With Black History Month well underway, what better excuse is there to spotlight the late, great Dwayne McDuffie? Here, I’m going to take a look back at how McDuffie blazed a new trail for Black creators and stories in comics and film and TV, and reflect on the many ways in which his legacy endures to this day.
Dwayne McDuffie’s origin story
Dwayne 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 bombastic battles between good and evil. From here, McDuffie went on to rise to the rank of editor before breaking out on his own as a freelance writer. As a freelancer, he sold scripts to Marvel and fellow industry heavyweight DC, as well as Archie Comics and Harvey Comics.
Bringing diversity to superhero comics
McDuffie wasn’t happy just to coast along within the established comic book system, however.
Long dissatisfied with the small number of non-white characters appearing in superhero comics, and equally unhappy with how these minority characters were portrayed, he – along with partners Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle and Denys Cowan – launched Milestone Media. Milestone published line of books explicitly designed to address the concerns of McDuffie and his fellow co-founders, and was populated by a multitude of characters hailing from diverse ethnic backgrounds – including several African-American heroes – in books like Static, Icon and Blood Syndicate.
Although Milestone ultimately closed its doors in the mid-90s, its presence would continue to be felt first via award-winning animated TV series Static Shock. What’s more, DC later absorbed Milestone’s library of characters, a move which (in theory, if not always in practice) dramatically boosted the number of non-white characters present in one of comics’ largest and most historic fictional universes.
Carving out a career in a television
Static Shock also gave McDuffie his big break in the TV industry, and he went on to script teleplays for What’s New Scooby-Doo?, Teen Titans and Justice League. McDuffie’s contribution to the Justice League property is especially notable; he served as a story editor and producer on its sequel series, Justice League Unlimited, in the mid-2000s, and 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. The most recent of these, All-Star Superman – based on the modern classic by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely – hit shelves the day after he died in 2011, and stands as a bittersweet monument to his considerable talents.
McDuffie’s didn’t limit himself to superhero fare, either. He was one a key creative force behind the revamp of the popular Ben 10 franchise – writing or story editing several episodes for the Alien Force series, and its follow-up, Ultimate Alien.
What is Dwayne McDuffie’s legacy?
It would be easy to focus solely on Dwayne McDuffie’s achievement of being a black man who worked on high profile projects in senior roles within two predominantly white-dominated industries – and this is tremendously impressive. But to do so would be to overlook McDuffie’s even greater accomplishment: when he saw an issue of inequality, he actually tried to fix it.
McDuffie realised that BIPOC comic book readers had few compelling heroes of their own to identify with, and in response he co-created the first high-profile line of comics targeted squarely at them. In doing so, he forced the major publishers to consider catering beyond a white-only audience.
With Static Shock, McDuffie also helped spearhead one of the first superhero screen adaptations to feature a multicultural cast and black lead, several years Wesley Snipes’ vehicle Blade and decades ahead of the upcoming Black Panther flick. 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 with the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity.
So when all is said and done, Dwayne McDuffie’s lasting legacy boils down to this: he gave heroes to people who had none – and that’s pretty hard to beat.