Thursday, March 3, 2011

The GNYC Profile: Dwayne McDuffie: A Career of Diversity


Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I want to write stories about people,” Dwayne McDuffie said. “Things happen to people. I think my disappointment with the current superhero comics is that, mostly, they don’t have supporting casts; superheroes only interact with other superheroes and supervillians; and they don’t seem to have lives outside of their work. It’s hard for me to connect, as a reader, to people who go out and save lives every week but don’t have lives and have anything in common with me.”

Dwayne is sitting in the Ritz Carlton lobby in New York City, the day before Valentine’s Day, leaning his tall frame in towards. Tomorrow, he’ll be at a screening of All-Star Superman, his animated adaptation of the Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely comic book. Eight days from now, he’ll unexpectedly die of complications from surgery and the comic book world (at the very least) will be without one of its most distinctive and talented voices.


 
“With comics, you don’t always have solid beginning, middle and end stories to adapt from. We’ll take the hook or a bit we like and then find another story in it, or develop a story from it,” he says of All-Star. “This was a strange thing, where my biggest problem was an embarrassment of riches: we had so many wonderful things in All-Star and only seventy-five minutes to tell it in, that I knew good stuff had to go. I made a fairly rigid rule for myself: I picked a through line for the movie and got rid of everything that wasn’t along that line. If something didn’t fit that, I didn’t put it in the movie, even though in a couple of cases that meant losing my favorite scenes.”

All-Star takes twelve issues of Morrison’s trademark super-dense high concept work, the iconic classic Superman story, and repackages it as a streamlined short animated film. The effect is a punctuated version of the original, but retains the gee-whiz feeling, absurdity, and alien-ness of the original. 

For McDuffie, it was another example of more creative satisfaction in a field derivative of the comic book one he’d originally embarked upon decades back. The irony of his career is that while comic books chewed him up and spit him out, he kept one foot in that world while distilling the superhero’s essence down in several animation projects—something he didn’t see coming back in the late ‘80s, when he entered as an assistant at Marvel Comics.

“I like Jim Shooter a great deal and learned a whole bunch from him,” Dwayne said of his arrival at Marvel, after the controversial Editor-in-Chief’s reign had just ended. “I worked under him later at VALIANT on other projects. I think he’s a terrific creator, but whoever’s fault it was, there was a lot of tension at Marvel. He was seen as the source of it, and when he left there was a relief, a ‘Now we can do what we want to do’ kind of thing. But I was a kid, and I didn’t even understand the politics of it.

            “I was Bob Budiansky’s assistant for Special Projects. We made posters, and toys, and comics that were toy line comics or Captain America Versus the Asthma Monster. For anything that wasn’t a standard monthly comic, we had to figure out how to make it.”


            While working on licensed comics like Elvira and Nightmare on Elm Street, Dwayne sold his first script to Marvel. Damage Control followed the trials and tribulations of the superhero clean-up service in Marvel’s New York City. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Damage Control is one of the least noted postmodern comics of the time, with a strong dose of satire missing in the then-quickly darkening world of mainstream comic books.

“Traditionally Marvel has been urban while DC has been suburban,” Dwayne noted. “DC was the Kiwanis Club Justice League and Marvel was Peter Parker trying to save money to buy a bike so he might look cool. With DC, Barry Allen gets hit by lightning and gains super powers, and immediately starts helping people. Peter Parker gets bitten by the radioactive spider and goes ‘How am I going to make money off of this?’ It’s a more practical and naturalistic approach to fantasy. Part of that was DC has fictional cities, and Marvel has New York. Other than Spider-Man swinging around, it looked like New York, with taxi drivers yelling at you, and it felt more our idea of the city.”

Damage Control was Dwayne’s own comic book sitcom, one that tapped into the practicalities of a real New York City inhabited by superheroes. As with his later work, the focus was on the characterization of the Damage Control members themselves, whether dealing with a anal retentive cosmic demi-god, or trying to get Dr. Doom to pay his bill.

Dwayne concocted another pitch for Marvel, this time after realizing the absence of black superheroes across the company, as well as their misrepresentation when cast in the pages of Marvel’s books.

“[Minority characters] wasn’t a priority for the company, at all,” Dwayne notes. “It wasn’t that they were making a decision to do things. They just weren’t doing things.”

