I think it’s fair to say that most everyone in the comic book industry is in shock right now. Dwayne McDuffie has passed away, reportedly due to complications during surgery. We still don’t know too much about what happened. Through this last weekend he was still posting on his blog about the debut of his next animated film, “All-Star Superman” (which debuted yesterday) and the announcement of an action figure based on his creation, Static. (Or as he put it, “From the Department of Oxymoronica: Static Action Figure Has Arrived“)
And then he was gone, one day after his 49th birthday.
I wish I could say I knew Dwayne personally. I didn’t. Indeed, I had seen him at the local Midwest Comic Book Association Convention and yet I didn’t talk to him, for the same reason I often don’t talk to creators I have a lot of respect for: I don’t know what to say that doesn’t sound like what he must hear all the time. Just one more “I loved your writing on Icon” or “Justice League Unlimited was awesome and it should have never ended” or… even my examples sound trite. And now that I know I’ll never get another chance, I’m filled with regret that I didn’t talk to him even if I came off as bubbling with unoriginal geeky praise. For all I know, it was a slow day and he could have used the boost. Or maybe he had already heard it a lot, but what could one more accolade hurt?
I don’t know if Dwayne saw himself as a mover and a shaker, but he certainly was. He created a comic book imprint at DC, Milestone, that drew a lot of critical praise and had a good run in the mid-1990s. He was the creator and writer for the animated show “Static Shock” based on one of his Milestone characters. He has been the staff writer/producer and/or show-runner for the Justice League animated series and for the series of animated movies that have been hitting the DVD market in rapid succession since JLU ended. He returned to writing comic books while continuing to work as a producer, though it often seemed as if he got a raw deal here and there…writing Firestorm for the last few issues before it was canceled, and Justice League of America during yet another era when DC dictated which big icons couldn’t be in the JLA (hint: most of them).
Dwayne pushed for increased ethnic diversity in comic book characters, and in his writing he demonstrated how to achieve it without simply racial bean-counting. I’ll freely admit, I bristled at the pitch for his book “Icon”. A conservative black superhero meets a street-wise girl who tells him he’s out of touch and she pushes him to get active in his community. Sounds like a “The Wiz” version of “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”, right? In actuality, the book is far subtler and more politically fair than I ever would have expected. Icon is a fully-developed character who imparts as many lessons as he learns from his young sidekick, Rocket, and she urges him to play a role in his community not so that he can learn the error of his political ways but so that he can be an inspiration to others, which he isn’t doing when he hides out in his big house. Dwayne McDuffie had a way with clever dialogue, such as “it’s easy to tell others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when you can fly” (that’s quoted from memory almost two decades later, so hopefully I’m getting it right). Dwayne handled hot-button issues like teen pregnancy and abortion without being preachy or unfair.
His approach to diverse characters worked well because he never saddled any character with being a positive representative of his or her entire race, something which often plagued black characters in media. As he put it, “If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor.”
Dwayne McDuffie, February 20, 1962 – February 21, 2011. R.I.P.