[28 February 2011]
In April 1993 Dwayne McDuffie, editor, writer, and visionary offered an allegory on societal barriers in the pages of Hardware #1, thirty years after Marvel Comics introduced an African-American supporting character. In the sequence, African-American millionaire inventor Curt Metcalfe (Hardware) explains how his childhood pet, a parakeet, often escaped its cage and flew toward the window only to be stymied by “a barrier of glass, unseen and incomprehensible to him.” The lesson learned McDuffie wrote, was that the bird “mistook being out of his cage for being free”. McDuffie dedicated his career to challenging the limitations created by perception through his work in the comic narrative.
As a writer McDuffie wrote for every major comic publisher, but the structural challenge offered by Milestone Media frames his professional legacy. Distributed through DC comics, Milestone was stigmatized as a “black” company that maintained creative autonomy. In reality, free to invent without stereotypes, Milestone presented a diverse universe that integrated the multiplicity in culture, ideology, and gender omitted from popular depictions, but founin U.S. society. Many will see Milestone as McDuffie’s strongest work for diversity. Yet, in my mind, his overriding contribution is broader. Milestone was significance, but existed in a separate, but equal narrative universe where comic readers were free to avoid a confrontation with its representational otherness.
Thus, Milestone did little to challenge whiteness as a marker of power (and legitimacy) in comic. It was because of this that McDuffie himself faced criticism when he smoothly incorporated Vixen, Green Lantern (John Stewart), Firestorm (Jason Rusch) and Black Lightning into the Justice League of America during his 2007-2009 writing tenure. Like the furor over the announcement Batman Incorporated would include a French Muslim of Algerian descent, the resentment rested on the Eurocentric assumption that national pride, moral certainty, and social stability can only be signified by white skin. McDuffie challenged dream of white privilege superheroes represent by bringing diverse bodies into the narrative universe. Acting as signifiers of changing power dynamic, these superheroes called attention to confrontations over racial and gender inequality.
McDuffie’s lasting legacy then should be formulated in light of his years as one of a handful of professional writers and editors challenging assumptions and integrating diverse characters into the mainstream comic narrative. Considering his career in this light, we can see he worked at the very heart of the corporate media replicating the governing narrative of the U.S. experience in popular entertainment. After Milestone folded he served as story editor and writer for the animated series based on Milestone’s teen superhero Static. Channeling Spider-Man’s youth oriented travails through an African-American lens, Static Shock was a commercial and critical success and earned McDuffie two Daytime Emmy nominations and the Humanitas Prize for quality children’s programming in 2003. McDuffie wrote episodes for other animated shows, yet his tenure as writer and producer for Justice League and related Warner Brothers animated series and films allowed him wide influence. He wrote classic episodes that introduced African-American characters underutilized in print to a new digital generation.
The Static Shock animated series; the inclusion of John Stewart (as Green Lantern) in the Justice League and the emphasis and use of the female African-American heroine Vixen challenged white privilege by elevating black characters as heroic actors within DC’s comic universe. His success allowed him to move between mediums, writing for Marvel along with DC in recent year.
Perhaps most importantly, in 2010 he cemented a deal that brought the Milestone characters into mainstream DC continuity. McDuffie was not alone calling for diversity, but his talent and presence subtly altered the cultural space nurtured by the collective vision formed by comics.