On Monday, comics writer and animated television producer Dwayne McDuffie died unexpectedly, of complications after emergency heart surgery. He is most well known in mainstream American pop culture as one of the co-creators of Static Shock, co-founder of Milestone Media, and producer/writer of the Justice League and Ben 10 cartoons. But to describe the man simply by what work he leaves behind is only part of what made him great.
There have probably been hundreds of blog eulogies, of all sizes, since Monday. I don't have the ultimate one, or even a definitive, all-encompassing one to offer to the big RSS feed in the sky. I just have a few words that keep coming up in my head about what his work and philosophy meant to me, and how it profoundly shaped my creative goals. I can't claim to be the biggest Dwayne McDuffie fan. I haven't read many of his notable works, and my mind isn't full of McDuffie trivia. But for a while, I wanted to be a Dwayne McDuffie.
McDuffie, to me, was an activist in pop culture. He understood the nuances of racial politics, of inclusiveness versus tokenism, and on top of all that, he was a damn good writer. With other comics creators of color, he helped found Milestone Media, a publisher that had the most diverse comic books of the 1990s, as well as some of the best written. He had the talent, willpower and know-how to do what a lot of struggling, claustrophobic artists of color wished they could: Start their own company, do things their way, and be a success.
For those that don't dabble in the artistic communities of ethnic groups, there are piles and piles of starving artists trying to make it on their own, and have been for a very long time. They have their own labels, produce their own music, make their own films, fund their own projects. And a lot of them, for whatever reason, either never grow beyond the insular community that bred them, or fall by the wayside. Very rarely do they ever "break out" into mainstream success. It can be disheartening, as an artist of color, to believe that making work about your ethnic community can be a damning hindrance to your wider aspirations.
McDuffie wrote great black characters. He wrote great Asian, Latino and white characters. He wrote great characters of all stripes, and none of them were vanilla blank slates. They had personalities informed by their experiences as a person of color that came out at appropriate times. He understood that characters are representations, and he understood that it's not just comics - it's culture. He understood the influence and power that pop culture had over the mindset and acceptance that people have.
Case in point: A lot of people think Green Lantern is black. And when the movie comes out, a lot of people are going to be confused because they thought Green Lantern was a black guy now. The new, retro Green Lantern is going to undo the cultural territory that had been newly claimed in the mindspace of American pop culture, and that's not an insignificant thing. It's a regression, and the closest thing we have to black superhero, for kids of all colors to identify with, is just this vampire stabber named Blade.
McDuffie was also important to me because he elevated the conversation about race, sexuality and general diversity in comics. Before Milestone Media, talking about race in comics was kind of hamfisted, kind of devoid of subtlety and depth. The question and problem of racism wasn't all that complicated or all that demanding of readers to examine themselves. Post-Milestone, it seemed like people were aware that there were other -- and better -- ways to do race in comics. Sometimes it would be the focus, sometimes it wouldn't, and it would have an effect on the character as much as their class, location, and super power. It was the way things ought to be.
I had an assignment in a journalism class in college to write our own obituary. It was an introductory, fun assignment, meant to break ice and teach the basics of journalistic voice, but mostly it was a vanity exercise. We were allowed to talk about our future accomplishments, how we would be remembered, and what ridiculous things we wanted to be up to. The key points in my assignment was that I would perish in an absurd scuba diving incident, and that I would become a decent-selling novelist that helped elevate the conversation and understanding of race in America. That was the indulgent dream. And it came from Dwayne McDuffie.
He was an artist of color, and an activist just by being so talented at his art. When he wrote the Justice League, he was writing 4 black characters on it at once, not because that's all he knows how to do, but because that shouldn't be a big deal in the first place when that group is all white most of the time. Inversely, when he was writing Fantastic Four, he didn't suddenly shift it to focus on race and ethnicity because he's not going to force a square peg into a round hole if the art of the story didn't demand it.
We need more mainstream creators of color. Not just artists, not just people who sing songs other people wrote for them that just happen to be a color other than white and never reflect on it. Creators of color. That was what Dwayne McDuffie was. I can't emphasize how refreshing and comforting it was for someone like me, who cares about culture and entertainment as a powerful learning medium, to see Dwayne McDuffie fight the good fight. He got it and that was rare. We couldn't afford to lose him.