ICON #2: VOluntary Witness Report
Published in June 1993 by an independent, black-owned publishing company called Milestone Media, this second issue of Icon continues the adventures of its titular superhero and his superheroine sidekick, Rocket, as they embark on their first quest as a heroic duo. For me the tension of reading this issue starts before opening the book; the cover art itself creates a deep sense of cognitive dissonance. On the cover, we find Icon and Rocket in the midst of a heated battle, engaging their opponents in classic superhero form. Icon’s forearms bulge as he crushes the rifle of one assailant with a clenched fist. His face is fixed in a grimace of pain or determination, vividly lit by the muzzle flash of a machine gun fired at point blank range, surrounded by shells from bullets that have bounced off of his impenetrable skin. Rocket leaps up behind him in a crowd of opponents who are rendered all but anonymous by their uniform, heavy armor and automatic weapons. With her arms outstretched, she stares tensely into the barrel of a handgun. Two massive explosions frame her slim figure, the result of ineffective bazooka fire aimed at her back. Our heroes, it seems clear, are in great peril. While this fantastic scene conforms to the expected tropes of superhero fiction, it also registers as an uncomfortable reality for readers who instantly recognize the swarm of antagonists as police. This discomfort is mirrored by Rocket’s closing remarks in the previous issue. When the armored police squad closes in to surround the duo, she sarcastically states, “I bet this never happened to Superman” (see page 27). As if in response, they rack their weapons in a resounding chorus.
Klik. Klak. K-chak.
While Milestone adamantly opposed any comparison between Icon and Superman, it’s hard not find similarities between their flagship hero and the orphaned Kryptonian. Like Superman, Icon is from a distant alien civilization, a vaguely humanoid race of grey skinned beings. Like Superman, his parents cast him out into space to save him from a colossal, world-ending catastrophe on his birth planet. Icon’s spaceship crashes not in Middle American cornfields but in the rural South in 1831, where he is rescued by a female slave. Here’s the twist: Icon’s DNA was coded to give him the appearance of the first being who finds him, transforming his grey skin chestnut brown. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Icon aged slowly, living as a black man through the peak of American slavery, the muddled Reconstruction, Jim Crow, two world wars and the Civil Rights Movement. I think the reason the creators so vehemently asserted Icon’s independence from Superman was precisely because of his race. Even if the characters had identical origin stories—or wore the same uniform and used the same name for that matter—Icon’s skin barred any equivalence with the lived experience of the Man of Steel. That is, unless kryptonite is crystallized by some form of implicit bias…
Nevertheless, it’s telling that Milestone turned to the quotidian interaction between black Americans and the police as the inceptive event for Icon and Rocket. With an explicit mission to expand the representations of minorities in comics, the creators at Milestone positioned themselves within a complex and long-standing critique of representations of blackness writ large. In Icon #2 this critique turned directly to issues of law enforcement and race. Released just over two years after the highly publicized beating of Rodney King (one year after the riots that resulted from the contentious acquittal of the officers involved) I believe Icon #2 is deeply enmeshed in the ongoing discourse surrounding that incident and other public examples of police violence. The Rodney King incident is often noted as the first case of racialized police brutality to be filmed and widely viewed around the country as moving images. When Rocket cries out “I ain’t Martin Luther King, all right? –and I ain’t Rodney King either!” (see page 7) she explicitly signals her position within the discourse spurred by the circulation of these images. Just as the creators at Milestone registered the visualized “Klik”—the sound of manually engaging the slide of a firearm in preparation for firing the weapon—as an audible threat of force filled with remnants of white supremacist violence, we might find a similar racial hegemony in the visual field when reading the iconic images captured after the recorded, digitized and often muted sound of the cellphone “shutter.”
Since 2013, the conversation around policing in America has taken on new momentum, fueled largely by the proliferation of photographs and videos of violent interactions between police and citizens. Overwhelmingly black and male, the victims of police violence are depicted in these images, their bodies sprawling and lifeless or stricken in the throes of life and death struggles—then broadcast widely. These politically-charged images have served to mobilize activists in Black Lives Matter, perhaps the most extensive grassroots movement associated with the Black Radical Tradition in recent years. The victims—or more specifically, their images—are held up as heroes and martyrs at once, and their bodies-as-images called upon to serve the cause.
I feel like the statistically significant inequality of police violence against black people in general and black men in particular is often lost in the public debate. While black men made up 6 percent of the population in 2016, they represented 23 percent of people killed by police. How is that not systemic violence? The paradox of heroism in the public sphere has left the victims of police violence open to a secondary assault. Propagated alongside these images is a pointed critique of the situations surrounding their lives in an attempt to legitimize their deaths and obscure the persistent, systemic violence of policing in a country where black men are 21 times more times likely to be killed by the police than white men. People ask, why were they there? Doing that? Are they victims or perpetrators? Are they heroes or villains?
