“Respect My Craft” – Dwayne McDuffie

In this consumer-based industry, it can be easy to forget the years of hard work that the people in the business put in. Behind every panel, it takes a skilled writer, artist, inker and colorist to make the product complete. Hush Comics’ weekly article “Respect My Craft” will dive into the history of these comic book greats that will hopefully give a new perspective on how the men and women behind the pen (or stylus) contribute to the collective awesome-ness of comic books, or at least give you a reason to invest in their work.

ALL BLACK EVERYTHING

Name: Dwayne McDuffie (R.I.P. 1962-2011)

Profession: Writer, producer, co-founder of Milestone Media

Notable Work: StaticJustice League Unlimited (TV), Ben 10 (TV)

” 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.” Dwayne McDuffie

If you don’t recognize the name, don’t feel bad. Dwayne McDuffie’s name doesn’t carry with it the same weight that Frank Miller or Neal Adams does, but his contributions to the industry can be considered just as important. McDuffie got his start in the industry through hard work and networking. Whomever wrote Avenue Q’s song “What Do You Do With A BA in English?” must have never asked Dwayne McDuffie, because after he obtained his BA in English and MS in Physics (what an interesting combination!) from the University of Michigan, he got a job as a copy editor at Investment Dealors’ Digest, a business magazine. Somehow, a friend of his got him in touch with Marvel Comics, and somehow, McDuffie was on the inside of the comic book industry.

Working under editor Bob Budiansky (Transformer guru who is credited with naming Ratchet and Megatron), McDuffie was part of the team that created the first ever Marvel superhero trading cards. The Marvel gig also gave way to McDuffie’s first comic book writing gig in 1989, when he write the story to Damage Control. The concept of Damage Control, an idea McDuffie co-created with artist Ernie Colon, was  to center around the crew responsible for cleaning up after superheroes who had so carelessly trashed the cities they were “protecting.” Although living in a world of super-powered heroes, the actual Damage Control team is usually made up of people with connections to heroes and community service “volunteers” – heroes who have done the damage. It was teaching a whole new moral to readers: accountability and community service were now being promoted through the lens of Hercules and Ant-Man, and not just in a PSA-type way. It was and still is a great metaphor for how the system uses those with good intentions and work ethic to exploit them.

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In subsequent years, McDuffie worked on a variety of lesser-known comics with Marvel, notably DeathlokCaptain Marvel, and even the comic book adaptation of Double Dragon. A big turning point in McDuffie’s career came when he got a job with an independent company, Harvey Comics, writing a comic book adaptation of the popular Monsters in My Pocket toy line. While the series was only comprised as a four-issue story, the mentorship of editor Sid Jacobson would prove invaluable, as it gave him the confidence to create his own brand. Less than two years later, Dwayne McDuffie, along with Denys Cowan and a brain-trust of African-American comic book talent opened the doors to Milestone Comics.

Milestone Media was a creative team’s dream. All comics were technically published by the machine that is DC Comics. However, they were their own separate identity and had complete creative control over their work, from character changes to product licensing. Milestone caught on fire right away, releasing a multitude of books with various ethnic backgrounds. Taking place in what Milestone called “the Dakotaverse,” named for the midwestern city of Dakota that the story took place in, Milestone was the result of a well-calculated plan by McDuffie. He had laid the groundwork for each character and where they would fit in the Dakotaverse, a feat that took DC and Marvel decades to create.

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Not everybody was impressed though. Some Black comic book writers and artists claimed that Milestone, by working with a DC Comics imprint, had effectively sold out and cornered the market, squeezing out the competition. Don’t hate the player, hate the game, I say. Looking at the bigger picture, Milestone contributed much more than it took away. Milestone’s first releases all focused on real issues that urban kids, adolescents and adults could all relate to: Hardware (A Cog in the Corporate Machine is About to Strip Some Gears) used his intelligence to fight crime, Icon was an alien in a strange planet, The Blood Syndicate were former gang members who chose to do good when they gained super-powers, and of course, Static was just a blerd (Black nerd) trying to get by. In fact, Static became such a popular character among the youth, despite criticism that he was a Black Spider-Man rip-off, that he was awarded his own animated cartoon show, Static Shock.