“Marvel had eight black characters,” Dwayne said. “Two of them were black kids on skateboards, which I found odd. I figured to just go with it, and I pitched a team of four (because four is better than two). Basically, I wanted them to think a little bit harder, to try to present a range of characters and not do the same thing over and over.”

The result? Dwayne’s pitch for Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers, a biting satirical piece that would do Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD Magazine proud. Superhero team New Warriors had just come out, featuring skateboard-riding black character Night Thrasher, while skateboarder Rocket Racer was also kicking around the Marvel books. Dwayne’s pitch called for Night Thrasher, Rocket Racer, and Dwayne’s creation Dark Wheelie—another “black guy on a skateboard”—to team up and fight crime.

Dwayne’s pitch also went into detail about the need for black characters to have “a smart white friend” to help them out of any pinch, as well as an “attractive, white female friend” for moral support. The hilarious pitch ends with a single hanging line: “Have I made my point?”


But it was Marvel who would inadvertently lead Dwayne into a partnership that bolstered the black superhero in mainstream comics. When Dwayne went freelance and launched an updated version of Marvel’s cyborg character Deathlok in 1990, now an African-American man in the modern day, rather than a white cyborg from the future, original artist Jackson “Butch” Guice had to drop off two issues in. Dwayne’s replacement would become one of his staunchest collaborators.

“Butch couldn’t finish and I hadn’t yet met Denys Cowan,” Dwayne said. “I actually thought he was a woman, because of the way he spelled his name. He had done an interview and was asked if there were any characters he wanted to draw and he said ‘Deathlok’. We called him and he did it.”

The early 1990s was the last commercially successful period for comic books: not only had the direct market of comic book shops boomed, while the newsstand was still a presence, but a speculator’s craze made them hot commodities. It was an eventual glut that nearly killed the entire business but, for a while, the rules for independent creators were being rewritten.

“There had been a lot of conversations, generally in the industry, about controlling the stories and owning your characters,” Dwayne reflected. “Another part of it was Denys and I both had an interest in doing multi-cultural characters, which was not a priority at Marvel. They didn’t care if you did them or not, and wouldn’t say no to it. Denys will tell you that, when he was an intern, the older black artists had talked about doing that fifteen years before. It just so happened that there was a window because (one) the industry was exploding and there was a need for more product, and (two) there was this general sense in the air that if you didn’t work for Marvel and DC, you could go off and make a living doing your own. We were trying to do our thing, while Image was planning it but hadn’t announced it yet. 

“We got this gigantic royalty check for Deathlok, and I was like ‘Denys, I think we can afford to do this.’ He called up Michael Davis and Derek Dingle, who is the unsung genius of the thing, because without his business knowledge we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few months (like many other groups of artists who got together to come up with their own stuff). Derek’s publishing experience comes from Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Black Enterprise magazine. He knew how to run a magazine and publication and taught us a bunch of things. 

“I was also fortunate in that, when I worked editorial at Marvel, I didn’t do regular comics. Every single project we did was a new business plan: ‘We’re going to buy up the new Marvel superhero cartoons and sell them on VHS, because people seem to be buying a lot of these videotape things.’ That was the kind of stuff I was working on, where I had to learn how things worked, and was using that knowledge when we were doing Milestone.”


            With McDuffie’s editorial experience, Cowan’s narrative power, Davis’s roster of up-and-coming talent cultivated through his Bad Boys Studio, and Dingle’s business acumen, Milestone’s original intent was to self-publish with their own roster of talent on board. Their inaugural titles were Icon, about a Superman-like alien hero who landed in America during times of slavery, and was prodded into becoming a symbol by his teenage sidekick; Hardware, a man in a suit of armor built at the expense of the crooked employer he was contractually shackled to; and Static, a teenager with electrical powers who fought gangs in his literal schoolyard.

“Our original plan was to just self-publish, and we very quickly had an offer from Universal to buy us out,” Dwayne revealed. “We wanted to control our stuff, so there wasn’t a deal there, but that led to the old M.A.N.T.I.S. series that Sam Hamm and Denys Cowan worked on. Denys designed the first costume, with the trenchcoat. It was like the Green Hornet as The Question.

