On Monday, February 21st, a hole appeared in the universe.
Where that hole exists, a man should be–a man known as the Maestro to his fans and Dwayne McDuffie to the rest of the world.
Born in 1962, McDuffie was a prominent writer in the comic book and animation industries. As a young man, McDuffie got his start working at Marvel Comics, creating the original series “Damage Control.” Marvel is also where McDuffie famously wrote the “Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers” pitch, satirizing the company’s use of two-dimensional black characters.
In 1993 he left to co-create the African-American owned and run Milestone Media, along with Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Derek T. Dingle. From there he moved into television, writing and producing Warner Brothers Animation and DC Entertainment’s “Justice League,” “Ben 10: Ultimate Alien,” and “Static Shock,” the last of which was based off McDuffie’s Milestone character. He is also the screenwriter for the recently released “All Star Superman” animated DVD.
On Wednesday night, Golden Apple Comics held a tribute to the late comic book visionary. CBR News spoke directly with several of McDuffie’s collaborators who, choking back tears, spoke passionately of a man who was as kind as he was intelligent.
“I have a Ph.D. and [Dwayne McDuffie] is literally the smartest guy I ever met,” Michael Davis, a Milestone co-founder, told CBR.
“He is literally the best writer I have ever worked with. What Dwayne and I did together was unique and special and wasn’t equaled by anyone else,” said Denys Cowan, another of the Milestone co-founders. “I always joked it was Lennon and McCartney, because it really was.”
Over and over, friends and co-creators in attendance described McDuffie as a giant in his field, both figuratively and literally.
“He was 6 foot 7, built like a house, and a lot of times mistaken for an ex-football player–but his demeanor was just the opposite, he was a very gentle person,” said family friend and “Clone Wars” writer Kevin Rubio.
“My first impression of Dwayne was that he was an imposing presence, both physically and intellectually,” writer Adam Beechen told CBR. Hired by McDuffie as a freelance writer for “Ben 10,” Beechen regarded the late writer/producer’s work with utmost respect. “You could plug him onto any book and he would find a take that was fresh, exciting, [and] would keep you coming back issue after issue,” said Beechen.
“Dwayne’s motto was ‘good stories well-told,'” said Davis.
Dwayne McDuffie broke boundaries. He championed creator-owned work with Milestone. He co-created African-American superheroes such as Static Shock, Icon, and Hardware–heroes who still make up a significant percentage of DC Comic’s minority characters. Along with co-writer Alan Burnett he won the 2003 Humanitas Award for an episode of “Static Shock” dealing with gun violence in schools. He was a black man working in two white-dominated industries, and refused to compromise his principles to fit in.
“Dwayne spoke up, at a cost to his career, but that’s what men of courage do. That’s what men of integrity do. And that’s what Dwayne was,” said film director and comic book writer Reggie Hudlin.
Even as late as 2003, McDuffie continued to push the envelope with his work on “Justice League.”
“[John Stewart and Hawkgirl] had the first interracial kiss in animation. It was groundbreaking, it was on par with Gene Rodenberry when Uhura and Kirk kissed,” said “Warehouse 13” writer Deric Hughes. He smiled as he recalled how he first stumbled onto McDuffie’s comics.
“I was just getting out of the military when Milestone came on the scene–and it blew me away because I was seeing black superheroes talking the way that I talked. It was an awe-inspiring thing,” Hughes told CBR.
“There are a lot of people who are conscious of race in the comic book industry, and Dwayne definitely was. He and I talked about it–like, why does a black character have to have [the word] Black in their name?” said actor Phil LaMarr. The voice talent for Static Shock and “Justice League’s” African-American Green Lantern John Stewart, LaMarr was deeply impressed by McDuffie’s scope and talent.
“The main theme I see as a through line in Dwayne’s work is heart and mind. He was able to universalize the personal,” said LaMarr.
“[McDuffie] was right up there with Alan Moore and Frank Miller and all the rest of these guys, but because he was black he saw the double standard,” said Davis. Davis added that McDuffie’s work helped tear down barriers and opened the door for writers like himself.
Amid the tears and pride there was also a sense of frustration. At 49, McDuffie, was “just hitting his stride,” said Davis. McDuffie’s last project, adapting Grant Morrison’s “All Star Superman” for DVD, met with rave reviews from all corners of the industry, including Morrison himself. And though the “Static Shock” TV show proved successful, there is still a glaring lack of non-white superhero titles.
“The fact that there’s no comics I can give to my six-year-old daughter or three-year-old son is a problem,” said Hudlin. He pointed to “Static’s” steady number-one timeslot share as proof that mainstream audiences are ready for multicultural heroes, and called on the industry to broaden its horizons. “Given how tiny and ever-shrinking the comic book business is, clearly Dwayne was on to something right,” said Hudlin.
Many also believed the resurgent popularity of Green Lantern and the upcoming live action movie were a direct result of McDuffie’s popularizing Green Lantern John Stewart on “Justice League.”
“I personally think there’s a Green Lantern movie coming out this year because of [‘Justice League’]. It set a template for that character, made that character relevant in a way it never had been, not for me. I think after that, the writing in the comic books got a lot better, and it led to the character being embraced on a big level,” said LaMarr.
When asked what would be McDuffie’s lasting legacy, all agreed that his greatest gift was to the kids who grew up reading Milestone, watching “Static Shock” and “Justice League,” and believing in a world where anyone, black or white, could be a superhero.
“All the young kids who grow up reading his stuff and watching it and are shown through Dwayne’s work the possibilities of their humanity–that’s the legacy,” said Cowan.
On February 21st, the industry lost much more than a writer and creator. As so many aptly put it, where there was once a giant, now there was a hole.
“He’s not just gone, there’s a freaking hole in the planet because he’s gone,” said Davis.
“There’s just a hole, and no one’s fixing that hole. No one’s filling that hole. There’s no one who might one day be that guy–it’s gone and that’s it,” said Hudlin.
Perhaps the person who can best sum up the life and impact of Dwayne McDuffie is the man himself. In “Icon” issue three, penned by the late writer, Icon addresses a crowd thusly:
“As many of you have already witnessed, I am gifted with certain special abilities. I have possessed these gifts for many years but for the most part have refrained from using them.
“Today I set a challenge for myself, a challenge to be of service to humanity. I will do this by being a living example of what’s possible. I intend to hold myself to a very high standard. I ask no less of you. I challenge you to challenge yourselves. You are all gifted with special abilities. Strive to live up to your potential, as I will strive to live up to mine. I can fly — so can you!”
Dwayne McDuffie is survived by his wife, Charlotte, his mother, Edna McDuffie-Gardner, and all his loving, grateful fans.