The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 214 | Dwayne McDuffie remembered

Leaving Proof 214 | Dwayne McDuffie remembered
Published on Thursday, February 20, 2014 by
This Friday (February 21) is the third anniversary of Dwayne McDuffie’s passing. Celebrate the memory of one of superhero fiction’s most influential writers with our detailed recap of the Justice League episode “The Terror Beyond.”
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Dwayne McDuffie in 2010.

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.”

McDuffie's Marvel Bullpen Bulletins "Pro file" from the late 1980s.

McDuffie’s Marvel Bullpen Bulletins “Pro file” from the late 1980s.

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McDuffie’s first lead comics-writing job for a major publisher was Marvel Comics’ Damage Control (Vol. 1) #1 (cover-dated May 1989, cover art by Ernie Colon)

It would be impossible to recap all of McDuffie’s contributions and accomplishments in comics and animation in this space, so here instead are links to his Wikipedia, ComicBookDb, and IMDb entries for those of you reading this who are unfamiliar with his oeuvre or in need of brushing up on it. McDuffie was published in a range of media, from comics to animation to video games, and he worked with a variety of publishers and studios, from the “Big Two” of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, Milestone Media (the comic book company he co-founded with artist Denys Cowan and executives Michael Davis and Derek Dingle), animation outfits like Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network (through his work on Man of Action Studios’ Ben 10), and game studios like Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

But while his multimedia adaptability as a writer was indisputable and his roots in comics well-known, for many superhero fans today, it is McDuffie’s work as a writer and producer on the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated TV series that stands as his career-defining work. McDuffie produced 65 episodes of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited (second in total number of episodes produced, behind only producer and lead character designer James Tucker’s 91 episodes) and wrote or co-wrote the original story and/or teleplay for 33 episodes, the most series credits for any writer on Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

Alongside fellow writers Paul Dini, Stan Berkowitz, Rich Fogel, J.M. DeMatteis, Matt Wayne, and others as well as series directors Dan Riba, Butch Lukic, and Joaquim Dos Santos, McDuffie streamlined and made internally consistent the occasionally bewildering continuity and sometimes erratic characterization of DC’s superhero comics and optimized them for the weekly half-hour TV show format. Building on the elegant simplicity of the character designs by James Tucker, Glenn Wai Lim Wong, and Bruce Timm, McDuffie was able to distill the Justice League cast into its purest, most recognizable expression, accessible to new and younger audiences but nuanced enough to be appreciated by older fans familiar with the comics source material.

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Justice League (left) and its successor series Justice League Unlimited (right) ran for a combined five seasons from 2001 to 2006 and remain popular in syndication.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give McDuffie’s work on Justice League and Justice League Unlimited is that I never cared more for DC’s superheroes—whether in print or on the screen—than I did when they were in Justice League or Justice League Unlimited, particularly when they were featured in episodes written and/or produced by McDuffie. My preferred versions of DC’s superheroes, from 2002 onwards, have always been McDuffie’s take on them. The adjective “iconic” is bandied around too readily these days to describe the work of comics and animation creators, but in the case of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, the label is richly-deserved.

On “The Terror Beyond” (Justice League Season 2, Episodes 15 and 16)

(Part I) Solomon Grundy attacks a harbor. After the military has him contained, Aquaman arrives and steals Grundy. When the League finds out Aquaman is involved, they head to Dr. Fate to get some answers.

(Part II) Fate and Aquaman wanted to sacrifice Grundy to prevent the return of a mystic being. The being has arrived; Aquaman leaves to protect Atlantis. Hawkgirl finds out the being had visited her homeworld long ago.

- “The Terror Beyond” plot summary from IMDb

NOTE: “The Terror Beyond” originally aired in two parts on November 15, 2003 but if you’ve yet to see the episode, be advised that this section contains major spoilers.

Of the 33 Justice League and Justice League Unlimited episodes McDuffie wrote or co-wrote, it is perhaps the two-parter “The Terror Beyond” that best showcases, all at once, the Detroit-born creator’s love of superhero comics, his wide-ranging knowledge of popular culture and fantastical literature, his skill at crafting consistently smart and funny dialogue, and his talent for infusing all-ages accessible superhero melodrama with a surprisingly mature depth of emotion and characterization.

Originally pitched by Bruce Timm as a story intended to return Aquaman to the Justice League spotlight in a battle against Lovecraftian horrors, in McDuffie’s hands, the story eventually evolved into an homage to Marvel Comics’ original Defenders roster, with Dr. Fate filling in for Marvel’s Dr. Strange, Aquaman serving as the ersatz Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Solomon Grundy positioned as the Hulk analogue.

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Left: Dr. Fate, Aquaman, and Solomon Grundy in a screenshot from part 1 of “The Terror Beyond;” right: the Hulk, Namor, and Dr. Strange hash out their differences in their earliest official appearance as the Defenders (panel taken from Marvel Feature #1, cover-dated December 1971, art by Ross Andru and Bill Everett)

In addition, Inza Nelson also appeared in the episode to serve as the counterpart to sometime-Defender Clea and in some narrative respects, the Justice League’s Hawkgirl acted as the equivalent to Marvel’s Barbara Denton-Norriss, who would later become the human host for the Valkyrie.