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After writing almost one dozen episodes of WB’s Static Shock, McDuffie kicked in the proverbial door, writing for some of the most popular animated shows in the 2000’s. You might recognize a few of them: Justice League (a show which he as credited in 69 of the total 91 episodes), Teen TitansWhat’s New, Scooby-Doo?, and Ben 10 (Alien Force and Ultimate Alien). There was merit to his work, as he was promoted from writer to producer to editor in Justice League: Unlimited. One of McDuffie’s greatest accolades is the Humanitas Prize in Children’s animation for the Static Shock episode “Jimmy,” which focuses on violence at school. In addition to his work on television series, McDuffie also produced the DC Animated films: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths Justice League: Doom and All-Star Superman. These were all well-written stories that sit on our shelves – Doom, based of the graphic novel Justice League: Tower of Babel, is still watched periodically.

In what was ultimately and tragically his last hurrah, McDuffie turned back to writing comic books. Right around the time that DC Comics, desperate for readers, began killing off numerous staple characters as the Final Crisis story-line was building (I still hate Final Crisis to this day). Assigned to write a big chunk of the Justice League of America books leading up to Final Crisis, McDuffie became frustrated with the creative teams at DC.  So what did he do? He let people know. In an interview in Lying in the Gutters, McDuffie let it all fly, including not so nice words about DC’s head honchos and creative details of the upcoming issues. He was promptly let go, but fans, to this day, still back McDuffie and his outspoken frustration. To cap off his career, McDuffie worked with DC Comics to release a two-issue series called Milestone Forever, in which the Dakotaverse characters all joined the DC Universe. It was the fitting end to a storied career.

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Tragically, Dwayne McDuffie passed away at the age of 49 after complications during heart surgery. The industry remembers him not for Lying in the Gutters, but for the tremendous amount of heart and soul he poured into his work (I was going to say industry, but that would be everything he stood against). DC Comics and Marvel Comics both made heartfelt tributes to McDuffie:

  • Static’s New 52 reboot saw Virgil Hawkins attending McDuffie High School
  • In an episode of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man named “Damage,” where Spidey is assigned to Damage Control had the CEO named “Mac,” a fictional render of Dwayne McDuffie
  • The DC Animated film Justice League: Doom has a featurette film titled “A Legion of One: The Dwayne McDuffie Story”

Dwayne McDuffie was a pioneer in the comic book industry. Not only did he change the way readers think about multi-cultural characters, but he set a precedence of how to follow your dream and never compromise. It’s an inspiring message that I hope to keep with me and pass onto my children some day – never waiver, never compromise. Some might have seen him as a visionary, and some might see him as a case of “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong.’ Say what you will about him,  but you must respect his craft!

Checked out his bibliography and still want more? Check these books out:

Aside from the comics and animated work he’s done, Dwayne McDuffie doesn’t have a lot lot of material out there. There was, however, a hilarious letter McDuffie wrote about the stereotyping of Black superheroes, where you can find his plans (not really) for the Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers. You can find a few books focusing on African-American comic book creators and characters (We will actually be doing a give-away later on in the month for one of these books), and youtube has some great interviews of McDuffie. I’ve posted my favorite video, put together by BlackHeroDoc, below.

How Much Does Hush Comics Love Dwayne McDuffie?

Sad to say, but a lot of what I know about Dwayne McDuffie is what I learned researching for this piece. I feel inspired by his work outside the panels just as much as I am by what he puts in them. Static is a beloved character in my family, and by almost anybody in between the ages of 20-40. Although The New 52 reboot of Static only lasted eight issues, his character is still widely recognized and respected among comic book fans of all races and backgrounds.

John Soweto rockin the Malcolm X hat, just like Static!
John Soweto rockin the Malcolm X hat, just like Static!
That's our resident Hush family badass, Jojo, cosplaying as Static at Denver Comic Con 2013
That’s our resident Hush family badass, Jojo, cosplaying as Static at Denver Comic Con 2013

I wanted to point out that none of this art is mine; it is all credited to the original publishers (Milestone, Marvel, DC and Warnes Bros.). Check back next week as we continue honoring Black History Month by spotlighting Black writers and artists, as well as graphic novel reviews with cultural significance. Peace and much love to ya!

Written by Sherif Elkhatib

Graphic Novel Review – Static Shock: Trials By Fire

Graphic Novel Review: Static Shock – Trial By Fire

ALL BLACK EVERYTHING

CollectingStatic #1-4

Original Release Date: 1993 (collected edition released in 2000)

Publisher: Milestone Media (collected edition published by DC Comics)

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Characters: Static/Virgil Hawkins, Holocaust

Writer: Dwayne McDuffie (Milestone Media, Blood SyndicateJustice League: UnlimitedBen 10 TV series)

Artist: John Paul Leon (Earth X)

SCORECARD (each category ranked on a 10-point scale):

Storyline – 9
Art – 8
Captivity and Length – 8
Identity – 10
Use of Medium – 8
Depth – 8
Fluidity – 7
Intrigue/Originality – 9
The Little Things – 9
Overall awesomeness – 9

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1993 was a spectacular year. Bill Clinton was in the WhiteHouse, Ice Cube could see his name on the Goodyear Blimp, Toni Morrison got a Nobel Prize and Milestone Media paired with DC Comics.

