‘I’m just a kid’: Representation in Milestone Comics’ ‘Icon’

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

Todd Loomis in Icon #11 (DC Comics – Fair Use via Matthew Teutsch)

In the 1970s, when the big-two comic companies sought to cash in on the blaxploitation era with characters such as Luke Cage and Black Lightning, the Black-Owned Communication Alliance (BOAC) released a need for accurate representation in the medium. The ad shows a young Black boy standing in front of a mirror with a towel wrapped around his shoulders and his arms on his hips. A white superhero that looks like Superman stares back at him. The caption asks, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

The ad proclaims, “It’s like this: children learn by what they see. And if it weren’t for Black media, a Black child wouldn’t see the world as it really is … with Black men and women doing positive things besides playing basketball and singing songs.” Milestone Comics provided a more accurate representation of Black men and women for their audiences. The BOAC’s ad continues by stressing the importance of representation and positive images in media. It asks, “What can you do to make sure our kids have self-pride?” The answer, “Decide which media shows them Blacks as Blacks really are.”

Did Luke Cage in his earliest incarnations do this? Cage did not resonate with Christopher Priest because Cage “and the larger body of African or African-American characters bear not much resemblance to any real black culture. A great deal of it is an appropriation of black culture and voice; it seems to be what white people think black people are.” Likewise, Dwayne McDuffie referred to Cage as “the bastard child of 10,000 blaxploitation movies.” McDuffie, along with M.D. Bright, addressed Cage’s history through the character of Buck Wild in Icon, and they detailed the importance of representation throughout the series.

In their initial editorial, which appeared in the first issue of Hardware, Static, Icon, and Blood Syndicate, Milestone Media stated, “Diversity’s our story, and we’re sticking with it. The variety of cultures and experiences out there make for better comics in here. When people get excited about the diversity in here maybe they’ll get just as excited about the diversity out there — Call it a mission.” They provided readers with representation, not just white male superheroes who espoused patriotic ideals. They presented diverse Black and Latinx characters, not monolithic stereotypes or simply sidekicks.

The first time we see and hear Raquel Ervin (Rocket) in Icon #1, she sits at a table writing. She narrates, “I always wanted to be a writer, like Toni Morrison. But I’m only fifteen. I never had nothing to write about.” This moment foregrounds the importance of representation for the audience. Raquel’s reference to Morrison serves two purposes. It highlights the role of Morrison as a role model in her own life. As well, it serves as a cue to the reader that the series will address issues of representation. By linking herself to Morrison, Raquel and the series push back against the false idealization of beauty and values espoused by the dominant culture. Morrison did this throughout her career beginning with The Bluest Eye, and Icon does this as well through characters such as Raquel, a Black, pregnant, fifteen-year-old superhero.

For children, seeing themselves realistically represented on screen, in a book, in a video game, or in any form of media is of the upmost importance. As Beverly Daniel Tatum points out, “the Black child absorbs many of the beliefs and values of the dominant white culture, including the idea that it is better to be white. The stereotypes, omissions, and distortions that reinforce notions of superiority are breathed in by Black children as well as white.”

If the child in the BOAC image does not see himself as the superhero, but instead he sees himself as an inner-city villain, what does that do to his psyche? While he can act as Superman, will he ever be Superman? This is what Rocket makes clear at the end of Icon #1 as police officers aim their guns at her and Icon. She says, “I bet this never happens to Superman.” Rebecca Wanzo notes that with this, Rocket “is satirizing their status as objects of abjection; they are radical Others who challenge white citizens’ visions of themselves as the only possible source of true heroism.” As well, Rocket calls attention to the ways that these beliefs affect adolescents like the young boy in the BOAC ad.

Kurt Busiek and Ron Wilson’s Icon #11 explicitly addresses the issue of representation for younger readers. The cover shows Icon and Rocket flying upward from the right of the image to the left. Icon’s pose resembles Superman, soaring through the air with his fist pointing towards the left of the page. Rocket, likewise, appears like Superboy. Below the Icon title, we read the words “Hero Worship,” indicating that the issue will address some aspect of the ongoing debate between Rocket and Icon over whether Icon is just a superhero stopping crime or if he is an actual icon and “a positive example — inspiring people,” as Rocket says.

The issue opens with a splash page showing Icon and Rocket getting shot at, point blank. The title of the issue appears at the top, and three blocks show the narration. Taken together, they read like the beginning of a school report, which they are.

What I did on my vacation
by Todd Loomis
Miss Bageroto’s 4th grade class
Hester J. Louislier Elementary School

My name is Todd Loomis and I live in the Paris Island Housing Projects and over Christmas vacation I got to see Icon and the Rocket wrecking on some dealers. It was great!

Loomis proceeds to relate the battle he saw between some arms dealers and Icon and Rocket. After the duo defeat the men, Icon expresses to Rocket that he thinks their actions, in trying to stop all the violence, endangers people more than it protects them. To this, Rocket replies that they do more than beat up bad guys, they inspire people.

Icon pushes that thought aside, asking Rocket, “do you believe [your words]?” With that, he grabs Rocket, and the two fly away. The next panel shows Loomis as he gazes at the departing superheroes, and he exclaims “It was so great!” seeing Icon bust up the guys. For Loomis, Icon represents a hero that he can look up to and count on to protect the community.

The next page shows Loomis imitating Icon as he wears a cape, made from a shower curtain, that his mother gave him for Christmas. He stands on the roof “pounding on bad guys and flying and keeping [his] mom safe from the guns.” He reenacts Icon’s actions on the roof, imitating Paris Island’s hero. In this manner, Loomis exhibits the actions of Icon, showing that Icon is an influence whether he believes it or not. Impressionable young people definitely see him as an icon.

After Loomis helps Icon and Rocket capture the arms dealers, Icon tells him he is “a brave young man,” but he needs to tell an adult next time there is trouble. Loomis tried to do just that, even approaching Rocket. No one believed him. Rocket apologizes and says, “I should have treated you with more respect.” As they fly away, Icon asks, “Now what was that you were saying about inspiration?” Icon sees, at this moment, the impact that his presence has on the community, especially for children like Loomis.

The final page of Icon #11 shows Loomis standing on the rooftop, arms on his hips, head angled towards the sky as his shower-curtain cape blows in the wind. He proclaims, “I did it. I made it happen. And I’m just a kid. I’m not Icon, or the Rocket, or anything like that. But you don’t need to be Icon to be like Icon. All you got to do is do it.” Icon inspires Loomis to act and to look inside himself. Loomis sees Icon acting and protecting the community, and that gives Loomis the drive to do the same.

William V. Mont III, in a letter to the editors, summed it up when he talked about the fact that his children loved Icon #11 and his “eight-year-old daughter read while her younger-brother listened.” He continues, “To see young Todd reminded me of myself after the Adventures of Superman went off … . African Americans have few heroes like Icon and Rocket to look up to, please keep up the good work.” Mont’s letter encapsulates Milestone’s mission and their importance.

The continued impact of Milestone Comics manifests itself today on social media with #revivemilestone and more importantly with David Kirkman’s Static short film based on the Milestone character of the same name. At the time of this writing, the film, which Kirkman produced for $3,000, has 822,000 views on YouTube. He is currently working on a film adaptation of Icon. Kirkman continues the focus of Milestone Media through his films. James Pollard points out that Kirkman “wants to help reclaim the ‘black imagination’ and sees the media is the gateway to that goal” of challenging the “monolithic” view of the Black experience.

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.