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An empowerment story: Reggie Hudlin, Leon Chills, and Doug Braithwaite talk 'Icon and Rocket'

Comic Books

An empowerment story: Reggie Hudlin, Leon Chills, and Doug Braithwaite talk ‘Icon and Rocket’

We delve into the next phase for this iconic Milestone series.

Milestone returned via DC Comics earlier this year, and already the imprint is not looking back. Kicking off with Static: Season One in June, and Icon and Rocket: Season One following just last week, these beloved series from the ’90s appeal to fans both new and old.

The original Icon series, the brain-child of writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist M. D. Bright, was published in 1993 and ran for 43 issues — a testament to the series’ crossover appeal and impact in crowded marketplace. Writer, director, and producer Reginald Hudlin and artist Doug Braithwaite are the creators behind this latest new series, with Leon Chills joining them as a writer on issue #3. It’s a tall order to retell the origins of this story, but they also aim to add in their own unique vision and a truly modern take.

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The story begins with Icon, an alien who comes to Earth in 1843 and mimics the first sentient life-form it comes in contact with: an enslaved person in the Deep South. Living for well over 100 years, Icon’s worldview is formed from his beginnings on Earth but also living through all of its history. Eventually, he meets Rocket (aka Raquel Ervin) and their journey begins in earnest in Icon and Rocket #1.

I was fortunate to ask these creators a few questions about the series, the creative process, and much, much more.

These are edited excerpts from the larger conversation.

DC Preview: Icon & Rocket #1: Season OneHow exciting is it for you to be returning to the world of Icon?

Reggie Hudlin: I love Icon and Rocket so much. I loved those characters for over 20 years and I’ve had all these ideas that I wanted to write for them. So it is a joy to finally get to play with these toys.

What was it like building upon that legacy and honoring Dwayne McDuffie as you put a new version of the origin story together?

RH: Yeah, sure. I mean, for me, I just remember having conversations about Icon and Rocket with Dwayne. And he gave such a beautiful definition of why the concept worked. 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 have nothing in common, except they care. Icon is getting pushed out of his cynicism. A young, naïve, but passionate Rocket. And I just thought, well, that’s just a great dynamic period, if you had superpowers to it, it’s even better.

Leon, how about you? What was your exposure to Icon and Rocket and what went into collaborating with Reggie about retooling this team for a new generation of fans?

Leon Chills: My exposure growing up to Milestone was definitely primarily through the Static comic. And once I got the call from Reggie to be a part of this, I went back and read all of the Icon and Rocket comic books. On top of everything you mentioned, there was also the fact that it’s my first time being a part of writing a comic book. So initially, I was kind of suffering under the weight of the moment and the pressure was suffering, like a bit of writer’s block, until I realized the blessing of being able to do this with Reggie, which allows me to kind of just swing for the fences.

He’ll tell me either “that’s dope” or “maybe not that.” So it’s been an amazing experience. And I love Icon and Rocket as a, I guess, elder millennial. Now there’s a part of me that definitely still feels very young. And then a part of me, that’s realizing I’m getting older. So I love being able to write both of those points of view with both Icon and Rocket.

DC Preview: Icon & Rocket #1: Season One

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Doug, what was it like building upon Dwayne’s legacy in this new version of Iconic and Rocket?

Doug Braithwaite: Well, I remember when the title came up for the first time. And I was unfortunate, that, you know, didn’t get the opportunity to work with Dwayne, Denys [Cowan], the first time around, I was very envious of what they were trying to do.

Living in the UK, I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m very proud to have taken the baton. And the characters, and kind of bring them up to date. And I think the timing of this project couldn’t be better, to be honest with you. So. Yeah, it’s a great opportunity. And it’s great collaborating with such great writers.

How important is it for you personally, to tell the story of Icon and Rocket?

RH: When you do stuff like this, you go “ok this is the last story I get to tell, not just about like kind of rocket but just period,” if this is my last will and testament as a storyteller, you want it to have everything. 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, well, who doesn’t want to see that that feels good. 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 want to read. That’s always where I start as a storyteller.

LC: 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. 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 amazing. And the special thing about these heroes in particular, as well as that, they were also created by a Black creator. It’s just an honor to continue the story that he was telling and bring it to new audiences.