On the cover of Icon #2, the tension in the scene makes this paradox almost palpable, in part due to the seeming misalignment of the image and the text. In direct contradiction to the scene of heroic combat is the title of the issue, which insists that violence against law enforcement should be avoided. The disharmony created by this contradiction is enhanced by the dynamic composition and framing of the image. The sharp diagonal lines of Icon’s cape and Rocket’s arms aggressively direct the viewer’s attention to a central focal point. And just as the viewer’s attention is invited to wander from the image’s empty core, the frozen gestures of the figures surrounding our heroes reinforce their centrality. A sense of chaos echoes throughout the image, mirroring the tumult of the scene itself as Icon and Rocket somehow manage to dominate the police in the foreground and background simultaneously. Further contrast is created by the beautifully watercolored, high-intensity yellow tones; the triad of muzzle flashes and dual explosions casting a strong light that emanates ever outward.
While I love the aesthetic effects of the cover, what I really read in this image is a series of uncomfortable questions posed by the artists. Whenever I see images of black people engaged with the police I imagine that they isolate moments in time after the revelatory question in Du Bois’ classic rendering of double consciousness has already been asked and answered. “How does it feel to be a problem?” I can almost hear this question posed by the police before engaging black men and women, coded in the terse and official language of the verbal command. In Icon’s case, it is a literal “What the hell are you supposed to be?” This is the response that he receives in the previous issue after greeting the police with an amicable “Good evening, officer.” What was asked of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Michael Brown? What hail did they fail to respond to? Unlike the images that circulate of these men and other victims, we don’t find any dead and dying black bodies on this cover. Not yet. But what if we turn the page? Maybe the dissonance I sense is precisely that…an expectation of an unhappy ending. We know how the story goes. The script is old. The plot is played out.
Isn’t the fiction of black heroes always already transgressive? As Icon and Rocket confront the SWAT-esque officers on the cover, I can identify the two characters as heroes even without knowing the full story. Their bright costumes present them as individuals and protagonists amidst a sea of anonymizing blue-grey uniforms. Once the visual markers of the hero and villain are set, the visual meaning becomes almost subconscious. Perhaps these costumes and uniforms are not unlike the racial signifiers of “black” and “white” in our visual response. Fanon commented on psychological effects of the immediate encoding of blackness as a visual marker of identity, and the potential bias that encoding implies. Does Icon’s arrival on the scene provoke the children in a nearby crowd of onlookers to point and exclaim “Mama, look a hero” or “Mama, look a Negro”? Does the latter question preclude the possibility of the former?
All versions of these questions expose a shared awareness of the problematic of black publicness. I read a review of this issue by a white YouTuber (I knew he was white because he referenced his whiteness with a certain eye-roll-worthy pride) that I think reveals the distinct racial division in the discourse about police violence. (link) In 2015 the Associated Press National Opinion Research Council reported that while a majority of black Americans believe police resort to excessive force too quickly, the majority of white Americans believed that deadly force is applied only when necessary. Unsurprisingly then, this YouTube reviewer labeled Icon #2 “anti-cop propaganda” and commented that the books “weren’t meant for white people” but instead to glorify black people resisting authority.
Milestone actually included implicit commentary in this issue on the varied responses by black people to police interactions without attempting to over moralize about the outcome. Throughout the series, the characters of Icon and Rocket are used to symbolize competing conservative and progressive strains of black intellectual and political philosophies. Icon’s decades of life have turned him as a high-paid lawyer, a black Republican advocating the bootstrap ideals of Horatio Alger and Booker T. Washington. Rocket is poor and black, a product of urban decline and hip hop in the post-Nixon era. While Icon immediately complies with the officer’s command, Rocket angrily claims that she isn’t a criminal and shouldn’t be treated as one. In the story, the creators carefully refuse to suggest that Icon’s compliant response to the hail is the more responsible, or to validate Rocket’s quick temper. Both reactions arise from separate lived experiences and internal navigations of racial oppression.
