Toonzone Presents: An Interview/Tribute to Dwayne McDuffie
Back in 2006, I briefly flirted with the notion of writing a book about superhero animation, its history and trajectory. It never came to fruition, partially because real life got in the way, and partially because I decided to refocus my energies on my biggest passion, which is voice acting. But I was fortunate enough to get a couple of interviews. These were never intended to be posted or used in full interview format; they were background information and exploration for this hypothetical book.
One of the extremely generous interviewees was Dwayne McDuffie, who tragically passed away on February 21, 2011. This interview was sitting amidst my various random items, still untranscribed on mini-tape, and I realized that in the wake of the vastly unfortunate loss of McDuffie, this was something that deserves to be shared with his many fans and appreciaters across the world. So, despite my own unforgiving schedule, I set aside what proved to be more than a few hours and finally transcribed this interview. It is more raw and unedited and uncensored than normal, the intention of such being so that you can experience as much as possible what it was like to spend any time in conversation with this gentleman. As such, you will see a lot of this tag: [laughter]. Suffice to say, there was a great deal of it.
This interview was recorded at Dwayne McDuffie’s apartment in Los Angeles, somewhere in the late ’06/early ’07 area. (It has been so long that I am legitimately unsure.) Also, small contextual note: my own incompetence and inexperience with recording devices resulted in us going for a little while with the interview before I realized the recorder was not in fact recording. Most interviewers edit out this kind of embarrassing stuff. I have left it in, again in the hopes of most accurately setting the scene.
TOONZONE NEWS: Okay, we’re talking with Dwayne McDuffie. I think we’re running – to the best of my abilities; from now on, I’m gonna be checking [the recorder]. Very quickly, recapping: [what are] your earliest experiences with superhero animation?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: That’d be old ’60s Spider-Man and Fantastic Four shows, which I loved. I have looked at them again, as an adult, and some things are better kept in your memory. [chuckle] The thing that I remember about them, that I still love about them, [is that] they led me to the comics and probably in a way to this very bizarre career I have here.
TOONZONE NEWS: Follow-up question: which one do you remember first – Spider-Man or Fantastic Four? I believe Fantastic Four premiered first.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I kinda remember them at the same time, but I was a really small kid, so…I remember the Fantastic Four seemed cooler to me, but I liked Spider-Man a lot. I just really liked the character.
TOONZONE NEWS: Was it the diverseness of personalities with the Fantastic Four?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: No, they went to really cool places. You know, they’d go to other dimensions.
TZN: More of the “fantastic” element to the Fantastic Four.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Absolutely.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: It was a very strange time. The comic book industry was exploding. I think it’s probably the only time in comic book history that we could have done it. There was such a hunger for product. You know, Marvel and DC were publishing as many books as they could. Image was exploding. We launched in February of 1993, and that summer, five more companies launched universes of books. So, on the one hand, it was great for us, because there was no other time that we could have done our little off-in-the-corner, do-what-we-wanna-do thing. On the other hand, there was so much competition, it was very hard to get people to pay attention to you.
TZN: To make a name for yourselves.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Or at least positive attention! [laugher]
TZN: And you were saying [when I screwed up the recorder on the first go], it’s never quite easy for black superheroes in the market.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Oh, sure, it’s very difficult, because you’ve got two levels of retail. You’ve got the professional retailer who want to service his customers, and wants to have stuff that his customers want to buy and lead them to stuff they would like based on the other stuff they liked. And…not so much anymore, because the 90′s sort of weeded out the weak, but it used to be that the majority of comic book retailers were guys who wanted a place to keep their collections. They reminded me of guys where you go to a record store and buy a record, and the guy behind the counter would mock you for your taste.
TZN: From High Fidelty, Jack Black.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah, absolutely! That’s exactly what I was groping for. [laughter] You got that from a lot of comics retailers, who would tell fans – I’ve heard this from former retailers – “I used to tell people not to buy your books because you’re racist.” And I’m like, “How am I racist?” “Well, your comics are all black.” “No, they’re not.” “Yes, they are!” I’m like, “I made them!” [Then they'd say] “And you won’t hire white people!” I’m like, “Dude, look at the people on my books! Honest! Walter Simonson…is not black!”
TZN: Was there a predominance of expectation…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Absolutely.
TZN: “The black company.”
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: We dealt with that a whole bunch, and I think a lot of it is because comics on the business side and on the production side has been so much a white business that anything that differs from that is like, “That’s not normal.” I think it confused a lot of people, and a lot of people sort of resented it, and you know…that’s too bad, ’cause we made a lot of really, really good comics and I am really, really proud of the people who we gave first chances to. J.H. Williams and CrissCross and John Paul Leon and Tommy Lee Edwards…
TZN: Let me ask – “Matt S. Wayne”…is that the same Matt Wayne?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: That’s the same Matt Wayne. He worked for me at Milestone and ended up working for me at Justice League. On Bruce Timm’s suggestion! Which was really cool, because Bruce was like, “Who do you want to bring in for story editor?” And we went through all these guys and I thought of Matt, and I didn’t want to suggest him because we’d worked so much together, so I felt like, “I can’t just bring my friend in here.” Finally, Bruce is like, “Yeah, what about Matt Wayne? You worked with him; is he okay?” And I’m like – I didn’t want to oversell it – “Eh, he’s okay. Maybe he could come in and meet with us.” Instead of, “OH, BOY!”
