This image came up repeatedly in Jeffrey A. Brown’s research for his book on Milestone Comics, which was co-founded by writer and editor Dwayne McDuffie. “This advertisement…seemed to crystallize the all too common discrepancy between young comic book readers and the one-dimensional heroic types usually portrayed within those books.”
“You guys are crazy.”
That’s what Dwayne McDuffie (LSA 1984) told comic creators Denys Cowan and Dennis T. Tingle when they approached him at the San Diego Comic-Con about forming a company together. Co-founded in 1993 by four black comics creators, they hoped to put out stories that would focus on the kinds of people not shown in mainstream comics of the time. But they needed a core team that could bring those hopes to life, and that meant they needed McDuffie.
“You’re crazy enough to do this, aren’t you?” McDuffie said to Cowan and Tingle when he heard their full pitch for the project. “Alright, I’m in.”
The company they formed was Milestone Media. McDuffie, a hard-nosed editor and journeyman comics writer, insisted that the roster of Milestone’s superheroes reflect the diversity of America. One of the company’s launch titles was Icon, about a black Superman-style hero with conservative politics who fought to be an example for others to follow. (According to Cowan, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a big fan.) Milestone also featured one of the first gay couples in American superhero comics and one of the first gay heroes of color.
“We started out as a black company with four original black characters,” Cowan told an audience at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013, “but you’ve got to take that idea all the way. If you’re inclusive, you’re really inclusive. If you’re just doing black comic books, then you’re not being inclusive.
“And the person who really started pushing that more and more,” Cowan added, “was Dwayne McDuffie.”
Putting It on the Page
Born and raised in Detroit, McDuffie made his breakout in 1989 with a series called Damage Control about a company that cleans up after superhero battles. McDuffie’s senses of realism and humor won him a vocal and devoted following. He wrote multiple mainstream comic book series including Deathlok and Fantastic Four for Marvel and Justice League of America for DC Comics. Milestone Media shut down its comics division in 1997, but McDuffie kept working and writing. He eventually moved on to animation, running the Static Shock series based on a Milestone teenage superhero and working as a writer and showrunner on the DC animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
Four of Milestone Media's most popular superhero characters: Icon, Rocket, Static, and Hardware. The third character was also the title character in the Static Shock animated series, which McDuffie ran and wrote for. The original pitch for the show, done by McDuffie, touted Static as “Chris Rock at 14 with superpowers.”
Courtesy of DC Entertainment
McDuffie was regularly recognized for his excellent work on the page and the small screen. He received a Humanitas Award, an Inkpot Award, and multiple Eisner and daytime Emmy nominations over the course of his career. The accolades accompanied work that integrated McDuffie’s omnivorous reading life and his roving curiosity. He used vigilante cyborgs to explore the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois in the Deathlok story “The Souls of Cyber-Folk” and included more scenes and more character development for African American characters such as Green Lantern John Stewart on the Justice League cartoons. Dwayne McDuffie knew who he was and what he believed, and he put it right there on the page.
“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,” cultural critic Evan Narcisse wrote of McDuffie and his work.
McDuffie died in 2011, just 49 years old, leaving behind a significant body of work that crossed the continuum of mainstream comics and superhero media. But his strongest legacies might be his fight to break down barriers as a comics creator and editor. His insistence on accurate and diverse depictions of characters empowered younger creators who might not have made it into the industry without the jobs that Milestone offered or the inspiration created by his characters.
“Milestone Comics, as a publishing house…was the starting point for the careers of many a writer, artist, and editor,” wrote Joseph Illidge, a comics industry veteran who worked with McDuffie at Milestone, “[for] people who worked at Milestone and people who did not. People who created the books, and people who read them. Both creator and fan were equally and profoundly impacted by the company’s presence, publishing slate, and mission statement.”
Top image from Black Superheroes: Milestone Comics and Their Fans, by Jeffrey A. Brown.