When I think of the greatest minds in the history of comics, some of the typical names come up. Jack “The King” Kirby. Grant Morrison. George Perez. All great creators in their own respects, with groundbreaking stories and undeniable legacies. But recently, I’ve found one man in my thoughts more than any other. A Black man who found an industry unwilling to work with him. A man who, instead of accepting that and changing himself, changed the game. A man whose impact on not just comics as a medium, but pop culture as a whole is undeniable, and yet you’ve probably never heard his name. A true hero if there ever was one. Dwayne McDuffie.
Early Life and Marvel Work
Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1962, McDuffie found his way into the geek world from a young age. In a 2010 interview with the Atlantic he said, “I read tons of science fiction that a family friend supplied me with, played sports, enjoyed comics, I loved the Science Fair, and entered as many as I could. So, you know, proto-nerd.” Upon graduating from high school, he attended a few different universities, eventually landing himself at NYU as a film student.
At NYU he befriended Greg Wright, who would go on to become a freelance writer at Marvel. Through this connection, McDuffie landed a position at Marvel as assistant to editor Bob Budiansky. In 1989, he began to turn heads, writing a miniseries called “Damage Control.” The comedic comic centered around a construction company within the Marvel Universe whose expertise was cleaning up the fallout between superhero battles. This team has had several appearances in the MCU as of late, most recently in the TV series “Ms. Marvel.” McDuffie told the Atlantic, “When I broke into comics, I was doing a lot of comedy writing, and after Damage Control, it was hard for me to get assignments on straight superhero books.”
However, this drought didn’t last long. In 1990, McDuffie wrote the series “Deathlok”, with artist Denys Cowan. The two of them took the name of a forgotten 70s superhero and revamped him with a new identity, and new origin, while simultaneously forging a connection that would carry them to future heights. McDuffie’s Deathlok was a pacifist, Black professor named Michael Collins who, when working for Roxxon Cybernetics discovered the secret Deathlok program: a deadly cybernetic weapon, built to kill. To prevent word from getting out, scientist Harlan Ryker sedated Collins and transplanted his brain into the robotic body. Throughout the 16-issue run, Collins must work to maintain his humanity by overriding the fatalistic mechanisms built into his programming, and work to find his original body.
The 90s were a time of gritty, violent, rough and tumble action heroes, and Deathlok, despite looking like a member of the pack, stood in stark contrast in what he represented. He existed as commentary on the trends of the time, with McDuffie maintaining the morality of the superhero as a key point throughout his run on the character. He wanted to create a superhero that was more moral than the average reader, not less so. He took this commentary further, using Deathlok to explore aspects of the Black experience in the robotic man’s heroic adventures, filtering in concepts from works like W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” Ralph Elison’s “Invisible Man,” and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “The Signifying Monkey.”
With the end of “Deathlok,” McDuffie readied himself to completely shift the comics’ industry on its head: to create something that, even now, is utterly remarkable. McDuffie was about to start Milestone.
Founded by Dwayne McDuffie, in collaboration with Denys Cowan (his co-creator on “Deathlok”), Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle, Milestone Media was launched in 1993; a comic book imprint founded by all Black creators. “If you write a Black character, he represents blackness. And that’s ridiculous! That’s way too much, way too complex, way too much weight for any single character to hold. Whereas if you write a white character he’s that guy. You can be Superman; you can be Lex Luthor. But if you’re Black you’re all Black people: good guy, bad guy, everyone in between,” McDuffie said in White Scripts and Black Supermen. The clear lack of diversity in comics was an obvious issue, and Milestone was created to be the solution. Here there wasn’t just one Black-led comic book, but a variety, showing diversity of age, class, opinion, presentation, and orientation. Through its heroes, the Milestone line demonstrated multitudes within blackness.
The first Milestone comic to launch was “Hardware,” in February of 1993. The lead character Curtis Metcalf was a Black scientist with genius-level intellect trapped in an exploitative contract by Alva Industries. It stipulates that all of the work that he’s created belongs to Alva, barring him from working for any competitors. In looking for a way out, he finds that his employer is caught up in a complex web of corruption, and involved heavily in illegal weapons trading. In a spin on the classic Iron Man story, Metcalf builds his high-tech Hardware super suit to rebel against his employer. Here, the CEO isn’t the hero but the villain, and it’s an exploited worker who seeks justice through rebellion, taking his future into his own hands.
In a lot of ways, “Hardware” existed as a way for McDuffie to reflect on his own work with Marvel. He left the company to found Milestone, telling the Atlantic, “I was never going to be promoted, so if I intended to make a mark in the business, it would be as a freelance writer, not an editor. Leaving Marvel allowed me to take assignments at several other companies, and ultimately, to help found Milestone.” The parallels are clear. For both McDuffie and Metcalf, the splits were hard, but rewarding, and necessary. As the story continued, McDuffie used “Hardware” to explore themes of corruption, exploitation, and morality under capitalism.