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Matt came in, and he did everything you want a story editor to do. I didn’t have to mess with his stuff. He worked with great with the writers he brought in. He took five or six scripts, he went off, came back, ready to shoot. I barely had to touch them, and that’s what you want. You want, like, five guys like him working on your show so you can sit around and play with all the toys you get. [laughter]
TZN: We’ll get to Justice League later. For Question #3 – reminder, talk to Alan Burnett about the making of Static Shock. [The lost first take on the interview included Dwayne informing me that Alan was really the primary artistic leader of the show.] Static Shock – success? Failure? Sometimes both?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Static Shock was an enormous success. It ran 52 episodes, it ran three seasons, either #1 or #2 in the ratings. When it reran during the week, it had three to four million viewers five days a week, and then three million viewers every Saturday. The thing that people off in this corner of the business don’t seem to get is that Static had substantially better ratings than Teen Titans, than Justice League, than anything I’ve ever worked on. It was a hit by any standards. When they started running it on Cartoon Network…the reruns on Cartoon Network were, for five to six months, [the] #2 show on Cartoon Network. Behind only Family Guy.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Substantially behind Family Guy, but there you go. [laughter]
TZN: I’ll never understand it, but go ahead. [laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: It was a great big fat hit, and I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
TZN: Unfortunately, the regime in charge at the time during the fourth season just…messed with it.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: They…you know, they didn’t like the show, they didn’t get it. I mean, they were trying to make it better. [ironic pause] They were completely wrong! [laughter]
TZN: Their perception of better! [laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: It drove me crazy, because I really felt the third season of that show, we got it. We understood how to do it. Going into the fourth season, we’re gonna make a classic cartoon season, we know what we’re doing, and then it was it was like [from the execs], “Eh, we don’t like that story, we don’t like that story, we don’t like THAT story…What if you save the President in an airplane?” This is an actual [network] note. “Boy, that’d be great, because nobody’s ever done that.”
TZN: [debilitating laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I shouldn’t pick on them, because I have friends who work with them. You know, everybody’s trying to do their job. It just when they guy over here and the guy over [there] have a completely different idea of what the job is…I think it was to the detriment of the show in the last season. But I put the third season up against any season of [the] DC Animated Universe. It’s a really good show.
TZN: Now, Static Shock was also known for taking on significant social issues. How effective do you feel these episodes were at their goals, and are the restrictions placed on daytime animated kids’ shows any kind of hindrance to exploring these issues?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Certainly they’re a hindrance. And I think that’s fair because a lot of parents just kind of plop their kids down in front of the TV, expecting us to babysit for them. It’s not fair, but you know, they do it, and we need to sort of be aware of it. I actually thought Kids’ WB was fantastic, particularly in letting us do the gun violence show.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: “Jimmy”, which Alan Burnett and I got a Humanitas award for, which I like to mention as often as possible, because it’s cool.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Makes me look good. In letting us tackle that, we actually had a cast member, a regular cast member of the series was shot in that episode, which was something I didn’t think they were gonna let us do.
TZN: Richie, right?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah, Richie.
TZN: The point was that it wasn’t like it normally is on TV…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah, it not like “Ugh…pfft.” [Dwayne mimes a weaksauce shot wound.] It’s metal tearing through your muscle. Not a fun thing. But we were able to deal with a lot of stuff that I was surprised we were able to deal with, considering the age group. We were able to do it without being preachy. People always accuse you of being preachy when you do stuff like that…
TZN: Like the nature of getting at the topic at all is preachy.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: You know what, though? Those topics are in the world. And people say, “Well, I don’t want to see real life in my [shows]!” Well, then what do you want to see? Going to the bathroom? Eating breakfast? Do they want it so abstract that it really has nothing to do with our lives? Or do you want to incorporate things that are of interest to our audience? And kids are concerned about gun violence. Kids are concerned about homelessness; that was another episode that worked out very well.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: That was a really beautifully done episode. Another episode, even though I’m really mad that…my one complaint about the change from comics to cartoon was that, in the comics, Static was from a complete family unit. Mother and father there, and his sister. And in the tradition of all cartoons, he had to be at least half an orphan. So his mother was already dead when the series started. And so even though I didn’t like that, it did lead to a really good episode where he had the chance to go back in time…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Right! And meet his mother.
TZN: Alfre Woodard, right?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Alfre Woodard! I mean, come on. What a great job!