            “They did a TV movie with Sam Raimi that was great, and it did really well. They bought the series and then told Sam Raimi ‘You did really great, but you don’t get superheroes,’” Dwayne laughed. “They brought another guy in. I don’t know what happened to Sam. That seems a shame.”

            The M.A.N.T.I.S. telefilm, broadcast on the Fox network in 1994, followed a paralyzed physicist who built a suit of armor to fight crime. From his two African sidekicks to love interest, M.A.N.T.I.S. was a strong black character who soon endured the fate of many well-intentioned black characters, when it came time for his subsequent TV series: he was whitewashed.

“The guy who ran the show felt that it was impossible for a black person to be a physicist,” Dwayne said. “He said that in the Wall Street Journal and made it so that the hero wasn’t the guy that built the suit. I have a Graduate degree in physics and I know a thing or two about [physics, myself]. They thought it was too unrealistic and had it invented by a white scientist, so M.A.N.T.I.S. was now just the guy who drove the car.”

So, M.A.N.T.I.S. lasted for a full season, but barely, with the show struggling to last. The final episode involved M.A.N.T.I.S.’s death was, according to Dwayne, “The best ending to any TV show.” The hero and his love interest weren’t just stepped on by a dinosaur, but a budget-saving invisible dinosaur. 

When M.A.N.T.I.S. died, however, his true origins didn’t entirely go with him, as Dwayne revealed:

“In fact, a deep dark secret: M.A.N.T.I.S., his name is Miles Hawkins, and he is Static’s (Virgil Hawkins’) uncle. We had set up a crossover for the comics, but when the two Sams (Raimi and Hamm) were out, we just forgot about it. It was all set up and there were some sideways references to M.A.N.T.I.S. in the early issues of Static, because we were planning that crossover.”


With the Universal catastrophe behind them, the Milestone partners went to find a new partner in publishing, and first aimed their sights on the comic book companies.

“I wanted to go to Marvel and do Epic, where we could do a six-issue run and then get it back, with the added advantage of all the eyeballs that Marvel would have brought us,” Dwayne said. “Denys was a big fan of DC and had a good relationship with them. Jenette Kahn, particularly, wanted to do different kinds of comics. There was Paradox Press already, and they were experimenting with Vertigo. There was room for another line, and it seemed like a good fit. Derek was attracted to DC because they were a Time Warner company, and he saw synergistic possibilities which really paid off when Static Shock! got on the air.”

            Milestone benefited from the publishing channels of DC Comics, while also maintaining their autonomy through their own editorial offices and operations in Midtown Manhattan.

“We had offices on 23rd Street and had seventeen full-time employees and 130 freelancers,” Dwayne recalled. “We produced a cool three to eleven titles a month, depending on how things were going. We had total editorial control. The deal we had with DC was that they could ask us to make changes (they never did) and they had the choice of publishing a book or not publishing it: if they didn’t like it, they didn’t have to publish it.”

The Milestone comics line had a modest 1993 launch with four core titles: Icon, Static, Blood Syndicate, and Hardware. The books were united through their presence in the fictional Dakota City (re: Chicago or, more likely, Detroit), where an event called the “Big Bang” produced a handful of superpowered heroes and villians. Created or co-created by McDuffie (who fully wrote both Icon and Hardware), the Milestone characters’ lived in a more real world than their DC or Marvel counterparts, as they dealt with real world issues in a non-Afterschool Special, and very human, way: Icon is called to become a hero by his sidekick, a teenage girl who deals with her own pregnancy by an irresponsible teen gang member; Static is a teen caught in the Big Bang while pondering killing a school bully (he doesn’t); Hardware is a frustrated inventor whose inventions are all taken by his crooked employer; while the Blood Syndicate is a gang that skirts the line between good and bad. 
Of all the Milestone comics, the most synonymous with McDuffie’s creative plight is Hardware. More than just another guy in a suit of armor, what makes Hardware so special is his character arc starting as a typical ‘90s anti-hero (he kills and maims several opponents in the first issues) to his own inner desire to become something closer to a real hero, his changing of a mission of vengeance to a mission for justice. 

In Hardware #1, his alter ego Curtis Metcalf recalls a caged parakeet he had as a child, and the few times the bird would get released from his wire prison, it would crack its head against the clear glass window pane. It would, as Curtis says, “mistake being out of its cage for being free”. It’s a parallel to McDuffie’s Marvel days, banging his head against a creative window pane out of frustration; and is further drawn out when Metcalf’s employer Alva refused to even grant him royalties on the inventions that benefitted the company.

