary. The resurrected Superman who appeared the next year was more exemplary of the times.

“The Death of Superman” was not the only — nor, arguably, the most meaningful—postmodernist deconstruction of Superman taking place at that time. In April 1993, DC began publishing its Milestone imprint, a series of comics created by Milestone Media, a company formed by African American comics creators Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle, and Dwayne McDuffie. The following month, Milestone released Icon #1, which featured a Black pastiche Superman of the same name. Through this pastiche Superman, Dwayne McDuffie engages in what media scholar Sarah Smith calls “complicitous critique,” which involves a media text holding on to the trappings of the original text in order to advance a critique of the original. This “complicitous critique” is indicative of McDuffie’s penchant for — and, arguably, Milestone Media’s mission of — counter-storytelling, which involves subverting majoritarian norms, oftentimes through reconstruction or reimagination in literary texts. Critical race theorist Richard Delgado notes that counter-stories play a role in challenging preconceptions, showing new possibilities, stirring the imagination, and deconstructing or destroying beliefs.

The 42 issue Icon series (1993-1997) centers on two protagonists: the titular superhero and his Black teenage female sidekick Rocket. The former is actually Arnus, an alien who crash-lands in the antebellum South in 1839. His landing pod scans the first person it sees, an enslaved woman named Miriam, and rewrites his genetic code to make him appear as a Black infant. Raised in slavery by Miriam, he eventually becomes “Augustus Freeman,” and though he has tremendous superpowers, he refrains from using them other than to offer minor relief to fellow enslaved individuals. He does, however, assist in the Underground Railroad and engages in occasional heroics with encouragement from his wife, Estelle. However, after Estelle’s death in 1977, Augustus — who, throughout the years has posed as his own son and grandchildren since he does not age — relocates to Dakota, a large Midwestern city plagued by gang violence. Disgruntled by his wife’s death and the lack of Black progress, he becomes a cynical conservative lawyer.

Raquel Ervin, a fifteen year old Dakota resident who develops a rapport with Augustus even though she and her friends attempt to burglarize his house, challenges his cynicism. Indeed, after witnessing Augustus use his power to stop the would-be robbers, Raquel — who aspires to be “the next Toni Morrison” — encourages him to become a superhero and to take her on as his partner, Rocket. As Jennifer Ryan notes in “Black Female Authorship and the African American Graphic Novel,” Raquel subverts the traditional sidekick role by serving as narrator, which, in turn, has the effect of legitimizing Black women’s voices.

The prevailing critique of the Superman myth offered in Icon is not dissimilar to the one semiotician Umberto Eco offers in “The Myth of Superman.” Eco unpacks what makes Superman the archetypal superhero; however, a particularly intriguing aspect of Eco’s critique regards Superman’s civic and political consciousness. In short, Eco highlights that, though Superman has the power to change the world on a dramatic scale, he primarily protects private property and completes small acts of charity. Granted, Eco is writing of Superman in 1972, before superhero comics embraced social relevance; nonetheless, Eco’s contentions maintain validity. Icon wrestles with this conflict between civic and political consciousness more overtly than any of the actual Superman titles did during the same time period.

Icon #21 exemplifies the ways in which this conflict plays out throughout the series. After several adventures with Rocket, Icon discovers a means by which to return to his home planet. The issue vacillates between Icon preparing everyone — from fellow superhero Hardware to Noble, the father of pregnant Raquel’s child — for his departure and Raquel lamenting his decision to leave. A forlorn Raquel reminisces upon their heroics, but realizes that like Superman before them, the duo has mostly functioned as protectors and occasional avengers. However, despite these efforts and Icon’s power and advanced technology, Dakota — and, specifically, the gang-ridden Paris Island section in which they operate — remains troubled.

When Icon arrives to deliver his farewells, she pleads with him not to leave, to which he responds, “The world still has Icon. Icon is you. Icon always was you.” Icon’s departing words not only call back to Raquel’s impetus in his superhero origins, but they also affirm that he is an aspiration, not a savior. Indeed, in the same issue, as Raquel reflects on their adventures together, she quotes W.E.B. Du Bois: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. It is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst in their own and other races.” She previously had assumed that Icon was this guide; however, she begins to realize that she is. Not only was she the person to create Icon, but she inspires others during Icon’s absence. For instance, as she is sidelined during her pregnancy and son’s birth, she convinces her best friend Darniece to assume her role as Rocket and convinces the mercenary Buck Wild — a parody of Marvel’s Luke Cage — to serve as Icon. Moreover, her giving birth to her son Amistad leads her ex-boyfriend Noble to become a more responsible, mature person.

Icon is not the only Black Superman pastiche to emerge in the wake of “The Death of Superman.” In The Adventures of Superman #600 (1993), weapons engineer John Henry Irons creates a suit of high-powered armor — emblazoned with Superman’s signature — and becomes the Man of Steel. After being saved by Superman and being told to “live a life worth saving,” he — along with three other Superman pastiches — attempts to fill in for the apparently deceased hero. In this case, the Black pastiche Superman only highlights the absence of and need for the genuine article.

To be sure, Icon does not seek to tear down the myth of Superman; indeed, much reverence exists in this pastiche. Furthermore, McDuffie often bristled at suggestions that Icon essentially was “Black Superman,” and in a deftly-rendered sequence in Icon #16 (1994), he starkly contrasts Icon with Superman, who guest starred in this Worlds Collide crossover issue aptly titled “Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman.” Rift, the reality bending antagonist of this crossover series, captures the two heroes, and in a rather poignant soliloquy, highlights how Superman is born in freedom and has come to embody the American ideal through his heroic feats, while Icon was “born” enslaved and hindered from sharing his abilities with mankind. Nonetheless, Rift rightly concludes, “Perhaps neither myth can win out because both are necessary. Perhaps each myth is incomplete without the other.”

All told, Icon — like “The Death of Superman” — effectively, if not intentionally, questioned the relevance of the Superman archetype at a time in which it seemed fit to do so. Through its use of a pastiche Superman, the centering of a teenage Black girl in the narrative, and effective parodies of other Black superheroes, Icon highlighted the medium’s power to deliver counter-stories and provided a blueprint for more recent pastiche and legacy characters — such as Marvel’s Miles Morales — to do the same.

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Phillip L. Cunningham

Phillip L. Cunningham is an Assistant Professor of Communications and Media Studies at Quinnipiac University. He has an MA from Temple University and a PhD from Bowling Green State University. His research primarily focuses on Black and mainstream popular culture, with a particular emphasis on interrogating representations of blackness in popular media texts. His scholarly work has appeared in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Journal of Popular Music Studies, and Journal of Sport and Social Issues, and M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture and various anthologies on comics, film, television, and sports.Follow him on Twitter @PLCPhD.