TZN: Don’t get much better guest stars than that.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: No, you really don’t. [laughter]
TZN: Now, let me ask, is that the touch of Andrea Romano?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: One of the handful of people I’ve met in my life who, legitimately…she is a genius. Not because she can get those people – she can, and that’s amazing – but because she can get performances out of people that…I don’t know how it happens. We ask people to do things that actors aren’t asked to do. And she gets people to invest completely in a level of fantasy that it’s really rare for a working actor to have to invest in. And, you know, nothing’s drawn! She makes it happen in their heads in the room. I love her. I would be honored to work on anything with her. Ever.
TZN: Moving on to the next show, bringing life to the heroes of Justice League. Considerable challenge. What did you need to do to make these demigods into real people?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Well, that was kind of the thing! I think, the first season – which I freelanced on…
TZN: “Brave and the Bold”.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: “Brave and the Bold”, yes. Paul Dini was injured, and he’d written an outline, a pretty complete outline, him and Rich Fogel, and Paul was supposed to script it. And…something happened. [ironic pause; I think I might have given him a conspiratorial look] I had nothing to do with it…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: My lawyers say I can’t express this enough. [laughter] And I just got a call from Rich Fogel, who said, “Hey, you want to take a shot at this?” I didn’t know Rich. I didn’t know anybody on Justice League. I think Alan had passed my name along. Once again, yay Alan! I wrote that script and it worked out well, and they gave me a couple more that season. And second season, they brought me out here. That’s why I live in California now. To be the story editor on Justice League.
TZN: When you started with Static Shock, where were you living?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Florida.
TZN: Florida! Wow. Heck of a difference,
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Little bit.
TZN: Slightly. Better voting system. [laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: [laughter] Who do you want to win? We’ll just pull the slot and see.
TZN: So that’s how you got involved. The DC characters are renowned, or perhaps even infamous – compared to the Marvel characters – for being a little bit too aloof…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: They were kind of a bunch of stiffs! The Justice League is a 1950s property. It’s when DC was kind of at the height of…all their heroes were like Hugh Beaumont. They were like your dad, but not even your real dad…
TZN: What you imagined your dad being.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah! Like they were all in the Kiwanis club. They had no personalities. You could take the dialogue from any character and put it on any other character and it didn’t matter. Except you’d change the curse. Superman wouldn’t say, “Sufferin’ Sappho!”…although he’d enjoy watching. And Wonder Woman wouldn’t say, “Great Scott!” But other than that, the rest of the dialogue, the voice was exactly the same. So, you know, even if the Justice League moved forward, that’s the core of it. So when we started the Justice League series, there was a tendency to stay in that, like there wasn’t enough differentiation between the characters. And I saw that in a few first-season episodes and I thought, “Okay, we need to start separating these guys out, figuring out who they are, why they do what they do. What’s different about them? Why should we be interested in this guy instead of that guy?” Really tried to push that in the second season. I think we did a pretty good job in the second season, and I think by the middle of the third season, it was like, “Oh, okay, now we know how to do these guys, let’s see if we can do some stories that will really [challenge them].” It wasn’t plot-driven at first.
TZN: I imagine it must have been a significant challenge once you upped it from seven to fifty-seven.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: You know what, it’s weird, because I thought that was gonna be impossible. I really…my thought was, “Okay, here’s what the show’s gonna be – we’re gonna have one of the regular members go off on missions with two new guys. Introduce the new guys, and kind of jump around and animate as many different characters as we can.” The mandate we said was, we’re going to tell the best Captain [Atom] story we that there is, and the best Hawk and Dove story that there is – which, sadly, we achieved.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: And that’s kind of what the show would be. In the course of doing it, we figured out a couple of things. One, the shows could be a lot denser. A lot more stuff could happen. And I think it’s really funny, because there are still people who say, “Well, I liked Justice League, because you had time to really explore stuff.” Maybe we did, but we didn’t. We had time, but we really didn’t. If you look at the Justice League Unlimited series, in those half-hours, we did a lot more character stuff than we ever did in the hour shows. Because the hour shows were always, “Okay, this needs to be the biggest story ever. What haven’t we blown up yet?” “The moon.” “Excellent! We’re gonna blow up the moon! Okay, we need a half-hour to get to the moon, and then we gotta blow it up.”
TZN: Because with the hour-long episode format, it [required] the biggest epic action [scenes].
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: It was the mini-movie thing. It’s like, there’s a big summer action tentpole every week. And, you know, we did a great job. But you run out of moons to blow up. So it was logical to turn inwards and start dealing with characters and what their job [was] and what that stuff meant to them. And that’s where it went and it worked really well, I think.
TZN: Now, not to praise you too much, but your scripts are well-known for their character insight.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: But you know, we all work on everything, so I always feel weird about that. We all sit in a room and we argue about every piece of everything, and a lot of times people make assumptions about who does what, and if you’re not in the room, you don’t have a clue.
