Wednesday, February 23, 2011

3 Thoughts about Dwayne McDuffie.

1. Shortly after I started reading comics, I found a Marvel Mini-Series called Damage Control and fell in love. The characters were 'real life' people in the Marvel Universe - insurance agents, construction workers and office employees who worked common jobs for an uncommon business, i.e. superhero insurance.

I thought I'd read funny comics before, snorting at the occasional Spider-Man wisecrack and having the occasional giggle fit at She-Hulk. Damage Control was the first comic book I ever read that made me laugh so hard that tears came to my eyes.

Dwayne McDuffie's Damage Control was a brilliant corner of the Marvel Universe that found comedy in both superhero lives and menial office work years before either idea became popular grist for comedy, Giffen's Justice League excepted. Construction foremen could shrug off one of their workers arbitrarily gaining cosmic abilities, an intern could be expected to deal with The Thing in a bad mood, The Punisher could be forced to take a number and wait in a waiting room, Wolverine could take a pie to the face, a comptroller could calmly approach Dr. Doom with an overdue bill and expect nothing but pleasantries.

Dwayne McDuffie made me realize that any writer with talent, determination and vision could build their own perfect corner of an established universe and make you think it had always been that way. I will always thank him for opening my young eyes to the greater variety comics could display and for making me laugh myself sick every time I read that book.

2. Several people have talked about Dwayne McDuffie and race in comics more eloquently than I ever could or linked to his own words on the subject of being a black writer in comics.

What stood out for me, however, was the variety, intelligence and confidence of the black characters he wrote. Dwayne McDuffie was writing the black characters he wanted to see in comic books every day of his creative life.

Albert Cleary was an erudite, intelligent comptroller who worked for Damage Control and never wrinkled his suit. The supervillain Thunderball, so often just used as a mindless thug under other writers' pens, revealed the fact that he was a literal rocket scientist and had genial conversations with Damage Control's employees. Static was a great teen character who used his brains to stop menaces with his electromagnetic powers far more often than not, all the while displaying a casual sense of humor and joy at being a superhero. Green Lantern in McDuffie's Justice League cartoon was John Stewart - an ex-military, occasionally gruff but still cool-headed hero who not only fit right in with the most well-known fictional heroes of our times but stood out in contrast to the other 'normal' humans of the group - lighter than Batman but the polar opposite of the flippant Flash.

And as someone who was born out of an interracial union, I loved how casual John Stewart's relationship with Hawkgirl was, how naturally it blossomed. Their dialogue before they kiss for the first time is as follows:

Hawkgirl: "We're . . . so different! I mean, look at us! Just look at us."

Green Lantern: "I see a man . . . and a woman."

And I think that's beautiful.

3. And speaking of the Justice League, we all know Dwayne McDuffie's animation work helped define a generation. That's not even a question.

Both Justice League and Justice League Unlimited defined DC's heroes and villains in broader modern-day popular culture, flourishing under McDuffie's amazing amounts of heart, wit and uncanny understanding of what made these characters tick. He wrote, produced, or story-edited 69 out of the 91 episodes, each of which made me feel like a kid again.

In addition to choosing John Stewart as Green Lantern, he also managed to introduce Vixen, Mr. Terrific, Dr. Light and a wealth of other minority heroes to a new generation - some of whom had never seen cartoon heroes who looked like them onscreen before. Case in point: I heard about a lot of young men and women being livid about the new Green Lantern movie after seeing the trailer. Unlike so many people online, they're not upset because of any technical fanboy gripe but because they'd seen the Justice League cartoon growing up and knew that Green Lantern was a black man, damn it, not Ryan Reynolds. The first time I heard about this, I couldn't help but smile and I hope that Mr. McDuffie heard about it too before he passed away.

While his animated full-length features are notable as well, when I have kids, his Justice League cartoon will be what I use to introduce them to what it means to be a hero. And when they take in Dwayne McDuffie's subtle messages that anyone can be a hero - period - I will be proud and thank him again for all the wonderful, heartfelt work he produced, wrote and helped to bring into this world.

Rest In Peace, Dwayne McDuffie.

You will be sorely missed.