Things were different when I was a kid growing up. For the most part, you didn’t know what comic book creators looked like. Sure, everyone knew what Stan Lee looked like, but that was about it. The few comic creators I had contact with back in my youth were all white, and for some reason, it just sort of stuck in my head that all comic creators had to be white. This was, of course, reinforced by the vast majority of comics that were being published, which only had a relatively small number of black characters.
The first black creator I ever met was Ron Wilson, and it changed my life. I was probably about 12 or 13, and seeing Ron in person, and talking to him changed my world. Knowing that a black person actually worked in the comics industry suddenly opened up that possibility to me.
Years later I met Dwayne McDuffie for the first time. At this point he had already co-created the Milestone universe with guys like Denys Cowan and Michael Davis and everyone else who churned out some really quality work back in the early 1990s. By comparison to Dwayne and the other veterans of Milestone, I was a nobody. My only work had been self-published, and no one knew who I was (not that I’m all that well known now). But the thing that struck me most about Dwayne was that he never treated me like a fanboy or some wannabe creator with very little to show for himself. Dwayne treated me like a peer, even though I wasn’t. To borrow a phrase from my grandmother, he was “real folks.”
The first time I met Dwayne was at San Diego Comic Con. I had been publishing BadAzz MoFo for several years, but had no reason to believe anyone actually knew who I was or knew my work. I introduced myself to Dwayne, and he responded, “I know how you are. Good work. C’mon, walk with me.”
Over the years, my relationship with Dwayne was like the one I share with many professionals in the comic book industry—we would see each other at a convention, exchange pleasantries, and go on about our business until the next convention. The difference with Dwayne was that he always made sure we had time to really exchange pleasantries, even if it meant we had to walk and talk at the same time. We did a lot of walking and talking, but that’s how it goes at comic conventions. Once in a while I would email him, and he was always kind enough to respond. And he even gave me a great interview for Back Issue magazine. I don’t know if we could be considered friends in the strictest of terms, but I had the greatest respect and admiration for him, and he was always real folks with me.
The last conversation we had was back in 2010. It had been a brief exchange, but it had been profound. We talked about the struggles of being a black creator, and creating work that showcased characters of color in comics. Dwayne talked about the need for creators of color to think big, to strive to tell our stories in a way that showed us as human beings within the larger world, and not just being content within a framework of separate-but-equal. Comics (and all of pop culture) needs to be for everyone, and not divided up and parceled out to different audiences. A good creator must be able to create stories and characters that engage and entertain people regardless of the their color. And a really good creator does this with a cast of well-defined and diverse characters.
In his life, and after his death, Dwayne McDuffie continues to be an inspiration. And I’m not just talking the inspiration that comes from the many projects that he blessed with his talent. I’m talking about the inspiration that comes when someone is decent to you, shows you a little respect, and offers an encouraging word or two. One of the best things I ever learned from Dwayne was how to be real folks.
I can’t speak for any other creators of color, but I personally feel a level of responsibility to not only entertain, but to also encourage young people who have yet to realize their own potential. Ron Wilson opened my eyes to potential when I was a kid. And by just being a decent human being, Dwayne encouraged my potential.
The world of comics and animation has come a long way thanks to Dwayne. He was a talented creator, period. I say that just to clarify that Dwayne’s ethnicity is not needed to describe his talent. His work was not stuck in the marginalized ghetto that can often plague some creators. But at the same time, he was a black man, and in the world of comics and animation, he held it down better than anyone else. Dwayne went places and created work that many of us aspire to do. He was an inspiration to all kids looking to get into comics or animation, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.
I hope that as a creator and a human being, I can be half the man Dwayne McDuffie was. And in my attempt to entertain, enlighten and inspire young people, I hope that I can be as real as Dwayne always was with me. May you rest in peace, Dwayne.