Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Celebrating the Life and Work of Dwayne McDuffie

McDuffie at the Milestone launch
   Today was a sad day for comics and cartoons.  Pioneering creator Dwayne McDuffie has died of complications from a surgery performed on Monday today and is survived by his wife.  Here at Crakkajamma, we send out our deepest sympathies to his family and friends as the absolute suddenness of his death has most assuredly caught everyone unawares.

   However, I was raised that while still a sad event, memorials should be a happy time.  A time of celebration of the dearly departed's life and accomplishments.  So that's what we're going to do here today.  We're going to celebrate the life of a brilliant man who could make us laugh, make us think, and make quality entertainment while doing so.

   Few people outside of his dedicated fanbase know that McDuffie was a brilliant, highly educated, multi-discipline graduate student.  Graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in English, McDuffie went on to do graduate work in Physics and finally ended up attending NYU's film school.  It was there that he developed his trademark wit and humor, working under a pseudonym as a writer for various stand-up comedians and late-night tv comedies.  Moving on from those gigs, McDuffie found himself attempting a few more serious-minded jobs, eventually ending up as a copy editor for a financial magazine, before finally landing his first comics position at Marvel Comics.

  At Marvel, McDuffie's first major work was the riotously funny series Damage Control.  A series unlike any other at the time, it focused on the people who get paid to clean up the messes caused by the big superhero brawls.  Dan Slott, current writer of Amazing Spider-man, reminisced this afternoon on Twitter about his experience with Dwayne on the comic:

"First time my name appeared on a comic was because of Dwayne McDuffie.  I was the intern on a Damage Control comic and just to be a nice guy, and because he knew I'd get a kick out of it, he included my name in a fake credit sequence.  I'd no idea if I'd ever get to work on a comic as a writer, an editor, or anything--and just seeing that was so amazing to a geek like me. And he knew it. I'll never forgot[sic] that. :)"
  Indeed, as news of his passing broke, multiple stories of Dwayne's kindness and generosity poured forth.  One user on the CBR forums mentioned to him how, several years prior, he had won a Static Shock trade in a contest.  However, since the winner lived in Germany, he had never received the prize.  Much to the CBR user's surprise, McDuffie, at his own personal expense, shipped him an autographed copy of the newest printing of that trade along with the first issue of a Static Shock miniseries that was coming out at the time.  Another example from Reddit shows how McDuffie was always willing to go the extra mile for his fans.

  However, while McDuffie's good nature and general kindness was known to those who personally knew the man, it would be very hard to find someone who didn't know and appreciate his work on improving racial diversity in comics and cartoons while not being afraid to shy away from tough issues.  While working as an editor at Marvel Comics, he submitted this spoof proposal to Marvel Editorial to call attention to the company's questionable treatment of its black heroes:
Click to embiggen
  However, unlike many people who criticize comics from behind their Internet podium and proceed to do nothing about it, McDuffie boldly stepped forward and put his money where his mouth was.  In 1993, McDuffie (along with co-founders Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle) founded Milestone Media and launched the comic serie HardwareIconBlood Syndicate and Static. Published by DC Comics, but existing in a separate universe than the DC heroes, Milestone began its life fairly successfully.  The company had its first crossover title, Shadow War, in 1994 and the company was able to spawn several new series from it as a result of its success.  Unfortunately, the success was short-lived.  The gradual downturn of the comics market and the unfortunate pidgeon-holing of the comics line by retailers led to low sales and in '95 and '96, Milestone cancelled many of its low-selling titles.  Finally, in 1997, Milestone closed down its comics publishing division.  

  However, all was not lost for McDuffie.  Soon after the comics line shuttered, his Static character was adapted into a cartoon show entitled Static Shock.  Starring the titular black superhero and his white techie friend Gear (later revealed to be gay), Static Shock ran for 52 episodes. For its first few seasons it was one of the best rated kids' shows on its network, at times even rivaling Pokemon's ratings at the height of the Pocket Monsters craze.  It was also renowned for not being afraid to tackle the tough subjects in life.  The episode "Jimmy" boldly dealt with the subject of gun violence and its realistic impact on kids and teens.  Previously a verboten subject to approach realistically on a children's show, McDuffie won the 2003 Humanitas Award for his work on the episode and its condemnation of the use of guns and violence as a means to solve problems.  Another episode, "Permafrost," was also lauded for its far more realistic take on the problem of homelessness.  It wasn't all serious as the series is fondly remembered by many kids of that era (myself included) as just being an awesome show.  To me, it didn't matter that Static was black, all I knew was that he was kickass and his show was one of my favorites.  McDuffie knew that when a character is a minority, you don't need to treat them as a representative of every aspect of their race.  They can just be normal people, no need to treat them differently and this attitude undoubtedly shown through on Static Shock.

