The Superman Crossover That Perfectly Explained White Privilege Decades Ago

An alien ship lands on Earth. Its occupant gets raised as human, hiding special abilities for fear of reprisal. But when the superpowered extraterrestrial becomes an adult, Truth, Justice and the American Way mean something very different. Because this strange visitor from another planet is black.

In 1993, a company called Milestone Media released a slate of comic-book series set in a multicultural universe where most of the heroes were black. With the exception of magazine editor Derek T. Dingle, Milestone's founders — Christopher Priest, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan and Dwayne McDuffie — were all comics industry veterans who'd worked at Marvel and DC. Their collective desire to broaden the horizons of the medium's characters and readership led them to come together and form Milestone.

In the work that followed — published and distributed by DC Comics — the good guys and bad guys who battled in the in a fictional midwestern city called Dakota came from a multitude of ethnicities and walks of life. Characters in titles like Blood Syndicate, Heroes, and Deathwish were trailblazing efforts to conceptualise superheroes who were vessels for gender fluidity, loving same-sex relationships and socioeconomic tension. The subtext was never so heavy-handed as to take away from the well-crafted superhero yarns.

One of the first books that Milestone put out into the world was Icon, featuring a superstrong, cape-wearing flying hero with a young sidekick named Rocket. The series' first issue introduces Icon's secret identity of Augustus Freeman, a politically conservative African-American lawyer who's been alive for more than 150 years.

Freeman is really an alien; he assumed human traits because his alien escape pod landed in the Deep South in 1839 and imprinted on the DNA of the field slave who became his adopted mother. If you need a modern-day reference for Augustus' politics, think of someone like Herman Cain or Ben Carson. His bubble of complacency gets burst by a home invasion robbery, which he uses superhuman abilities to stop.

Raquel Ervin is one of the teens who tried to rob Freeman and, weeks after seeing him take to the sky, the Toni Morrison-wannabe decides that Augustus is going to be a superhero and she's going to be his sidekick.

Co-created and written by McDuffie with art by M.D. "Doc" Bright, Icon represented an intentional shift from how the black heroes of previous decades were presented. Augustus Freeman wasn't "street" and didn't traffic in the jivey slang that characterised Luke Cage and other inner-city crimefighters. Icon #1 established one of the ongoing themes that series would touch, an exploration of what individuals and society owe each other.

Raquel's low-income realities don't afford her the resources to make her dreams of becoming a writer come true while Augustus realises that his upper-class elitism has cut him off from the world around him. He's so out of touch that he thinks he can just fly down and offer his help to the cops dealing with a hostage situation.

He is, of course, very wrong.

I was in college when the Milestone line debuted, gobsmacked by the idea that there was going to be a whole universe of non-white superheroes. My excitement led me to do a project on the imprint for a cultural journalism class taught by the late, trailblazing pop music critic Ellen Willis.

I remember a dismissive classmate sniffing at Icon, saying "So, he's basically like a black Superman, then?" I didn't always speak up a lot in college, the confidence that I have now in my faculties was still a long time coming. (I'm forever haunted by an arsehole TA in a PoliSci class who ranted that "crack was a black drug" because it was years before I realised I could've retorted by asking him how crack got to the inner cities.)

But when that classmate made his shallow remark about Icon, I said "No, he's not a black Superman. And the book is about exactly why he can't be." I didn't know I could say something like that until I actually said it. Something was waking up in me.

The late, legendary Dwayne McDuffie knew the possibilities of superhero comics. At their best, they can portray humanity in all its messy fullness, so that when our loftiest ideals win out over our worst aspects we'd feel that much closer to the heroes we read about.

Augustus is uptight and judgmental, sheltered by his success. His turn towards understanding the generations that came after him is a journey back to empathy and community. He's a Superman analogue who isn't already perfect; he's perfecting himself.

Great as that debut issue is, it's Icon #16 that gave me life. It pit the title character against Superman, in a fight that the most powerful character in the Milestone universe couldn't let the first superhero ever win. Underneath all the "good guys meet then throw down" pyrotechnics was a powerful meditation on how both marginalizers and the marginalized lose in American society.

The issue was part of the Worlds Collide crossover, which had characters from Milestone's parallel universe meet various members of the Superman family of comics. The event revolved around a being named Rift, the cosmically empowered gestalt of a man who existed in both realities.

Rift decides that only one universe can survive and, in Icon #16, he makes the Man of Steel and the Hero of Dakota battle on behalf of the cities they protect. McDuffie writes Rift as a deluded creation deity, musing over the origins of Superman...

and Icon.

