Icon, Hardware, and the expansive editorial vision of the Milestone Media universe. Justice League Unlimited. Ben 10. Depending on when you’ve encountered it, chances are you’ve loved something Dwayne McDuffie worked on. Now, plans are afoot to preserve the legacy of one of geek culture’s most beloved writers.
For those unfamiliar with his output, Dwayne McDuffie was a creator whose work spanned decades, with high points seen in work done for Marvel, DC, and Cartoon Network. His creation Damage Control—a property for Marvel about a company that cleans up the devastation from superhero battles—is slated to become a TV series on ABC. His work as a writer/producer on the Justice League series helped that show become one of the best superhero adaptations ever. McDuffie also co-founded Milestone Media, which gave readers an inclusive, multicultural superhero universe that he provided the editorial vision for.
When McDuffie died suddenly in 2011, the mainstream comics and animation communities reacted with stunned sadness. The person at the epicenter of the public’s grief and subsequent calls for memorialization has been animation writer Charlotte McDuffie, his wife. In 2015, she established the first Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics, which have been given out at the Long Beach Comic Expo. (Note: Submissions for the 2017 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics are open now but close at the end of the year.) Later in 2015, the first Dwayne McDuffie Award for Kids’ Comics, also began to be presented annually at the Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival in Michigan. Now she wants to do much more to solidify her late husband’s legacy so that future can live on for future generations.
When I spoke to her on the phone a few weeks ago, Charlotte McDuffie told me the idea for the creation of a Dwayne McDuffie Foundation has come from the fans, friends, and family mourning the loss of the creator. “The idea was first presented to me immediately after he died,” McDuffie told me. “His family, his friends, our friends, industry people, and companies were wanting to charitable donations in his name. We didn’t have a foundation set up. Since then, during the past five years, I’ve been approached by fans asking about that idea.”
McDuffie has launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to start the Dwayne McDuffie Fund. In the short term, the hope is to offset the cost for things like the physical awards that get handed out in his name, fees to explore the possibility of getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the digital archiving of her late husband’s older typewritten work. She’s been paying for the awards given out in Dwayne’s name but wants to set up an infrastructure that lets them continue after she’s gone. But she also sees the fund as the first step to establishing a Dwayne McDuffie Foundation with larger ambitions.
“Not everybody knows that Dwayne was a physicist,” she told me, referring to the master’s degree in applied physics he earned at the University of Michigan. “He was a huge promoter of academic and scholarly thought. So I’ve wanted to honor that part of him, too, with academic scholarships for diverse students. I’d love to have one at his beloved childhood school, The Roeper School in Michigan. He just said he had the time of his life there. He really found himself.”
The self that Dwayne found was a kind, occasionally acerbic man who put his beliefs in his work and that’s one of the reasons he’s so fondly remembered. When we remember a creator’s legacy, it’s not just about their output; it’s also about the kind of person they were, an aspect of life that isn’t necessarily so readily available to the public. In addition to Charlotte McDuffie, I spoke with writer/producers Matt Wayne and Eugene Son, who worked separately with the late McDuffie in comics and animation. Wayne’s friendship with McDuffie went all the way back to their teen years together at the University of Michigan and then on into his eventual employment as a writer/editor at Milestone. He and Son met while working in animation and became mutual friends who set up the McDuffies up on their first date, which Charlotte McDuffie reminisced about.
“I wasn’t familiar with Milestone or Dwayne’s work with Justice League. [I thought] “Okay, he’s just this nice guy?” We went out to lunch on a Tuesday. I thought, ‘Okay, I can have lunch with anybody for an hour.’,” she told me. “The joke is I was expecting him to be one of these superhero fanboys who doesn’t have any other topic of conversation. Like, ‘And then in Aquaman #547....’ ‘Uh-huh.’ I thought I would be looking at my watch or that we would have nothing to talk about. ‘So, that Matt and Eugene sure are nice guys, aren’t they?’ ‘Yup. They sure are.’ But we hit it off like you wouldn’t believe. I still don’t believe it. I thought Eugene and Matt had fed him lines about what to say,” Charlotte related.
