Photo by CoolB047I’ve been reading comic books since 1976. The worlds of DC and Marvel are as essential to my life as basketball, house music, and politics. About twenty years ago, around the time I entered grad school, there was a comic-book revolution of sorts. A series of writers and pencillers left the “big two” to stake their own claim, to create superhero universes where they made the rules (and as important, controlled the intellectual property). With a couple of exceptions these universes died out as their creators were co-opted by either DC or Marvel, or their works found no purchase in the marketplace.
Milestone was one of the universes. There’d been non-white superheroes before, with the most prominent being the Black Panther. And there’d been attempts to create superhero universes populated by black characters. But none ever done from the inside, so to speak. It took a group of black comic book professionals lead by a 30 year old Detroiter–Dwayne McDuffie–to make it happen.
By the time the first Milestone comics hit the shelves–Icon, Static, Hardware–I was already an adult. And because I grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods and was routinely exposed to black men and women of different backgrounds, I don’t think I was particularly hamstrung by the absence of black superheros up to that point. Reading about the exploits of a white man dressed up as a bat didn’t damage my self-esteem…although as I type this, I’m surprised it didn’t! If anyone was hurt, I’d argue that whites were, because seeing a predominantly white superhero universe arguably fueled their ignorance.
With that said though I loved seeing an African American aesthetic (note I didn’t say the African American aesthetic because there is more than one) applied to comics. Reading Static, I saw my 14 year old self–nerdy, awkward, into Dungeons and Dragons, hip-hop, and girls. Reading Hardware I thought of three of my fraternity brothers, all hardcore scientists. And the subtle politics caught my eye as well. Icon, for example was the Milestone Superman for all intents and purposes, but not only was he what we’d call a black conservative, his sidekick (Rocket) was a teenaged girl who through the course of the comic became pregnant. McDuffie himself said that Icon was more about Rocket than it was about Icon. Reading about Dakota (the city at the center of the Milestone Universe) was like reading about Detroit. And although Static, Icon, Rocket and Hardware were all African American, they had different skin shades, as well as different political ideologies.
Milestone didn’t last although Static went on to become a long-lived cartoon. But McDuffie had a long career afterwards. He helmed the animated Justice League series–without a doubt the best interpretation of that group ever. He produced a number of straight-to-dvd animated movies for DC, including the recently released All-Star Superman. And every now and again he dabbled in comics. He was known for being a gentle giant who always spoke the truth. Even when it placed his career at risk.
Even though I friended him on facebook, I never got a chance to talk to him. I could have, but I figured that I’d do it once I’d become “famous” and could approach him as something other than a fanboy. I never got a chance to ask when he was at Michigan for example, or where in Detroit he grew up.
More importantly I never got a chance to thank him for his work, and for the effect it had on me. He died on Monday (the day after his 49th birthday) due to complications from a surgery. He is survived by his wife.
It’s going to take a bit to get over this.