I’m not even sure how to start this post. How do you try to summarize a man’s life who helped changed the comic industry in an effort to spread diversity? A man who put in effort to give marginalized people someone they could see as a reflection of themselves in a medium that desperately needed those characters.
This is Dwayne McDuffie.
What was originally going to be a mix of various topics for Black History Month ended up turning into the Dwayne McDuffie month. Boiling down the life of this man into one episode is impossible. We did several and still left things out. The impact he left in the world is huge. Hopefully in these episodes, you’ll come to know why he is one of the greatest creators not only the comic industry has seen, but one of the greatest minds to spread diversity and equality on the planet in the best way he could. Entertainment.
There will be an episode each week in the month of February. So enjoy the first one below!
And now for the show notes!
Dwayne McDuffie was born in Detroit on February 20, 1962. His parents, Leroy McDuffie and Edna McDuffie Gardner both worked incredibly hard to afford the tuition of The Roeper School, a private school for gifted children with campuses located in Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham Michigan. Leroy worked at the Federal Reserve and Edna was a nurse who would frequently work extra shifts.
Growing up, he often considered himself a “proto-nerd”. He played sports, but also loved the more “nerdy” sort of stuff like comics and the science fair. When it came to sports, which he loved, he would become all-state goalie for soccer in high school. He also played ice hockey growing up and was a Red Wings fan. I’m sure his daunting 6’7” stature was quite intimidating. He also dabbled in martial arts, boxing, baseball, and basketball too.
He was first introduced to comics through an outing with his father and some friends. While his father bought the other kids candy, Dwayne didn’t want that. Instead he would receive two comics – an issue of Adventure Comics that had a ton of superheroes on the cover (He was very much interested in Bouncing Boy from the Legion of Superheroes) and an issue of Sugar and Spike (toddlers who could communicate through “Baby talk”). These two comics made him a fan for life. Not only did these help teach him to read, but they helped develop an imagination and dream of things that could be.
However, there was a moment in 1973 that changed his life. His friend Alan Thompkins, who knew everything about comics, told him about an issue where Hulk would fight Thor (Defenders #10). This was often a discussion between the two of them as to who would win (Dwayne thought Hulk, Alan thought Thor), so they devised a plan to go out to their good comic book shop (Lindsey Drug) which was a good 3 miles away. Dwayne told his mom he was going over to Alan’s, and just like that, off they went on their bikes. Sadly, the book was nowhere to be found. But not wanting to leave empty handed, he saw an issue that caught his eye and he bought it. It was Jungle Action #6, which featured the Black Panther. While Black Panther wasn’t the first black character he had seen in comics, it was the one that left the biggest impression. In Dwayne’s own words:
“In those days, when black people in comics weren’t busy being angry, they appeared either as faithful sidekicks, or worse, as helpless victims who begged white super-heroes to rescue them (“How come you never did nothing for the Black skins, Mr. Green Lantern?” And this was actually progress). The Black Panther was nobody’s sidekick and if there was any rescuing to do, he’d take care of it himself, thank you. Moreover, the Black Panther was king of a mythical African country where black people were visible in every position in society, soldier, doctor, philosopher, street sweeper, ambassador -suddenly everything was possible. In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.
I’ve spoken ad nauseam about the importance of multiculturalism in fiction, as in life. I’ve preached about the sense of validation a kid feels when they see their image reflected heroically in the mass media. This particular summer afternoon, reading about the dastardly (but nuanced) Eric Killmonger’s villainous plot to usurp the Black Panther’s rightful throne, is precisely when it happened to me. I realized that these stories could be about me, that I could be the hero. Years later writing in my own comic I’d describe that wonderful feeling as “the sudden possibility of flight.” Milestone Comics was, among many other things, an attempt to pass that feeling along. It’s all about gaining the high ground. From up there, you gain the perspective to allow you to see the many possibilities open to you. This issue of JUNGLE ACTION single-handedly revealed to me that there were new heights to reach, new vistas to view. It also, not incidentally, entertained the Hell out of me.”
Funny enough, his mother knew she lied to him and where he went. He was punished, and for 40 years she never told him how she figured it out. Eugene Son would ask his mother after Dwayne’s death as to how she figured it out, and it was quite simple – she saw him counting his money prior to him telling her he was going to Alan’s house, so when that is what he claimed he was going to do, she knew he was lying. She said “A mother always knows”.