TZN: Who came up with what bit.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: When people sit back and talk about some great line, it’s like, “Yeah, I know, I wrote it.” Other people are like, “The plots in this guy’s stuff aren’t logical, they don’t make sense. And these [other] plots make sense.” Well, the guy who you said can’t plot plotted the one you said was tight, and didn’t plot the one you said wasn’t! It’s a group endeavor.
TZN: So, even with the name on the byline, it’s the group altogether.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: We all sit in the room, we go through it beat-by-beat, and the guy who writes the first draft, as far as I’m concerned, gets the credit. Sometimes, we don’t end up using anything that the guy did, but as far as I’m concerned, [if] somebody has to sit down and face a blank piece of paper, they wrote it.
TZN: In that situation, is that where it starts to be, “Story by: blank”, “Teleplay by: blank”?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Well, no. It means different things in different places. But on our show, “Story by” means you wrote the treatment. That doesn’t even mean you plotted it, because you might have sat in a room and we all talked it through every beat. Depending on who’s writing it, we might have every single beat worked out, and then somebody goes off and they write an outline, which is everything that happens in it as a short story. If you write that document, you get the story credit, even if we throw that document away, because that’s what got us to the thing that’s on the air. As far as I’m concerned, that’s how it should be. Same thing with script. Whoever does the first pass at the script gets the script credit, and they should, because they’re the ones who had to do it when there’s nothing there. And even if, through rewrites or through, “We can’t use Flash; it’s gonna have to be J’onn J’onzz,” which means every scene changed and me and Stan Berkowitz stayed up all night rewriting the dialogue and there’s not three words of [the original] in there…doesn’t matter. The guy who wrote it, wrote it.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Oh, the second question’s a good question; I have no idea. On the first question, I used to say Wonder Woman was the hardest character to write, because Wonder Woman isn’t really a character. She is a bag of bits. She’s an Amazon. She wears the flag. She has an invisible plane. She’s an ambassador. She’s a great warrior. Just a bunch of crap in a bag.
TZN: She’s an icon based on being the first female superhero, but not much else to hang your hat on.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: She doesn’t have that clean line. She’s unusual for a DC character, because DC characters are usually boiled down to something really simple in a way that Marvel doesn’t. [For instance,] Flash. He runs real fast. I get that. Green Lantern? Space cop. Totally get it. Aquaman? Breathes underwater. Get it, right? Wonder Woman?…she’s an Amazon, she’s…it’s like a whole bunch of weird stuff, and because she has all the status, she tends to end up stiff. And the problem is if you pick a personality for her, exactly half of her fans will hate it. You do better giving her no personality! And I can’t write like that. So I decided who she was, and when I wrote her, I wrote her that way. I just decided, “Okay, half of you all are just gonna be angry. You’re just gonna be pissed. We can’t just have her standing around – great hero!” I used to say she was tough, but it turned out Superman was just as tough. Because, sort of the same reasons, Superman has had a lot of different personalities. Now, the Superman I like is the original Superman, right from the beginning, when he was a big lefty social-justice guy who’s kind of like a private detective. He’s like George Raft as a lefty strongest-guy-in-the-world. And he’d go out there, and he’d shake down the big business guys. “You know why? ‘Cause I’m Superman – you can’t do crap about it. So you do what’s right or I’m gonna beat your ass.” I love that guy! He hasn’t been that for sixty years. Then in the ’50s, he’s Kiwanis-Club Superman; his biggest problem was that Lois might find out who he is, so he tortured her. I like that guy [too].
TZN: The Superdickery thing…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah! [laughter] I love those books. I think they’re incredibly entertaining; it’s like, “Yes, the only way to make [Lois] think she’s insane is to move the moon out of orbit. I’ll just do that. I’ll put it back later. Make her think she’s insane, and I win.”
TZN: All to teach her a lesson!
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: The important lesson of, “I’m Superman, and don’t screw with me!” That’s the lesson. I like that guy.
TZN: But the difference is, compared to Wonder Woman, is that in terms of the DCAU, Superman had an entire series behind him.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: And he did have a really clear set of [personality distinctions]. But Superman is about his supporting cast.
TZN: A lot of which got removed as we go over to Justice League.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah! He’s the guy who changes the world around him. And what got kind of interesting in Unlimited was, I just decided, “You know, Superman’s a really good guy. He always does what’s right.” And what I was thinking about was, like, some of the attack ad stuff that was going on [in politics], where they say, “John Murtha is against the troops!” And I thought, surely Luthor would do that to Superman! Convince everybody that, “Hmm, I dunno, that Superman does a lot of good stuff, but he’s got some issues…he’s soft on truth, justice, and the American way…” I kinda liked [that] idea. And for me, what was interesting about it was [that] most people couldn’t do this to Superman, but Lex Luthor knows how to push Superman’s buttons. And we sorta had two seasons of Superman being really irritable because he kept doing what was right…and everybody thought he was a jackass!
