Black History Month: Dwayne McDuffie

Icon, depicted above, was a creation of Dwayne McDuffie for Milestone Comics.

Icon, depicted above, was a creation of Dwayne McDuffie for Milestone Comics.

I wanted to write about Dwayne McDuffie. He was an African American man, and hugely influential on the comics industry. He was a talented and prolific creator, and I looked forward to his work. Sadly, he passed on a few years back, but his legacy of work remains as a major impact upon the comics industry.

Dwayne McDuffie was SMART, and it came across in his comics. He attended The Roeper School and went on to the University of Michigan, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, then earning a master’s degree in physics. He then moved to New York to attend film school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. While McDuffie was working as a copy editor at the business magazine Investment Dealers’ Digest, a friend got him an interview for an assistant editor position at Marvel Comics.

Do you have any Marvel Comics Trading Cards? Dwayne McDuffie pioneered your collection, True Believer, when he helped develop the company’s first superhero trading cards. He also scripted numerous stories for Marvel. His first major work was Damage Control, a miniseries about the company that shows up between issues and tidies up the mess left by the latest round of superhero/supervillain battles. A brilliant concept that looked at the real economic repercussions of what superhero comics take for granted. That sort of “fresh viewpoint” was an earmark of many of his scripts.

In the early 1990s, wanting to express a multicultural sensibility that he felt was missing in comic books, McDuffie and three partners founded Milestone Media. In speaking about the thought process behind milestone, and why it needed to exist, McDuffie explained:

“If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor. We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn’t do just one book. We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that’s wider than the world we’ve seen before.”

He wanted to bring real voices of diversity to comics, not the “spirited tokenism” that had come before. That sort of “cast of Star Trek” writing can only take you so far, and McDuffie had a vision of pushing ethnically diverse characters forward. Milestone, whose characters include the African-American Static, Icon, and Hardware; the Asian-American Xombi, and the multi-ethnic superhero group the Blood Syndicate, which include black, Asian and Latino men and women, debuted its titles in 1993 through a distribution deal with DC Comics. Serving as editor-in-chief, McDuffie created or co-created many characters, including Static….which of course later became the animated series Static Shock.

I referenced Icon above because it was my favorite of the Milestone line, and also because I feel that McDuffie did some really interesting things with the plotline. Icon is basically Milestone’s Superman, with similar powers. The execution of the story makes him far more interesting than a Superman knock off, however.

In 1839, an alien starliner malfunctioned and exploded, jettisoning a life-pod in the middle of a cotton field in the American South. The pod automatically altered the appearance of its passenger, named Arnus, to mimic the first sentient life-form who discovered him. That life-form was an enslaved black woman named Miriam, who saw the pod crash land and adopted Arnus as her son.

So…McDuffie has taken a story very similar to the Superman origin, and altered it very subtly in order to provide a unique African American voice. Miriam performs the same function as the Kents…kindly, warm, and loving…but unlike the Kents who are by dint of their skin color a part of the privileged class, Arnus has a much different experience. An experience that a life pod would not correct for, if constructed by an an advanced space Collective that had already put racial discrimination behind it.

In the present, Arnus is still alive. He did not age visibly beyond adulthood; to disguise this fact, he periodically assumes the identity of his own son. By the late 20th century, he is posing as Augustus Freeman IV, the great-grandson of his original human identity. Still marooned, Arnus/Freeman waits for Earth’s technology to catch up to his lifepod’s. Secretly possessing superpowers that belie his human appearance, he has always performed quiet acts of charity.

So…to put a fine point on it…Icon is a hero before he becomes a superhero, by using his advanced knowledge to be charitable, and periodically to use his powers to do the right thing.

However, when Freeman’s house is broken into, he uses his powers for the first time in decades, an action witnessed by one of the intruders, Raquel Ervin, an idealistic teenage girl who was born in Paris Island, the poorest, most gang-ridden neighborhood in Dakota City. Her prospects seemed fairly bleak until this encounter with Freeman. After seeing Freeman use his powers, Raquel persuades him to become a superhero named Icon, with herself as his sidekick, Rocket.

Icon is portrayed as a very intelligent, somewhat stiff kind of person. Due to his upper-class job as a corporate lawyer and “proper” way of speaking, he is often criticized as being a “sell out” or “white washed”. This echoes a very meaningful conversation I had with an administrator during a recent training at school…the idea that the things that might make one financially successful in our society might be seen as an overall betrayal of the African American home culture. Whether that is true or not, Dwayne McDuffie had the COURAGE to make that sort of internal conflict one of the central character points of Icon.

He brought voices to superhero comics that had never been heard before. I looked forward to his work, and miss it now that he is gone.

About the art…that’s Icon standing protectively with our hero, in all his awesomeness. I wanted some tough looking alien or space goons that looked like they could actually give a couple of nigh invulnerable Alien Americans a bit of grief. I thought about using Stormtroopers, but I think that I use the visual lexicon of Star Wars a bit too much. Also…they aren’t very tough. I thought about Skrulls of some sort, but I’m bored of drawing those guys right now. Instead, we have these high tech generic men.

Also…throughout his run, Icon was never given the blind trust that a Silver Age Superman of Batman had. It made his adventures all that more interesting. It was subtle…it wasn’t like police actively distrusted him…but he was a man with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men who put on a costume and kind of…meddled. His relationship with law enforcement could change, was flexible. Like many of the plot points that Dwayne McDuffie came up with, it was nuanced, sometimes subtle, sometimes a cliffhanger.

About cliffhangers…

Long Beach Comic Con was proud to announce on September 27th 2014 the beginning of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. The only comics award of its kind, the inaugural Dwayne McDuffie Award will be granted the weekend of February 28, 2015 to an American comics work, published in print or digitally in 2014, deemed by the Selection Committee to promote diversity. In the spirit of Dwayne McDuffie himself, “promoting diversity” can be judged as either broadening the range of characters portrayed in comics, or adding to the variety of creators contributing to the medium.

Because we will be ending Black History month with an award in his name, I felt that a good start to it would be celebrating the work that made his name, and thus the award, so prestigious.

Next Issue: Power Ranger Politics! Be there!


2 thoughts on “Black History Month: Dwayne McDuffie

  1. Did you know Dwayne? From his wiki page it looks like he lived in Sherman Oaks before he passed away. I was wondering if your paths had crossed.

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