Captains of the comics industry hosted a public remembrance during last weekend’s Emerald City Comicon for a departed friend, Dwayne McDuffie, a creator who fought to make superheroes feel more like the human race.
McDuffie died of complications from surgery on Sunday, February 21, just one day after his 49th birthday. He spent decades working with the major comics publishers as well as an independent creator who constantly strived to bring minority characters to the fore, sometimes utilizing caustic satire, while translating many of DC’s superheroes into their most successful animated incarnations.
Longtime friend and fellow writer Mark Waid, who worked alongside McDuffie numerous times throughout their careers, headed up the memorial panel as moderator. Waid opened the event with a quip: “I have a long list of people in this industry who can go…”
“Most of us are here,” joked “Astro City” creator Kurt Busiek.
“…and Dwayne was so not on that list,” Waid continued. “It’s really fairly rare, even in an industry as tightly knit as ours, and I think as fraternal as ours, to find someone that everybody really likes.”
The panel, coming at the end of Saturday’s con events, opened with a brief memorial video of some of McDuffie’s career highlights. The montage ranged from 1989’s four-issue Marvel miniseries “Damage Control” to the launch of the McDuffie-helmed Milestone Comics line in the early 1990s to his years writing for the animated “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” and features “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths” and the newly released “All-Star Superman.”
“I think his greatest contribution in a lot of ways, was, he showed a bunch of liberal New Yorkers that they really weren’t doing enough to bring diversity to comics,” said Bob Harras, editor in chief of DC Comics, who praised McDuffie’s tenure at Marvel. “It was amazing for an assistant editor, when you think about it, because an assistant editor’s supposed to be someone who’ll Xerox and say, ‘Yes, sir.’ But Dwayne basically said, ‘Look, what we’re doing — there’s a large group of fans out there who are not seeing themselves.'”
Veteran comics writer Marv Wolfman recalled picking up a copy of McDuffie’s “Damage Control,” a miniseries about an agency that cleans up the rubble left by super hero/super villain battles in the Marvel Universe. “It blew me away, and not only because it was one of those ideas that you go, ‘Of course! Somebody had to clean up after the mess that the characters did.’ But the writing was so sharp. I just couldn’t believe this new voice had come in.”
Wolfman continued, talking about McDuffie during the Milestone years. “He was doing some of the best plotting and the best scripting I had seen in comics at that particular point. All the books were so sharply written — it was amazing.”
“He knew how to write from the inside out,” Waid agreed. “He knew, that’s the way you write characters.”
McDuffie and his wife Charlotte Fullerton moved into a new house not long before his death, passing his packing boxes on for Wolfman to use in a forthcoming move of his own. “Now his name is all over my house,” Wolfman said. “I mean, everywhere.”
Busiek once wrote an issue of the Milestone title “Icon,” filling in for McDuffie, and the writer recalled for the audience how challenging it was to maintain McDuffie’s voice. “A Dwayne McDuffie page has four word balloons, and they’re short,” Busiek said. “But it’s rich in character. What the characters say and do, everything means a lot.”
One of McDuffie’s best-known stunts involved a survey he conducted around the Marvel offices during his and Busiek’s tenure at the publisher. The survey asked, “How many African-American Marvel characters can you name who don’t ride a skateboard?” The punchline was a satirical series proposal for “Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers,” a super team comprised of Marvel’s two skateboarding black heroes, plus two more created for the group. McDuffie’s point, that many of Marvel’s black characters at the time were essentially one-note signifiers, not fully envisioned heroes, was noted by Marvel.
The other half of the survey asked how many black male Marvel heroes did not dress like chickens. “Think about it,” Busiek said. “There’s the Black Talon. We’ll call the Falcon an honorary one, for those crazy boots. There’s the Battling Bantam. There is an astonishing number. When you add up the guys who dress like chickens and the guys who ride skateboards, it’s really easy to see there’s a problem here.”
Beyond strong writing skills and advocacy on behalf of characters who resembled the audience that read about them, McDuffie also mentored younger writers. David Walker, today the screenwriter behind the spoof film “Blackstar Warrior” and author of the forthcoming superhero-themed young adult novel “Darius Walker: Super Justice Force,” was a journalist when he first met McDuffie. The industry veteran encouraged the new author’s writing, but urged him to pass on a job working directly for a comics publisher, saying it would squelch his creativity.
He also surprised Walker once by calling Thor, the blond-haired god of thunder, “the blackest character” among Marvel superheroes. “Thor had a really bad relationship with his father,” he told Walker, “and everything Thor was trying to do was trying to address his father, trying to mend that relationship.”
“If there’s depth and dimension to (a character), then people will relate to them no matter what,” Walker continued. “Hence, Dwayne’s thinking that Thor was one of the greatest black characters in the Marvel Universe.”
Wolfman recounted reading the massive online outpouring of remembrances after McDuffie died — even though McDuffie’s work was seldom among the comics industry’s big-selling titles. “To get that sort of response in the press indicates that he touched people in ways that they felt a need to respond,” Wolfman said.
“Forty-nine years old,” Waid lamented. “Jesus. That’s absurd. That’s a kid.”