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah, he kept trying to…well, that was the one where Luthor completely got him…
TZN: I remember the [Toonzone] talkback for that episode, and everybody’s like, “Superman’s a jerk!” And I was, “Were you paying attention?”
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Well, y’know, what normally would happen, though, in a Superman story is – despite all that happening – he would do exactly the right thing and everything would be [fine]. But I wanted to set up the situation so that…well, first, I wanted Superman and Captain Marvel to fight. I didn’t want them to be controlled…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: So there had to be a situation where they both thought they were right. It was easy with our version of Captain Marvel, who’s really just a kid. I wanted to differentiate between what people think of as “Superman”, and Captain Marvel who really is that ten-year-old kid [who thinks], “There’s right and there’s wrong and that’s what you do. And I don’t understand – you’re Superman, why would you do something bad?” And put those words into his mouth. Plus, what people miss about that episode is that [while] Superman wanted to fight, but Captain Marvel gave him the smackdown of his life. “You are not what you say you are. You were my hero, and you’re not that guy, and I don’t want to play anymore, [so] I’m leaving.” Which was sort of forced, because we could only use him once, but it wound up [working] really nicely. It was a really good excuse to get him in and out, and to show where Superman had slid to. But people got really, really upset that Superman was showing a temper all season, that he was agitated, that Batman was getting on his nerves. “I’ve got this big organization to run and these guys all have their own agendas and they’re all pulling together, and [instead] we should be great!” That’s the pressure of being the leader instead of just being the example. So I’m pretty happy with how that worked out.
TZN: Now, that second question that you didn’t quite have an answer to – were there any you expected to be trouble, and weren’t?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Expected to be trouble…let’s see, who would be hard? It’s kind of hard to remember where I was on these guys. [moment of thought] Physically, I always expect Flash to be trouble, and he is. The personality they came up with for him was so wonderful that he actually became a joy to write. The problem with Flash…the problem with a lot of DC characters is that they’re so powerful that if they use their powers even a little bit reasonably, there’s no story. The Flash thing is like, [Dwayne is speaking as a neurotic villain here] “Give me what I want or I’ll push this button…give me back my button! You can’t take my button before I make the…I quit!” There’s just no story! The guy moves at the speed of light! The guy can give his speed to other objects! He can go through walls!
TZN: [laughter] There were a few [powers] that didn’t get in there…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: We did that on purpose, because even a guy who can run at the speed of sound is so fast, you can’t react. If you’ve ever tried to hit a fastball, you have the slightest idea of what it’s like to try and do something before the Flash reacts to you. You can’t sneak up on him. You can’t…
TZN: Unless he’s being a moron.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Unless he’s kind of being a moron, and we kind of played it that he’s just goofing, and mainly goofing because it’s so easy for him that he can screw with you. I actually had him talk about that a couple of times, where he thinks Superman is dead, he’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to stop screwing around now. Because not only am I the fastest guy alive, but Superman’s standing behind me! So why shouldn’t I have a good time?” What can you do?
TZN: I think that was the perfect answer to that question. So, I think it’s only fair to make this the second occurrence of this question: Justice League/JLU – success? Failure? Sometimes either?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I think they were both successes. And I think Justice League is impossible. I can’t believe how good Justice League was. It’s just impossible…they don’t belong together. The Fantastic Four was created together. They belong together. Everybody has a position in the organization, and the family, the unit, pushing the stories forward. This is just seven random guys whose books happen to sell pretty well. Making them into a real team and making them into a family and telling stories that [made] people want to know more about these guys, that’s an enormous achievement. I think we’re too rough on the first season of Justice League. When the DVD came out, I looked at all the shows and said, “This show’s better than anything, and people were complaining!” And we did step it up. I will say that, I think the show generally got better as we went along. But the first season of Justice League is a miracle.
TZN: There’s quite a few real stand-out episodes…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah!
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: That’s a great episode.
TZN: “The Savage Time”, certainly. I have a huge love for “Injustice For All”.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I love that show. I don’t know why people don’t like it. That was the one where I watched it and went, “Oh, I know how to do this.” Stan Berkowitz doesn’t get enough credit. He’s another guy who has written all of these incredibly key episodes and people don’t act like he’s the man. And they should. “Injustice For All” really informed how I approached those characters. He gave me a lot of insight into Batman. Gave me a lot of insight into Superman. Just again and again….[chuckle] He just writes great shows.
TZN: So, you wrote a couple of Teen Titans episodes.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah.
