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WonderCon 2011: “Tribute to Dwayne McDuffie” Panel

by on April 7, 2011

On Saturday I attended “Writing for TV Animation.” As with my very first panel, everyone agreed it was harder to get into the industry—even harder than getting into live action, since the animation industry was small, insular community. Two of those panelists, Matt Wayne and Eugene Son (Ben10: Ultimate AlienGenerator Rex, etc.) showed up at my final Wondercon panel, “A Tribute to Dwayne McDuffie.” Also present were Bruce Timm, Glen Murakami, Alan Burnett, and Eddie Berganza (executive editor of DC Comics), with Stan Berkowitz in the audience. The moderator was Gary Miereanu, from Warner Brothers Animation. 

The panel was a spirited celebration of McDuffie’s life and work. Spotlighted was his role as co-founder and major mover of the Milestone comics imprint, which helped increase the representations of minorities in a medium notorious for its ethnic homogeneity. Matt Wayne, McDuffie’s longtime friend who “saw the first and last of Milestone when it was in monthly production,” deemed that period the “the most challenging and exciting time of my life… I think Dwayne felt that way too.” 

McDuffie’s entrance into the animation field was also recounted, starting with the Static Shock animated series, which Alan Burnett had sold to Kids WB in one sentence by holding up the first Static comic and saying “this is Chris Rock at age 15.” Burnett wanted to involve McDuffie, since he had created the comic, and gave him a freelance script assignment. However Burnett was nervous, since the show was juvenalizing the comic, and worried McDuffie might have problems. When the script arrived Stan Berkowitz read it first. “I asked ‘how is it?’ and Stan just smiled…for Stan that’s like shooting guns in the air,” said Burnett, who found out much later that McDuffie had written the script in a day–and was modest enough to deny having done so. 

Bruce Timm also marveled at McDuffie’s abilities. Timm had wanted him to write the scripts for the four part finale they had outlined for the second season of Justice League Unlimited, but thought “no, he’s just going to burn out, there’s no way we can have him write all four.” As it turned out, “he wrote all four scripts in literally over a week and it was all awesome.” McDuffie modestly claimed it would take a better writer than himself to script the problematic temporal transitions in “Epilogue,” but he resolved them in ways that left Timm delighted. 

McDuffie had majored in physics in college, and used his education in unconventional ways. Timm remembered reading McDuffie’s first Justice League script and being “really really impressed by his command of dialogue and of pseudo-science…super-hero physics don’t really work like real physics, but he’d be able to explain these quasi-********, pseudo-science things in a way that made them sound convincing.” When it came to real science McDuffie “used to get really mad when he would do something that was scientifically accurate but didn’t seem scientifically accurate and the fans would ***** about it,” said Timm, citing a moment when the Flash was briefly ejected into outer space but survived. “Don’t ever argue that stuff with Dwayne!” he cautioned. 

McDuffie’s scientific background abetted his wit. “I don’t think he got to express [his humorous side] as much as would have liked,” said Wayne, “because he was very funny and he could be funny all day.” “At your expense,” cracked Murakami. “He was my best friend, ” said Wayne, “but sometimes he was kind of playing with me…when I was about 23 Dwayne convinced me that it takes less energy to bring cold water to a boil than hot water!”

McDuffie “could cite chapter and verse of comics” said Timm, and “discuss politics at a level you couldn’t even keep up with.” He did everything from sell jokes to David Letterman to help develop Who’s the Boss? Asked to list something people didn’t know about McDuffie, Wayne said he probably invented superhero trading cards during his tenure with Marvel. McDuffie also wrote “tons” of science fiction stories under pseudonyms. Wayne remembered being in a bookstore and hearing him say “Oh John Morrissey’s got a book out.” Wayne expressed no interest until McDuffie said “I wrote it!”

When asked what comics character he would like to write a feature for, McDuffie often said Aquaman. Miereanu recalled attended the Crisis on Two Earths premiere with McDuffie and James Woods, the voice of Owlman in the film. Afterwards, they went to dinner and were surprised to see James Cameron walk into the restaurant. “Now if you watch Entourage, you know that James Cameron ‘directed’ Aquaman,” said Miereanu, referring to a fictional film from that TV show, “and in the mythos of that, James Woods played the villain.” Woods surprised everyone by leaping out of his seat, sprinting across the room, grabbing Cameron, giving him a big hug, and saying “Jimmy, how ya doin’, you gotta meet my friend!” He then turned and said “James Cameron, director of Aquaman—Dwayne McDuffie, writer of Aquaman!”

“People always underestimated what a great writer he was,” said Wayne, “because he was willing to be seamless, he was willing to not let his artifice show—that took a great deal of craft.” He earned praise from people “who could think about how something was structured, not about ‘oh that was a great line’—which he could also do by the way.” Murakami agreed and said “I think we underappreciated him, because he was so good.”

According to Gary Miereanu, McDuffie regarded All-Star Superman as the best thing he ever wrote. Timm praised McDuffie’s adaptation for creating a narrative thread absent from the original comic and for devising a twist that even Grant Morrison said he wished he’d thought of. “I think my favorite Dwayne stories are the ones he came up with on his own,” said Timm, who cited the upcoming Justice League: Doom as “typically Dwayne” and very much like Crisis on Two Earths. “He did great things with character beats that nobody else would have really thought of before” and could “nail every character’s voice.”

When it came to African-American characters in comics, McDuffie loved Black Panther and hated Luke Cage. “He was very proprietary about the way Black characters were portrayed in comics,” explained Timm, “and he felt [Cage] was a white guy’s idea of what black people are.” Eddie Berganza said that when multi-ethnic characters began showing up during McDuffie’s stint on the Justice League comic, people accused McDuffie of using Jon Stewart instead of Hal Jordan, along with other substitutions. “And actually that was me” said Berganza, “but then we’d get on a panel and Dwayne would totally own it,” and delight in messing with fans’ heads by saying “I have nothing against Hal Gordon!”

“It will always go back to Milestone and those great comics,” said Burnett. “They will be rediscovered.” Berganza agreed, saying they showed a world that was “bigger than just a lot of white guys in capes.” A Static Shock Special will be released in McDuffie’s memory on June 1. Eugene Son noted that people in his field were meeting writers and creative people who grew up watching Static Shock—“you’re going to start hearing from them.” 

As it turned out, many of the audience members who spoke at the panel prefaced their questions with “I grew up watching Static Shock,” or “I grew up reading Milestone.” And it was a further tribute to McDuffie’s influence that the audience was noticeably more diverse than those of the average WonderCon panel. Many of those who spoke were people of color; many said how happy and proud they were to see themselves represented in media that had for too long run white. All were concerned with keeping McDuffie’s legacy going; many asked if plans were under way to reissue his work. Miereanu said a Static Shock compilation DVD was being considered. An audience member asked how McDuffie’s death would affect the status of African American characters in comics, and Matt Wayne pointed out the related scarcity of African-American writers in comics. “As much as we remember Dwayne for what he stood for, we also need to act on that and think about ways that we might be able to get more minority representation in comics and other media,” he said. “We need to pay more attention” added Bruce Timm. The panel ended in waves of grateful applause. 

Dwayne McDuffie left behind a career and body of work that is a model for writers of all colors, backgrounds, and walks of life (including this reporter). It is only fitting that this article, intended to showcase those who script the animation we remember and cherish, should end by paying tribute to one of the greatest writers in the field.

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