Review: Icon: A Hero's Welcome trade paperback (DC Comics/Milestone Media)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

[By coincidence, I had planned weeks ago for this review of Icon: A Hero's Welcome to run on the site today, before we learned this past Tuesday of writer and creator Dwayne McDuffie's passing, and I decided a discussion of this book would be an appropriate tribute. I enjoyed some of McDuffie's work more than I did others, true I think for all readers and creators, but I have gained a great respect over the years for his establishment of Milestone Media, and I thrilled to the announcement that those characters would return to the DC Universe a few years ago. At the writing of this review, I called for a collection of the "World's Collide" DC/Milestone crossover to which McDuffie contributed; I sincerely hope that DC gives that more thought now, maybe along with McDuffie's two-issue Milestone Forever, from which Bleeding Cool excerpted a lovely sequence the other day.]

Admittedly, I didn't purchase many Milestone Comics when DC published the line in 1993. Call it "licensed property fatigue" -- I'd followed Impact Comics into its demise just a few years earlier (even bought the Who's Who!) and another group of heroes outside the DC Universe didn't interest me.

I did have an opportunity to dip my toes into the so-called "Dakota-verse" a year later, though, when DC and Milestone crossed over in the "Worlds Collide" event (a story that, though it may be a bit hokey around the edges with Superman's long hair and such, strongly deserves to be collected for the first meeting of these characters). In reading those issues, the contrast between the DC and Milestone issues is striking -- whereas the art of Tom Grummett and such was appropriately cartoony for the DC chapters, the Milestone chapters had an almost watercolored painting to them; even as a brief glimpse, it was apparent to me the Milestone comics were something special.

As such, with the Milestone characters at least tentatively now in the DC Universe, I'm trying to go back on occasion and see what I missed, buffeted by DC beginning to release the Milestone titles in trade paperback (a trade-off, perhaps, for the fact that they're being not-so-featured in the DC Universe). I've started with Milestone co-founder Dwayne McDuffie's Icon: A Hero's Welcome, given Icon's surface similarities with Superman; while Icon is enjoyable, I did find that if your knowledge of Milestone is limited, you might take up some back issues before you read Icon so as to explain events a little better.

In his introduction to A Hero's Welcome, writer/director Reginald Hudlin clearly presents Icon as a deconstruction of the Superman mythos as told through the African American experience, and it's easy to walk away from Icon having gleaned only that -- still a strange visitor from another planet, only the police give him more grief because he's black. Having basically known Icon as the Superman of the Dakota-verse myself, what interested me more than this surface "opposite-ness" in reading this volume were the deeper aspects that surprised me about the character.

First, Icon Augustus Freeman is wealthy and a self-proclaimed conservative, and for someone seemingly presented as the "Milestone Superman," the other characters that Icon meets in this first volume consider him singularly, unusually, out of touch. In a confrontation with the Blood Syndicate gang, Icon espouses the gang trying to work their way out of poverty and make better lives, misunderstanding (perhaps because of his own wealth) that the social realities of poverty can't always be solved just by "working harder." Whereas Icon gains overall acceptance in Dakota over the course of the story, I was pleasantly surprised at McDuffie's twist here, that Icon isn't the immediate hero of the other Milestone characters, like Superman is in the DC Universe.

Second, McDuffie posits Icon and his sidekick Rocket on opposite sides of the classic Booker T. Washington/W. E. B. Du Bois debate; put very simply, Icon sees himself as hero for whites and blacks alike, whereas Rocket views Icon as a source to inspire Dakota's African American community to improve their situation. Interestingly, Icon is not black (just as Superman is not white); even as we learn that Icon has historically been part of a number of civil rights achievements in the Dakota-verse, we learn he came from an essentially race-blind utopian alien society, and McDuffie suggests to some extent that Icon doesn't understand the challenges facing modern African Americans -- it is too easy both to accept and dismiss Icon as the "black Superman," when McDuffie instead presents Icon's situation as much more complicated.

Instead, McDuffie (riffing on Batman and Robin now) has Rocket as the one who inspires Icon to become a hero (instead of vice-versa) and as the true authentic voice in the title. Understandably Icon gets top billing, but there's a way in which Icon and Rocket's relationship parallels that of Stargirl Courtney Whitmore and her father, where the junior is really the one in charge; this is another aspect of Icon I didn't expect. (Come to think, we're long, long overdue for a Rocket/Stargirl team up, and not just because both get their powers from forcefield belts.)

Like any number of good universe-building series (Tangent Comics is one, and Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers is another), the Milestone titles launch from a central mystery. Much of the book involves Icon's investigation of the "Big Bang," a gang riot gone wrong in downtown Dakota. Icon begins a little while after the Big Bang, however, and the event is as much a surprise to Icon as to the reader; as such, it's unclear in the beginning whether the Big Bang is a police raid or an astronomical event. The characters from Milestone's Blood Syndicate appear late in this volume, and if you can read a couple of Blood Syndicate issues before you start Icon, your reading experience will be the better for it.

My reader/creator relationship with Dwayne McDuffie has been a little rocky -- loved his work on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, of course, but I was less thrilled with the stories in his Justice League of America comics run and the behind-the-scenes in-fighting during that time. Icon: A Hero's Welcome, however, is both a deep, interesting project, and an enjoyable superhero origin story with an unexpected Silver Age vibe (how does a belt give Rocket those powers? Where do Icon and Rocket's costumes come from? Who knows? Who cares?). I'm knee-deep in the DC Universe, of course, but this first book has encouraged me to revisit Milestone one of these days.

(Now where's my collection of the original "Worlds Collide"?)

[Condolences to Dwayne McDuffie's family and friends. I haven't seen anywhere to donate in memorial, but the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is always a good place to start.]
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4 comments:

  1. thanks for the review. I liked it quite a lot and will be buying the trade. However could you please mention the paper quality of this collection?

    Thanks in advance.

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  2. I was deeply saddened by Mr. McDuffie's passing on Tuesday. I've only just begun to realize how expansive his contributions to the DC Universe were (the folks at my LCS called him "the black Jack Kirby," which doesn't seem too far off), and I still crack up that he's responsible for people complaining of Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern, "But Green Lantern's black!"

    Part of me wants to rush out and get this, but another part of me feels that there may be a Milestone Omnibus in the not-too-distant future. It'd feel like profiteering in that regard, and I hope that's not the motive, but it seems there's a desire for these issues to be collected as Kirby's Fourth World titles were.

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  3. I think the collection is on newsprint that's just as well as it shows off the colours best. I loved this title tho yet to pick the trade....I think they're continuing beyond this...there's a HARDWARE trade too also a 2nd Icon called THE MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION ....I think that skips the worlds collide parts....

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  4. Correct -- newsprint. This is an older DC trade.

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