Each Milestone comic spun out of a fictionalized version of Detroit called Dakota City. McDuffie put a lot of himself into this world, especially as a Detroit native, and his influence was clear in every title. While he only wrote a couple Milestone titles for the majority of their run, he wrote the first few issues of each to help them get their start. This included Static, Milestone’s answer to Spider-Man, a teen superhero with power of magnetism and electricity, who rode on a trash can lid hoverboard style. McDuffie’s own childhood had a heavy influence on the young hero’s characterisation. Then there was the Shadow Cabinet, Milestone’s answer to the Justice League; a comic that through its run questioned the ideas of authority, and delved into the moral implications of such a team existing. How much of a right do they have to meddle with the outcomes of major affairs? Where is the line?
The Milestone line championed diversity, not just for Black characters, but for all under-represented groups. Perhaps the best example of this was the Blood Syndicate, Milestone’s X-Men, a rag-tag team of outsiders who, after a freak accident caused them to gain powers, formed a gang to fight for refuge, and stop more sinister manifestations of organized crime in Dakota City. This team included Tech-9, a Black veteran; Aquamaria, a Latina woman with water-based powers; Masquerade, a Black transgender man with shapeshifting abilities; Fade, an intangible Afro-Latino gay man; and Third Rail, a Korean-American man with energy transference abilities.
Paramount of all heroes in the Dakotaverse was Icon, whose title McDuffie consistently wrote until its conclusion. Icon was Milestone’s Black Superman, his name drawing attention to the pressure that comes with that role. The pressure placed on Black superheroes to be icons, and the responsibility and virulent backlash that comes with it. Like Superman, Icon was an alien, and when his pod crash landed on Earth in 1839, it programmed him to take the shape of an infant of the first intelligent life it saw, so that he would be able to survive. He landed in the American south, and was found by a Black woman, and so Icon, an immortal alien, lived through American slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, up until 1993.
The comic begins with Icon’s abilities being discovered by a teenage girl Raquel Ervin. She convinces him to use his abilities for the greater good, and in return he equips her with a belt that grants her immense power. The two of them become the superhero duo, Icon and Rocket. With complex and contrasting outlooks the two of them have a great back and forth, and the villainy they fight forces them to engage with more systemic issues, bringing their differing ideals of justice and their opposing worldviews into conflict.
Milestone completely shifted the comic book industry at the time, telling progressive stories with diverse characters, and selling well. However, sales wouldn’t favor them forever. Market trends changed, and the pendulum swung the other way. This wasn’t helped by the fact that many retailers refused to sell Milestone titles, calling them “racist” and saying the creators hated white people. Milestone was forced to cancel some of their less popular titles in 1995, but that wasn’t enough to cut their losses. In 1997, Milestone ended their comic line. Despite coming to a premature end, the importance of Milestone was undeniable, and its end would usher McDuffie into a new era of his career.
In 2000, Static was adapted into an animated series, “Static Shock,” which ran for four seasons in a total of 52 episodes. It was here that Dwayne McDuffie made the jump to television. He’d been consulted by the producers when the adaptation was first created, and once it was picked up, he was hired both as a writer and story editor. His influence steered the show to success, with McDuffie writing nearly a quarter of the episodes, allowing him to heavily influence the direction of the show. For its fourth and final season he was head writer. Despite being a children’s cartoon, “Static Shock” dealt with a lot of mature topics. From the jump, the show dealt with issues of gang violence, mental health struggles, and racism, and presented these topics in nuanced ways, still comprehensible to younger audiences, throughout its run.
“Static Shock” was a hallmark show, not just in that it gave McDuffie his career, but that it was the first African-American led animated superhero show, opening up the genre, and paving the way for shows today, like the newly released “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.” However, despite great ratings and critical acclaim, the show was canceled after the fourth season. In a time when most animations produced were cost-deficient and required heavy merchandising, it was unable to receive the funds it needed due to its progressive writing and Black protagonist.
Opportunity came McDuffie’s way as he, through pure coincidence, found himself a staff-writer position on the Justice League animated series. He was of the mind that all too often, members of the league weren’t individualized enough, and that their characters risked becoming interchangeable with one another. As a staff writer, he sought out to change that, crafting stories that would shine a light on their individuality and bring them to question their own personal philosophies and senses of selves. In the second season, he became head writer, steering the creative direction of the show. The adventures he wrote explored issues like faith and loss, while also crafting sprawling, beautiful tales of romance, betrayal, and adventure.
After its second season, “Justice League” was rebranded as “Justice League Unlimited,” with a far larger cast, more episodic stories, and season-long plotlines. McDuffie stayed one of the head writers throughout, guiding the show to its completion, and writing more than half of the series’ episodes. McDuffie turned “Justice League” into a force, crafting it into a compelling world with unique characters, and allowing it to become one of the most beloved animated series of the 2000s.
A couple months after the premiere of the third and final season of “Justice League Unlimited,” the animated series “Ben 10” premiered on Cartoon Network. The series starred a ten-year-old boy named Benjamin Tennison who, while on a summer road trip with his grandfather and cousin, found an alien watch called the Omnitrix, which gave him the ability to transform into one of ten different aliens that were trapped in it. The series lasted for four seasons before coming to a close in 2008.
