These Long Years, and the Miles: Remembering Dwayne McDuffie

This coming Sunday, February 27, it would have been 18 years. This coming Sunday Milestone Comics will be reaching a full human maturity in the popular imagination. Not the founding of the company, mind you, that had already taken place a year prior in 1992. Instead 2.27.93 saw the first Milestone books being published.

Milestone was absolutely the right name for the company. A company that not only offered diverse portraiture of African-American points-of view on ’90s culture, but a company that was also tied into the corporate machinery of publishing giant DC.

2.27.93 felt like Chicago blues guitar. It felt like Muddy Waters, like Howlin’ Wolf. Like Chuck Berry birthing rock ‘n’ roll, like all of Chess Records squeezed into a single day. In the space of just one generation since the Civil Rights movement, the idea of African-American culture had seized the high-ground in popculture. In the space of just one generation, popular images of African-American culture would be steered away from images of Dr. King leading civil protest marches, away from Malcolm X behind a podium wielding hope like a weapon. Instead, Milestone offered us all an opportunity to share in the move from history to mythography. The company offered us what the very first superheroes stories did. Simple, elegant, enduring memes that offered a larger, simpler way to speak about our lives and world.

What would it have looked like, those first handful of months? The days and hours between the birth of the idea of Milestone and its collaboration with DC? What would have been the thinking, the puzzling out, the dilemmas and successes? And what could have been known about the primary mover in Milestone? What would have been the POV of Dwayne McDuffie, celebrated comics creator, screenwriter and co-founder of Milestone Media? We cannot know the thinking of another, but of Dwayne McDuffie we can say, Milestone was one roadside marker in what would be a truly illustrious career.

Dwayne McDuffie passed late in the afternoon of Tuesday, 2.22.11. Remembering him, is remembering a giant. The feeling of loss is a physical one. In that the invisible tapestry of our everyday imaginations, imaginations bepopulate with a Ben 10 grown older in Ben 10: Alien Force, Cartoon Network visions of the Justice League of America (chief among them Justice League Unlimited) and Static Shock, will be the poorer for Dwayne’s hand no longer being on the loom.

A resident of Detroit, Michigan since his birth, Dwayne moved to New York where he was accepted to the NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts after completing a graduate degree in physics at Michigan University. His big break came with scripting Damage Control for Marvel. In a sublimely prescient fluke, this book would focus on the social consequence of superheroes and urban life, telling the ongoing tale of the team that ensures urban rejuvenation after the clash of superhero and supervillain.

But it’s honestly hard to imagine genius like Dwayne’s being hemmed in. His devil-may-cry tilt at Marvel’s representation of African-American characters with his proposal for a new book entitled Teenage Negro Ninja Thrasher clearly underlined not only a singular vision but also a healthy disrespect for cultural oversimplification as status quo. By the early ’90s Dwayne was freelancing. During this time he went on to scribe Monster in My Pocket for Harvey Comics that would go on to make a huge dent as a Saturday morning cartoon and attendant line of toys.

Arguably it was here that Dwayne would have learned a new element to his craft–what Scott McCloud refers to as amplification through simplification, in this current context, for the tween market. With the Milestone already under his belt, Dwayne established himself as a force to be reckoned with. But the television market would represent a new arena and a new level of artistry. Could Dwayne’s singular vision of cultural complexity become a hallmark of a new kind of Justice League story?

His work on Static Shock, Teen Titans, on What’s New, Scooby-Doo on Justice League and Justice League Unlimited and eventually on Ben 10: Alien Force and Ben 10: Ultimate Alien would come to be definitive of a new wave of thinking. The idea that the themes and motifs and politics of representations that offer a polyvalence of African-American POVs, are themselves highly mobile and transplantable. Making sure that there’s a range of characterization, that black, female and Asian characters are not simply stock characters representing vast groups, opened the door a new kind of thinking in the story production of mainstream cartoon shows. The idea that identity politics and individuation cannot be divorced from each other.

It is a simple statement. But profound, and one that endures in our everyday world. Simply the expression of this idea has won Dwayne numerous prestigious awards and nominations. Emmy nominations for Static Shock in 2003 and 2004, followed on the heels of a Humanitas Prize in 2003, and a Golden Apple Award in 1996 “for the use of popular art to advance human worth and dignity”. 2005 would see Dwayne win a Writers Guild of America award in animation, while 2009 would see him win ComicCon’s Inkpot.

Along with the numerous cartoon show episodes scripted over the course of the noughties, Dwayne would write DC movies Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths in 2010 and All-Star Superman, based on the similarly-titled OGN by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, in 2011.

By the ’90s already, Dwayne’s impact was simply huge. The fact that he had the foresight and the courage expand his vision even farther and begin to incorporate it into the cultural mainstream, speaks to a deep and abiding commitment exploring the full complexity of the human experience. Perhaps it was Dwayne himself who offers the best perspective on the matter. On his own website he muses on the birth of Milestone in the following way:

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 of 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.

It is a magnificent project. And all the more so for how this project has evolved and adapted to becoming the core for a new generation of kids’ cartoon show. But reading Dwayne’s website now, reading the entry for February 16, “I’ll be doing a signing at Golden Apple Feb. 23”, is just devastating. I’m not diminished by the loss of Dwayne McDuffie, and neither are you…We’re damaged by that loss.

The website feels like an empty room. Like you’ve come across the artist’s writing desk when just stepped out for a moment. For coffee, or maybe a donut. That he might be back at any moment. That the last few days have been a mistake. That we get a do-over. But of course that’s not the case at all.

Can you think of anything more haunting that Dwayne’s last tweet that appears in the upper right hand corner of his site’s homepage. “Taking a break from a script I owe to attend the LA premiere of All-Star Superman. Wish me luck!”

Good luck Dwayne, you stayed far too short a time.

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