Over a decade ago, I met Dwayne McDuffie in an internet chat room. It was a forum for fans of superheroes of color. Since I had stopped reading comics through the 1990s, I missed his historic endeavor to create an independent publisher that developed a universe that represented the cultural diversity of humanity – Milestone Comics. After a few conversations, I realized that he was either the editor or the writer for many of the best stories I read as a child. Imagine having the chance to converse with Aesop or Mary Shelley or J.D. Salinger.
Then, imagine that she offers to share some of her rarest stories with you – transformative mythologies of people mostly forgotten by history; creative reflections on the nature of sexuality, divorce, drug abuse, slavery, and politics. Finally, after reading these gifts and discussing them with him, this great author becomes your friend. She invests her time and energy in your career. He encourages you to develop your own gift for writing. She values your insights about her work and the common world the two of you have come to share. You come to see yourself in a new and better light for having been in this friendship.
This experience was the way my friendship with Dwayne evolved. We often disagreed about one thing or another – I think the biggest disagreement was the constraints on novels versus serial fiction and how negotiable they were. However, nothing will stand in my memory as long as our common agreement and commitment to change the fictional universe Americans engaged in the twentieth century. Dwayne heard one of my criticisms about the presentation of African Americans in Marvel Comics as we discussed Christopher Priest’s acclaimed Black Panther series. I made the point that no African American man had ever been involved in a relationship with a prominent white American woman in either a Marvel or a DC comic. Dwayne routinely shot down such widespread generalizations with his encyclopedic knowledge of comic book history. On this point, he remained silent.
He mentioned that someone should write a letter to the editor on the topic. So I did. It was a lengthy, three-decade-long reflection on how African Americans remained marginal to the most popular forms of fantasy storytelling children encountered in the late twentieth century. I never got a formal reply. Still, within the next year, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones started a controversial relationship that led to their marriage. Susan Richards explained her fantasies about (and near dalliance with) T’Challa to her girlfriends. T’Challa and Ororo’s wedding marked the high point of the process of bringing Africans and African Americans to the fore as fully developed characters in ways that had been previously impossible.
Dwayne saw all of this change and raised the ante with his development of a relationship between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl in the second season of the animated cartoon, Justice League. Introducing John Stewart as the show’s Green Lantern was controversial enough. When Hawkgirl developed a relationship with him, the chemistry caused significant discomfort with fans of her mythology. All of the controversy just fueled Dwayne’s imagination. He built one of the most dramatic cartoon kisses into the final scene of the season’s finale. Then, he twisted the public angst in the feature cartoon about Hawkgirl’s fiancé by making him a villain. Finally, he revisited the story continually as the relationship became more complex and introduced a future timeline where they had a son together as well as an ancient timeline where versions of Hawkgirl and Green Lantern had an affair despite her marriage to another man.
From a multiverse where African Americans were marginal when they were not totally absent to layered, complicated portrayals of human drama in animated cartoons, Dwayne McDuffie was the prime mover in the process of redefining the landscape of the American imagination. He was an inspiration to countless artists and writers over the last thirty years. Even editorial barriers could not contain him as his narrative in the Justice League of America was titled “Welcome to Sundown Town” – an ambivalent declaration of his true feelings about bringing the Milestone Universe into the DC Universe in a formal way. A reference to James Loewen’s text, Sundown Towns, Dwayne expertly switched codes the way filmmakers and artists played with perspective. He told the knowing audience that this multiverse is still segregated, even though his characters had gained entry. In that way, Dwayne pointed us into the twenty-first century – a world that still confuses access for opportunity. This challenge is now left to us to meet without the genius that made our possibilities more realistic. We are all better equipped to succeed because of the work Dwayne has left us.
At the end of the day, however, I will still deeply miss my friend. Thank you, Dwayne. I offer my condolences to everyone whose life he touched.