Race, Sci-Fi, and Comics: A Talk with Dwayne McDuffie



Dwayne McDuffie

I originally wanted this to go up as a guest post when Our Lord and Master was away, but all good things...

The timing's still okay, though, because these last two weeks have been big ones for Dwayne McDuffie. First, he opened up a whole new multiverse where the World's Greatest Heroes face their murderous opposite numbers in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. The direct-to-DVD movie premiered on Feb. 23, and if you haven't watched it yet, all you need to know is: Gina Torres as Superwoman. James Woods as Owlman. Yes, that James Woods. He kills it, too. Pun only slightly intended.

This week, in a slightly more quiet vein, he closes the door on another universe in the final issue of Milestone Forever. The two-part series serves as a sideways goodbye to Static, Hardware and the rest of the multicultural superhero reality that he, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Christopher Priest and others created more than 15 years ago.

I know TNC got all off-topic and name-checked Dwayne in his recent Captain America post. That's most likely because, for me (and probably Ta-Nehisi too), McDuffie represents something of an ideal. Not only is he a self-described "proto-nerd" who made it to the promised land of professional comics writing, but he's also transformed his career at least twice over. Whether he's been a freelance writer, editor-in-chief or an animated series producer, the sharp edge of a black intellectual tradition always pokes through his work.

I sent Dwayne some questions over e-mail and reading through his answers makes me realize that my questions subconsciously focus on the theme of holding on and letting go. Dwayne's answers also get at stuff that Ta-Nehisi keeps coming back to on this august slice of the interwebs—reinventing personal mythologies, pop-cultural representations of race and an investigation of what shapes our moral frameworks.

I was gonna call this one "McDuffie on Infinite Earths." Anyway, start reading.


Dwayne McDuffie

What was it like growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s? Does that experience show up in your writing in any way that you're aware of?

I had a very pleasant, not wholly untypical middle class childhood. Detroit was a great city then, full of working class people with good jobs, and big plans for their kids' futures. My folks were pretty much the same. My dad worked for the Federal Reserve, my Mom was a nurse who worked extra shifts so they could afford my tuition at Roeper, a nearby private school for gifted kids.

I read tons of science fiction that a family friend supplied me with, played sports, enjoyed comics, I loved the Science Fair, and entered as many as I could. So, you know, proto-nerd. Certainly my own experience as a motor-mouthed black fanboy informed my later work, Static could easily have been me at that age, if I'd had super powers.

The economic dissolution of Detroit that began after I'd moved away was one of the major inspirations for Dakota, my fictional, mid-western manufacturing hub gone to seed. The humanism at the core of all my work developed as I grew up in Detroit. I'd say my time at the Roeper School was the biggest part of that. There's probably lots of other stuff in there that I'm not as conscious of, as well.

You went to film school at NYU. What were your student films like and what kind of movies did you see yourself making? Who are your favorite directors?

My NYU films were dreadful. I'd made several pretty good films at the University of Michigan in my spare time for fun, all comedies, all character and performance-based. When I went to NYU, I was much too serious about being in Film School, much too concerned with fulfilling the assignment, as opposed to expressing myself. I wasn't having any fun, and the work showed it. My favorite director is Woody Allen. He's still the largest single influence on my writing. I also greatly enjoy Preston Sturges and Paddy Chayefsky. But, Chayefsky's talent is so individual that the only thing I've learned from him is I'll never write a monologue as good as his worst one.

People think I'm kidding when I say this, but my fantasy career is writing and directing romantic comedies. If I ever produced anything as satisfying as Arthur, Hannah and Her Sisters, or even Flirting With Disaster, I'd be a happy man. If you look at my genre work, you'll occasionally catch me indulging myself with the John, Shayera and Mari triangle in Justice League Unlimited, and with Gwen and Kevin on Ben 10: Alien Force.

I think Damage Control was the first thing I ever read of yours and, early on, I pigeonholed you as a "funny" writer.

I was just talking about this with my wife. When I broke into comics, I was doing a lot of comedy writing, and after Damage Control, it was hard for me to get assignments on straight superhero books. Now my manager is always after me to do more comedy samples, because I'm known as the boy's action guy.

What was it like breaking in to the comics business when you did? You started out as an assistant editor at Marvel, right? Who were your mentors?

I started out at Marvel in 1987, thanks to a tip from Greg Wright, who I knew from college. I was extremely fortunate to work for Bob Budiansky, a talented editor, writer, and artist who had a perfectionist streak that annoyed me to no end at the time, but who inculcated me with a skill set that serves me well to this day. Sid Jacobson, who was the Editor-in-Chief of Harvey Comics for years, taught me how to write visually for comics. Thanks to him, when I moved over to TV, I already knew how to do it. I also learned quite a bit from his attitude towards the field, he wasn't a "comics writer," he was a writer; novels, journalism, songs—any and everything. I think he had the right idea. Mark Gruenwald was another Marvel mainstay who was very encouraging of my talents, such as they were at the time. Also Ernie Colon, and Archie Goodwin.

Your run on Deathlok seemed to be full of allusions to the black experience. The lead character's trapped in a cyborg construct and has his body stolen from him. His fear and shame at how his family would see his new form keeps him from them. He's literally separated from his own humanity. And the dialogues between the cyborg's computer AI and Michael Collins riffs on the twoness that W.E.B. DuBois spoke about. How much of this was explicitly in your and Greg Wright's pitch and how much did you slip under the radar?

None of it was in the pitch, but all of it was intentional. Invisible Man was, and still is, my favorite novel. I'd just read The Souls of Black Folk and was explicitly thinking about Skip Gates' The Signifying Monkey. Godel, Esher, Bach and Derrick Bell's dialogues about race and law sort of crashed in my head. Deathlok was a way of sharing some of my thoughts about all of this.

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