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

By Evan Narcisse
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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.


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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.

Foremost, though, Deathlok was supposed to be a modern-day take on Marvel's The Thing (a man alienated by his surface appearance), as well as my own commentary on the "grim and gritty" trend in comic book heroes. Contrary to the fashion at the time, I wanted to do a superhero who was more moral than I, not less.

In the first few issues of Hardware, inventor Curtis Metcalf adopts his armored persona to take down his evil corporate boss Alva. Part of Curtis' motivation was not getting a share of profits from his work for Alva and you've mentioned that their conflict paralleled the break some of the Milestone founders had with Marvel. What was that like, leaving the place where you'd found your feet in the comics industry?

I enjoyed my time at Marvel, and the people there, but it was time to go. I left Marvel because I'd hit the glass ceiling. I was never going to be promoted, so if I intended to make a mark in the business, it would be as a freelance writer, not an editor. Leaving Marvel allowed me to take assignments at several other companies, and ultimately, to help found Milestone.

Would anything be different about the Milestone Universe as a fictional construct if you and the other members were creating it today?

Absolutely. It was a product of the times, and times have changed. Any future Milestone work has to reflect contemporary reality just as directly as the old stuff reflected its time.

There seems to be a strong streak of humanism in your work. A pacifist professor is trapped in a killing machine in Deathlok and imposing a "no killing" parameter. Augustus Freeman becomes Icon to be an example of what people can achieve. Even Dharma's motivation for manipulating the future betrays a belief in the primacy of human agency. There's a Deathlok quote from Beyond! that exemplifies what I'm trying to get at: "Cynicism isn't maturity. Callousness isn't strength. Pretending you don't care so you don't have to try isn't 'winning.' What you do with your life matters. I suspect, deep down, you already know that." Are these humanisitic elements a conscious result of your philosophy on life, or something more coincidental?

They're conscious, but I couldn't help it if I tried. That stuff is me to the core. You'll find it in almost everything I write, from Rocket's fiery humanism, to Superman's midwestern sense of fair play—even in Owlman's misguided nihilism, which is rooted in a fundamental belief in the importance of human agency.

Deathlok's moral system boiled down to his catchphrase, "You have to do what's right, not what's easiest." It's simple to say, but very hard to live up to. Deathlok generally does a better job of it than I do personally, but I try to learn from the example of the characters I create. In many ways, they're better versions of me.

You've talked about how the character of Buck Wild came about as a commentary on the complicated love/hate relationship you had with Luke Cage. Do you still feel the need to address that relationship today? Did doing those issues with Buck help work that stuff out?

I'd worked those issues out even before I started Milestone. I just wanted to share those ideas with the comic book readership in an entertaining matter. Interestingly, those stories are about to be reprinted this summer as Icon: Mothership Connection. The excesses of Blaxploitation comics characters like Cage is the past, though. I'm much more interested in dealing with the stuff that's going on now: more green characters with their own monthlies than black characters, a criminal lack of people of color in writing and editorial positions on mainstream books, et cetera... The last time I tried to write about that stuff in a mainstream book, my story was bounced (by the same people who asked me to write about it, mind you), and my editors wanted to replace it with clichés from twenty years ago, clichés that not coincidentally shielded mainstream readers and comicbook creators from any responsibility for the current state of affairs. I passed on that. I'll write about those issues again when I have more control over the content.

I found your take on superhero romance during the Justice League cartoon series to surprisingly adult, given the target audience. The relationship between John and Shayera and the flirtation between Batman and Wonder Woman both seemed to rotate on a "wrong side of the tracks" premise. Were you drawing on real life experiences for those?

Not really. In both cases, I became the primary writer of relationships set up by other writers. I tried to stay true to what they set up, while bringing some of my own perspectives to the mix. I like writing romance, though, and both of these runners were fun to work on.

When I told Ta-Nehisi that you'd agreed to an interview, he was thrilled. He said that there were many times—way before he knew you were on the project—that he felt like somebody black was working on Justice League. He also wanted me to ask you how conscious of race you were while working on that show and Justice League Unlimited?

Well, producer James Tucker was on Justice League from day one, so Ta-Nehisi was right. I'm conscious of race whenever I'm writing, just as I'm conscious of class, religion, human psychology, politics—everything that makes up the human experience. I don't think I can do a good job if I'm not paying attention to what's meaningful to people, and in American culture, there isn't anything that informs human interaction more than the idea of race.

You can see hints of Song of Solomon in Icon and maybe a little bit of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in Hardware (where Curtis starts off operating from a vengeful drive but eventually matures to a justice-for-all mindset)? Is there any literature or a writer who's influencing you now? Like, where you read something and think, I wonder if there's something I can play with there?