TZN: Did the significant difference in tone and style for that show alter the nature of your job as a writer? Did any of the famous Titans’ outlandish expressions or gags come from you, or did it all get added in during the visual work?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Oh no, both. I love coming up with those gags. And the Teen Titans crew are really funny, and they top you a lot, but…I like to write all kinds of different stuff. Titans was a lot of fun to write. I think it’s great that it can be so character-oriented, that those characters are so pure, but that you can be so broad at the same time without losing [the feeling of] caring about them. It’s really easy to do [just] a funny show.
TZN: It’s a little bit like Fantastic Four, like you were saying, at least in terms of the series, the line-up is established. It never changes. Stays like that, whole way through.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: And those five characters really kind of make up one adolescent. It’s like you took one kid and split five pieces of his personality off and then gave them lives. It’s really, really well-constructed.
TZN: The two episodes you did are very different. “Fear Itself” is sort of a horror episode, in that respect, while “Winner Take All” is a real free-for-all, action-oriented [episode].
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah, although “Fear Itself” is a horror movie, but the first third of it is…[laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: …is making fun of fanboys. Which sort of pokes a hole in the tone.
TZN: Now, Control Freak. Was that a character that was given to you, or did you make him up?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: No, I made him up. I actually made him up for Impulse comics for DC, and I think they cancelled the book before I got to write it.
TZN: They made great use of him again, I believe, in the fourth season.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Oh, I loved when they brought him back. I thought it was so much funnier than what I had done.
TZN: The different TV channels…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Parodies of all those shows…
TZN: Up the wazoo.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Well, the trick with that was, it seemed to me that it was going to be so obvious what was going on [with Raven's fears making her powers act up], that I needed a big misdirect. So I needed a character whose powers could…
TZN: Simulate what Raven was going to end up doing.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Simulate what Raven….was going to end up…doing. Just repeat what you just said. [laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: But there was also the fun of playing around with the genre stuff. I was so pleased with “Wicked Scary” that I snuck it into Justice League, which…you know, scariest movie ever. You watch that movie, weird things happen. Just sayin’. “Winner Take All” was pretty much, as I remember it…I don’t know if it was the network or a toy company said, “We need to see more of these characters just [fighting]“, and we said, “Why don’t we just do it? They kinda let us do what we wanna do on the show, why don’t we just give them one?” And it ended up being a lot of fun. Once they started the Mortal Kombat thing, that made it click for me.
TZN: As an animation fanboy, I love that episode primarily because of Jim Cummings.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: [laughter] That’s fair enough. I actually…there was one thing I wanted to do and I couldn’t do. I wanted to do…oh, I can’t think of the name. The deaf character, from the comic books?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Jericho! I was gonna have Jericho in it. It was gonna be like Jericho versus Wildebeest, and they were just gonna come out, and I was gonna have Jericho sign, “I quit.” And that was gonna be the end of that.
TZN: [debilitating laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: And they said no, and I love that gag, so…
TZN: They brought him into the fifth season.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: They did bring him in later, but I was gonna just have him…the guy’s like four times his size and he looked up and…[Dwayne mimes Jericho shivering] [laughter]
TZN: Now, a more serious question – do we have a more open society for minorities in heroic roles, especially in animation, still seen by so many as a family affair or just for kids? And how about in villainous roles?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I don’t think we have a more open society. I think that when it happens, it happens because somebody in the production cares about it. John Stewart is Green Lantern because Bruce Timm wanted John Stewart to be Green Lantern. If Bruce Timm wasn’t there, [Stewart] wouldn’t have been there.
TZN: Would’ve been Kyle Rayner.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Would’ve been Kyle or Hal, and everybody would have been happy to have Justice League be five white guys. And Wonder Woman as the secretary, which was her traditional role in the comics! She used to actually take the minutes…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: And people are like, “I want the traditional Justice League!” No, you don’t. You don’t!
TZN: Not if you’re progressive.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Not even progressive! You don’t want to see Wonder Woman sitting there, taking notes while Green Arrow goes after somebody when she could break Green Arrow in half! You have to have people there [in production] who care and want to see it happen, or it wouldn’t happen. I think it’s important that people get a chance to identify with the other [race]. Minority kids in our culture have always been able to identify with people of other races in heroic roles. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be James Bond, I wanted to be Spider-Man. I’m perfectly used to putting myself in that head. White kids don’t have that opportunity that much. Which is why when I go to San Diego [CCI] and I see white kids dressed as Static or white kids dressed as (clearly) John Stewart Green Lantern, I’m like, “We’re really getting somewhere, ’cause this is a [kid] who’s going to be less inclined to make assumptions about someone based on the color of their skin.” So that’s a win.
TZN: Do you think that, when the time comes, to place a minority character in a story, is there a fear [of possible accusations of bigotry] that would keep them in a heroic role, or can they be villains?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I don’t think so. Certainly, in the case of Justice League, we were kinda limited by the characters that DC has chosen to do over the years. I mean, it was a stretch to get John Stewart in there. It was a stretch to get Hawkgirl in there. And it always bothered me that there were no Asian characters at all. I discovered Dr. Light too late and I kept trying to put her in everything.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: And then I did the Superfriends knock-off episode, just as a way to have [them]. It’s like, DC doesn’t have any Native American characters! DC didn’t have any Asian characters. They didn’t have any Latino or Hispanic characters.
