Grumpy Old Fan | Dwayne McDuffie, gone too soon
Dwayne McDuffie was a great writer of superhero stories, consistently producing solid, entertaining tales about characters familiar and unfamiliar, across a variety of media. He was also a vocal advocate for diversity in the superhero genre, both in terms of characters and creative personnel.
My first real exposure to Mr. McDuffie’s work was through Static, the 1993 series he co-created with fellow Milestone founders Derek T. Dingel, Denys Cowan, and Michael Davis. The Milestone panel at the ‘93 Chicago Comic-Con was handing out copies of Static’s first issue — a shiny-silver-logo variant, naturally — and I was hooked instantly. In any age Static would have stood out as an energetic and thoughtful teen-superhero serial. In the summer of 1993, though, with the speculators’ market at full swing and superhero comics chasing one fad after another, Static’s reliance on fundamentals was especially refreshing.
To some extent I think that’s what helped make Mr. McDuffie’s work so effective. He understood that the best superhero stories bring the epic and fantastic down to personal levels, but he was careful to slight neither the epic nor the personal. His work spotlighted relationships as much as spectacle. When Earth was invaded by Hawkgirl’s home planet of Thanagar (in “Starcrossed,” a 3-episode arc of “Justice League”), it tested both Hawkgirl’s loyalties and her relationship with Green Lantern. McDuffie’s tenure on Fantastic Four started by repairing the damage to the Richards’ marriage wrought by the events of Civil War. The Beyond! miniseries (a sort-of sequel to Secret Wars) was all about relationships, since it stranded a handful of superheroes on a distant planet.
Indeed, that emphasis on relationships made his time on the Justice League of America comic both tantalizing and frustrating. McDuffie’s work writing and producing the “Justice League” cartoon demonstrated clearly that he would be a great fit for the show’s four-color inspiration. When he succeeded Brad Meltzer as the regular JLA writer, I for one was eager for him to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, he spent most of his time navigating the choppy waters of intertitle continuity, having to work around things like Green Arrow and Black Canary’s wedding, the Salvation Run miniseries, and the unavailability of many characters who would have been natural fits for the JLA. When McDuffie expressed his own frustrations publicly, he was fired from the book, and current writer James Robinson took over (with, it must be noted, a fluid, esoteric roster of his own) not long afterwards.
Reading McDuffie’s plans for JLA after the fact revealed both his own frustrations with, and hopes for, what he described as “DC Comics’ flagship book.”
I do get frustrated, but it comes with the job. The nature of monthly comics has changed drastically over the past 20 years. JLA used to be THE place to go to see the big guns together, dealing with the gravest threats in the DCU. Now there are several big event crossovers a year, and those titles are where the huge stories happen. So I have to tell stories that feed into and come out of those events. I’d prefer if, as on Justice League Unlimited, I could tell stories that were at the center of the characters lives, but that was a very different circumstance. JLA the comic is part of a larger patchwork, and my mandate is to support the bigger story of the DCU.
McDuffie had apparently planned at least two years’ worth of JLA, but kept having to delay and/or change those plans with each new crossover which affected the team.
Still, what he did write for JLA was pretty fascinating, even moreso in hindsight. Once the A-listers like Superman and Wonder Woman were gone, McDuffie’s version of “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” included Dr. Light (Kimiyo Hoshi), Firestorm (Jason Rusch) and Green Lantern (John Stewart), Vixen, and Zatanna. This decidedly untraditional lineup turned out to be both entertaining and effective, with the veteran Dr. Light playing well off the relatively-inexperienced Firestorm.
It sounds somewhat selfish for me, a mere fan, to boil Dwayne McDuffie’s death down to “I’m sorry about his JLA situation,” and I certainly don’t mean to do that. Still, his struggles against the demands of corporately-owned superhero comics run through much of his career, especially informing his Milestone work. From time to time he would return to the metaphor of a caged bird who “mistook being out of his cage … for being free.”
Accordingly, Mr. McDuffie’s untimely death saddens me partly because it seems like he left a lot of unfinished business with DC and Justice League — but on a more meaningful level, his death deprives the superhero genre of a gifted storyteller who, additionally, always had something substantive to say. While his last JLA lineup might have been a group of B- and C-listers with whom he probably wasn’t entirely satisfied, in the end they were capable, confident and (by the way) diverse; and I’d have enjoyed seeing them continue as the Justice League.
See, I trusted Dwayne McDuffie to do right by both the characters he wrote and the readers he entertained. I respected him as a professional and was always glad to see his name in the credits. One of his “Justice League” two-parters, “The Terror Beyond,” is on its face a pretty straightforward fight with a Cthulhu stand-in — but look closer, and it’s a terrific pastiche of Marvel’s Defenders, with Aquaman, Doctor Fate, and Solomon Grundy subbing for Namor, Doctor Strange, and the Hulk. Grundy’s imitation is the most shameless — by which I mean the most fun — since he fights the Army (and a mustachioed general), says “smash” a lot, and even calls Hawkgirl “bird-nose.” Nevertheless, as always, relationships are key: the Leaguers struggle to trust Aquaman (not on the team at this point), and Grundy and Hawkgirl end up bonding.
In hindsight, it’s eminently appropriate to note that his script for “Destroyer,” the “JLU” series finale, includes Superman observing “[w]hat we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose.” For many fans of DC’s characters, the “Justice League” cartoon was an example of what Mr. McDuffie could accomplish, free from arbitrary or capricious restrictions — and I don’t mean Easter eggs like putting Steve Ditko-created characters in the same scene, or having the patriotically-costumed Steel sling a round shield as a weapon. “Destroyer” is a twenty-minute tour de force depicting an Apokoliptian invasion and the resulting Darkseid/Superman battle, but it turns on Lex Luthor understanding Darkseid’s most fervent wish. (It also includes another immortal Superman line, “Oh, come on! This is Lex-flippin’-Luthor!”) Luthor’s actions in the episode’s climax are a natural product of what drives him as a character — intellectual curiosity, a thirst for power (which translates here into stopping someone else from ruling the world), and an almost pathological need to one-up Superman. Given the chance, of course Luthor would side with Superman in getting rid of Darkseid — but, as in “Destroyer,” he’d do it on his terms.
That’s how I’ll remember Dwayne McDuffie — as someone fluent in the language of superheroes, who used those skills to tell exciting, meaningful stories. Mr. McDuffie’s love for the genre showed in every script, regardless of what was going on behind the scenes. As DC goes forward with a new Static Shock series, and as it finds ways to use the other Milestone characters, I hope that all involved will be guided not only by what Mr. McDuffie left on the page, but also what went unwritten. Dwayne McDuffie is free now, and his life should inspire those who will come after.
I’ll close with a line from the first issue of Static which keeps coming to mind. It’s the end of Static’s introductory scene, a little tussle with some high-school punks hassling our hero’s friend Frieda. Having saved the day, Static’s flying away on his charged-up trash-can lid, when over the shoulder he calls out to her: “[W]hen you talk about this to all your friends, be sure to mention my winning smile. I never hear enough about that….”
Rest in peace, Mr. McDuffie.