Today sees the launch of a new recurring feature here at The Pop Culture Studio, Here’s Looking At You – articles which focus on pop culture creators well-known and obscure, beloved and (in some cases) reviled.
In this first instalment (and in honour of Black History Month in the US), we’re going to take a look at the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, who was a trailblazer not only as an African American comic book and TV scribe, but also as someone who increased the visibility of minority characters across both mediums as well.
McDuffie broke into comics in the early 90s, working as editor Bob Budiansky’s special projects assistant at Marvel Comics, a role which saw him help to develop the company’s first ever line of superhero trading cards.
During this time, McDuffie also penned several comics scripts, eventually making a big splash with Damage Control, a limited series which – in a novel twist – followed the exploits of the construction firm in charge of repairs in the aftermath of the Marvel Universe’s highly destructive battles between good and evil. A TV adaptation of the series is currently being co-produced by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.
McDuffie would soon rise to the rank of editor, before breaking out on his own as a freelance writer, contributing scripts at Marvel and fellow industry heavyweight DC, as well as Archie Comics and Harvey Comics.
A MILESTONE FOR DIVERSITY IN COMICS
Long dissatisfied with the relatively small number of non-white characters appearing in mainstream comics, and equally unhappy with how these minority characters were portrayed, McDuffie – along with partners Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle and Denys Cowan – would next go on to launch Milestone Media, which produced a line of books explicitly designed to address the concerns of McDuffie and his fellow co-founders.
“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. We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn’t do just one book. We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that’s wider than the world we’ve seen before.”
To that end, the Milestone Comics line was populated by a multitude of characters hailing from diverse ethnic backgrounds – including several African-American heroes – in books such as Static, Icon and Blood Syndicate.
Whilst Milestone would ultimately close its doors in the mid-90s, its presence would continue to be felt first via Static Shock – the award-winning animated TV series based on Static – and later when its library of characters was absorbed by DC, in theory (if not always in practice) dramatically boosting the number of non-white characters appearing in one of comics’ largest and most historic fictional universes.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN
After breaking into the TV industry off the back of his work on Static Shock, McDuffie would go on to script teleplays for What’s New Scooby-Doo? and Teen Titans, but left his biggest mark as a staff writer on fan favourite cartoon Justice League and later as a story editor and producer on its sequel series Justice League Unlimited in the mid-2000s (of the 81 episodes produced, he had a hand in 69!).
He also provided screenplays for DC’s critically and commercially successful direct-to-DVD animated features, with All-Star Superman – based on the modern classic by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely – hitting shelves the day after he died in 2011 aged only 49 years, and serving as a bittersweet monument to his talents.
McDuffie’s skills as a writer extended outside the traditional superhero scene, however, and he was also one of the key masterminds behind the revamp of the popular Ben 10 franchise, writing or story editing several episodes for the Alien Force series, as well as for follow-up Ultimate Alien.
WHAT IS HIS LEGACY?
In the annals of comics or TV writing history, Dwayne McDuffie is unlikely to go down as one of the great technical innovators of either medium. Rather, he was simply a very good storyteller, with a strong command of the fundamental building blocks of the craft such as structure, pacing and characterisation.
As such, it would be easy to focus instead on McDuffie’s achievement of being a black man who managed to work on high profile projects in senior roles within two predominantly white-dominated industries. But whilst this is certainly nothing to sneeze at, it also does the man a great disservice.
Ultimately, the major accomplishment of Dwayne McDuffie’s career is that when he saw an issue of inequality within his chosen creative field, he ACTED in response to it.
McDuffie realised that African American and other non-white comics readers had few compelling heroes of their own to identify with, and in response he co-created the first high-profile line of comics directly appealing to these under-represented readers, and he did it with as little compromise as possible.
The lasting impact of McDuffie’s actions can still be seen today, not just whenever DC publishes a book starring Milestone Comics characters, but also in the recent efforts to introduce new minority characters by publishers only now starting to realise that comics has a much broader audience than they previously suspected.
It’s also worth pointing out that McDuffie helped spearhead one of the first superhero adaptations to feature a multicultural cast and black lead – Static Shock – several years before Wesley Snipes would take on the title role in big screen superhero flick Blade, and decades ahead of the upcoming, much-hyped Black Panther film from Marvel.
Indeed, McDuffie’s efforts on behalf of ethnic equality in mainstream comics were so impressive, the Long Beach Comic Expo now annually honours those who have made similar efforts on this front with the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity.
In short, Dwayne McDuffie’s legacy is that he gave heroes to people who had none, and paved the way for the current trend of improved diversity in comics and their related adaptations, which without doubt ranks him up there with any of his peers, in terms of leaving a lasting mark on pop culture.