TZN: They had to be added by Superfriends, of all things.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yep. And it’s like, that’s not how the world looks. Kids recognize that there’s something odd about it. They may not know what’s bugging them, but when it’s there, they know what should be there.
TZN: As a writer in animation, what is your main concern – entertainment? Meaning? Storytelling? All of the above? And how much do you ultimately control?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Depends on the project, as far as control goes.
TZN: Where did you have the most control?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Justice League. A lot of that was…I could pretty much do whatever I want to, as long as I kept Bruce entertained. He’s the final word. And if I went off on a weird tangent, [and] if Bruce enjoyed the tangent, it was in there. It was kind of an “audience of one”. And he’s a good audience. He’s got excellent taste. And if you do stuff that he likes, there’s a really good chance that the fans are gonna like it, too.
TZN: Hold on, switching to the second side…[Flipping the tape in my dinky analog mini-tape recorder.] Second side, thank you. Last two questions. In terms of writing, how do you feel about older superhero animation? Was it effective for what it needed to be? Did it disappoint its source material?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I…don’t know that an adaptation can ever disappoint [its] source material. Because – I think Stephen King says this; I don’t know who actually says this, I’m gonna give it to Stephen King – the book is still up there on the shelf. If someone reads it, and they get exactly the same experience…the Howard the Duck movie doesn’t change the fact that Howard the Duck is a great comic book.
TZN: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Doesn’t change those comics one bit. I don’t know that Alan would agree…[laughter]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yep. He liked it.
TZN: [I clapped here.] At least one! At least one thing.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: But the thing about it is, a TV cartoon is not a comic book. If you do the comic book [straight-out], people will be enormously disappointed. If Justice League had just adapted…let’s say, we all love Grant [Morrison]. Let’s say we just adapted the Grant stories. Every week.
TZN: Obsidian Age, Rock of Ages…[note: I betrayed my lack of comic knowledge here by attributing Joe Kelly's "Obsidian Age" to Grant Morrison. Getting the credit right on "Rock of Ages" was sheer luck.]
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: We’d have been…first of all, we’d be off the air after a season. Second of all, even the people who love it would hate it. You know exactly what’s gonna happen and then it would have been about what microchanges you made to it. Why should I watch something I already read when you’ve got these great characters and you can do new stories? We could do five more years of Justice League with the same [characters] we got now, without even bringing any new blood in. We bring new blood in, it could run forever. Great characters, great situations…
TZN: It would never truly die.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah. So the old [animated] shows, certainly in my case, got me into this stuff. When I think about it, I liked Birdman and Space Ghost. I look at it now, I go, “What the hell was I watching?” But I couldn’t wait for Birdman. Birdman…and I’m not talking about post-modern funny stuff that I like now too, as an adult…
TZN: Harvey Birdman.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: The Antmen attack and [Space Ghost] flies up to the top of the thing and he tries to beat them and he can’t and then he tries again and he beats them. [claps] Great show! I’m right there. Fantastic Four, you know – hideous adaptations of stuff. But…The Marvel Super Heroes, I love that stuff! You know, where they’d cut out panels from the comics with three different artists and then Hulk wouldn’t look the same from shot to shot. I didn’t care! I was all about, “Oh, he’s fighting the Metal Master! He’s finished!” So, anything that entertains the audience that it was intended to entertain is doing its job. Whether or not it’s exactly true to whatever’s going on in the comics this week, I don’t think that’s important. I hear people complain about that stuff, and I gotta say, I really can’t worry about what’s going on in the comics. I try to be true to it. If I’m writing Fantastic Four and I need a mailman, it’ll be Willie Lumpkin. But I need a mailman. That’s good for the fans, but I’m not going to bend the story that I’m trying to tell to make it true to the appearance of the Inhumans in Issue #21. I don’t care. It’s not our continuity. I don’t care that, you know, Carter Hall wasn’t Hawkman first in our [show]. I don’t care that Kyle came after John Stewart…
TZN: Or there was never a real Hal Jordan or anything.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: We have to stay consistent with our own continuity. Not with every version of Superman and Batman that’s ever been done. It’s like, “He’s not Superboy! He’s never Superboy!” I dunno, what year is it?
TZN: Going beyond fidelity to the source material, how about just simple artistic excellence?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I’m really fortunate to work with the best guys who ever did this ****. And I’m not kidding around. That’s not hyperbole for the book. Bruce and Paul and Alan and…I never got to work with Eric Radomski and those guys [on B:TAS], but they’ve done the best superhero, the best boys’ action [shows] ever. It’s not even close. When people tell me something’s really good and I should look at it, I look at it and go, “Yeah, it’s pretty good.” But I look at these DVDs as they come in [Small note: At this time, the DVD releases were just picking up real steam.], and I’m amazed at how good this stuff is, when you consider the conditions it’s made under. You know, Justice League was as good an action show as there has been on television. Not animation. All. Period. I’ll put that right up with my favorite action shows of my whole life, and it’s in step with and is better than some of my favorites. And is almost as good as the very best.
