Thursday, February 24, 2011


Icon's Biggest Fan

The day writer and editor Dwayne McDuffie, who passed away Tuesday, learned that a certain controversial black man loved his work and one creation in particular:  A surprising phone call led to Derek Dingle, one of McDuffie's Milestone colleagues, going to Washington, DC. Upon Dingle's return, he and McDuffie had the following exchange:

"[Clarence] Thomas is a really big fan of yours, you know."

"I know."

"I was in his chambers. It's just like you'd think: dusty law books from floor to ceiling, clerks working industriously on serious legal matters." "Uh, huh."

"He also has a complete set of Icon there. He showed me the leather binder he keeps them in."


"Some of them were out, though. He has his clerks indexing them."


"He has them go through and pull out quotes of things Icon says that he agrees with. They mark them with Post-it notes. That way when he wants to use them in his speeches…"

"I beg your pardon?"

"He quotes Icon in papers and speeches. Rather, since you write those lines, he quotes you."
The entire post is truly great. McDuffie openly shares the discomfort felt of himself as someone, "politically to the left of… well, everybody, actually," whose work was held in high admiration by the leading black conservative in the country.

The shock was so great that it actually induced writer's block for several weeks!

Despite McDuffie's palpable angst, the full anecdote shows two things -- one about Thomas and one about McDuffie. I know from personal experience that Thomas will regularly open his office to younger black professionals to get a sense of who they are and where they're going. But, more significantly, the story says something about the relationship between a true artist and his work. McDuffie admits to being a real liberal, who can't stand Republicans -- black or white.

However, he managed to put that aside to create a black conservative comic book character that wasn't a caricature. He managed to tap into a universal truth when he was giving voice to Augustus "Icon" Freeman. A legitimate artist has to project the truth of the world in which his creation exists -- even if it's a reality foreign to that of the artist and the character has a philosophy with which his creator vehemently disagrees.

McDuffie may have been a black Democrat, but he was able to give voice to a black conservative reality recognized as authentic by a true black conservative. Now, that's high praise.

(Thanks to Matt Hunte and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the heads-up on McDuffie's Thomas post.)

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Dwayne McDuffie, Comics "Icon"

Truly sad day for comic book and animation fans. 

Dwayne McDuffie -- someone who I never met, but who I admired more than I realized -- died today, at the ridiculously not-old age of 49.  Many of you might not have heard of him, but the odds are that you're more aware of his work than you know.  If you -- or your kids -- ever watched the Static Shock cartoon, then you knew Dwayne McDuffie.  If you -- or your kids -- have ever watched Ben 10: Alien Force:  , then you may well know Dwayne McDuffie.  If you were a comic book fan in the early '90s and discovered a brand new line of minority-focused comics called Milestone, then you definitely know Dwayne McDuffie. He was the co-founder and  creative mastermind; Static was the line's premiere character. Milestone took hardy comic staples and turned them upside down with a diversity angle that was hardly PC. Take the "Spider-Man" origin -- nerdy kid given superpowers -- but make him a Cosby-type black youngster instead: Voila!! You get Static. 

Dwayne McDuffie, 1962-2011
 Another great McDuffie creation: Icon: Take the Superman origin of a "strange visitor from another planet," but make him a near-immortal black man who's a wealthy Republican businessman (with the Dickensian name of Augustus Freeman) and team him up with a smart-talking teenage black girl sidekick! In other words, Icon becomes a black Superman AND Batman! The DC-published line only lasted a few years, but its influence is still felt today. (Proving that the line was ahead of its time, a Milestone creation called Xombi, a techno-created zombie is being revived during these "Walking Dead" times). 

McDuffie wasn't afraid to "call out" his mainstream bosses if he saw tedious, stereotypical depictions of minority characters.  A late-80s in-house memo distributed to his then-Marvel colleagues is both hilarious and awesome to behold.. Of course, that willingness to speak truth to power is never without consequence: DC removed him from writing Justice League of America a couple years ago for telling-tales-out-of-school on his frustrations with the corporate culture interfering with some of the storylines he wanted to pursue.

Icon & Rocket's first collected
appearance, "A Hero's Welcome."
That was especially a shame because, a few years before, McDuffie had been responsible for the creatively and commercially successful Justice League Unlimited animated series, which helped reintroduce the African-American Green Lantern, John Stewart to a whole new generation. Indeed, for many kids in the Uh-Oh Decade, their GL was black. For a "cartoon," JLU had a remarkably "adult" (without being smarmy or suggestive) take on superheroes, and included a relationship between Stewart and Shayera, the Hawkgirl character. Forget interracial controversy -- this was interplanetary!!

Anyway, McDuffie was talented, entrepreneurial and, from the various testimonials around the blogosphere and Twitterverse a truly special individual.  (His passing was especially poignant given today's release of the "All-Star Superman" DVD for which McDuffie provided the script adaption of Grant Morrison's graphic novel. Pick up a copy in the next few days in his honor.)


UPDATE: Another long-time Marvel and DC editor, Christopher Priest, wrote several years back on his role assisting McDuffie and the creation of Milestone Media. 
Other views here, here, here, here and here.
New York Post reports
Los Angeles Times reports.  

UPDATE II:  A final observation on our changed media landscape:  A few years ago, I wonder how many people would have ever known about McDuffie's death today -- or the comics he wrote or cartoons he helped create.  His name was trending on Twitter almost non-stop since the news of his passing hit the 'Net around 3 PM EST. We live in an age now where fans of his work operate in a medium that allows them access to reactions of people who personally knew and collaborated with the creators of some of our favorite pieces of entertainment, past and present.  Yes, sometimes Twitter is just used as a PR device for an actor's show, movie or play; a writer's next book or article -- or a politician's next bit of spin.

But McDuffie's death shows that Twitter can on certain occasions be something else: It's a legitimate information vehicle; it brings knowledge that won't be seen on either cable or broadcast news any time soon -- and serves as a cyber version of the corner square where those already in the know can share the sadness felt on the passing of a creative mind who touched them in a unique way. Twitter isn't needed when a mega-celebrity like Michael Jackson or Farrah Fawcett dies. Those are names that the old media would broadcast immediately everywhere at any time. But in an increasingly niche-market and niche-interest world, Twitter is as indispensable for everyone in the manner that the old AP and UPI newswires were for the journalistic aristocracy.

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