Where Dwayne’s Marvel work was all well-crafted and competent, it’s with Milestone that his distinct voice really developed, his personal investment in characters that weren’t being signed off to a major company shone through. His penchant for parody and satire shone through in Icon, when he introduced ‘70s blaxploitation superhero Buck Wild; working only for hire and sporting a ‘fro and skimpy yellow costume open at the chest, Buck was Dwayne’s on take on Marvel’s Luke Cage, Power Man. Throughout the course of Icon, Buck’s revealed as having been the living embodiment of every black superhero stereotype, from the illiterate ghetto thug to an uber-African. By calling out the worst of black superheroes in the pastiche of Buck Wild, McDuffie provided an instant contrast to the strength of Milestone’s positive African-American heroes like Icon.

Milestone enjoyed creative freedom through DC, they did, however, suffer interference from the now-defunct Comics Code censorship board. During the existence of a newsstand, the Comics Code was a necessary evil for distribution out of mainstream comic book shops.

“We constantly had problems with them,” Dwayne admits. “The first issue of Icon was wrapped in a polybag for language and then Ivan Velez, who wrote Blood Syndicate, really enjoyed putting in filthy Spanish swearing. The Comics Code didn’t get hep to until issue #8 or #9 and then went ‘What does that mean!?’ We came up with the scribble so, rather than doing the ampersands, we had a Snoopy dark cloud that represented a curse word.

The Milestone books even enjoyed a crossover with the then successful Superman titles. Superman had just been killed off and resurrected by DC Comics the year before in a media blitz that tapped into the speculative nature of the 1990s comic book industry. While the comics fans knew that, yes, Superman would be back—eventually—the news world played it up as if his death would be permanent and the American icon would disappear forever. DC Comics even put out a collector’s edition wrapped in a black plastic bag, as countless people lined up outside comic book stores. Some were there out of morbid curiosity, while most were hoping the issue would send their kids to college down the road.

“For whatever reason, Milestone Comics’ best city was Bangor, Maine. We sold like X-Men in Bangor, Maine,” Dwayne said of the city that is approximately 96% white. “We still don’t know why. A store there invited us and the Superman crew, who were red-hot from the Death of Superman, out to their convention. The whole Superman editorial team, and everybody who worked on the Milestone comics were out there, and we were having a great time. In a hotel lobby, people started arguing who would win.

“So, we started to plan the crossover, and it was entirely the teams having fun and wanting to do a story together. I was thinking, as a publisher, that this was great and would introduce Milestone to new readers. We did an issue in a DC book, back to a Milestone, and then back to a DC, and then ended it in an issue that we co-published.”

Unfortunately, the crossover was only half-successful—for the best-selling Superman titles—as retailers were hesitant to try out the Milestone books in their stores. 

“The retailers did not order the Milestone chapters and didn’t even try,” Dwayne admitted. “But, it was a cool story and everyone had a good time.”


The obscene success of the ‘90s speculator’s market only lasted a few short years, as comic store owners found themselves with a glut of overstock, non-returnable comic books piling up and leaving them at a loss. The death of the newsstand didn’t help, nor did the downfall of Marvel Comics’ own short-lived distributor.

“We wrapped up because of Black October in 1995. We were looking at our sales and were losing about 500 copies a month,” Dwayne remembered. “In ’95 there was a month, where speculators tried to sell their extremely valuable Spawn #1s and realized they couldn’t, so everybody was dumping them. You know when you’d go to comic conventions and there’d be nothing but piles of Spawn #1 and Youngblood #1; everyone thought they’d send their kids to college on that stuff. Crazy.

“There were eleven million copies of The Death of Superman printed! [People are going] ‘This is going to be really valuable.’ I don’t think so!” Dwayne laughed.

“The orders from September to October dropped like 50% or so. We’d been getting nervous for a long time, because DC had pulled us off the newsstands, and we’d done really well on newsstands. That really threw us. They dropped us because they’d taken everything off except for Superman and Batman, since they were losing their rackspace. 