Like the YouTuber, I had a strong reaction to Rocket’s response. She was loud and angry where I would have been silently seething. Honest where I would have likely dissembled. But it was also this capacity for righteous indignation that made me punctuate her statement “I ain’t Martin...” with a grunt of affirmation from somewhere deep in my gut. It was a reflexive approval. Literally a bodily response, a spasm connecting my soul to my diaphragm. No shucking and jiving. No smiles. I read her indignation as righteous because I had already located her on the moral high ground of the hero. The YouTube reviewer, on the other hand, read Rocket’s resistance as an imminent threat and her reaction to the officer as an immediate exclusion from the realm of the heroic. The reviewer identified her “sass,” not the police officer’s anger, as the provocation that led to the conflict depicted on the cover and throughout the rest of the issue. But this was the same line used to justify Alton Sterling’s and Eric Garner’s deaths, among others. Criminal guilt was not the issue at hand, but resistance.
There is an inescapable irony in trying to picture an un-resistant blackness. It’s been argued that in the public sphere, resistance is the dominant expectation we have for black culture. Resistance acts as our main framework for viewing black people, images, and cultural products, which register at an elevated volume due their inherent otherness in white spaces. It makes black images seem loud and aggressive, even when they depict black bodies suffering. I find it funny because by all accounts, resistance has been integral to the self-realization of black Americans. From Douglass fighting his master, to Du Bois beating the “stringy heads” of his classmates. From King clutching his Bible, to X cradling his rifle. Our origin stories are often tales of hard-won self-knowledge through sometimes moral, sometimes mortal, and often instinctive combat. In the comic book, the conflict with the police becomes the proving ground for Rocket, who hasn’t yet tested the extent of her new powers. She retaliates at the elite police team without understanding her own limitations. Her exclamation “I didn’t know I could do that!” (see page 17) after accidentally repelling a police sniper round aimed at her head leaves an incessant tingle at the base of my spine. A thin line of comprehension is all that separates learning the lesson and dying young.
In loud images noise becomes another reference to representative threat. Rocket and Icon are clear threats to the police. Part of their menace can be located in their defiant vitality. They are living examples of opposition. Reading the bodies in these images as a threat is often a simple act of narrative framing within an already racialized visual field. Look again at the cover. At this angle, it appears that the audience enters the scene as a police officer, not a bystander. With this framing, the “heroes” surge forward towards you. They wade unhindered through the ranks of your comrades as they advance, shoving aside armored bodies and deflecting bullets. They approach your position angry, unbowed, and undeterred. Are you in danger? Should you fire your weapon? Can you save yourself? Icon’s tightly clenched fist. Rocket’s outstretched arms and strange glow. Still images condense the threat of black bodies into fractured moments of harmful intent. This might be the reading from the unsteady body-cam, the image fluctuating with each shift of the boot, adjustment of the gun, shudder of the retina and flutter of the heart.
Initially I obsessed over Rocket’s’ character for other reasons. And no…not on her large breasts or full hips, which honestly don’t fit the blossoming womanhood of a girl of only fifteen. I have to wonder, who is Rocket supposed to represent? Why did the creators choose a poor black girl from the projects as one of their central heroes? In the wake of the LA riots and Rodney King, it’s hard not to read into Rocket’s story the story of another fifteen-year-old black girl: Latasha Harlins. Harlins’ death in 1991 at the hands of a Vietnamese shopkeeper generated intense criticism of LA’s criminal justice system. Overriding the jury’s verdict of voluntary manslaughter, the judge instead sentenced her killer to community service. A spate of pop culture memorials followed to commemorate her life and the injustice of her death, including Tupac Shakur’s hit single “Keep Ya Head Up”, an homage to Harlins and acknowledgement of the stress and strain of the racialized, patriarchal world faced by young black girls and black women. (link)
This reference to Rocket’s youth is not only a reminder, for me, of the ages of many victims of police violence, but also the age at which the understanding of the threat of blackness is realized. As Fanon noted, we’re taught to read and racialize the visual field very early. Milestone recognized this in their attempt to offer heroes and heroines as corrective stereotypes, but they hinted at this fact in the title of this issue. The incongruous phrase “Stop! Do Not Hop on Cop!” finds its origins in Dr. Seuss’ 1963 illustrated children’s book, Hop on Pop. Milestone’s eventual adaptation of this staple of American childhoods from the 70s to the 90s can be traced through a short thread of cultural references.
