“I’m 22 and I haven’t done anything with my life!”
That was my friend Dwayne, speaking to me in his dorm room in February 1984. Nine years after he got his name in the papers by attending the University of Michigan at age 13 (but only for a year — turns out, even genius kids need to be around their peers). Seven years after the Detroit News named him one of its All State high-school basketball players. A year after a crisis of conscience turned him away from his undergraduate research into the properties of thermocouples — he learned his work had been applied to missile guidance systems — which started his writing career in earnest. And three years before he became the first African-American to create a Marvel comic.
In 1984, we were hanging out in his cluttered single room at the University of Michigan. The wall around his typewriter (soon to be replaced by a 128K Mac) was littered with quotes on index cards about writing. There was that wonderful Gene Fowler quote, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Wry, inspirational nuggets on that order. At 19 years old, I was dazzled that I knew somebody who was ghost-writing real science fiction novels and selling jokes to comedians, and for money too.
He had read everything I had read, plus another 40,000 books. Through Dwayne, I would be introduced to such wits as Fran Lebowitz, Robert Benchley, Ishmael Reed, and Dorothy Parker. Dwayne was more than driven, he was an insomniac and a fast reader who finished one or two books a night, well into his forties. He also had an intense relationship with TV. Where I’d heard of Aristotle and Bernard Malamud, voracious Dwayne had actually read them. His analyses of Banacek and Columbo reruns, and his early appreciation of the sitcom work of Diane English (catch The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, but alas, you’ll need a time machine) are still points that I navigate by when I write. Being merely human, I never tried to match his twentysomething method of reading till 1 am, then writing 1,000 words of his own before bed.
And Oh, my God, the comics!
Dwayne cherished his “Cerebus for Dictator” t-shirt from the earliest days of direct-market stores. He set me up with Flaming Carrot, Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Simonson’s Thor, even Marie Severin’s Doctor Strange and, while I’d managed to discover Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck for myself, it was Dwayne who sent me looking for his work on The Defenders. “You seriously have to,” he’d say.
I also got to see the Ann Arbor police tail Dwayne out of a comics store and harass him, because my 6’6” friend “fit the description” of a 6’1” suspect. I saw rental agents blow him off once they met him. After we had both moved to New York, I saw taxis pass him by, and the bruises from getting jumped by some “guidos” for coming into my Park Slope neighborhood. Once we had both moved to Los Angeles, I got to hear how he’d been rear-ended, the LAPD had tried to get him face down onto the ground, and he’d begged them to examine the fresh scar from his heart bypass so they’d reconsider. Because, while Dwayne was black, I was not. He opened up a lot of the world to me, and not all of it was pretty.
That said, we were as likely to talk about Sal Buscema’s Silver Surfer as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, but race came up through the sheer volume of the mind-dumps we’d share. He cared particularly about images in the media. And he had a lot to say about them, and gender images and LGBT images. And he had books to recommend on each subject. So when he began to think about what he could do to bring diversity to comics, he had a better foundation than anyone before him.
You’re probably wondering, insomniac or not, how could one guy do so much?
I think his brain was simply overclocked.
You know, when a computer is tweaked to boost the processor speed, no matter the risk to the components from extra heat and voltage? Like that.
Not to imply Dwayne that thought himself to death — the other way around. I suspect that Dwayne so driven because he knew he might burn out early. His father’s family had a host of health concerns, and Dwayne’s father himself only made it to 48. Dwayne’s younger brother died at 43, after more than 25 years of dialysis. But for all I know, Dwayne was simply battling his inner demons. He said more than once that his sleeplessness stemmed from nightmares, which abated after he met his wife, Charlotte.
But his medical pathology wasn’t the only thing that Dwayne got from his father: He also got something to write about. Deathlok, the Marvel Comics killing machine that Dwayne had a hand in revamping, often said, “You’ve got to do what’s right, not what’s easiest.” That incredibly heroic refrain was a direct quote of Dwayne’s father, Lee McDuffie. And what it takes to be a man, to live up to high expectations, is a theme that Dwayne revisited often.
He took pains to walk that walk himself. Dwayne did what was right, and not easiest. He knew that whatever he did in comics would be dismissed as genre fiction, so he embraced that. He challenged our worldview, but so subtly that we could ignore it and watch the explosions, if that’s all we wanted. He entertained us first, and brought us to a new place so cleverly and seamlessly that many readers thought they’d seen it coming. He broadened our idea of who gets to be the hero. And he was generous with his advice and support of comics pros of every stripe who followed him.
This incredibly gifted, giving and of course, accomplished man died on February 21, 2011, aged 49 years and one day. He had broken through glass ceilings, dazzled millions with his television work and thousands more with his comics work, given a hundred interviews about writing, art and multiculturalism, and served as the creative engine of his comics company, Milestone Media, which will forever be a beacon of multiculturalism.
And it’ll probably also be forever that incurious people will dismiss Milestone as “black comics.”
Dwayne and his partners, all African-American men, did not get the recognition they deserved for being gloriously diverse from the beginning. Yet Milestone broke down doors for Latino, Asian, and LGBT representation in comics, both in the creative teams and the characters. But their partnership with DC Comics meant that DC’s marketing and PR teams were responsible for explaining what Milestone was to the world. Many, many readers discovered Milestone’s groundbreaking initial run long after it ended in 1997. Dwayne died shortly after he’d struck a deal that, in exchange for allowing the Milestone characters to join the DC Universe, DC would reprint collected editions of all the original comics titles, and now that there’s been a New Milestone announced by his partners and collaborators, Derek Dingle, Denys Cowan and Reggie Hudlin, it’s clear that the interest in what Dwayne and co. achieved in the 90s has only intensified.
I truly wish my friend could have seen this come to pass, and so much else.
Many comics fans think Dwayne’s comics career, consists of his runs on Fantastic Four and Justice League of America and the miniseries Beyond!, but all that was actually his comeback. By the time Static Shock! became a hit animated series in 2000, Dwayne’s comics work had dried up, despite public praise from the likes of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. The last ten years of his life were spent in Los Angeles, writing animation.
True to form, Dwayne’s animation career was a constant stream of accomplishments.
His work on the Justice League and Ben 10 franchises boosted his profile to the point that the comics industry asked him back. And naturally, Dwayne did it all at the same time, even if he couldn’t work round-the-clock as before. And of course he did it better than anybody. He entertained us first, did what was right and not easiest, subtly foiled our expectations, and made it easier for those who followed. He made sure that superhero cartoons were as well-crafted and inclusive as his comics had been.
In real life, I’m older than Dwayne ever got, writing animation and heading up the inaugural Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, to be bestowed Saturday 2/28 at the Long Beach Comics Expo.
But in my head, it’s 1984.
The five fantastic comics that our Selection Committee nominated in 2015 are miraculously sitting on Dwayne’s little dorm room desk, and as I leaf through them, I ask if I can borrow them.
“You seriously have to,” this dream Dwayne nods. “Shit just got interesting.”
Matt Wayne is Primetime Emmy-nominated writer and editor. His animation credits include story editing Justice League Unlimited, the Marvel Super Hero Squad Show and Ben 10: Omniverse, and has written almost every major Marvel and DC character for animation. In comics, Matt was Managing Editor of Milestone Media, and has written for such titles as Static, Shadow Cabinet, Batman: Brave and the Bold, and Legends of the Dark Knight.