            “We were already nervous about that. I was trying to put together a black and white magazine that was ad-driven, so that we could get back that newsstand. I couldn’t convince DC of that, and I think it would have worked then, but certainly wouldn’t work now. We saw the numbers drop and knew we were in trouble. We were starting to push our work more and get more licensing, hoping we could ride it out. Then that month happened, and books that were selling 115 to 120,000 copies were now selling 50,000. We knew it wasn’t going to get any better. 

“Basically, we figured out the month when we would no longer be in profit, and gave the artists and writers that much time to finish up the stories. DC’s feelings were hurt, and we turned all those books in and they were never published.”


With the last bunch of Milestone issues still unpublished and sitting in a hypothetical desk somewhere, the dream seemed to be over. Or was it? Enter Alan Burnett, producer of the highly successful Batman animated series at Warner Brothers, in 2000.  

“Every year, Alan Burnett, one of the geniuses behind Batman: The Animated Series, would pitch an Icon cartoon,” Dwayne said. “Every year, and he could never sell it. One year, when he was showing the boards, the studio saw pictures of Static and asked ‘Who’s that kid flying?’ Alan, being a good salesman, said ‘Oh, that’s your next star!’ He pitched Static there in the room and sold it that day.

            “The way I found out about it was with a phone call. They said ‘We want to develop Static for TV. Can we?’

            “I was like ‘Yeah.’ It worked out beautifully, and we were really lucky to have people at the top of their game. These were people from Batman: The Animated Series and they were also doing Batman Beyond and Superman, and were looking for something else to do. We later had crossovers. We also had better ratings, because we were on Saturday during the daytime, and they were on at night.”

            Static Shock! involved already had the involvement of Denys Cowan as producer and it was inevitable that McDuffie come on board:

“Alan called me up and said, five to six episodes into the first season and he wasn’t crazy about the scripts coming in. He asked ‘You want to try one?’ I’d never written any before, but it worked out pretty well. Then I went ‘I want to do this,’ and tried to get a job on the show but couldn’t,” Dwayne laughed. 

Static Shock! was his first foray into animation, after the disappointment of the dying comic book industry. The show not only aired for four years, but Dwayne won a Humanitas Award, and the show received four Emmy nominations (winning one for Music). While it ironically didn’t result in a job for McDuffie, it did lead him to one with the Cartoon Network’s Justice League cartoon, a stint that redefined his career as an animation writer.

            “Static was on the same floor as Justice League and they were all friends,” Dwayne said.
“Paul Dini had injured himself between finished scripts, and they were looking for someone to finish really quick. So, I did that and then wrote two more, and the next season Bruce Timm asked me if I wanted to come out and be a story editor. I went out to do three episodes and am still here.”


            Dwayne started on Justice League in 2003 and stayed with the show until it ended in 2006. The gig was surprisingly more spontaneous than some of Dwayne’s comic book work had been, as he constantly ended and restarted the show.

Justice League thought it was cancelled every season, so we wrote three season finales. The first time, we blew up the Watchtower and revealed one of the members was a traitor and kicked her off of the team. Then they asked ‘Do you want to do twenty-six more episodes?’

            “So we put everything back together and wrote another ending,” Dwayne said. “Then we needed another finale, so I wrote one that was not only a finale to the old Batman Beyond show, but that linked every single Bruce Timm series together and ends with this great ‘There will always be a Batman’ moment, recapping the first Batman scene in the first episodes. We were like ‘This is great, what a good way to go out.’

            “Then, they asked ‘Do you guys want to do thirteen more?’ Then it remained cancelled.”


            McDuffie made a brief return to comics in 2007, as the writer of Fantastic Four, teaming the group up with Black Panther and Storm (with a guest appearance by his version of Deathlok from the early ‘90s). 

“I am really happy with the Fantastic Four work, and thought that came out really well, especially since I was only being assigned it two to three issues at a time,” Dwayne said. “The idea was to give Mark Millar extra time to get situated. At first, it was like ‘Do you want to do a Fantastic Four?’ 

“Then it was like [regular writer] ‘Straczynski needs time to write a Clint Eastwood movie: do you want to write two more of his issues?’ 

“And then ‘Do you want to do three more?’

            “I couldn’t plan the whole thing, but could only work in pieces. I think it came out pretty smooth and I don’t think it really shows. It was probably my favorite comic as a kid, and I always wanted to write it.”