I'm in a very strange reading phase right now. I'm obsessed with paperback original crime novels from the '50s through the '70s or so. It's people writing very quickly, for money, with very little filter on their world view, so as long as their entertaining, they can talk about whatever they like. Comics used to be like that, I guess I'm just nostalgic.

I'm currently reading a lot of Ed Lacy, whose 1957 Toussaint Moore novel, Room To Swing, is still one of the best, most human portrayals of a black character ever in detective fiction. I imagine him hanging out on the porch with Easy Rollins, and talking about life. Let's see, Dennis Lehane's The Given Day really knocked me out. I also just discovered Percival Everett, how the hell did I not know about this guy? I'm reading a lot of Steven Pinker, surely that stuff will come out somewhere, sometime.

Really though, my major writing influences right now are from television. The Wire is a work of art on par with the best in any field of human endeavor. I've not tried anything on that scale in comics, and I don't know if I'm up to the challenge, but I'd sure like to try.

On another level, I loved Sports Night and Arrested Development. I should mention something on the air now, shouldn't I? I love House and the main character reminds me of my take on Hardware -my family has accused me of being like very much like both characters. I can't decide if that's a compliment. Probably not.

You've made a point of using a trickster motif in lots of your work. Hardware's girlfriend makes mention of it in one of her lectures, and you've used a character based on Anansi in your JLA run and on the Static TV series. What is about the trickster concept that in intrigues you?

Fucking with people's heads as a teaching device (and also just for fun) appeals to me. I'm a firm believer in the Socratic Method (that's how I break stories on shows I run) and information that doesn't fit the paradigm is the universe's way of asking you a question. It's sort of the flip side of the scientific method, another favorite of mine. Anansi, Bugs Bunny, Groucho; they're all bomb-throwers, using language and imagery in ways that force you to challenge your fundamental assumptions about The Way Things Are. That's sort of the definition of a story; something happens that challenges your worldview, and you seek a resolution that either reaffirms what you knew to be true—or you learn that the world is richer and more complex than you thought.

In Jeffrey Brown's book on Milestone, there's a story about how Static makes a reader own up to his own racism. Do you think that comics still have that power today?

That's the power of storytelling, to put you into someone else's head, to allow you to see things from another point of view. Comics definitely still shares this power with all stories, even if mainstream comics doesn't use it that much.

Is it wrong to read finality into Milestone Forever? It seems like an ending, but in comics, nothing stays dead too long. Is there a point to be made about the black cultural norm of re-invention?

You just cut to the quick of it. After you read the conclusion, it's pretty clear that this story is about the consequences of creation, and the deciding when it's time to let go.

Your fans come from a lot of different places and perceive you in very different ways. The Ben 10 crowd wants you to answer all their Omnitrix questions, some comics fans harsh on for you "black-ifying" everything you write and others want you to "fix" every black character in the Marvel or DC universes. How aware are you of all of that? Is there a way to harness fan service into your writing process or is that like playing with fire?

To me, fan service is fine, as long as you don't let it get in the way of telling the current story. The percentage of the audience who are caught up in those kind of details are an important part of the audience, but they're also a miniscule one. If you overfeed them, the other 95 percent of the audience will go find something else to do with their free time.

Did your quadruple bypass change the way you approached your work? I'm thinking of the fact that, in your JLA run, the team essentially disintegrates without the Big Three of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman serving as the heart of the team. Was the fact that you wrote the team as fragile reflecting how you felt?

That's kind of a stretch. Those story decisions came from above, I just tried to write around them. My surgery certainly affected my work. I work less now, just because I'm not physically able to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. So I pick my projects more carefully, and work more sensible hours. I also try and spend more time with family and friends, because after open heart surgery, it occurs to you that you have a limited amount of time to spend with them. I don't feel remotely fragile, though. I'm a 6'7" 300 pounder, and since the surgery, I'm in better health than I've been since my college days.

You wrote two Batman stories that focused Blink, a blind man who could see through the eyes of others. Blindness runs in your family but what made you decide to tackle it as a macguffin in a story?

My father was blind, and Blink's Lee Hyland shares my father's given name, and his mother's maiden name. Seeing the world through other people's eyes is a fairly consistent trope in my work. "Blink," and "Don't Blink" were just using genre conventions to literalize an idea I've explored many other ways. I think those stories came out great. I wish DC Comics would do a trade edition of them, like they said they were going to a couple of years back. Maybe if enough people ask?

Two summers ago, you struck a deal with DC Comics to integrate Milestone's characters into the DC Universe. But, what seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm by all parties soon fizzled into near-invisibility for the characters you had been shepherding for so long. Do you look back with regret at making the deal?

And here's the perfect place to plug Milestone Forever, now on sale. At the conclusion, my character Dharma makes a decision similar to one I had to make. We agree completely on the outcome.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/03/race-sci-fi-and-comics-a-talk-with-dwayne-mcduffie/37063/