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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Appreciation: Dwayne McDuffie

Late in junior high school an earthquake rocked this comic loving kid and I'm not talking about the death of Superman--that was just stupid--rather, it was the birth of Milestone Media.

It was a new comic company that tapped into a simple truth: We live in a multicultural world and the people reading the comics aren't just white folks, perhaps they want to see themselves reflected in these comic books. To fill this need, a team of comic creators banded together and created a world where the Black characters didn't holler: "Sweet Christmas!" as a catchphrase. The Asians weren't marginalized kung-fu experts. It was a world like the one we live in, one with many races and backgrounds and ways of seeing things--except, you know, some people in this world can fly or shoot fire from their hands or are displaced three seconds in time.

Dwayne McDuffie, comic book veteran, one of the founders of that company, Milestone Media, passed away on Tuesday.

Not only did McDuffie create a world where I, a young black comic fan, saw a reflection of myself, he also wrote some of the most enjoyable and memorable cartoons of the present day, such as Ben 10: Alien Force and Justice League Unlimited.

McDuffie and his partners created Milestone--which was distributed by DC comics--out of a sense that people of color in comic books did not have to be silly carictatures or offensive Luke Cage-like ghetto stereotypes. During his time at Marvel Comics he hilariously argued this point in an internal memo.

I came to comic books through my mother, who got me hooked based on her love of Archie comics which she read as a girl in Trinidad. See black folks, not just in the country, but around the world, have always been a fan of Marvel and DC, but I rarely saw a hero or villain or supporting character my shade. Back in 1992 I bought my comics from a shop called Geppi's in downtown Silver Spring, MD where the fat lady behind the counter always assumed I was stealing. I don't know how I got wind of the new series of comic books, but one thing was certain: the multicultural milieu peaked my interest, but it was the stories that hooked me.

The stories took place in a fictional Midwest town called Dakota and they were often raw, dealing with real life topics. The cover of one book featured a teenaged girl superhero, Rocket, gazing at a pregnancy test. Later she became a teen mother.

McDuffie said in the Kansas City Star:

"I try to put superheroes in situations where being strong, or being able to fly or fight aren't the answers," McDuffie said. "We've dealt with teen pregnancy, abortion, racism and anti-Semitism. Being able to hit somebody harder doesn't help you deal with that."




I didn't like Icon--a Superman-like alien who, just his luck, arrived near a plantation and took on the form of the person who discovered him, a black slave--because he was conservative. It seemed inconceivable to me that a black man who had endured slavery, jim crow, the social revolution of the 1960s and the despair of the 70s and 80s, would become a Republican. (I likely missed the metaphor of a black conservative as an alien). My favorite comic was the Blood Syndicate. They weren't really heroes; the group was made up of the remnants of two gangs. They gained superpowers after a mysterious bomb exploded during a gang fight.

I loved the Blood Syndicate because of their moral ambiguity. One member, Holocaust (he shot fire from his hands), was a ruthless killer only concerned with power. Other members were street kids who weren't necessarily bad, but drawn to street life because of broken homes or poverty. Wise Son, for instance, was a member of the Nation of Islam. It was interesting to watch them struggle with the sudden responsibility of developing superpowers.

But my relationship to comic books since the early 90s to now has always been the same: passion and excitement for a developing story when it is good and then disgust when things inevitably turn sour (don't get me started on the Spider-Man clone saga where we find out that for the last 10 years, Spider-Man has been a clone---aaaargh--didn't read comics for 10 years after that).  Milestone comics, sometime during the mid-90s stopped being as exciting.  The story lines became ridiculous. The art wasn't as sharp. Several books were canceled in mid-story. I stopped reading and returned to my Marvel habit. DC pulled the plug and eventually integrated the Milestone world with the mainstream DC world. Outside of Batman, I can't be bothered with DC comics. Except for their cartoons. In the early aughts I began watching DC's cartoon offerings on Cartoon Network only to find that many of the best episodes were written by McDuffie.

McDuffie. continued to be a keen observer of characters, but I'll always be grateful for that brief, but incredibly important influential, shining moment in comics history that was Milestone comics.


"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."



Check back for a special Saturday morning cartoon salute to McDuffie at the Flambe.

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