“‘Who is this guy? How do we know each other so well?’,” McDuffie remembers thing. “We were hitting it off right out of the gate. Our first date lasted five hours. The restaurant was dimming the lighting and the staff was going off shift, changing it for dinner. By the time we left, we joked, we should have had our second date. Richard Feynman, my favorite physicist, came up in conversation. Dwayne did the gesture with his water glass that Feynman famously did with in conjunction with the Challenger disaster and the o-ring failure. The fact that he did it and I recognized it, I was like, ‘Okay, this is just crazy.’
The simpatico energy of that first date grew into a longer relationship, one where comic book references eventually became part of their banter.
“He used to say that he was Superman and I was Batman,” McDuffie told me. “He said that’s why I’m always stressed out because I have a million different contingency plans. If this happens, I’ll do this. If this happens, I’ll do this. He said, he’s Superman. He has the ego the size of a planet. [laughs] And that he can walk into any situation and assume his natural intellectual superiority which carries him through. He said it with a smile but I think he also meant it. A lot of self-confidence and rightfully so.”
Like those of Milestone co-founder Christopher Priest, Wayne’s memories of Dwayne also invoke the idea of his intellect. What was it like being around a guy that smart? “[It was] intimidating,” Wayne laughed. “[Dwayne’s] idea of a crazy weekend was he would go to a bookstore and buy three or four new books, a bunch of magazines, a box of cookies and a gallon of milk, and go home,” he elaborated.
“We both went to a school for smarty-pants in Detroit, years apart. The right answer mattered a lot to him. He loved casually talking about physics. He read Peggy Noonan and not because he agreed with her.”
After writing on Justice League, Batman: The Brave and The Bold and Lego Marvel Superheroes: Maximum Overload, Wayne is now a story editor at Amazon Studios. “[Dwayne] was a guy who introduced me to so much,” he said. “He introduced me to Preston Sturges, Octavia Butler, and Ralph Ellison. Just knowing him and how he put things together, a conversation with him would be like a two-hour session where you would be mapping a new corner of the world.”
When Wayne moved to New York City in the late 1980s, Dwayne was working at Marvel as an assistant editor, learning the ropes of monthly comics production. “He was working for Bob Budiansky in the special projects division,” Wayne told me. “It was a great position for him because everything was being built from scratch, so he got to see every custom project. He got to see the different ways you can attack each comic, and what the business model was for comics in publishing. It really was influential in how he thought about everything.”
McDuffie was one of a very few black people working at Marvel at the time. When I shared a story that Dwayne told me about a Marvel editor who infamously kept a Sambo figurine on his desk, Wayne told me he’d heard the same thing from his late friend. It goes like this: Offended by the racist caricature curio, McDuffie, artist/Milestone co-founder Denys Cowan, and other freelancers who’d come through the offices would snatch the figure from the desk. “Yeah, they would steal it,” Wayne told me. “But [the editor] would always get another one.”
“Institutional racism at Marvel was something that got talked about,” Wayne remembered. “It was a small office. [Artist] Mark Bright would come in and suddenly we’d all be talking about how there are some artists at Marvel who didn’t want to be seen talking to two black people in the hall. People would go by and say, ‘Maybe they’re planning something.’ But that’s corporate culture in America probably to this day. Although I think it’s a lot less of the norm than it used to be.”
During his time at Milestone, Wayne got to see his friend’s endeavors to subvert that norm, which included concerted efforts to bring in new talent into the industry. Artists who are now respected veterans, like Tommy Lee Edwards, John Paul Leon and ChrisCross, got some of their first major breaks at Milestone, with the chance to get paid while they learned the ropes of sequential storytelling. When new comics companies launch, the trend is to pack the creative stable with established stars as a way to pull in readers and mitigate risk. But from the very start, Milestone put young unheralded creators on important titles right next to work being done by veterans.
“That was intentional,” Wayne said. “[Milestone co-founder] Michael Davis was teaching at the School of Visual Arts at the time. He knew lots of people who wanted to be comics artists and were just on the cusp of breaking in. John Paul’s first sale was to Dark Horse. But his second sale was Static #1. I think that was part of the business model. Dwayne wanted to have a strong editorial voice and part of it was to get these people.”