Three days after its series finale “Ben 10: Alien Force” premiered, a new series that starred a fifteen-year-old Ben. The new series took on a far more mature tone than the original, featuring a brand-new cast of aliens as well alongside the aged up main cast. Dwayne McDuffie was the mastermind behind this sequel series. It was through his influence that the show transformed from a cartoon about a ten-year-old boy going on road trip adventures to a nuanced, politically charged, mature cartoon aimed at teen audiences. “Ben 10” had been popular before, but “Ben 10: Alien Force” took the show’s premise to a new level. In the eyes of many fans, it remains the best era of the show.
After “Ben 10: Alien Force” was “Ben 10: Ultimate Alien,” bringing with it a sixteen-year-old Ben. McDuffie stayed with the show, and at the same time he began to rekindle a romance with an old friend: comics. In 2007, Dwayne McDuffie helmed DC’s Justice League title, which included a newfound focus on Black heroine, Vixen. His focus on Black characters in the title upset a lot of more conservative fans, with McDuffie telling White Scripts and Black Supermen, “I think being a writer that the reader knows is Black puts a lot of white male readership on edge.” He continued, saying, “The phrase I always get is that I’m trying to ‘shove my agenda down their throat’ which seems sexually charged to me. I don’t know.” Despite the backlash, he stood his ground, staying on the title for two years, ultimately being let go due to the editorial team’s dislike for his openness about creative processes with fans. Despite this, he’s still left one of the most exciting, action-packed Justice League runs to hit the stands.
Death and Legacy
On Feb. 21, 2011, Dwayne McDuffie passed from heart surgery complications. He was 49 years old. Though he died young, the stories he created were timeless. As I’ve written this piece, I’ve revisited some of my favorites, and I’ve been struck with wonder. I’m amazed at how, in such a short amount of time, he was able to leave behind so much. Five different animated series. An entire comic imprint shaped by his guiding hands.
The cartoons he wrote shepherded my childhood, and shaped my ideas of what adventure was. When I think of animation, the fun, the action, the hype they created in my eight-year old self as I ran down and turned on the Blu-Ray player to watch my Saturday morning cartoons, I think of his shows. Justice League: Unlimited. Ben 10: Alien Force. When I started college, I read the Milestone line, and McDuffie’s writing once again defined my tastes. He gave me a blueprint for what superheroes could be, and went places with his storytelling that I didn’t think I’d ever see. I am forever indebted to him and the stories he told. Today, I am once again shaped by him. He gave me a blueprint of what a writer can do over the course of their career. Dwayne McDuffie showed me that the sky’s the limit.
Despite the purity of the emotion, the wonder isn’t something I can sit in. It hits me for a moment, but it’s quickly marred by a sense of disappointment. As much as things have changed, they’ve very much stayed the same. The issues that drove McDuffie to found Milestone still permeate the comic industry. On a superficial level, comics have gotten more diverse. There are more comics written by women, by people of color, and newer, more diverse characters are introduced. Yet, it feels like none of these characters are given the nuance, care, or development of their white contemporaries. In a contrast to the aggressive stereotyping of their 80s and 90s forefathers, the characters of color of today are sanitized, written as raceless, and devoid of any true connection to their culture. The very act of diversity has been gentrified, paved over with a shallow liberal sheen.
Animation has gotten more complex, with deep, nuanced shows attempting to elevate the medium, pushing boundaries taken for granted. Yet, it often looks like a losing game for creators who pour love into their shows. Animated shows are all too often prematurely canceled, undervalued by their corporate distributors. The intelligent, nuanced, complex storytelling that McDuffie helmed, continues to this day, but the worlds that McDuffie built and the multi-series sagas that he was able to craft are incompatible to today’s market. While creators have grown further, the market has grown more cruel.
He changed the game, rewriting the rulebook, and yet it sometimes feels like it was all for not. The tragedy of Dwayne McDuffie is not solely the fact that he’s forgotten. In niche circles, the people that care about the contributions of writers know his name, and they honor him. The tragedy lies in the fact that he’s been assimilated. His work, as transgressive as it was, has fully subsided into the current status quo, his progressive politics and radical spirit being forgotten. In a time where “wokeness” was not the norm, and behavior like this would be considered career suicide, he presented challenging moral questions to audiences in understandable ways, brought about nuanced political writing mixed in with action-packed superhero storytelling. Yet it seems that most don’t remember more than the poster.
We still haven’t earned Dwayne McDuffie, but we can. As readers, as writers, as people. We can be better. As readers we can engage more critically with the media we consume, and demand better treatment for creators. As writers, we can think more thoroughly about the impacts of our work, and understand the responsibility that comes with that. The spirit of Dwayne McDuffie has been co-opted by the status quo, but we don’t have to let it. We can learn from him. When the game is rigged: break the rules.