Of the world’s guilty pleasures the guiltiest are comic books. There are few things more useless than an old comic book. Certainly, there are a few that are worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to a collector, but with those rare exceptions most aren’t worth the paper they’ve printed on.
But comic books can still be fun and you can’t minimize the value of simple entertainment. On rare occasions, comics can be more than junk food for the eyes. They can actually be educating and doggone it a source of enlightenment.
I’m very saddened by Dwayne McDuffie’s untimely passage. I loved his Milestone work, especially Hardware and Icon. I’m going to out on a limb here, but I think it’s a pretty sturdy one: McDuffie was the most important Black man in comics.
It’s difficult to explain why McDuffie made such an impact if you have never read comics or stopped a long time ago. When Milestone launched its first wave of comic books with Icon, Hardware, Static and the Blood Syndicate, they were simultaneously familiar, yet unique. Icon was the Superman of the Milestone universe. Hardware it’s Iron Man. Static channeled Spider-Man teenage angst while Blood Syndicate was a X-Men mash-up of social misfits gifted and cursed with extraordinary powers.
Simply put, there had never been anything like Milestone Media. Black super heroes such as Marvel’s Black Panther, Storm and Luke Cage had been around for a while (DC Comics lagged a bit behind with Black Lightning, but gained ground with the introduction of Cyborg in The Teen Titans and John Stewart as a Green Lantern). Unfortunately, too many heroes of color were written as broadly silly and at times offensive stereotypes by White writers whose familiarity with Blacks seemed to have come from watching too much prime time television.
McDuffie (along with Denys Cowan, Derek T. Dingle and Michael Davis) formed Milestone Media in 1993, as an imprint distributed by DC Comics. Finally, there were some super heroes for those fans whose reality was different from millionaire playboys and their boy sidekicks. Milestone sort of short-changed the sisters with only Icon’s teenage sidekick, Rocket, but it was refreshing to see Black super heroes who weren’t Xeroxed copies of a White one (John Stewart), angry Black men (Cyborg, Rage, Night Thrasher), overly noble and regal (Black Panther, Storm) or exaggerated buffoons with plenty of muscle but short on brains (Luke Cage).
The problem wasn’t there were no Black super heroes. The problem was they lacked authenticity. McDuffie resolved that in the very first issue of Hardware. The protagonist, Curtis Metcalf was a brilliant engineer who was very much the Angry Black Man, but his rage was spawned not because his parents had been gunned down by a thug or of some grave injustice he had suffered. Metcalf was pissed at his boss for turning him down for a promotion and wounding his pride in the process.
As an editor and writer at Marvel, McDuffie was relegated to second and third tier comics such as Damage Control and Deathlok. It wasn’t until later after he had established himself at Milestone and his work as a writer and story editor for the Justice League animated series did he get his shot at DC and Marvel’s premier titles. I have the distinct feeling when McDuffie penned these words in Hardware#1 he was articulating through the character he had created the frustrations he felt as a cog in the corporate comics machine.
“When I was a kid, I used to have this parakeet. And sometimes, when I’d open up his cage to clean it… he’d escape. The little bird would see the backyard and make his move. Invariably, he’d head straight for the window, fast as he could. And inevitably, crack his head on the windowpane… a barrier of glass, unseen and incomprehensible to him. So he’d try again, over and over… until, spent and defeated, he couldn’t try any longer. My bird made a common error. He mistook being out of his cage… for being free. The parakeet died a long time ago, without ever enjoying the freedom of the yard. The boy grew into a man, who spent many years bumping his head against a similar barrier: a ceiling of glass, unseen and incomprehensible to him. The lesson is clear: escape is impossible until one perceives all of the barriers. My name is Curtis Metcalf. But you can call me Hardware.”
He never turned his back on comics, he worked hard to make them better, more diverse and more representative. He was proud, but not overbearing, even when Marvel gave him a raw deal by yanking him off Fantastic Four to clear the way for Mark Millar and then DC followed suit by mucking up his Justice League run.
He took it in stride. He handled it with class and didn’t stomp off in a huff. And he wrote some damn good comics and animated shows. But he wasn’t afraid to step on toes and drop the knowledge on some knucklehead when they offended him. Most famously, McDuffie’s sneering “Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers” memo skewered the idiotic influx of Black heroes and their pimped out skateboards.
After I became aware McDuffie had passed away from complications following an unspecified surgical procedure, I felt a sense of loss though I had never met the man. Maybe my familiarity with his impressive body of work made me feel like I had. Because in the final analysis it’s the body of work that endures even when the flesh no longer does. That kind of immortality is what every writer hopes for.
McDuffie never publicly called out the White fanboy base out as racists. He didn’t have to get up in their face to point it out. There were howls of indignation when he added the Black Panther and Storm as two members of the Fantastic Four and promptly had the Panther punch out the cosmic-powered Silver Surfer. His multi-racial Justice League was both groundbreaking and infuriating to critics who denounced it as “affirmative action comics.” McDuffie didn’t back down or back off as he squarely addressed the issue in this scene from the undistributed documentary, Shaft or Sidney Poitier: Black Masculinity in Comic Books
It takes courage to bite the hand that feeds you and tell folks hard truths they would rather not here. Comic books are supposed to be an escape from the real world, but the problems of the real world have a way of creeping into comics. McDuffie made his point without pointing fingers. He simply gave the reader a worldview they might never had known existed. The tagline for the debut issue of Static was a play on the character’s name: “STATIC: You don’t start none, won’t be none.”
Sometimes you have to start some static. Until someone comes along and points out what’s wrong when others see no problem at all, nothing changes and McDuffie was a game changer. The depiction of Blacks in comics is a bit more sensitive and a lot smarter than it was when Luke Cage was running around exclaiming, “Sweet Christmas” and shuckin’ and jivin’ in ways that were painful to see. McDuffie made the imaginary world of comics reflect the world a lot more accurately that it ever had before.
Even Clarence Thomas recognized that. Yeah, that’s right. That Clarence Thomas.
Godspeed, Mr. McDuffie and God bless your family. Goodbye game changer.