At the Long Beach Comic Expo in Long Beach, CA, creators and fans gathered to celebrate and name the winner of the first annual Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. Phil LaMarr, who served as the event’s Master of Ceremonies, explained how the late creator affected him on a personal level, showing the actor that the “funny books and kid shows” they both worked on were art. They could be “smart and funny,” be “work that reflects the lives of people of color and have universal appeal.”
Martha Donato, Executive Director of LBCE, explained that it took about two years to put the McDuffie Award together, but she was “immediately hooked” on the idea because she liked everyone who was planning it. She noted that as a female owner of a convention and mother of three daughters, diversity is important to her, and as such, she’s incredibly happy to host the award.
LaMarr then introduced Matt Wayne, the Director of the Award, as a very loud, “Hi Daddy!” rung out from his son in the back of the room. Wayne remarked that he was encouraged by how many “groundbreaking comics” came out in 2014. “I think diversity is becoming important in the comics industry,” he said, pointing out what a marked difference it is from twenty-five years ago.
Wayne introduced the selection committee, most of whom were present — writer Neo Edmund (the McDuffie Award was his idea initially), Producer/Supervising Director Glen Murakami (who worked with McDuffie on “Ben 10” and “Ben 10: Alien Force”), William Watkins (writer, former owner of Chicago’s first Black-owned comics store), Eugene Son (comics writer/Story Editor, “Ultimate Spider-Man” animated series); unable to attend were Joan Hilty (Nickelodeon Comics Editor, Creator of “Bitter Girl”), Heidi MacDonald (Editor in Chief, The Beat), comic creator Len Wein and editor/writer/columnist Joseph P. Illidge. Wayne thanked the LBCE for jumping on the idea and the PR team for doing a great job in getting the word out.
The nominees were then introduced by LaMarr — “Hex11” by Lisa K. Weber and Kelly Sue Milano (HexComics), “M.F.K.” by Nilah Magruder (www.mfkcomic.com), “Ms. Marvel” by G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona (Marvel Entertainment), “The Shadow Hero” by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew (First Second Books), and “Shaft” by David F. Walker and Bilquis Evely (Dynamite Entertainment).
LaMarr introduced Denys Cowan to the audience, who spoke about how he first met McDuffie, working on Marvel’s “Deathlok” with Greg Wright. They connected immediately, Cowan said, and achieved a lot on the book because, quite simply, “we didn’t know enough not to do it… The critical reception of the book was pretty good but the personal satisfaction I felt is what lead to Milestone Comics. Deathlok was basically the first Milestone character.”
“Well, it’s impossible to know what he’d really do, but I can guess,” Cowan said, hypothesizing about what McDuffie would think about the Award and the push for diversity in the comics industry. “First, he’d think it was good. And then the next breath he’d say, ‘Let’s see how this all works out. We’ll see what Hollywood does with all this diversity stuff.’ And then the third thing he’d do would be, make it his mission to make it work like he always did… he would push to make sure the best possible people would be there to push the message no matter how cynical he felt about it.”
Though unable to attend the ceremony, Yang, who will be writing “Superman” for DC Comics later this year, sent a statement that read, in part, “Dwayne McDuffie was a real life superhero. I’d loved his stories since I was a kid, and now I’m sharing them with mine. Sonny and I are honored to be a part of it.”
Magruder addressed the audience, stating, “I grew up on Static Shock and Justice League — I knew about Dwayne McDuffie before I knew about him.” She recognized the diversity in every facet of webcomics, and always knew that’s what she wanted to do — put out a comic that’s open to all. She thanked the committee for including her and recognizing the diversity of webcomics.
LaMarr recognized Milano and Weber for “Hex11,” next. Each expressed how honored they were, and recognized the importance of the Award, and Milano mentioned that she was once told that she’d never get hired in comics because she was a woman over twenty-five years old. This experience stuck with her for many reasons, including “how many gorgeous voices will never be heard because of these misplaced ‘industry standards.'”
Walker, who will be writing “Cyborg” for DC Comics this summer, was next to speak. “I met Dwayne the first time in the ’90s, but I’d known about him for years. I’d always looked up to him, and, despite his height, he’d never looked down on anyone.”
When he looked at the list of nominees, Walker said, “I heard Dwayne’s voice saying, ‘Now, this is a diverse lineup’… We use that word a lot, but if it’s going to have any meaning, it’s got to have a capital ‘D.'”
“Karl Marx said, ‘All that is solid melts into air,'” keynote speaker Reginald Hudlin said, opening his address to the crowd. “In other words: Stuff be changing… My 10-year-old daughter only knows a black president… That kind of change is what comes to mind when I think of Dwayne McDuffie.”
Hudlin said there was a culture shift going on in the late-’90s that was palpable. “He was a mentor to me in the world of comics. I liked them, but didn’t know much about them. And we’ll never know how many people he mentored, because he was so humble… [McDuffie] had been pushed out of comics. Some might say he was difficult, some would say he stood up for things he thought was wrong.” Hudlin eventually convinced McDuffie to move to Los Angeles, where he immediately got a job writing in animation and “didn’t stop until he stopped.”
“It frustrated me that Dwayne never got what he deserved in comics. There are people who hated me for writing ‘Black Panther,’ but people hated him writing ‘Fantastic Four’ even more. That’s a lot of hate… [But] it doesn’t matter. Because his work endures.”
Like all the other special guests, Hudlin ruminated on what McDuffie would think or say about the current state of the industry. “I think — he’d be excited about all you guys. That’s what he did. He supported people. He would love the idea of celebrating great work. He would love that there are now images and representation that wasn’t there previously.”
LaMarr then introduced Charlotte McDuffie (“Ben 10: Omniverse”, “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic”). McDuffie said she was “hesitant to put words in my husband’s mouth,” so she opted instead to read the inscription of the award — “From invisible to inevitable,” a quote from Dwayne — before announcing Nilah Magruder and “M.F.K.” as the winner, to a standing ovation.
“You’re going to have to indulge me for a minute, because I promised my mom I’d take pictures,” Magruder said, before taking photos of the waving and applauding audience. She thanked all the people involved in the Award, as well the other nominees for the important work they do. Magruder said that every year there is a new slate of comics get an audience, and more and more people area able to see themselves in them.
“It isn’t going away, we’re not going away,” She stated. “We are not a risk — we are an asset. And the industry will be better for our presence. The industry is cynical, but I’m an optimist, and the fact this award exists means it’s getting better.”