I wasn’t really surprised at how at how empty Hall 4C1-2 was at ECCC, but I was disappointed. A guy—an older black dude—sat down in front of me and my friend Jason and asked what this panel was about. We explained it was for Dwayne McDuffie, but that just resulted in a blank look. Jason explained that McDuffie worked on JLA and the JLU cartoon, and that he’d co-founded the Milestone imprint at DC. Somewhere a light went on in the guy’s head, causing him to nod and say, “Yeah, yeah, I heard he died.”
The thing is, I really couldn’t claim to be any more knowledgeable than that old dude who was obviously just looking for a place to chill in the middle of the Con. Ask me to rattle off a chunk of McDuffie’s work and I can go to the aforementioned JLA/JLU, the Milestone stuff, and his run on Fantastic Four—which I only knew about because I happened to be reading the run at the time post-Civil War and really dug what he was doing there. But here I was, sitting in a mostly-empty room, with some of the writer/editor’s friends and colleagues onstage to eulogize a man who’d died two weeks before.
If you wandered into the room you’d have seen Mark Waid up on stage leading the proceedings with Bob Harras and Marv Wolfman seated beside him. At the far end of the table was a younger guy named David Walker, who’d been a friend of McDuffie for 15 years, hoping to give the guy who’d been his mentor a proper sendoff. The whole thing was pretty mellow. I don’t think I was expecting to start crying or anything—in the grand scheme of things, two weeks is a long time relatively speaking and folks had move onto to other things in the Facebook/Twitter/blogosphere.
Waid set the tone for the remembrances in saying that McDuffie “pushed the boundaries and helped others push the boundaries of comics beyond pasty white guys.” Harras said that McDuffie’s biggest legacy while both he and Harras were assistant editors at Marvel was that he showed “a bunch of liberal white New Yorkers” who were pretty satisfied with the level of diversity in comics that they could do more. I actually really liked that bit. I loved the story Harras told of how McDuffie sent a survey around the Marvel offices asking how many of their black characters did not dress like a chicken.
A simple question and a funny story that kind of exposed the sort of weird default a writer could go into when writing about another race.
But then, according to Waid, McDuffie had what he called an insane curiosity about how things worked. Dude majored in physics and it was important to him, even in his superhero fiction, to have a plausible explanation for how things ticked. I have to imagine that when you take a step back, that mind was working overtime to understand what factors + what circumstances = black superheroes being associated with skateboards back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. What was that process and why was it okay?
And here’s the thing about me when I went through my first phase of comic fandom back in the early 90’s: I literally didn’t care about any of that. I was the only black kid in my class at the time that was into comics, but I didn’t see any kind of correlation between the faces on the page and the fact that most of my black peers weren’t really interested in comics. Maybe there wasn’t any kind of connection—maybe they just didn’t give a damn about comics. But it’s kind a weird what-if thing, you know?
Harras and Waid went to pains to note that McDuffie didn’t have some kind of diversity initiative going into comics: I get the feeling he wasn’t going in to make Spider-Man black or anything like that. He just wanted the comic world to look a lot more like the real world. Waid said that instead of having some kind of agenda, McDuffie had a passion for making comics a bit more representative. And keep in mind, this was back during the 80’s and 90’s when the greater assumption was that kids were still reading books in large numbers, before speculators and an aging fanbase began crowding out kids. You could still get comics in the grocery store back then, and I think who was on the cover mattered.
I keep going back to the race issue although a lot of the panel was dominated by the other speakers just wanting to get across was a decent guy Dwayne was. His friend David Walker talked about the mentorship McDuffie provided him, helping the then-journalist develop his writing, while Waid explained that if McDuffie had a real-life superpower it was a kind of x-ray vision that allowed him to see inside people and understand them. I think it’s that empathy that makes McDuffie so interesting after the fact and why I hate that I didn’t know the guy or his work better when he was alive.
I’ve got nothing else. I think it was awesome of Waid and the rest to come out and talk about their friend and colleague and I can’t hate on the mostly empty hall that day. People move on to other stuff. I do hope that other creators out there try to pick up the baton—write the best story you can, give it some emotion and if you can, try to get beyond your own experience a little bit when you’re writing it.
Tom Nord and the gang at BrainfulProductions put together this tribute piece to Mr. McDuffie that was shown at the panel and I want to thank them for passing it along.