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In 1993, amid the highly influential first wave of Milestone Media comics titles, writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist M.D. Bright introduced the story of a super-powered alien who'd been living as a black man on Earth since the days of slavery, and the streetwise young woman who helped make him into a superhero. Now, nearly 30 years later, Icon and Rocket are back in the second series emerging from DC Comics' Milestone Returns relaunch, and co-writer Reginald Hudlin still remembers the storytelling principles laid out by McDuffie all those years ago.
"I just remember having conversations about Icon and Rocket with Dwayne, and he gave such a beautiful definition of why the concept worked," Hudlin told a group of journalists, including SYFY WIRE, last week. "He described them as a unity of opposites: Male/female, young/old, human/alien, conservative/progressive, and that's exactly right. It's such a perfect pair because they've got nothing in common except they care. Icon [gets] pushed out of his cynicism by a young, naive but passionate Rocket. And I just thought 'Well that's just a great dynamic, period.' And if you add superpowers to it, it's even better."
Co-written by Hudlin and Leon Chills and drawn by Doug Braithwaite, Icon and Rocket: Season One retains that "unity of opposites" dynamic with its first issue, reintroducing readers to the buttoned down, conservative Augustus Freeman, aka Icon, and the more liberal, more impulsive Raquel Ervin, aka Rocket. Back in 1993, the two first met when she broke into his house with a few of her friends, and while their new origin story reflects some of that original structure, Hudlin and Chills also put effort into updating the circumstances and the approach for 21st century readers.
"When I went back and reread that first issue, there's a whole section where they're walking through the city and debating political philosophies between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, which very much reflected that moment," Hudlin said. "So we sat down and I said 'OK, here's all the great stuff from the original issue, and here's all this new stuff we want to put in,' and it was like, 'Oh, that's about 40, 50 pages.' So, I really focused on, 'OK, how do we tell something different so it's exciting for new readers, but for the original fans, they get to see things that are different [and] more nuanced?' So we had to make some new choices. But that doesn't mean we won't be revisiting stuff later on in future issues."
Those new choices also mean a somewhat new look for the title characters, drawn by Braithwaite with design input from original Milestone co-founder Denys Cowan, to give the characters a somewhat more modern feel.
"The whole style of comic superheroes costumes has changed so much," Braithwaite said. "I mean,the '90s was a pretty drastic period in regards to costume design. Even though Icon's costume was quite streamlined compared to a lot of books that were coming out at the time, it didn't have the shoulder pads, it didn't have knee pads, gun belts or anything like that. It was really kind of a striking costume. But I think obviously, this is the 21st century now, so you have to kind of bring it up to date slightly. I think the look works. The color scheme for the costume works really well. And I've just seen the colors for the second issue where you actually see him in his full costume for the first time and it looks really striking on the page."
Icon and Rocket arrives at a big moment for Milestone, just weeks after the arrival of Static: Season One and weeks ahead of the launch of Hardware: Season One, placing Milestone and its characters at the forefront of comics once again amid a busy publishing summer. For Chills, who made the leap from television to comics to work on this book, it's all part of a bigger moment for Black superheroes, one he hopes to make part of his life's work.
"I think the more I write, the more I'm realizing I feel like my purpose as a writer is to put Black characters at the forefront of genres that they're usually pushed to the side in," Chills said. "And unfortunately, the superhero genre is definitely one of those, and so to be able to be a part of telling the story of Black superheroes is just amazing. And the special thing about these heroes in particular as well is that they were also created by a Black creator so it's an honor to continue the story that [McDuffie] was telling and bring it to new audiences."
Like the other Milestone Returns titles on DC Comics' slate, Icon and Rocket exists as a re-imagining not just of individual heroes, but of a larger universe. While they're not necessarily giving everything away upfront, Hudling, Chills, and Braithwaite did tease that we can look forward to everything from new characters to new looks back at Icon's presence in American history along this journey. At its core, though, Hudlin emphasized once again the power of that original dynamic dreamed up by McDuffie three decades ago.
"When you do stuff like this, you go 'OK, this is the last story I get to tell, not just about Icon and Rocket, but just period.' If this is my last will and testament as a storyteller, you want it to have everything," Hudlin said. "And I feel like it deals with our heritage historically at the same time it deals with kind of broad philosophical issues. But more importantly, it's an empowerment story. It's about this teenage Black girl who takes charge of her life and changes her direction and makes an ally out of one of the most powerful beings on earth, and I just thought 'Who doesn't want to see that?' That feels good. And she focuses on how to change the world around her, and Icon's mission is 'Let me use this as a teaching lesson for you to really understand how the world really works.' I just think that is an exciting story that I'd certainly want to read and that's always where I start as a storyteller."
Icon and Rocket: Season One #1 is in stores now.