The nod to the Defenders didn’t stop with the superficial pairing of DC characters with their Marvel parallels. The plot of “The Terror Beyond” has Dr. Fate enlisting the aid of Aquaman and Solomon Grundy in a mission to prevent an ancient, exiled, extradimensional being known as Icthultu from coming back to Earth and reclaiming it as part of his domain, a narrative that mirrors the circumstances that presaged the eventual formation of the Defenders in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. In a Roy Thomas-written storyline that began in Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969) and crossed over into Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970) and Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970), Dr. Strange separately recruited Namor and the Hulk to help in his efforts to thwart the return of the Undying Ones, extradimensional beings who ruled the planet in eons past. (Fans interested in reading this story that served as partial inspiration for the plot of the “The Terror Beyond” will be glad to know that Sub-Mariner #22 and Incredible Hulk #126 were reprinted in the Day of the Defenders one-shot released in 2001. It’s definitely much easier—and much cheaper—tracking that issue down than the originals.)

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Just as a bound Bruce Banner/Hulk (right) played a pivotal role in the casting of a dimension-spanning spell in Incredible Hulk #126 (art by Herb Trimpe), so did a restrained Solomon Grundy in “The Terror Beyond” (left). Note, however, that the Hulk and Grundy’s purposes were reversed: The former was used to break down the mystical wards barring the return of the Undying Ones while the latter was supposed to serve as an undead sacrifice to prevent the return of Icthultu and his minions.

The undead Grundy, as it turns out, is needed by Fate as a sort of mystic energy battery to recharge the barriers that keep Icthultu from returning to Earth. Grundy agrees to work with Fate and Aquaman, but at a price: He wants Fate to help him recover his “soul,” which he believes he lost when he was transformed into his current monstrous form. It is at this point that the Justice League, represented by Superman, Wonder Woman, and Hawkgirl step in to stop Fate, Aquaman, and Inza from risking Grundy’s (un)life.

Probably the closest we'll ever get to an official "Hulk vs. Superman" cartoon.

Probably the closest we’ll ever get to an official “Hulk vs. Superman” cartoon.

A typical superhero vs. superhero misunderstanding ensues (they all follow the “punch first, ask questions later” dictum, apparently), but as as is the convention, the players set aside their differences before any permanent damage is incurred and begin to work together against a common foe, eventually journeying to Icthultu’s dimension in order to take a more direct and physical approach to ensuring that he never threatens the Earth again.

“The Terror Beyond” was more than just a sly Marvel Comics homage packaged in a DC Comics-based cartoon, though. In fact, I’ve talked to more than a few people, comics fans all, who had no previous inkling that the episode’s Fate-Aquaman-Grundy trio was McDuffie’s deliberate nod to Marvel’s Defenders or that portions of the plot drew on the story of the Defenders’ pre-Marvel Feature origin, and yet they rate it as one of their favorite Justice League episodes, if not their outright favorite. It’s evidence, I think, that even if we set aside the episode’s clever intertextuality, “The Terror Beyond” stands on its own as a brilliant showcase of McDuffie’s ability to use superhero narratives to address issues that some critics may think to be beyond the purview of the hoary tropes and caricatures of the genre.

Yes, the unofficial Defenders vs. Justice League crossover is loads of geeky goodness, and yes, watching Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawgirl, Aquaman, Dr. Fate, and Solomon Grundy do battle with the episode’s off-brand Cthulhu mythos monsters in a Jim Starlin-meets-Steve Ditko floating island landscape is delightfully entertaining, but the real conflict at the very heart of the story is less about the silly-but-fun punch-ups and more about the atheist Hawkgirl trying understand the religious beliefs of some of her teammates and allies. (As revealed later in the episode, the people of Hawkgirl’s home planet of Thanagar used to worship Icthultu thousands of years ago when they were still “a primitive culture,” but they eventually rejected religion. In Hawkgirl’s words, “modern Thanagarians bow down to no higher power.”)

Hawkgirl asks Wonder Woman if she really believes that she gains strength when she "calls on [her] gods."

Hawkgirl asks Wonder Woman if she really believes that she gains strength when she “calls on [her] gods.”

In the episode’s most touching scene, a dying Solomon Grundy asks Hawgirl if “[his] soul is waiting for him” in the afterlife. Hawkgirl starts to answer, seemingly intent to say that she doesn’t believe in people having souls, but then catches herself, and tearfully says that yes, Grundy’s soul is waiting for him on the other side. Hawkgirl may not believe in the notion of souls and the divine, but at that point, she understands how belief can help certain individuals feel at peace and accept situations they have no control over.

Hawkgirl reassures a dying Solomon Grundy.

Hawkgirl reassures a dying Solomon Grundy.