I've never forgotten the two sequences where Rift talks about how each hero was and wasn't able to participate in society at large. The term "white privilege" wasn't in popular usage, yet McDuffie uses the characters as metaphors for practices that have been around for centuries.

Superman is as alien as Icon. In fact, if you factor in the fact that Icon's lived on Earth and in America for 150 years compared to Superman's 30-something age, you could argue that Augustus Freeman is even more American than Clark Kent. But Kal-El enjoys a privilege that Icon doesn't.

The privilege is in being able to be thought of as fully human, to have your mind, body, wants, and needs be deemed of equal worth to those of the folks in power. The privilege is being able to be something more than three-fifths of a man, more than a tool, a foil or a means to an end.

When I interviewed McDuffie years ago, it was clear that he wanted readers to think about these themes:

"...I'm conscious of race whenever I'm writing, just as I'm conscious of class, religion, human psychology, politics — everything that makes up the human experience. I don't think I can do a good job if I'm not paying attention to what's meaningful to people, and in American culture, there isn't anything that informs human interaction more than the idea of race."

The end of Icon #16 has Rift realising that there is essentially a stalemate between the two heroes because they're connected symbiotically.

Icon #16 still stands out all these years later because it's a work that does more than just comment on the need for black representation in mainstream superhero comics.

It told America about itself via one of its biggest pop culture icons, hopefully making it consider all the black supermen and superwomen who were icons in lives that they may never have known about.


Comments

    I'll just leave this here...

    http://heatst.com/tech/kotaku-is-everything-thats-wrong-with-video-game-journalism/

      Good article. Ian Miles Cheong is an interesting fellow, aware that he was once part of the problem but does not hide that fact, he owns it.

      For those of you who might see the link and skip it: it mainly covers the US site, what with some guest editor whose articles thankfully do not make it over here.

      While that article touches on some points that kotaku has definitely sinned, I don't see a reason to bring it up here. This was no agenda-driven misinterpretation or manipulation of information. It was an honest, albeit touchingly personal review of a comic book that indeed dealt with the issues stressed by the writer. While political-correctness and fabricated outrage over everything are indeed a disease of the Internet, it doesn't mean that we should also discard genuine discourse over these undeniable issues.

        Completely agree. This was an interesting article about a comic I wouldnt otherwise know about. Comics have often tackled similar themes. Xmen is all about discrimination and diversity. Refusing to even acknowledge it out of, what, iritation? Whats wrong with you people.

        The issue is that he's treating this fictional, grossly-exaggerated portrayal of inequality as direct evidence of modern racism. A black man in 1800's vs a white man in the 20th century? Hardly comparing apples with apples. The original story is clearly a ham-fisted attempt at parable, and it gets lost in its overreach.

        The value of the story is as a loose analogy, yet the author of this piece seems to regard the story as if it's a historical document.

        (And don't tell me that headline wasn't engineered for maximum outrage.)

          So what you are saying is that racism is a thing of the past that no longer exists?

      Kotaku is everything that's wrong with video game journalism ... I would say hyperbolic click bait is everything that's wrong with video game journalism.

    Big deal. Are you serious?

    Here we go again, an African-American author is daring to mention racism, so here come the white Australians who have never had to deal with discrimination a single day in their lives to complain. Again.

    You could have just not clicked on the article.

      ah, yes, the old "if you're white you can't understand racism"

      because your skin colour determines what you can or cannot understand or empathise with.

      you realise that's being racist, right?

        Except that the people that poster is referring to are the ones that, being unaffected by discrimination are telling someone who has being affected by it "no, you haven't. shut up".

    This site either needs a voting option or a button that clearly says "Shitpost" that we can click and that article will go into the draw to win the "Best Kotaku Article" award. This one's a solid contender.

    Wow what the hell. What's with the hate? If the experiences and thoughts brought up in the article are not relatable or of relevance to you, just click away. Pretty sure that the articles bashing No Man's Sky or circlejerking Overwatch that you are looking for are just one or two scroll downs away. There's no need to piss on someone who's sharing a personal story just because being reminded that people of races races, genders or socio-economical status other than yours enjoy less privileges than you makes you uncomfortable.

      I don't get the hate either. The sad truth about the internet is that perfect anonymity allows trolls to thrive with no repercussion.
      It is one thing to voice an opinion, and another entirely to be anti-semitic (http://www.kotaku.com.au/2016/08/the-superman-crossover-that-perfectly-explained-white-privilege-decades-ago/comment-page-1/#comment-3725528), or just downright insensitive (http://www.kotaku.com.au/2016/08/the-superman-crossover-that-perfectly-explained-white-privilege-decades-ago/comment-page-1/#comment-3725575).

