The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 23 | R.I.P. Dwayne McDuffie (1962–2011)

Leaving Proof 23 | R.I.P. Dwayne McDuffie (1962–2011)
Published on Wednesday, February 23, 2011 by

Dwayne McDuffie died the other day, from post-surgical complications according to early, unconfirmed reports. He had just turned 49 the day prior. I’m not going to fill this week’s column with forced sentimentality or an encyclopedic listing of his work. You can get authentic and unalloyed sentiment from the people who actually knew him personally and/or worked with him here, and if you need to brush up on his extensive body of work, here are links to his IMDb and Wikipedia pages. I can only really write about how his work affected me, and hopefully, my sharing will help you guys gain an even greater appreciation of one of the contemporary giants in the field of superhero comics and cartoons.

MCP-062-26I still remember the very first Dwayne McDuffie story I’d ever read. It was an eight-page story co-written with Gregory Wright in Marvel Comics Presents (Vol. 1) #62 (March 1990) entitled “Test Run” featuring the rogue military cyborg Deathlok. It wasn’t a particularly memorable story (although Butch Guice’s art, as always, was awesome), it was just a back-up to the main story running through Marvel’s anthology title at the time (featuring Wolverine) and was meant to be a prologue-cum-teaser for that summer’s Deathlok four-issue mini-series. Even as little more than a multi-page advert though, it succinctly encapsulated a number of themes that McDuffie would explore further both in the mini-series and the on-going Deathlok series that its sales success led to.

Despite the seeming banality of the story that served as my introduction to McDuffie’s work, it did showcase to an extent, however small, an exemplary skill that would become the hallmark  of his later work in comics and animation: McDuffie had a gift for translating high concept superhero premises into entertaining, affecting, action-packed narratives. From the on-going Deathlok series, to Hardware, to the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, McDuffie wrote consistently entertaining stories that stayed true to the melodramatic nature of superheroic fiction whilst still grounding them in genuine and relatable emotion.

But perhaps just as much as anything that he wrote, it was the things that he said in a joint interview (along with artist Denys Cowan and publishing exec Derek Dingle) in Wizard: The Guide to Comics #20 (April 1993) that have stuck with me all these years (I’ve reproduced the interview in full below).

static_01That McDuffie interview blew my 15 year-old mind when I first read it. I’d never really thought in-depth about the issues of race and identity politics as they related to superheroes before. With Milestone Media, McDuffie and his associates attempted to create non-stereotypical ethnic minority superheroes and at once elevate the level of discourse concerning race in superhero comics above and beyond the well-meaning but poorly executed portrayals of minority characters or the clumsy (and increasingly irrelevant) metaphors (such as Marvel’s “mutant menace”) in Marvel and DC comics. Did Milestone succeed? In many ways, yes. Milestone Media comics featuring black, Latino, and Asian superheroes who ran the gamut from traditional superhero archetypes to grim-and-gritty badasses achieved moderate success during the early 1990s. But at least from where I was looking at the whole enterprise, Milestone never really totally shook off the mistaken perception among the general comics reading public that it was “black superhero comics written by black guys for black readers.” Whether it was poor marketing, a failure in the actual execution, a widespread reticence among readers to embrace a new comic book universe that just happened to feature an ethnically diverse cast, or a combination of those three (and other) factors, I can’t really tell. Say what you will about Milestone Media’s somewhat disappointing run, but the fact that the company existed at all and had these publicly stated goals made me look at superhero comics and the comics industry (and the world of popular entertainment and commercial art in general) in a different and more discerning light, and I imagine I wasn’t the only impressionable young reader that came away with a much broader view of the creative landscape from being exposed to Milestone’s books and creators.

I don’t want to give off the idea that he was some sort of soapboxing activist who used his work as a platform to promote an agenda, though. His print work was all about writing entertaining superhero comics first and foremost, and to him, that meant creating and writing interesting and relatable characters (whose ethnic identity would only be one of many features that would enhance reader accessibility).

McDuffie’s extensive creative reach extended beyond print. In my mind, his work in animation as a writer, story editor, and producer for shows such as Static Shock, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, Ben 10, among others marks him as perhaps the most influential creative talent in contemporary superhero-themed animation outside of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. One of my favourite McDuffie-penned Justice League Unlimited episodes is 2005’s “Divided We Fall,” which features just about everything that McDuffie is known for as a writer: accessibility, naturalistic dialogue, pathos, humour, and of course, awesome superhero action.

With Dwayne McDuffie’s sudden and unexpected passing, the superhero comics and animation industries have lost one their best and brightest (and frequently underrated) writing talents.

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4 Responses
    • […] back up story is poignant but does require understanding a few things about Dwyane McDuffie and Milestone Media. Ultimately understanding Milestone’s imperfect relationship to DC Comics […]

    • […] but instead a transplant from Dakota: Static debuts in Static Shock #1. Static is a remnant of Dwayne McDuffie’s Milestone imprint at DC from the 90s, but most readers probably know Dakota’s boom baby from his TV show […]

    • […] speech, which was built around the theme of diversity, paid tribute to the late Dwayne McDuffie and his efforts to make comics and animation—superhero-themed ones in particular—more inclusive […]

    • […] Three years ago this Friday, Eisner-nominated comics scribe and Humanitas Prize-winning television writer Dwayne McDuffie passed away from complications resulting from emergency heart surgery. He had just turned 49 years old the day prior. The swift and earnest industry reaction to the news of his death underlined just how huge of an impact McDuffie had on the fields of comics and made-for-TV animation. Senior Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort called him “the smartest guy in the room” with “the background and education of a scientist” (McDuffie held an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s degree in Physics—both earned at the University of Michigan—and later studied film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts). Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Ultimate Spider-man writer-producer Paul Dini remembered McDuffie as “a kindred soul” who “fine-tuned his stories until they sang.” Man of Action Studios co-founder and comics writer Joe Casey considered McDuffie a “groundbreaking creator in comics and animation” and “a refreshingly straight shooter.” Former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter described McDuffie’s pursuit of genuine diversity in superhero comics and his advocacy for minority creators in the comics industry a desperately needed and justified “quest for human rights.” Mark Waid called McDuffie “a true guardian of the DC Universe.” […]

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