In Memory of Dwayne McDuffie: A Look Back at the Man Comics Needed
Dwayne McDuffie passed away earlier this week from complications from emergency heart surgery. His passing was unfortunately timed, as Tuesday was the official release date of All-Star Superman, the latest film he wrote for Warner Bros and an adaptation of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's much-loved maxi-series. McDuffie had a long and varied career in entertainment, particularly in comics and animation. The sheer diversity of his body of work allowed him to connect with millions of people over the course of his more than twenty years in the entertainment industry. I hope that this brief remembrance of his work serves as a fitting monument to his talent and legacy.
McDuffie wore a lot of hats during his career; he was an assistant editor, a freelance writer, an editor-in-chief, a story editor, and more. He's worked in comics and cartoons, and scripted stories featuring almost all of the major comics characters you'd care to name -- including Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. You don't get to wield that kind of power without being both good at your job and skilled at making believers out of skeptics, but McDuffie more than fit the bill.From the very beginning of his career, McDuffie displayed a relentlessly high level of creativity and humor. With Damage Control, a limited series that he created with Ernie Colón at Marvel Comics, he shifted how a lot of people view superheroes. After the big battles between superheroes and supervillains and the gigantic crossover events, cities (usually New York) are left in ruins. Someone has to clean up those messes, and someone is Damage Control. Rather than being a superteam or a spoof of cape comics, Damage Control played out as a sitcom that took place in the Marvel Universe.
The cast was composed of mostly normal people, but the effect of the series was extraordinary. It grounded the Marvel Universe in reality once again, re-emphasizing the role of the common man in a universe full of gods and superheroes. Damage Control was a fun twist and a gentle reminder of just how interesting and off-kilter Marvel Comics could get away with being. Damage Control delivered laughs without breaking the fourth wall or disrespecting the characters.
McDuffie never disrespected comics characters, but he held his readers in even higher esteem. When he co-founded Milestone Media with Derek T. Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Christopher Priest, he intended to create a company that was inclusive, rather than exclusive. Milestone was never simply a "black" comics company. Milestone employed people of various ethnicities, and published stories that reflected reality. upper, middle, and lower class black families, two types of Latinos starring in Blood Syndicate, a variety of sexual orientations, and more were represented in Milestone's comics.
The importance of representation in comics was clearly close to McDuffie's heart. He wasn't afraid to take superhero comics, which are traditionally very ill-suited to nuance, and push them to be something greater. He used quotes from intelligent writers, hard science, and metaphors to make his stories stand for something more than simple punching and moralizing.
When it came to cartoons, McDuffie exercised the originality that made his comics work so interesting. He spent some time writing episodes for Static Shock, the cartoon based on the comic he co-created with John Paul Leon and Robert Washington, before becoming a staff writer for Justice League and a story editor/producer on Justice League Unlimited animated series, one of his highest profile projects.
As a part of the Justice League team, McDuffie created an award-winning, critically-acclaimed, and simply great television show that was fit for all ages, rather than just kids. The show plumbed the depths of DC Comics minutiae without coming across like continuity porn. Instead, it felt like an introduction to a living, breathing world that was full of potential, rather than off-putting history. This is a feat that the comics world hasn't managed in years, if not decades, but McDuffie, and the rest of the team, made it look effortless.
McDuffie had a way of getting at the heart of these characters that had been around forever. The final episode of Justice League Unlimited, "Destroyer," is one of the best of the series and one of McDuffie's finest works overall. In it, he took Batman, Superman, and all the rest to the heights of action entertainment, telling a deeply dramatic and emotional story that was still grounded in a reality that we could understand and relate to. He sold us these ancient, dusty characters, and he did it so well that it left us begging for more.
A couple of years later, he did it again. He managed to score something he'd previously described as his "greatest unfulfilled ambition in the comics field": writing the Fantastic Four comic. With artist Paul Pelletier, McDuffie bridged the gap between J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Millar's runs on Fantastic Four. Rather than being a simple fill-in, McDuffie and Pelletier created a run that was not only more in the spirit of the Fantastic Four than either of the runs that bookended it, but one of the best runs on Marvel's First Family of all time.
McDuffie inherited the addition of Storm and Black Panther on the team, and while some readers found that hard to swallow, their inclusion only ended up showcasing the generosity and openness of the Fantastic Four. They're willing to help out their friends when in need, and are incredibly capable. The final issue of McDuffie and Pelletier's run, Fantastic Four #553, nailed the idea of the Fantastic Four in a way that a lot of people haven't. When asked how many people it takes to change the world, at a minimum, Reed Richards smiles and simply says "Four." This shows exactly how much McDuffie loved the team, and how well he understands what makes them function. They are there to change the world, to make the world a better place, and they're perfectly positioned to do so.
Making the world a better place was clearly something McDuffie felt strongly about. Whether through laughter and education, as with Damage Control and his comics work, or through leading by example, as with his work on Milestone, Dwayne McDuffie stood for something, and helped to show us, as an industry, where we need to go.
I know that personally, McDuffie's work, and later his career in and of itself, provided me with a portion of the confidence and education I needed to be comfortable in my own skin and in my career. A couple times over the past year, he had some very, very kind words for my own writing, compliments that stunned me and made me feel indescribably nice inside.
The man was a visionary, and I'm extraordinarily thankful for the work he gave us before he died.