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Tom’s already written a great tribute to Dwayne McDuffie, but I need to write something too. And I don’t use the word “need” lightly there.
Typically, when I hear about the death of someone in the comics industry, I feel sad for that person’s family and friends, perhaps think a little about my own connection to the person’s work, and that’s about it. I don’t know that I’ve ever written a personal memorial about anyone. Dwayne McDuffie is different. I met him once, but didn’t know him outside of his work. Still, I’m feeling his death like I don’t feel comics industry deaths and this column’s going to be a bit selfish as I get this out.
Like Tom, my connection with McDuffie began with Milestone. I grew up in the South where…I guess the polite way of saying it is that racial diversity was prevalent, but that doesn’t do justice to the situation. It makes it sound almost utopian, which is ridiculous. Anyone who’s spent much time in the South (or really just seen a lot of movies set there) knows how complicated and heart-breakingly frustrating it can be. But one thing that I’ll always be thankful for is that I got to know a lot of people outside of my own race. Enough so that I took it for granted.
After college I moved north to look for work and landed in a suburb that was much less diverse than where I’d grown up. Like before, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this. I didn’t “miss” being around people unlike myself anymore than I actively enjoyed being surrounded by folks just like me, racially and culturally speaking. The issue just wasn’t on my radar.
What was on my radar was getting back into comics. I’d gone to school in a small town with no comic shop and was thrilled to live in a metropolitan area with many different places to buy comics. I dived right in and it was only a couple of years later that Dwayne McDuffie and Friends launched Milestone.
I had the comics bug bad, so I went all-in on Milestone. I bought everything they published and even put together that huge mural that you could make from all the mini-posters that came in their polybagged books. Before long though, I realized I’d overextended my budget. I was also buying most of what Marvel was publishing, a lot of DC’s stuff, and everything that those Image fellows were making. I needed to cut back and did, but as I looked hard at my shopping list, I wasn’t able to quit any of Milestone’s titles.
I noticed that their marketing slogans accurately captured my experience with the company. The first of them was “Believe the Hype,” which was exactly why I’d tried out and collected all of their series (mostly without questioning what I was doing) in the first place. But though I’d started buying them because of the hype, I found that I’d kept with them because they challenged my complacency around issues of race. Not by preaching to me, but – as a later slogan said – by being about “Not Just the Color.”
Growing up around People of Color hadn’t made me sensitive or empathetic, mostly because I was as self-centered as most kids are. It wasn’t until I was in the position of missing that diversity and only being able to get it through comics – specifically Milestone’s comics – that I gave it any thought. Had Milestone chosen a different way to address the lack of diversity in superhero comics – had their comics been full of speeches and moral lessons, for instance – they wouldn’t have been as effective. But they chose to focus on stories and characters who just happened to be Black. And Asian. And Latin. And gay. In time, I quit thinking about them as minority heroes and just saw them as heroes, although among the best-written and drawn heroes of their day. Doing nothing more than telling stories, Milestone fundamentally changed the way I thought about race and diversity, and I owe an unrepayable debt to all of those creators for that. Especially to Dwayne McDuffie.
I didn’t appreciate or really even know at the time how much McDuffie’s fingerprints were all over Milestone. I’m sure I still don’t adequately get it. But after Milestone quit publishing, McDuffie remained accessible and vocal through his website, message board, and a few different online columns that allowed me to follow him around for a long time. Reading his thoughts, I became aware of how much Milestone’s philosophy was mirrored by his.
As Tom wrote last week, McDuffie “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.” I also agree that this “reliance on fundamentals was especially refreshing.” That applied not only to McDuffie and the rest of Milestone’s storytelling, but also to their goals as a company. Creating diversity in superhero comics was an epic, fantastic objective, but McDuffie and Milestone never let it get in the way of creating personal connections between their characters and readers.
That’s the most important effect that McDuffie had on me, but it’s not the only one. The way he thought about comics – and communicated those thoughts – was contagious. I’ll always be thankful to him for a comment he made when talking about the power that continuity holds over fans. “If I didn’t read it,” he said, “it didn’t happen.” That was a hugely liberating attitude and by stealing it, I’ve saved myself countless headaches and arguments over what stories “count” or don’t. A much smaller debt than what I owe for Milestone, but just as non-repayable.
I mentioned earlier that I got to meet Dwayne McDuffie once. He wouldn’t have remembered it, I’m sure. Or maybe he would have. It depends on how many blathering fans came up to him at conventions and stammered helplessly as they tried to communicate their gratitude for his work and how much he affected them not only by what he wrote, but by who he was. Hopefully he got that a lot, because a) my doing it wouldn’t have stood out so much and b) he deserved it.