            McDuffie had a return to DC Comics which, unfortunately, was less successful. While they were licensing the Milestone characters for inclusion in the DC Universe, Dwayne was writing the Justice League comic book. The editorial stance at DC Comics had changed since Dwayne was last involved with the company: the monthly comics were not only more tightly wound together, but also revolved around regular company-wide crossovers. 

            Dwayne put the Milestone characters in a crossover with the JLA, to reintroduce them as part of the mainstream continuity, and also did his damnedest to navigate the editorial waters of DC Comics. One of his first storylines involved the character Vixen in a battle against the trickster god Anansi.

            “No one has the patience to let a story unfold anymore,” Anansi laments. A couple of issues later, overwhelmed with superheroes, he notes “Excessive continuity is always a mistake.”

            Anansi was clearly the mouthpiece for McDuffie’s own frustrations, frustrations that came to a head when the outspoken writer was ousted from the book for revealing the behind-the-scenes nature of writing Justice League at DC.

“It is a comic that touches every other book,” Dwayne noted. “It used to be that Justice League was the book you bought if you wanted to see all the heroes, but now you buy all the big crossovers every month, so there’s nothing really special about any of it.

            “Fantastic Four is a team, but it’s about that family; Justice League is the all-star team, but if you see the all-star team everywhere, so what?”


            Back in the animation world, McDuffie was ironically more freed up to write DC’s biggest characters in a more mainstream venue than when writing them in comic book form. As DC stretched out to new markets as a newly-branded media company, they started producing direct-to-DVD animated films. McDuffie, naturally, was in on the ground floor with his movie Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.

“That was an old Justice League script, and was actually a bridge between Justice League and Justice League Unlimited,” Dwayne revealed. “The reason we didn’t do it was because we didn’t have enough staff. It turned out that starting the new series took more bodies than we thought, and we didn’t have enough bodies to work on the movie and the show. Since the show was a priority, we stuck with the show. The time never came along. I kept asking about making it a three-parter, and Bruce went ‘No, it’s a movie.’ 

“That’s my Bruce imitation,” Dwayne laughed.

            “He called me up years after I’d forgotten about it and said ‘Hey, we can do this as long as it’s not part of the old continuity.” 

“My recent experience is that I like animation a lot more than comics,” he admitted later. “I have a lot more freedom to do what I want to with animation than I do in comics. There are a lot of managers in comics, but in TV there’s the network, the show runner, and there’s maybe a guy at the studio who cares. There’s three people, maybe, and you call them on the phone and go ‘I was thinking of doing this…’ and they go ‘You can’t do that.’ 

“Then you go ‘Please,’ and they’ll go ‘Okay.’ That’s really the whole job.

“You don’t have to worry about what’s happening in every other series affecting your show. In comics, it’s like ‘Superman was bit by a Kryptonian snake and now he has brown eyes.’

            “‘Okay, I’ll rewrite it so he has brown eyes.’

            “‘Oh, now he’s dead.’ It got to be really frustrating for me.”

“I had a really good experience recently. I talk to colleges every once in a while, and was at an honors English class on superhero comics (and went ‘I was in college at the wrong time’). I was really nervous, because here were these people who were literally just born when these books came out. I remember, when I was a kid, I’d read books from the ‘50s and thought they looked like crap. I thought that’s how they’d react to it. But they seemed to like it better and felt that it had more to say to them in terms of issues that they were interested in rather than big crossovers with superheroes on both sides. That was gratifying.”

            Another frustration of McDuffie’s was with his Milestone characters at DC. Last year saw the debut of the two-issue Milestone Forever series, which tied up the loose ends from the older continuity, and also streamlined the characters and stories into DC’s. Static had a short-lived stint in the Teen Titans comic, while other Milestone characters teamed up with DC mainstays in the Brave and the Bold anthology book.
“I talk to them all the time, and they’re really excited about this stuff,” Dwayne said of DC. “Like when they got Static and put him in Teen Titans: that’s a genius idea. People would be introduced to him that didn’t know him. Then they said ‘We’re going to do his own book.’ So they take him out of Teen Titans. That’s dumb. 