TZN: Awesome. And the last question, which is the question I’m asking all my interview subjects: does animation have an advantage over live-action in cinematically representing superheroes? Why or why not?
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: It does, right this very second. And I think this advantage will go away as the technology increases. You can do things every week in live-action that I can’t get my head around. But I think, as far as superhero stuff goes, there’s an advantage that animation has that live-action will never have, and that’s the ability to abstract. The more real – quotes, “real” – you make superhero stuff look, the dumber it is. ‘Cause it’s dumb! I love it, but it’s dumb. I love basketball, too. It’s dumb; you’re trying to put a ball through a rim, it’s just dumb.
TZN: A man carrying a car is dumb.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah! Ultra-realistic superhero drawing is dumb. It shows the seams. It takes away from…you know, the stripped-down look of Bruce’s stuff, of Glen’s stuff on Titans…the abstract quality…
TZN: Darwyn Cooke’s stuff.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Darwyn is a really good example. It allows you to project on it, in ways that you couldn’t with a real guy holding a car over his head. Real guy holding a car over his head is kinda cool-looking, but part of your brain is going, “Man, this is stupid.” A guy can’t pick up a car. But I can believe that a drawing [of] Superman can pick up a car.
TZN: That has to do with the uncanny valley, in that respect. Like, the more real you make it look, the more you’re wondering why isn’t it actually real…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: You start seeing the seams. And now I’m going to disagree with Alan about Batman Begins [I had mentioned earlier that Alan had told me how astounded he was by Begins] – I’m the guy who doesn’t like that movie.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I’m the one guy, and the reason is because it tries to explain away the fantasy. And to me, Batman’s cool. He has a cool car. I don’t need to know where he got it from. It doesn’t make more sense. It’s like, “Oh, now I get the Batmobile; this guy had it in his basement!” I don’t need to know where the points on his helmet came from. It doesn’t make it more real, it makes it stupider. It makes it mundane. It takes away the mystery. I don’t need to know, you know, what form of wushu he took to learn how to fight like that. I just know that he can fight his ass off and he must’ve taken some classes or something. I don’t need to see every fold in the cape. I don’t need to see his snaps. It doesn’t make sense. Let me go with it. It’s sort of this Dungeons and Dragons quality. Dungeons and Dragons, I consider fantasy for people with no imagination. [chuckles] It’s got all the rules. You can look it up, you can see exactly how magic is.
TZN: Down to a point system.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Down to a point system! And I’m not saying it’s not fun and all; I’m saying I would much rather enjoy the magic of something than have somebody tell me the Force is…what was it, midichlorians or something? What?! What the hell’s wrong with you?!
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I got it in the first Star Wars movie! Now I don’t get it! So now it’s like, “Oh, okay, he’s a mutant.” Yeah, that makes more sense. [laughter] You need to be able to abstract this stuff and project on it and kind of react to it in a primal way. A drawing of a guy whose cape looks like a bat coming out of the darkness is mysterious and cool. A guy with a cape that looks like a bat jumping out of the darkness is goofy. I don’t care how you…it’s just goofy. Why’s he have a big cape on? That’s stupid!
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: I think that has a lot to do with it. They’re a really good way of talking about other stuff. Seeing some sweatly wrestler guy in tights…there’s an entertainment value in that. But it’s not the same for real. It’s not the same mysterious “Ooh, where’s the Fantastic Four going to go?” [feeling].
TZN: Certainly that was true of the Cadmus arc. Especially as it was looking at this stuff from sociological and political perspectives.
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: Yeah!
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: You good?
TZN: Yeah. One heck of an interview.
Indeed it was. What you don’t see in the above interview is that, after I turned off the recorder, we ended up talking for another good hour and a half, maybe even two hours, about all sorts of subjects. Pop culture, politics, society, anything. It was probably one of the greatest single conversations I’ve ever had with another person, in terms of enjoyment and fascination. I saw Dwayne several times after that over the years, and he always had a smile and a handshake to greet me. To think that he’s no longer with us is almost unsettling in what I consider to be its impossibility, but there it is. My absolute deepest of condolences to Dwayne McDuffie’s family, his friends, and his many colleagues, all of whom know even better than I of what a terrific talent and a terrific man he was. I subscribe to no specific religion, but in the hopes that there is any cosmic or otherwise continuance of Dwayne’s incredible spirit, I say to him now this: You are going to be terribly missed, my friend. All the best to you, wherever you are.
Static Shock images courtesy of the Worlds Finest Online.