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RIP Dwayne McDuffie

The unfortunate reality for those of us who love comic books is that, in 2011, most comic books are not very good. In many ways, the lack of quality is sort of par for the course for the format, the pulp origins of which have always reflected a degree of an attitude of disposability, simplicity, and childishness. Still, even within the American tradition that has framed them as the province of kids, comics have also always had a sense of wonder and joy and aesthetic energy that transcends any perceived shortcomings. Visionaries such as Alex Toth and Will Eisner and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced works that crackled with originality from the birth of the modern comic in the late 1930s and early ’40s through the ’60s. In the ’70s, comics unexpectedly benefited from that period’s weird mixture of drugs, post-civil rights/youth/feminist movement disenchantment, and the general strangeness in the air, and the ’80s saw the birth of an industry-wide epoch with the rise of auteurs like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. And then we hit a wall. Frankly, the last 20 years have had a few bright spots, but, increasingly, traditional comics have been divided into either an exercise to keep trademarks current for the sale of more lucrative T-shirts, bed sheets, and assorted bric-a-brac or a bunch of people trying to hawk their movie pitches, and all of it is being sold to a group of ever-shrinking, increasingly older, mostly white male audience. My beloved art form might be dying before my eyes, and the death of Dwayne McDuffie is a blow it certainly will have a hard time bouncing back from.

Since the ’80s, McDuffie was one of the voices that helped comics maintain a high level of quality and worked toward expanding the audience beyond the aforementioned diehard cadre of graying men. He wrote thoughtful, exciting, and, most of all, fun comics for both DC and Marvel, with his most fondly remembered ’80s series being Damage Control, a comic that explored the rarely examined notion of who cleans up the mess when someone like Dr. Doom knocks a whole bunch of stuff over in Manhattan. And, besides Bruce Timm, McDuffie was the most important creator behind the multi-award-winning Justice League cartoon series that both reminded older fans and taught a generation of young people why we love these bright, spandexed characters in the first place. With Justice League Unlimited, McDuffie wrote the best depiction of cultural icons such as Superman and Batman ever. For that fact alone, his comics’ legacy would be secure.

More than all of his other work, however, McDuffie will be remembered as one of the most important comic creators of his generation because he also spearheaded Milestone Comics. See, everything I wrote about the shrinking, graying demographic that reads comics is the same thing that the subculture has been wringing its hands about and giving lip service to for decades. People have long complained about the lack of diversity in comics and how that translates into the lack of diversity among comic readers. Instead of just bitching about it and going back to business as usual, McDuffie actually did something. Along with a small group of mostly African-American writers and artists, McDuffie created a comics universe that reflected the diverse reality of, well, America. And, when I say “diverse,” I mean it. From the conservative, 300-year-old African-American hero Icon to the Asian-American nanophysicist turned “strangeness magnet” Xombi to the postmodern exploration of a white teenage sidekick in Kobalt, Milestone did more than just stick the word “black” in front of characters’ names. For a few exciting years, McDuffie and company demonstrated the potential of comics as a form in which art actually combined with a unique understanding of race and culture.

And that vision came through most clearly with McDuffie’s most famous creation: Static. A smart and smart-alecky nerdy kid with an annoying sister and exasperated parents, 15-year-old Virgil Hawkins gets bullied in school, has a tight-knit group of friends and an unrequited crush, makes some dumb decisions, and finds himself with a set of electrically based superpowers. Most people know the character through the successful animated series Static Shock!, but, at least once a year, I pull out the first two years of issues from the comic series and marvel at the brutally honest depiction of the joys, disappointments, horror, and laughter that high school was for many of us. One of the truisms in comics is that, every 10 years, someone tries to recreate Spider-Man with the character’s unique combination of human foibles and extraordinary abilities. For my money, McDuffie’s first two years of Static are the best Spiderman comics since Stan Lee and John Romita were at the top of their form in the early ’70s. And, yes, the image of the dreadlocked, intelligent black teenage boy representing that Everyman figure is the icing on top. With Milestone in general and Static in particular, McDuffie showed the potential for growth and evolution comics still have, and I would venture to say, any growth in comic readership in age and ethnic diversity can be traced to McDuffie’s efforts.

Unfortunately, with his untimely death on Feb. 21, all we have is that unfulfilled legacy. I still go buy comics every Wednesday, but I find that I’m buying collections of older stories or manga, and I spend more time complaining about new output than I do reading it. And like most fans, one of my dream jobs (along with architect, short-order cook, and Debarge family biographer) is to actually create my Great Comic Idea. I’ll never be able to bounce it off of McDuffie like I dreamed, but he has certainly left an example to follow.

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