“They say ‘We’ve got plans in Teen Titans that don’t include him,’ and I go ‘Okay, that’s fair.’ In the last issue, they take his powers away, and then it’s a year and a half to two years before his new book comes out, and he can’t guest star in anything because he doesn’t have any powers.

“Before, it would have been a spin-off of Teen Titans, which would have brought more readers. Now it’s ‘Oh, yeah, it’s that guy who was on Teen Titans once.’ Then when the book starts, he doesn’t have powers. We’ll see. I’m hoping that people give it a shot. It’s a very appealing character but I don’t know if there’s room for it to succeed. When was the last big new superhero character?”

DC bolstered creating new, multi-ethnic characters in 2006 with Blue Beetle (now a Latino teen), El Diablo (also Latino) and The Atom (now a Chinese scientist). Both titles were cancelled due to low sales, with only Blue Beetle having a presence in any of the DC titles. Around the same time, DC has revived older, dead versions of characters like The Atom, Green Lantern and The Flash, versions more familiar to the mostly male readership past their thirties.

“The readers that are left are only interested in things that were popular when they were twelve years old,” Dwayne noted. “They’re only interested in Hal Jordan Green Lantern and Barry Allen Flash. They just brought Barry Allen back and he’s been dead thirty years. Who’s that nostalgia for? I’m in my forties and I barely remember him. But when they announced that he’s coming back, people got really excited. Apparently, the core audience who is still around are people who are five to ten years older than I am.

“They’re not interested otherwise. Static’s not new, he’s eighteen years old, but to them he’s in that hole between 1978 and 2004, where none of it counts. It doesn’t matter.”

“I look at the new Blue Beetle, which was really well done and really entertaining, even though it didn’t sell at all. The new things in the universe are pretty much impossible, and new things out of the universe are pretty unlikely, because people won’t try new things. I hope I’m wrong and there’s some wonderful new thing. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Static will break, but I don’t think people will try it, or that people at comics stores will even care. That book should have come out in 2002 when it was the #2 cartoon on television, and not 2010 when it was in reruns on Disney XD.”

But McDuffie did still have his fingers crossed, both for a new Static as well as a new Xombi, a Milestone title rife with horror elements and psychological underpinnings.


“I’m hopeful, but I actually don’t think it’s going to work. I think Xombi’s going to be an excellent book, if it finds an audience. I don’t think Static has a chance,” he admitted. “The original writer of Xombi is back. DC said ‘We want to do a new Xombi comic,’ and I said ‘You can do it, but only if John Rosen writes it. Other than that, I don’t care.’ John’s writing it and it will be as weird and wonderful as John is.”

Dwayne McDuffie is a fine example of an exceptional creator the comic book world didn’t know what to do with. Comics, in short, chewed him up and spit him out, for media iterations of those exact same characters and stories to welcome him with open arms.

“I don’t know that comics are viable [anymore],” Dwayne reflected. “It’s a good business to create a license for another business. It’s a good business to sell a toy line, movie, or video game. But comics don’t have decent enough revenue to even pay for themselves, not to mention the effort [put into them].”

“A single issue is not a good unit,” he added. “At DC Comics it’s 20 pages for three bucks. That makes it more expensive than a roller coaster ride, and roller coasters last longer. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to stay in business—and I don’t blame anybody, and if I had the answer I’d give it to them.”

6 comments:

  1. As interesting a look at the inner workings of comics as I've ever read and filtered through the mind and told with honesty by someone who was there. We will indeed miss him, his mind and his distinct creative voice.

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  2. Thank you for this. I teared up a little.

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  3. Great interview. The comics industry--and the world--lost a great man last week.

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  4. An excellent piece, and the best overview of his career I've ever seen.

    Thanks, guys.

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  5. Chris and Seth, thanks so much for this.

    Some years ago, I interviewed Dwayne by e-mail, and it was one of the best experiences I've had in my life. I had always wanted to meet him, tell him thanks for all the work he had done in comics and animation....

    ....now that chance is gone.

    However, overviews like this are welcomed, and are necessary, in order to keep Dwayne's legacy alive. He left us too soon, but he left quite the body of work behind.

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  6. RIP Maestro. One of the best. I like how the guy who wrote a tribute for him that he wouldn't use @ SDCC because they wanted him to change it put it: "Dwayne McDuffie should have been running the comics industry, instead he was barely tolerated." What a waste.

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