For those of you unfamiliar with Milestone, I want you to close your eyes, now picture a group of amazing comic book writers and artists,  can you see them? Now imagine they’re Black. Dwayne McDuffie, and Denys Cowan were tired of the minimal representation of African Americans in major comic books, but instead of complaining, they created their own. They immediately flooded the market with multiple titles.  I remember being excited to see so many black heroes on the shelves. To be completely honest, Hardware, Blood Syndicate and Static were the first DC titles I ever purchased.

I instantly loved Static and was thrilled when Sherif asked me to write a review about the first four issues in honor of Black History Month. As a kid, I couldn’t believe there was a character who looked like me in the comics. He wore Spike Lee’s Malcolm X cap, had thick lips and a street confidence Peter Parker just didn’t have.

A young John Soweto rockin' Spike Lee's Malcolm X hat

Pretty soon my brother Aaron began to steal my issues, and I’m sure became a bigger fan than I was. But Static’s popularity wasn’t limited to us. In 2000, the WB picked up the cartoon Static Shock, our hero made appearances in Teen Titans, and of course, add fanboy buzz over the years for Donald Glover to star in a full-length feature film, and you have the makings of legend.

But it all began with Trial By Fire, the first four issues of the series. Enter Virgil Ovid Hawkins, a teen given the power to wield electrostatic energy. He is a meta-human. This new race of super-powered street kids have X-Men like abilities. There are some obvious Marvel storyline similarities.  Static was written as a contemporary Spider-Man. Virgil is a witty do-gooder who is misunderstood and in need of an alter ego to cope with his own self-deprecation. Since Static was written in a single-issue format, the transition between issues feels a lot like watching episodes of a television show as opposed to reading through one, fluid story.

Issue one: “Burning Sensation” gives us a clear idea of who he is and what he stands for, and it certainly doesn’t waste anytime getting to the action. Our electric hero makes short work of goons who plan to kidnap Frieda Goren, a girl he is madly crushing on. At the end of the issue he is confronted by Hotstreak, a street thug with the ability to control fire. He loses the fight and his secret identity is revealed to Frieda. What was, and is, so refreshing about Static is that the dialog doesn’t feel forced. It’s not trying to be cool, because it IS cool.

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Issue two: “Everything But the Girl,” gives us the back-story we were waiting for. Virgil is bullied by a Flash Thompson doppelganger named Biz Money B. After being beaten and publicly humiliated he decides to get a gun to settle the score. He tracks Biz to a Warriors style gang meeting and before he has an opportunity to pull the trigger they are attacked by the authorities with a mysterious toxin. Virgil and others are transformed into meta-humans, capable of performing amazing super-powered feats. He uses his abilities to escape the raid and begins training to master his powers. We learn that Hotstreak is actually Biz Money B and Virgil lost the fight because he is still scared of the hallway bully. By the end of the issue he is able to confront him and gain the attention of a mysterious super villain.

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Issue Three: “Pounding The Pavement” starts with a bang. Static has earned some cred in tha hood and now a bad guy named Tarmack is looking for him.  They have an epic showdown in a parking lot and Static proves that he can overpower and out-wit his adversaries. The issue ends with a crossover cliffhanger and we are introduced to Holocaust from The Blood Syndicate.

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Issue Four: “Playing With Fire” starts by teaming our hero up with the vigilante Holocaust. Static plays flunky and  roughs up some gangsters for the villain. When he goes to see Frieda afterward he finds her with his best friend Larry. He is crushed. Filled with anger he decides to help Holocaust rip off the mafia to help his mom pay bills. When Holocaust takes the heist to a deadly level, Static steps in to protect a small child. This dissolves their partnership in crime but we get the feeling that their relationship has only just begun.

Static is well written and as the story develops, the art improves. If you are in the mood for 90’s nostalgia you will find plenty of references from Arsenio Hall to Star Trek: The Next Generation.  This comic led a comic book revolution and captured the imagination of every black comic-book head who searched for a hero that looked and sounded like them.

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Written by John Soweto