Posted May 26, 2011
In February, I wrote a piece about how much I like Dwayne McDuffie’s writing. Sadly, a few days later, he died. I’m still stunned . I feel like I’ve just begun exploring his work, so I decided to look for his Milestone Media comics. Since then, I’ve read McDuffie’s Icon: A Hero’s Welcome (DC, 2009) and Icon: Mothership Connection (DC, 2010), featuring art by M.D. Bright and Mike Gustavich (and some art by one of my favorite artists, John Paul Leon). Icon is remarkable in any number of ways–its portrayal of teenage pregnancy, the cameos from Static, Hardware and the Blood Syndicate–but since reading it, I’ve been thinking about Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
Augustus Freeman IV is a conservative African-American lawyer in Dakota City. He is also the superhero, Icon, and, incidentally, an alien stranded on earth. His sidekick, Rocket, is Raquel Ervin, a teenage girl who convinces Freeman to become a hero. Both are complex characters with difficult traits—he is rigid; she is hotheaded; both are stubborn—and exceptional traits—she is incredibly brave; he is willing to change; both are deeply moral.
Freeman is charmingly stiff. He is verbose and formal. He doesn’t approve of public displays of affection. In a way, he reminds me of Superman from times when Superman is a little stuffy, a little square. I don’t think the blue suits and round glasses are coincidental. And Icon is a little reminiscent of alternate Superman stories, from the actual ones where Superman is a king or was raised in the Soviet Union to Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, in which a Superman-like character goes bad. But there are two crucial differences between Augustus Freeman and Kal-El and Waid’s Plutonian*: Icon’s power comes from realizing the full capability of his human body; and Icon is an African-American man. In fact, Augustus Freeman got his surname the old way.
In 1839, an alien’s lifepod crashlanded in a cotton field. Based on the DNA of the woman who finds it, an African-American slave, the pod transformed him into a human infant. Freeman grew up a slave, worked with the Underground Railroad, fought for the Union, graduated from Fisk University and set up a law practice. Since then, he has been iterations of “Augustus Freeman,” and kept his powers secret. Until, one night, Raquel Ervin sees him fly and realizes that she wants to fly, too.
Raquel approaches him, arguing that he should do more than live quietly and practice law, that he has inspired her and that he could inspire so many others. Paraphrasing Booker T. Washington, she tells him: “It’s a lot easier to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, Mr. Man, if you already know how to fly” (24).
Raquel has his philosophy pegged. But, unaware of his origins, she can’t know how resonant her reference would be. Like the fictional Augustus Freeman, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a member of that awe-inspiring generation of African-Americans who began lives as slaves and accomplished amazing things. He was the foremost African-American educator and lecturer of his time. He was born a slave, worked mines in West Virginia, educated himself and became an educator, founding Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama in 1881. He sat on the board of Howard University and was an adviser to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Washington believed former slaves should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. He taught liberation through the Protestant work ethic—self-employment, land ownership, small business, vocational training and the example of a good character.
In her way, Raquel represents Washington’s old rival, W.E.B. DuBois, (1868-1963). DuBois was born in Massachusetts and was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. He was one of the founders of the NAACP and Pan-Africanism and he ultimately became a citizen of Ghana in 1961. He believed protest was a necessary response to segregation, abuse and disenfranchisement. He believed in higher education rather than vocational education. And he believed in developing the “Talented Tenth,” beginning an 1903 essay of the same name: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”
Raquel knows that Augustus Freeman is an exceptional man and argues that he could do more. And so, Augustus Freeman becomes Icon. And while the philosophical tensions between W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washingon play more heavily into Hero’s Welcome, Mothership Connection ** features a splash page of Icon with quotes from both DuBois and Washington, including the first lines of “The Talented Tenth”:
“The Negro race, like all , is going to be saved by its exceptional men. It is the problem of developing the best of its race. 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.”
Followed by Washington’s: “We have been worked. Now let us learn to work” (85).
Washington and DuBois’ arguments might be resolved in Icon, who has decided to be more proactive in using his gifts to help people. It is is the allegorical and iconic power of superheroes that they can resolve these things and lead people away from the worst in Dakota City. But in some ways, Augustus Freeman’s still Booker T. Washington with superpowers, constantly disappointed in people’s unwillingness to lift themselves up and fortunately balanced by Rocket’s activist optimism.
*There are in fact many differences worthy of an article all their own.
**Mothership Connection and Buck Wild also deserve an article all their own.
Carol Borden writes about comics for The Cultural Gutter.