When it came to comics, he found himself drawn to writers more so than artists. Growing up, some of his favorites were Gerry Conway on Spider-Man, Steve Gerber on Howard the Duck and Defenders, and Steve Englehart on Avengers.
Despite that being his first introduction into comics, he never saw it as a means of profession until many years later. In college (University of Michigan Ann Arbor), he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Physics. While there, he would toy around with making films for fun. He thought these turned out pretty well as they were all comedies and were character and performance-based films. He would later follow up with this when we traveled to New York City and attended New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, but according to him, had much less fun there. He felt it showed in his work which he called “dreadful”. The directors he loved such as Woody Allen, Preston Sturges, and Paddy Chayefsky wouldn’t shine through in his work at school, but he tried to channel it the best he could in his later years through his work on Justice League Unlimited and Ben 10: Alien Force. It’s sad we never got to see the projects he always dreamed of working on – romantic comedies.
Speaking of Woody Allen, that is what Dwayne attributes to his ability to write. He would often transcribe Allen’s stand-up routines and then use that to understand the hows and whys Allen did what he did. Preston Sturges on the other hand is what helped him learn screenplay writing. It was difficult back then for people to get access to screenplays, but Sturges had a book with 5 screenplays in it. So he was able to pick that up and found himself very fortunate in being able to learn from Sturges of all people.
Dwayne Getting into Comics:
After film school, he found himself writing under a pseudonym for stand-up comedians and David Letterman’s late show. However, it was while he was working as a copy editor for Investment Dealer’s Digest that led to his time in comics. While working there in 1987, he complained about his job to his friend Greg Wright who happened to work at Marvel Comics. His friend told him they were interviewing for assistant editors, so Dwayne took a shot and was working at Marvel the following week under Bob Budiansky (who Dwayne jokes hired him because he needed someone ASAP since he was going on vacation that same week and left him notes which Dwayne lost after a day or two).
Outside of Budiansky, many other people helped McDuffie begin his career in comics. McDuffie credited Sid Jacobson (once Editor-in-Chief of Harvey Comics) educated him on writing comics in the visual sense, which benefited him as well when he moved to television work. Someone who encouraged much of what he did at Marvel was Mark Gruenwald (writer/editor) and helped give McDuffie confidence in his work. Archie Goodwin and Ernie Colon were also ones important in his mentoring.
I don’t know if it was necessarily a “goal” of his, but he was well aware of how poor black characters were represented in comics. I think he had that in mind when he started working in comics to change that. A quote on that idea from McDuffie from the New York Times in 1993:
“You only had two types of characters available for children. You had the stupid angry brute and the he’s-smart-but-he’s-black characters. And they were all colored either this Hershey-bar shade of brown, a sickly looking gray or purple. I’ve never seen anyone that’s gray or purple before in my life. There was no diversity and almost no accuracy among the characters of color at all.”
McDuffie gave a shot at writing comics and hit it out of the park. He credits Greg Wright for giving him the opportunity to pitch stories for the Avengers and within a few weeks he created the beloved Damage Control with Ernie Colon. This brought out his humor and even made it difficult for him to get work on non-comedy superhero books. He also wrote a few runs on Deathlok, and his first real ongoing run (also his personal favorite), which also led to his meeting and friendship with Milestone co-founder Denys Cowan. His run would change up Deathlok up a little as they tried to reinvent the character, as a new character, for a newer audience. Obviously they had to make changes (since the original premise was now outdated – it took place in 1985…but they were writing it in 1987. So they needed to make some changes since clearly the future didn’t come to pass in the real world such as cannibals roaming New York and guns didn’t fire lasers.
There was also a moment that Tom Brevoort mentions as a good example of how persuasive Dwayne could be regarding Deathlok. McDuffie referenced W.E.B. Du Bois’ (Black theorist and historian) “The Souls of Black Folk” and used it to title it an arc he was writing titled “The Souls of Cyber-Folk”. For some reason which isn’t fully explained (possibly just not knowing the reference?), Bob Budiansky changed the story arc name to CYBERWAR. It went so far as to being re-lettered on the cover. It wasn’t until McDuffie came back into the office discovering the change, he went to Budiansky and fought for the original title and pushed to have it changed back. It worked.