In 1991 Reverend Jesse Jackson appeared on Saturday Night Live to read an excerpt from Green Eggs and Ham, another Seuss classic. (link) In his trademark wavering tenor—made famous from years of preaching, civil rights leadership and two unsuccessful bids for presidential office—Jackson amused the audience with this abrupt switch to lighthearted and whimsical rhymes. The next adaptation of the title was on the late-night TV show In Living Color two weeks later, and directly referenced race, violence and policing. Seemingly pointing out the infeasibility of Jackson’s apolitical performance, the In Living Color skit presented a caricatured Jackson introducing his own revised and racialized versions of Dr. Seuss’ books. “Jesse Jackson’s Children’s Books” were humorously advertised as a racial corrective, asserting that while the lighthearted rhymes in the originals were “all fine for little white children” learning to read, black children needed to be educated in a way that prepared them for a society more ambivalent to their existence. (link)
The new storybooks comically re-scripted economic expectation and social dynamics to fit lower-income, inner-city minorities. Alongside revised stories like “Horton Hears a Ho” (Horton Hears a Who), “Green Eggs and Govmn’t Cheese” (Green Eggs and Ham), and “The Grinch Who Stole my Stereo” (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas), was “Hop on Cop” (Hop on Pop). Substituting patriarchal figures—the father for the police—seems to instruct black children to acknowledge their own contingent subjecthood when dealing with law enforcement. Furthermore, it suggests a certain cathartic joy in resisting that authority.
Like many children’s books, Hop on Pop is structured around simple rhyming words that are introduced and then combined into longer sentences. Divided into two to four-page series, each set of words is first presented affirmatively next to an illustration of Seuss’ iconically endearing characters. (link) For example:
But in the final page of each series, a contradiction is introduced. First the mouse is on the house, then the house is on the mouse. Tall characters become small. And in a sometimes violent twist, illustrated characters fall off walls, fight at night, and yelp for help. This example concludes:
The rejection of the initial action is an important mechanism for keeping the reader engaged. Flipping the script is entertaining for young readers while rewarding their successful grasp of a simple vocabulary. Turning the page becomes a small act of transgression, and the anticipation of that transgression keeps the pages turning. Milestone’s turn of this phrase in their title, adopts this convention, mixing the anticipatory violent transgression with a deeply politicized depiction of heroic resistance in the panels and pages behind the cover.
I love this appropriation of Hop on Pop, a book which was praised in 2006 by First Lady Laura Bush as an exemplary educational tool. But this is more than the transfiguration of one visual pedagogical tool into another; the shift from children’s book to comic book. Adapting the racialized and politicized rhyme initiated by In Living Color, Milestone takes the reading a step further by including visual references to the politicized black body. The cover not only realizes the emotional relief of fictive resistance for their audience, but also pinpoints the unfortunate overlap between education, racial pedagogy and violent images. This reality hasn’t gone unnoticed in our present moment. In 2016, the artist collective SuperPoorKids started posting a series of illustrations on Twitter remixing the artistic style of Dr. Seuss into memorials to victims of police violence. (link) In one post, next to a colorful illustration depicting a gasping Eric Garner in the chokehold of one of Dr. Seuss’ fantastical creatures, the poem reads:
by the NYPD
Squeezing my neck
taking air I need
I’m slowly fading
it’s easy to see!
That you’re choking my neck
and I CAN’T BREATHE!!!
Icon and Rocket face off against an elite unit of the Dakota Police Department, not the NYPD. But the city of Dakota evokes the American “everycity.” Dakota is a city of deep racial divides, with a large population of black and brown people, including Rocket, relegated to a low-income housing projects called Paris Island. It could be New York. It could be Los Angeles or Chicago. Atlanta or Detroit. Perhaps it’s even more similar to Flint, Michigan, a city ravaged by the decline of the American automotive industry and the latest series of economic downturns. The inhabitants of Flint, over 50% of whom are black, have been identified in recent years as a microcosm for how America deals with its so-called urban surplus populations. While the city has made major international news in 2014 for the unspeakable state of its water system, it has also been singled out as an example of the challenges of race and policing in America. Not only has Flint held a leading position in the FBI’s list of the most violent cities in America, in 2017 it was also declared the nation’s poorest city by the US Census Bureau.
I recently watched the police docudrama Flint Town on Netflix. (link) Flint Town follows members of the Flint Police Department as they confront a community extremely disillusioned by a municipal infrastructure best characterized by its failures. A persistent theme in the miniseries is the inseparability of the institution of law enforcement from a web of other social institutions, economic obligations and political processes. Like the rest of the region, the department is plagued by budgetary challenges. Cost savings efforts have led to questionable administrative decisions, not unlike the effort by Flint officials to reduce the city’s overhead by switching its water source, a change that precipitated the current crisis. For example, in 2016 the Flint PD started auctioning confiscated weapons in an attempt to fix its financial problems. Revenues from the sale of guns back to the community (only to registered gun owners of course) helped to fund, among other things, Flint’s own militarized policing division. Like Dakota Police Department’s fictional S.H.R.E.D (Special Heavy-Equipment Rapid Emergency Deployment) team, Flint’s C.A.T.T. (Crime Area Tactical Team) squad operates under special orders. If the squad’s onomatopoetic acronym is derivative of a litany of similar units—SWAT, SORT, STAR, SLED, SCOUT, CRASH, and IMPACT—then its mission is similarly recognizable: stopping crime before it happens. This elite squad might extend “stop and frisk” into its best, worst and most logical conclusions.