      A lot of people find the very idea of white privilege offensive. It comes off as being dismissive of all the hard work people put into their lives, and more often than not the person insisting that being white is 'easy mode' is some white kid who doesn't get that not every white person comes from the sort of stable, financially well off, loving and supportive home they were lucky enough to have.
      That's not to say they're right to be offended by the idea it just seems to be why it hits such a nerve with people.

        This!

        I am sorry, but not all of us got to go to fancy schools or even had dinner every night growing up.

        The whole white privilege statement irks me because it makes the assumption that every body of their respected race starts with the same advantages and disadvantages.

        When I was 13 I lived at Sutton (north of Canberra border), my father and I lived in a run down caravan that was filthy. There were many nights where I didn't have dinner and many mornings where I had to put on really dirty clothes for school.

        My dad hadn't paid taxes correctly in his one attempt at getting ahead in life (a small construction business that he started and then lost), which meant that I couldn't get student assistance to get into town to get a job. While my neighbours were picked up by a special government bus to take them to school, I was told that while I had aboriginal family members I was essentially not indigenous enough to be allowed on. This meant that I had to walk from Sutton to Dixon ever morning to catch the much cheaper town buses (you know when your grandparents talk about walking to school through hell, that was me).

        I have literally crawled through shit to be where I am today (cleaning septic tanks is no fun) and any claims that my voice should be considered less important than somebody elses just because of my skin colour is a load of shit.

        Life is subject to variables, not every white person gets a leg up and not every black person is disadvantaged.

        EDIT: I am pretty sure I am not the only person that grew up in this kind of situation.

        Last edited 27/08/16 12:08 pm

          I'm sorry to hear you had a though life, though is good that you pushed through. However, your example (and that of others like you) doesn't invalidate the fact that /in general/ there has been and there's still discrimination around. If you, being white haven't enjoyed of the "white privilege" by specific circumstances of your raising, you shouldn't take offence, but rather feel solidarity for those who /by default/ cannot experience that privilege.

          Last edited 27/08/16 5:08 pm

          I'm sorry to hear you've had a difficult life, it's great that you've been able to work your way through it. The thing is though, people's bad experiences aren't always the same, but they're not "competing", different things can affect different people. For example, in 2015 Pauline Hanson questioned the SBS cameraman working on her interview, asking if he was a refugee. He said no, he's actually an indigenous Australian; to which she responded that it's "good that he's giving it a go", being completely condescending and dismissive of him as a human being. That's not an experience that a white cameraman would ever have to go through. I'm not saying that that man's experience was "better" or "worse" than anything you've been through, just that it was different, and something that a white person probably wouldn't experience when going about their daily life.

        Fair point. Being white does not mean that you have a privileged background and I fully understand how irritating it can be to be generalised. That said, 'white privilege' refers more to the way people are *treated* by society by virtue of being white, and not necessarily their social/economic backgrounds.

        All of the reports of police brutality in the U.S this year are a prime example of it. Take the case of Philando Castile for instance (https://www.rt.com/usa/349805-philando-castile-police-killing/) who was shot dead by a police officer after being pulled over for a broken tail light. I've yet to hear of or see a policeman being so on edge while pulling over a caucasian driver for something so trivial.

        I don't even give a rats about this whole kerfuffle from nothing.
        But even I know the term doesn't mean anything close to that.

        Issues can remain forever static as long as everyone deals in half truth, extremism and dismissal.
        We demand ground but will relinquish none.

    Evan's articles serve two purposes for me: to provide information about comics, and to confer perspectives and experiences that I didn't have growing up with comics. I see the latter as being important to understanding the worth of comics, and that gives me a greater appreciation for the industry and its audience.

    Adding the Milestone print to my list.

    Last edited 27/08/16 1:40 am

    Really Kotaku? I did not swear, I didn't abuse any one and I didn't incite any sort of witch hunt. All I did was was ask a question that wasn't even that bad and for that I get moderated.

    Sorry you need puppies and play-doh to go along with your safe space. I will endeavour to not have differing opinions as they clearly hurt your feelings.

    Thanks for this, I'm going to go buy a copy.

    A fascinating sounding piece of comic history.

    Came here expecting white people saying white privilege isn't a thing, wasn't disappointed.

    Icon's appearance reminds me of the main character from a Cartoon show called something like "Cops". Pretty cool

    Last edited 28/08/16 11:31 pm

      Agent "Bulletproof" Vess.

      ... I don't know why I still remember that.

        Thanks :) Sorry for the late reply!

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