When I was a young comic reader, the only Black comic books characters I could remember were an African princess (Storm), an African king (Black Panther) and a jive-talkin’ ex-con* (Power Man). At the time, I didn’t think it was a problem that there wasn’t anyone for me to identify with. I’m glad that people like Dwayne McDuffie did.
McDuffie’s first major work was the Marvel Comics series, Damage Control, about a company that dealt with all the collateral damage after superheroes like the Fantastic Four and Hulk destroyed the city. It was one of those why-didn’t-anybody-think-of-that?” concepts. But he was disturbed by the lack of diversity in comics and how the existing characters were being depicted (as highlighted in his hilarious pitch for Teenage Negro Ninja Thrasher).
In 1993, he co-founded Milestone Media creating to a truly multicultural comic book universe. This could have just been a gimmick but the comics, distributed by DC Comics, were really fucking good. They featured African American characters who didn’t sound ridiculous in the hands of white writers. The stories were on par with the Marvel and DC universe books. My favorite was Static, who was basically a Spidey-like character (teenager gets powers, still has teenage problems, makes snarky comments while fighting crime). He later got his own cartoon, Static Shock, that was pretty good in its own right (or at least good enough to win an Emmy). Aside from adding some diversity on the page, Milestone also gave opportunities to a lot of writers and artists that weren’t getting a shot otherwise (including my current favorite artist, J.H. Williams III).
McDuffie was also a major force behind one of the best animated comic book shows ever, Justice League (later renamed Justice League Unlimited). He wrote, produced, or story-edited 69 out of the 91 episodes. I would put JLU behind Batman: The Animated Series in terms of quality storytelling and impact. I think it did more to expose the DC Universe to children to the in the last ten years than any comic book or movie did. When the trailer for this summer’s Green Lantern hit the ‘Net, Twitter was confused because a lot of people thought Green Lantern was supposed to be Black. You can thank Dwayne for that.
I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone who’s work I loved but I once posted on his website that I really appreciated his work in comics and animation. He wrote me back thanking and me appreciating the love. He was a legend and he’ll be missed.
If you want to check out some of his recent animation work, he wrote the animated direct-to-DVD film All-Star Superman (based on Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s award-winning series) which was released Tuesday.
*He was framed.
Sean Campbell is a geek who lives in Los Angeles. He blogs at Don’t Cross the Streams at melanism.com.