Dwayne McDuffie, comic books creator who championed diversity, dies at 49

Dwayne McDuffie co-founded the publishing company Milestone Media as a means to express greater multiculturalism in comics.
Dwayne McDuffie co-founded the publishing company Milestone Media as a means to express greater multiculturalism in comics. (The New York Times)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 10:53 PM

Dwayne McDuffie, a top comics writer who created textured characters and helped introduce compelling minority superheroes on the page and TV screen, died Feb. 21 at a care facility in Burbank, Calif., after complications from emergency heart surgery. He died a day after his 49th birthday.

Whether in his celebrated comic books or TV animation, Mr. McDuffie strived to broaden the sophistication of how minorities were represented in comics. He had found a dearth of black characters in mainstream comic books, and when they were present, he said, they could be offensive.

"You had the stupid angry brute and the he's-smart-but-he's-black characters," he told the New York Times in 1993. "And they were all colored either this Hershey-bar shade of brown, a sickly looking gray or purple. I've never seen anyone that's gray or purple before in my life. There was no diversity and almost no accuracy among the characters of color at all."

The prolific Mr. McDuffie wrote dozens of books for Marvel and DC comics - including "Fantastic Four," "Justice League of America" and "Damage Control," the last about a firm that cleans up messes in the wake of superhero battles. In 1992, he co-founded the publishing company Milestone Media as a means to express greater multiculturalism in comics and battle that recurrent comic-book villain: stereotyping.

"I try to put superheroes in situations where being strong or being able to fly or fight aren't the answers," Mr. McDuffie said in a 1996 interview with the Detroit Free Press.

"We've dealt with teen pregnancy, abortion, racism and anti-Semitism," he said. "Being able to hit somebody harder doesn't help you deal with that. . . . You will not find situations in my stories where the hero overcomes the villain merely by force of strength. Usually you will find that violence escalates the problem and creates new problems."

Through Milestone, which struck a publishing deal with DC Comics, Mr. McDuffie helped launch such black superheroes as Icon and Static.

The latter hero became the basis for Mr. McDuffie's animated show "Static Shock," which aired from 2000 to 2004, initially on the WB network. He shared a 2003 Humanitas Prize, in the children's animation category, for an episode concerning gun violence in schools.

Mr. McDuffie's animated work also included the TV series "Ben 10: Alien Force" as well as the 2011 feature "All-Star Superman," which Warner Home Video released the day after his death.

"He was a consummate craftsman and an innovator," friend and entertainment colleague Reginald Hudlin said. "There were so many notable things about his career. He was a great comic writer and editor. And then to be a successful businessman and launch the first black comic-book company with Milestone Media and to create characters that have a huge cultural footprint. And now he was finally getting recognition with all his animated shows."

Born in Detroit on Feb. 20, 1962, Dwayne Glenn McDuffie graduated in 1980 from the Roeper School for gifted students in the suburb of Bloomfield Hills. He later studied film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

His first marriage, to Patricia Younger, ended in divorce. In 2009, he married Charlotte Fullerton, a writer who specializes in animation projects. Besides his wife, survivors include his mother, Edna McDuffie-Gardner. A younger brother, his only sibling, died in November from complications of diabetes.

Mr. McDuffie caught on with Marvel in 1987 as a special comics editor. In 1989, to make a point about the lacking state of diversity in comics, he wrote an internal memo at Marvel that mock-pitched a series called "Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers."

His main characters, he wrote, are black and travel by skateboard. The comic would be a "sure fire hit as it contains all of these popular elements: circa 1974 clothing and hair styles; bizarre speech patterns, unrecognizable by any member of any culture on the planet; a smart white friend to help them out of the trouble they get into; they're heroes who could be you (if you were black, I mean . . .); they're on skateboards!; they have an attractive, white female friend to calm them down when they get too excited."

"Have I made my point?"

Cavna is a Washington Post reporter who covers comics culture on his Post blog Comic Riffs.

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