DB: It’s a project that is very close to my heart, because of the writer Dwayne, fortunately, I met him on a couple of occasions, but what he contributed to this is way above anything. And it’s funny, when I was offered the project I had two or three other projects, ready to go. I just thought, yeah, this is the only opportunity I’m gonna get to do this, and tell the story the way I want to tell it visually. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, from my point of view. I’m really pleased with the way it’s going and the reaction that it’s getting from everybody.

When writing a comic with “season one” in the title, do you have additional pressure to make it feel like a television show?

RH: Yeah, well, it’s, I think television is starting to feel more like comic books. Comic books have naturalized the serialized drama for a long time now. And I think the great thing is now television, with the advent of streaming, has really leaned into serialized storytelling as its primary format. And that’s great, I think that gives the writer a lot more freedom to tell stories a certain kind of way.

I like the season one moniker also, because it just makes it easier for fans to track, kind of where they are like, “Okay, these series of stories are part of this arc, right.” And so as they’re collecting, they can keep track of making sure they have all the books in a particular storyline. I’m always focused on the fact that that Icon and Rocket could be someone’s first comic book, and I want it to be as accessible as possible to them. So they know as they learn the world of comic book collecting that it’s very user-friendly.

LC:  And for me, I have more experience in television writers’ rooms than I do writing comics. So it’s been a very natural transition for me.

DC Preview: Icon & Rocket #1: Season One

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Reggie, are you planning on spending any time developing the backstory of Icon during slavery?

RH: Well, Icon’s been on earth for over 150 years. So we won’t just be telling stories about his early childhood during slavery in America. Icon did a lot of stuff over the decades, and we’ll be showing him in a lot of surprising places all over the map.

What can you tell us about your approach to costume design on the series, and running the classic with the new looks?

DB: Initially, there was talk of a kind of redesign, Denys had come up with a concept for the new costume. To be honest, Denys had a clear idea about what he wanted to see the costume kind of standing out as, so he tweaked it slightly. But I think what he did is great. It contrasting it with the way the costumes looked back in the early 90s is, you know, that was then the whole style of comic superheroes costumes have changed so much. I mean, the 90s were a pretty drastic period regards to costume design. So even though Icon’s costume was quite streamlined, compared to a lot of books that were coming out in time, they didn’t have the shoulder pads, they didn’t have knee pads, or gun belts or anything like that.

This is the 21st century now, you have to kind of bring up the date slightly. And I think the look works, the color scheme for the costume works really well. And I’ve just seen the colors to the second issue where you actually see him in his full costume for the first time. And it looks really striking on the page. And Brad Anderson, who’s coloring the series is doing a fantastic job.

Icon and Rocket #1

Courtesy of DC Comics.

What goes into creating the origin to make it feel as fresh and new in 2021, as it did in 1993?

RH: That’s the advantage of having talked to the entire Milestone team. Having talked to Dwayne, having talked to Denys constantly. Really telling an origin is always a chance to give details, give nuances that may have been hinted at in the first version of it. And think about the origins of Superman or Batman, over the years. This basic story stays the same, but, you know, you get to dig a little deeper every time. So, what I tried to do is dig a little bit deeper, give details, which were always implied in the original storyline, but not set explicitly. And set those up so that we can really maximize not only this story arc, not only season one but over the course of the series. We set up a lot of Easter eggs that we’ll be paying off later.

LC: Unfortunately the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think, definitely, when I went back and reread the original comics, there are some things that still felt extremely timely. At the end of the first issue, the police are pointing their guns at Icon. So I think there were things that are just still timely and so, it’s modernizing it, but also like Reggie said it’s staying true to what was there initially.

The original mission of Milestone was to present a picture of diversity in comics, looking at how things are currently in the world of comics. Would you consider that mission a success?

RH: I think the mission continues. Was Milestone Media’s first edition a success? Absolutely. They created characters that fans have cared about for generations. The response we’re getting from the first issue of Static Shock lets us know how excited people are to be getting these characters back. And there are more Black writers and artists than there were in the era when Milestone first started.

That said, Are we done? Absolutely not. You know, the fact that we’re still the company that produces this many Black superhero characters that are original, and not kind of taking a formerly white character and turning it Black. Because we’re the only folks really doing that day in and day out on the scale that we’re doing it shows that there’s still a lot more work to do. We always take pride in finding great new talent.

You can purchase Icon and Rocket #1 in comic book shops today.

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