Five years ago this month, the comic book world lost some of its color. Dwayne McDuffie, Detroit’s Stan Lee, who worked to improve diversity in the comic universe and break stereotypes, died. But his legacy lives on in what he accomplished and what is yet to come.
or years, comic-book characters of color were shut out or relegated to sidekick roles, but the comics industry has made visible strides in bringing these characters to the forefront. Look no further than one of Marvel Comics' Ms. Marvel installments-the story of Pakistani teenager Kamala Khan fighting crime with her shape-shifting powers. And these stories are gaining a grip on the big screen, as Creed director Ryan Coogler has recently signed on to direct the Black Panther film in Marvel's blockbuster cinematic universe.
But as we celebrate victories, it's important to remember our history. If there’s any one person in the subject of diversity in comics you must know, it's Dwayne McDuffie. From Marvel to Milestone, DC to Cartoon Network, he’s arguably the biggest voice in the comics and animation industries to come out of Detroit.
McDuffie was born in Detroit in 1962. He studied English at the University of Michigan and then received a master's in physics before attending New York University to study film. He began his career as a comic professional when he landed a gig at Marvel Comics, eventually becoming an editor in 1987.
McDuffie started at Marvel working on already-established characters, helping create the company's first trading cards. He also scripted Damage Control, a miniseries about a construction company specializing in cleaning up the messes left by destructive battles between heroes and villains. But one of his more interesting creations at the time was Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers.
If that name seems a bit shocking, don't worry. That’s intentional.
Thrashers was a faux pitch for a comic series McDuffie drafted to express how tired he was with the pigeonholing of Black characters in comics.
The now-infamous-at least in the comic book world-pitch described a team of four characters, each having no defining characteristics other than being "a Black guy on a skateboard." The pitch continued, listing off different tropes McDuffie found too often in Black characters such as "circa 1974 clothing and hair styles" and "… an attractive, White female friend to calm them down when they get too excited." To top it all off, the one-page pitch ends with five words that made it all the more impactful: "Have I made my point?"
Frustrated with Marvel, McDuffie, along with Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle, founded Milestone Media, an imprint that sought to tell more diverse comic book stories. The company partnered with DC Comics, the juggernaut behind Superman and Batman, for publishing and distribution. Under this partnership, Milestone became the top-circulating Black-owned comics company in the country.
While Milestone's mission was to bring more diversity to comics, this wasn't just limited to race. In an interview for an unfinished documentary, McDuffie said, "My biggest issue, generally in writing mainstream comics, is if you write a Black character, he represents Blackness. And that's ridiculous." It was crucial to McDuffie that the Milestone characters represent as broad a range of different ideas, backgrounds and beliefs as possible. One of the most notable examples is the titular character of the Icon comics.
Icon is an alien who crash-landed on Earth in the American South in 1839. Disguised as an African-American and being seemingly ageless, he makes the planet his home until human technology advances enough for him to leave. In the 1990s, he's convinced by a teenager named Raquel (who becomes his sidekick, Rocket) to use his alien powers to become a superhero. His civilian identity, Augustus Freeman IV, is portrayed as a conservative Republican, so much so that he quips, "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!"
The most recognized Milestone character is the teenage hero Static, a regular kid who suddenly gains the powers of control over electromagnetism from tear gas mixed with an experimental mutagen. Once he accepted his newfound gift, he took on the hero mantle of Static and vowed to fight crime in his home city of Dakota.
Fans and non-fans alike may be familiar with the 2000s-era Saturday morning cartoon Static Shock-the first major superhero cartoon revolving around a Black main character. The show was a huge success and tackled sensitive issues other shows wouldn't, such as homelessness, racism and gun violence. Static Shock's success launched McDuffie into the world of animation, where he wrote and produced for other works including the Justice League cartoons, which crossed over with Static Shock multiple times.
But while Static Shock became a hit, that didn't come without some hard fights. Although Milestone had editorial independence from DC, there was conflict when it came to telling the stories the way Milestone intended-notably in Static issue No. 25, when the hero and his girlfriend were drawn on the cover making out and holding condoms. DC chose to censor the safe-sex message by covering up the original cover and printing the full one on the inside pages.
McDuffie died unsung in 2011, but his impact on the world of comics still ripples. In 2015, it was announced that Milestone Media would be revived, with founders Dingle and Cowan teaming up with former BET executive Reginald Hudlin. The reborn company will be producing two Earth-M hardcover graphic novels annually, along with a number of miniseries and single-issue stories. There's also a live-action Static Shock TV show currently being scripted by Hudlin and Cowan. McDuffie’s dream lives on.