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Dwayne McDuffie, You Will Always Rock! Remembering a Man Who Was Ahead Of His Time

When I was 15 years old I came to an important realization that changed my outlook on my comic book passions, I was not represented in comics.

As a Latino, the only Hispanic superheroes I saw on the comic rack were a joke. Some were racist stereotypes of Latinos living in ghettos screaming “Madre de dios!” every chance they got. It was disheartening to see my culture being ridiculed.

I could always count on seeing minority superheroes be killed off, de-powered or just forgotten. But that all changed the summer of 1993 when I entered my local comic shop and saw something on the rack that I had never seen before. Black and Latino superheroes! They stood out from the typical Caucasian male fantasies. The characters where interesting and not two dimensional racist cut outs, Latina women were strong, smart and actually kicked ass and, most importantly, Latinos actually spoke real Spanish!

The stories involved elements I had never seen before in comics; pre-marital sex, homosexuality, gang violence, cultural misunderstandings, the cracks in our legal and political system, racial profiling, I could go on and on.

This blew my mind. Comics suddenly went from being a silly hobby to a deep respect for a new form of literature. Comics no longer had to be cheap teenage fantasies, they could be so much more. Milestone comics changed my geeky life and the man responsible for it has been sadly ripped away from us far too soon.

Dwayne McDuffie was a man of many talents. He was born on February 20, 1962 in Detroit, Michigan and graduated with an undergraduate degree in English as well as a graduate degree in physics. He attended film school at NYU. He wrote for comedians and late night comedy programs, he co-hosted a radio show. Eventually he wound up as an editor for Marvel Comics.

His first major work was Damage Control, a fun comedy series that he created for Marvel. Its still a fan favorite but sadly Marvel has not collected it. Dwayne became known for not only his witty and gifted writing, but also for his outspoken passion for equality in comics. One of his most famous moments came in 1989 when Dwayne submitted a proposal for Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers. In the proposal he ridiculed Marvels attitude to non white characters. Some of my favorite quotes from the proposal are:

This is a sure-fire hit as it contains all of these popular elements!

1) Circa 1974 clothing and hair-styles
2) Bizarre speech patterns, unrecognizable by any member of any culture on the planet
3) A smart white friend to help them out of trouble they get into
4) They’re heroes that could be you! (if you were black, I mean….)
5) They have an attractive, white female friend to calm them down when they get to excited.

Eventually Dwayne left Marvel and became a freelancer. He wrote books for Marvel, DC, Archie and other companies. But then in 1992 he formed Milestone a comic company founded by African-Americans and with the goal of introducing characters from different cultures, races and nationalities.

One of the quotes that people cite Dwayne on is when he spoke about milestone.

“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.”

But Milestone was ahead of its time and fighting an uphill battle from the beginning. Even though the mainstream media covered the ground breaking company, the comics media mainly ignored them.

Retailers refused to carry their books and they faced fans who were involved in the craze of the collector’s bubble of the early 90’s. Milestone closed a few years later when the industry took a turn for the worst after the bubble burst. But its legacy lived on in the fans (like me) and eventually one of its most popular characters got his own animated series that would introduce the world to a new kind of hero: Static Shock! The series was a hit and brought the Milestone universe back to life, eventually leading to the characters joining the DC universe.

As a fan of Dwayne’s work, I was always annoyed when I would mention his name to fellow comic fans and getting puzzled looks in return. Even though he continued to write excellent comics through out the years, the media virtually ignored him and fans were kind of oblivious.

It was in the late 90’s that I was finally able to meet the man who influenced me via email. and I was very honored that Dwayne answered my many e-mails full of fan boy questions.

One thing that I always admired about Dwayne was that he was always honest and open to fans and the comic establishment even if it could have consequences. Including being fired from his run on the Justice League after he spoke frankly about the editorial and creative interferences by DC’s major event company wide story lines.

When a fan asked him about DC after the event Dwayne replied:

“DC is giving the fans what they want, and that’s big event books that have affect the entire line, and promotable events in the main solo titles. When that stuff stops selling better than regular comics, DC will stop doing them. Until and unless, JLA’s going to have to adapt to the times. When this version of JLA launched, it was in a continuity bubble that left it free and clear of the continuity in other titles. As soon as it synced back up with the rest of the universe, we had to pay the tab for that freedom.

Even though he was fired, Dwayne would not talk ill of the company and actually expressed regret over letting down the fans

“I have to say I’m a bit disappointed, because next summer was planned to feature a JLA-driven crossover, where my book’s story line would have been the driving force. I’m distressed by where I left Black Canary, as my intention was to use the current subplot to strengthen her character and relationships with the new membership, and instead I’m leaving her at the bottom of a hole I’d intended to rebuild her from. I was also just about to get a regular artist for the first time since I’ve been on the book, which would have been nice. That said, I’m sure DC’s going to put together a creative team that will generate major excitement around JLA, which is as it should be.”

That was just the way Dwayne was, a good person. He was always there to give advice and answer questions to new writers in the comic scene and had strong friendships with fellow collaborators.

I finally got to meet Dwayne at the premier of All Star Superman, an animated feature adapting the much loved comic series of the same name.

I remember seeing how kind and nice he was to all of the press there. He made a point of remembering their names and shaking their hand, taking a moment to have a personal chat with each of them as he moved down the line. When he shook my hand, it nearly disappeared in his palms. He was very tall and intimidating but the warmth in his voice was evident and, after speaking to him for 5 minute,s you would find yourself thinking you had known him all your life. We spoke briefly and I planned on following up with him to do a more in depth interview but sadly Dwayne passed away a week later after complications from a surgery.

The comics world lost not only one of the loudest voices for equality in comics but also a dear friends to fans and creators alike. He was taken far too soon and even though I never knew him personally, I, like all of his fans, will miss him terribly.

Rest in peace Dwayne and know that you will be forever in our hearts.

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