Static Shock's Opening Theme

  Static Shock proved to be an entry point for McDuffie into the world of animation.  While working on Static, he was contracted to write episodes for other animated series such as What's New, Scooby-doo? and Teen Titans.  However, his animated magnum opus was undoubtedly the hit series Justice League and its follow-up Justice League Unlimited.  McDuffie was an essential cog in this machine, having written produced, or story-edited 69 of the series' 91 episodes.  His work on the series influenced many other writers such as Christopher Yost, the man behind the current Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes series.  He was behind such fan-favorite episodes like "Starcrossed" and "Epilogue" and was responsible for much of the public's current preconception of who Green Lantern should be.  As writer Matt Fraction noted on his Twitter:
"... an entire generation of kids that know Green Lantern as a strong, heroic, African-American man."
  Indeed, many people accused WB of white-washing Green Lantern when Ryan Reynolds was announced for the lead role as they are completely unaware that other white lanterns existed or even mattered.  It is astonishing the impact that the series had.  But once again, above all else, the cartoon was a ton of fun to watch.  I personally remember having a field trip to Disneyland and while we waited in lines, we all watched episodes of Justice League Unlimited to kill time.  It's one of my fondest memories from childhood.

Justice League's Green Lantern was truly a badass. 

   Following his success on the two Justice League series, McDuffie was given a multitude of offers to work with.  First, he worked with Man of Action on the revamp of Cartoon Network's hit show Ben 10: Alien Force.  While not as critically acclaimed as his earlier projects, the show sustained high ratings for a good 46 episodes (of which McDuffie had a hand in all of them) until it was revamped again as Ben 10: Ultimate Alien.  After having a hand in the first 13 episodes, McDuffie withdrew from the job, and from serialized cartoons.  Instead, McDuffie found himself working with DC on their direct-to-DVD adaptations of their hits comic series Crisis on Two Earths and All-Star Superman.

All-Star Superman trailer

   Aside from Ben 10, McDuffie made a triumphant return to comics in 2007, writing several issues of DC's Firestorm series.  He also worked at Marvel, writing the cult favorite Beyond!(kinda-sorta sequel to Secret Wars) and penning a notorious run of Fantastic Four with penciller Paul Pelletier.  It was in that run that Black Panther and Storm briefly replaced Sue and Reed on the team and was also the run that gave us the infamous "Panther armbars the Silver Surfer" scene.  Despite the editorial mandates that plagued his run (BP and Storm being their and Reginald Hudlin's idea), it was a fairly well received for the duration of the run.  However, you can not mention editorial and McDuffie in the same sentence without mentioning the infamous JLA incident.  The fine folks over at Comicritics illustrated the whole debacle rather humorously:

  Essentially, over time, McDuffie would respond to fan criticisms of his JLA work by exposing the editorial hoops he was having to jump through.  Then, a certain comics journalist (I refuse to give him publicity for this action) compiled all of McDuffie's criticisms into a giant post, making it appear as though McDuffie had slammed DC editorial at once.  Three days after the giant post was published, DC removed McDuffie from his JLA writing job and as a result Dwayne withdrew from writing comcis to again focus on animated projects.  McDuffie remained a good sport throughout the whole ordeal, playing it off as "that's how the job goes sometimes" and still pleasing the most important people for his work: the fans.

  Perhaps it is a fitting send-off that McDuffie's final complete work, All-Star Superman, be released on the day he is taken from us.  Just a final example of a man always giving back to fans and creating some of the best animated shows around while championing character diversity in all the right ways.  I don't know about you guys, but I'm going to be sipping a cold one while watching some kickass Justice League episodes tonight.   And I'll have fun doing it.  Even though I didn't know the man, I'd like to think that's how he would want to be remembered by his fans.

We'll miss you

1 comment:

  1. Very poignant.
    The bit about Green Lantern rings true. Dwayne McDuffie's influence on comics and animation were penetrating. He became part of an entire generation this way. He will be sorely missed.