Later, after Grundy’s funeral, Hawkgirl wonders why the assurance of regaining his soul seemed to make Grundy content and even happy in death, to which Aquaman replies, “You’re not supposed to understand [faith], you just have it.” It’s a perfect note to end the story on, as McDuffie’s script doesn’t explicitly favor one or the other side in the belief vs. non-belief debate throughout “The Terror Beyond,” leaving it to the viewer to decide for him or herself who is “right.”

A post-script: McDuffie’s pseudo-Defenders would appear again in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Wake the Dead” (original airdate: December 18, 2004), which is a sequel of sorts to “The Terror Beyond.” This time, Professor Ivo’s cosmically-empowered A.M.A.Z.O. android—recently recruited by Dr. Fate—is set up by McDuffie and co-writer Bruce Timm as the Silver Surfer analogue, thus rounding out their DC Animated Universe version of the early 1970s Defenders roster.

Professor Ivo's cosmically-powered A.M.A.Z.O. android (third from left) joined McDuffie's group of ersatz Defenders in "Wake the Dead" as the stand-in for the Silver Surfer.

Professor Ivo’s cosmically-empowered A.M.A.Z.O. android (third from left) joined McDuffie’s group of ersatz Defenders in “Wake the Dead” as the stand-in for the Silver Surfer.

The Hawkgirl-Valkyrie connection is also made even more clear this time around: Just as Barbara Denton-Norriss returned from her imprisonment in the Undying Ones’ dimension (seen at the end of Incredible Hulk #126) to join the Defenders as the new human host for Valkyrie in Defenders #4 (February 1972), so does Hawkgirl return in “Wake the Dead” from her self-imposed exile after the events of “Star-crossed,” the three-part Justice League season 2 finale that saw her betray the Earth for Thanagar.

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Digressions

Speaking of animated adaptations of comics, here’s a rundown of the manga-to-anime adaptations I’ve been watching since the new year started.

‣ Blue Exorcist: A fairly typical shonen anime based on the manga by  Kazue Katō, but the animation work is above-average and there’s just something absolutely engrossing about the show’s (almost assuredly blasphemous) fantasy version of the Catholic Church as a quasi-military task force of gun-toting, sword-wielding, familiar-conjuring, spell-casting exorcists. The entire series is available for free viewing in select territories on Crackle.com.

‣ B Gata H Kei Yamada’s First Time: A raunchy teen sex-comedy (think of it as an animated version of 1983’s Private School or 1999’s American Pie) based on Yoko Sanri’s yonkoma comic strip of the same title, Yamada’s First Time starts out like a lot of its TV-MA-rated anime sex comedy brethren, with plenty of gratuitous near-nudity and innuendo and fanservice galore. It really starts setting itself apart about a third of the way through its 12 episode run, however, with a surprising amount of character development and a more nuanced portrayal of teens’ social concerns. It also helps that the show’s point of view is delivered from the perspective of a sex-positive and assertive (if socially inept) female protagonist (the fact that the original manga’s author is a woman also contributes to show’s somewhat distinct voice). It’s not for everyone, but as far as anime sex comedies go, B Gata H Kei Yamada’s First Time is better than most. The entire series is available for viewing in select territories on the Netflix video-on-demand subscription service.

‣ Ghost Hunt: Based on the “light novels” written by Fuyumi Ono, this series just might be scarier than any stateside horror movie I’ve seen in the past decade. Ghost Hunt doesn’t rely on “jump scares” or gore to terrify viewers. Like a lot of Japanese horror films, it relies less on “special effects” and more on fostering a mounting feeling of dread and suspense. The occasional punctuation with comedic interludes and story digressions only serves to heighten the scare factor through contrast. The entire series is available for viewing in select territories on the Netflix video-on-demand subscription service and the first four episodes are available for free viewing on the FUNimation/Ghost Hunt YouTube channel (Unfortunately for those limited to viewing on YouTube, the first three episodes—which comprise the first standalone storyline—are some of the weakest in the show in my opinion).

‣ My Bride is a MermaidA bizarre romantic comedy based on the manga by Tahiko Kimura, the premise of My Bride is a Mermaid is exactly what it says in the title: As per what is apparently mermaid custom, a high school teen is forced into an arranged marriage with a mermaid from the inland Seto Sea when he accidentally sees her true form. Upping the weirdness quotient is the fact that the mermaid’s family is no normal mermaid family—it’s also a powerful yakuza clan. Absolutely hilarious, but keep in mind that it is rated TV-MA (not appropriate for viewers under 17 years of age). The first season is available for viewing in select territories on the Netflix video-on-demand subscription service.

‣ Marvel Anime: X-Men: Not exactly a manga-to-anime adaptation, this animated take on the X-Men produced by the renowned Madhouse animation studio is perhaps the best-looking X-Men cartoon I’ve ever seen. The narrative pacing is molasses-slow however, and while it’s really no fault of the animators or teleplay writer Warren Ellis, I’m just not a fan of the current(?) status quo where Cyclops is an angsty, angry, loose cannon hardass. The entire series is available for free viewing in select territories on Crackle.com.

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