Flint Town’s directors deliver an unflinching look at the challenges of reducing crime while reestablishing trust in law enforcement, but I found that any sense of reconciliation was overshadowed by what seems to be unresolvable enmity from part of the Flint’s black community. This is a community marked by the supposedly color-blind policies that have made them invisible. They understand the contingency of their own lives on the color of their skin. Who would be surprised to know that Icon’s first official fan club, inaugurated in this very issue (see page 13), was proudly formed by comic book enthusiasts from Flint?
The YouTube reviewer goes as far as questioning the inclusion of the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval on the cover. The CCA outlines the limits of respectability in comic books, prohibiting content antithetical to American values. Censorship guidelines from the CCA were originally intended to protect impressionable youth from serial depictions of violence, criminality and lewd sexual conduct. Included on the list are rules for the depiction of law enforcement officers, who should not be included in a way to condemn the institution of policing. If an officer (or any characters representing state authority) are shown in a negative light, they must be individualized in a way that distinguishes them from the system the ostensibly fail to represent. For him, this issue clearly falls outside of those regulations. While we might just say he’s missing the point because he’s white, what does it mean that the “bad apple theory” used to explain away so many incidents of real police brutality is also encoded in the representational rulebook of one of America’s most recognizable mass media products?
Comic books are intended in many ways to be read from their overly sensational covers. In some senses these are glorified advertisements, designed to create conflict and intrigue at a glance. While the cover of Icon #2 certainly fits within that function, I also like to think its creators had a more subversive critique in mind. Why did Milestone name their flagship character and the most traditional of their heroes “icon”? In the comic book, it is Rocket, not Icon, who selects his title. But when she comments that an icon means an example or an ideal, Icon pointedly corrects her. His definition of the icon as “something that stands for something else” (see page 21) is a tacit nod from the creators that they recognized the inevitability, but also the power and potential, of black collective representation in images. These comic books do show pained black bodies entangled with the police. But theirs is a fictive, revelatory pain. For our heroes, any suffering imposed on them is met by swift response. Justice seems guaranteed.
Like most people, I have not yet discovered a way to deal with the real-life images of police violence. I feel an obligation to both give justice and do justice to them. It is the equivalence of blackness with resistance and blackness with threat that looms above both the everyday engagements of black people with police and the reception of the images of the victims in the aftermath of fatal incidents. Perhaps images of victims—moving or otherwise—become useful only as flat representations of blackness, devoid of any meaning, or rather open for every meaning. In a figurative sense, this flatness also serves to smooth out the complications of human complexity. They become icons, graphic symbols which the viewer fills with their own preconceptions of blackness, violence and policing.
In addition to a quietly oppositional reading against the racialized grain of these images, I think there must be an intentional effort to engage with the pain they represent. Reading these images requires radical and individual acts of viewing, internalizing and responding to iconic representations of black collective suffering. Individual moments of introspection may manifest in a literal turning out to protests against the devaluing of black lives. They are also found in the responses made by black creators through literature, film, visual art, comedy and, yes, even comic books. Regardless of the mode of response, there is an imperative created by the seriality and silence of these images: a simple responsibility to bear witness.
Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Studies in Popular Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Butler, Judith. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” in Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. ed. Gooding-Williams, Robert (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Campt, Tina. Listening to Images. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Cooper, Drea and Canepari, Zackary dir. Flint Town. Anonymous Content Media, 2018. https://www.netflix.com/watch/80156688.
Davis, Angela J, ed. Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment. First edition. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017.
Du Bois, W. E. B., Henry Louis Gates, and Terri Hume Oliver. The Souls of Black Folk : Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. A Norton Critical Edition. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1st ed. New York Berkeley, Calif.: Grove Press; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2008.
King, Debra Walker. African Americans and the Culture of Pain. Cultural Frames, Framing Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
McDuffie, Dwayne. Icon # 1. New York: DC Comics, 1993.
McDuffie, Dwayne. Icon # 2. New York: DC Comics, 1993.
Quashie, Kevin Everod. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick, N.J. ; London: Rutgers University Press, 2012.
Seuss. Hop on Pop. Bright and Early Board Books. New York: Random House, 2004.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2016.
All referenced video clips can be found on YouTube via this link: https://bit.ly/2JxFHop