McDuffie’s comments on his approach to Deathlok:
“Deathlok was supposed to be a modern-day take on Marvel’s The Thing (a man alienated by his surface appearance), as well as my own commentary on the “grim and gritty” trend in comic book heroes. Contrary to the fashion at the time, I wanted to do a superhero who was more moral than I, not less.”
Not only with his writing, but behind the scenes, McDuffie was impressing people. Tom Brevoort started at Marvel during that time and worked with him quite a bit. He had this to say about McDuffie, and more specifically, his approach that would help McDuffie become one of the biggest and important names in comics:
“Dwayne was probably the smartest person working on staff when I started as an office intern in 1989. A very gregarious and fun-loving person.
Dwayne was far more plugged into questions on race and representation than anybody else at Marvel in those days, and that caused him to butt up against people when he saw something being done that he thought was ill-informed or just plain wrong. He was never shy about expressing his opinion, and he was deadly with a quip and a sharp line.
Because he wasn’t happy with the way that characters who looked like him were depicted in comics, Dwayne worked on trying to create better representation for people of all kinds in his work. That most notably took the form of his launch of Milestone Media, distributed by DC, where he and his collaborators created a wide assortment of characters, the best known of whom today is probably Static.
I saved the mock pitch he wrote up for ‘Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers’ after not one, but two Black skateboard-riding characters were suddenly parading around the Marvel Universe at the same time. It was featured years later in a museum exhibit dedicated to the depiction of characters of color in comics.”
For those unaware of the Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers, this was a parody that Dwayne McDuffie wrote up for Marvel in a way to call them out for bad usage of black characters. Shortly after the creation of Rocket Racer in 1989’s Web of Spider-Man book and Night Thrasher in The Mighty Thor; Dwayne realized that this accounted for roughly 25% of black characters in Marvel and they were astonishingly similar.
Race was also something problematic behind the scenes. McDuffie was one of the few black people working at Marvel during his tenure there. Racism was also pretty apparent from the sounds of it. There’s one story that is told about an editor who kept a Sambo figurine on his desk (racist caricature). McDuffie, Cowan, and other freelancers who spotted it on his desk would steal the figure only to find that the editor would replace it.
This was furthered by other institutional racism prevalent with who spoke with who. Some artists at Marvel didn’t want to be spotted talking to their black co-workers, because it would lead to people being suspicious of them “planning something”. Gross all around and probably helped fuel McDuffie, Cowan, etc to proceed with Milestone.
Throughout his time at Marvel, he would not only write many books such as She-Hulk, Iron Man, Double Dragon, and Power Pack; but he was also working on movie tie-in content, trading cards, and other non-monthly comic book products.
In 1990, Dwayne McDuffie would leave Marvel after feeling that he hit the top. Promotions felt doubtful and he wanted to leave a mark which he felt would work as a freelancer instead of an editor. He would bounce around as a freelancer between different publishers such as writing books like SOLAR, The Tick, and X-O/MANOWAR for Valiant/Acclaim and books like Prince and The Demon for DC, and more. However, his “claim to fame” would be when Denys Cowan would approach him with the idea for Milestone Media that he, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Christopher Priest and Derek T. Dingle all founded together. All of them would leave their respective companies mainly because they wanted control of the work they did while writing stories and characters that better represented who they were. So they banded together and changed the comic industry.
- Damage Control was inspired by the Adam West Batman show after seeing the batmobile parachute (when making a turn) have a label detailing how people would come pick it up.
- Regarding that Hulk vs Thor issue, him and Alan did end up finding it that Fall. He was disappointed it was a tie.
- Dwayne was almost murdered after moving to New York in the 80’s. Apparently one night in a subway station, he (a 6’7” black man) was alone with an elderly woman who was clutching her purse. He knew because of his physical features (both size and being black) that people might feel threatened of him, so he would often keep his distance to give them security. However, this old woman pulled out a gun and fired off a couple shots as the train was pulling in missing on both attempts. She stepped in and that was it. He reported it to the Transit Authority who didn’t care or offer any help, so Dwayne went home. And that’s how he became a supporter of gun control.
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RetroFuture Clean Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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