Years later, Eugene Son was one of the people that Dwayne helped mentor in animation. Son has now been a writer and story editor for years, contributing to several successful Marvel animated shows like Avengers: Ultron Revolution and Ultimate Spider-Man: Web Warriors. Early into his friendship with Dwayne, he was just a guy trying to get more work on Ben 10; he told me that Dwayne McDuffie’s passion for finding new talent also carried over into the animation medium. “He knew that there were a lot of amazing African-American, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, women, Asian [creators] that were really talented. He always wanted to be giving people their chance and thought that all you had to do was fish around a little bit and you would pull out amazing talent.”
He remembered experiencing that kind of working relationship firsthand.
“[Dwayne] was super kind and super polite but, at the same time, demanding,” Son said. “He wanted a lot out of you creatively. When I turned in the second Ben 10: Alien Force script I did for him, he was like, “It was great. You gave me exactly what I needed. I did the rewrites on it and it will be fine.” I was on the phone with him and I said, “Keeping in mind that we’re friends and that I want to keep working with you for a long time, what changes would you recommend to keep in mind so that my scripts are going to be better in the future?”
Son chuckles before continuing, “Then he pauses and goes, ‘All right... you clearly saw a plot hole and you tried to cover it up by putting a little spackle over it and it was really obvious.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘I recognize that everyone had made a mistake, we all missed this plot hole, you spotted it, you fixed it by trying to bridge it over with a little change and it didn’t work. It just made the plot hole worse. You had to go back through and make further changes to cover it.’ Then he added, ‘Oh, and you tried to fit in a funny scene here where it shouldn’t fit. It was a great scene but we had to kill it.’ And after it was over I really appreciated it. Because he was really honest and he gave me honest good feedback.”
In similar fashion, the feedback loop between creator and audience was important to Dwayne McDuffie. Charlotte McDuffie says that, even though they both worked in animation, their marriage wasn’t one where they talked about work all the time. But she’s been reckoning with the totality of his work and the impact it’s still having.
“I’m not a religious person. Dwayne was not a religious person,” McDuffie offered. “But, to see that he really did have an impact on other people with his work is very lovely. He was always so frustrated that he felt that people were not listening to him and were not taking what he was doing seriously. Particularly because he was going through the superhero genre, not just animation but comic books.”
“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re not in features, you’re in television. Oh, you’re not in television, you’re in children’s television,’” McDuffie told me. “[Like it was] double slumming. The idea that you can’t have any serious discussion or serious dialogue or address serious issues in a context that’s appropriate for children frustrated him. When you look at Ben 10, that’s a character who’s fighting the Highbreed, who are essentially racial/genetic purists. They are the Nazis. The way he defeats them is turning them into mutts and befriending the very first ruler of the Highbreed.”
“Yes, it’s a cartoon,” McDuffie said. “But as you get older, you’re like, ‘Wow, that was actually really about something.’ Dwayne hoped his work could have had an effect on the way people think about the world when they’re young, so that once they get out into the world, they’re not hearing about these issues or having these things thrown at them for the first time.”
McDuffie says that the National Museum of African-American History and Culture has expressed interest in Dwayne’s work. “It’s all very early on at this point but they’ve invited Dwayne to be represented in it. I have a lot of original artwork from Milestone and they talked about housing his business papers in the Library of Congress.”
Speaking about her hopes to establish a Dwayne McDuffie Foundation, Charlotte said, “I’m sure there’s some a little miniature Dwayne McDuffie wannabe that’s driving his or her parents crazy right now,” she posited. “A kid like Dwayne was, someone that would benefit greatly from the rigorous academics of a private school like that but couldn’t necessarily afford it. I think things like that would be a perfect avenue for a Dwayne McDuffie Foundation.”
Last year’s McDuffie Award presentation was on the anniversary of the writer’s death and Charlotte says she couldn’t keep her composure. “When I’ve gotten up there to present the award in the past, I always tend to be choked up,” she recalled. “I miss him as my husband but also, he was only 49 years old. The fact that he did so much in so little time is actually amazing. I just can’t believe he managed it.”