Dwayne McDuffie: 1962-2011

In Memorium: Dwayne McDuffie

Dwayne McDuffie, the founder of Milestone Media, died Feb. 21, 2011 at age 49, after experiencing complications during emergency heart surgery.

Milestone Media was created in 1993 by a group of African American artists and writers whose mission was to increase the presence of minorities in American comics. Milestone’s work was distributed by DC Comics. McDuffie explains the inspiration for creating the company:

When he was a child in Detroit, McDuffie recalled in a 1996 interview with the Detroit Free Press, “there were only two comic strips that had black leading characters. When we got together to form our company, there were still only two—20 years later. We felt there should be more diversity.”

Los Angeles Times, Feb 24, 2011.

One of the most popular characters created by McDuffie and the Milestone group is Static, in the comic Static Shock, which inspired the animated cartoon of the same name.

McDuffie has also authored many screenplays, edited scripts and produced animated features for programs such as “What’s New, Scooby-Doo?,” “Teen Titans,” “Static Shock,” “Justice League,” “Ben 10: Alien Force.” McDuffie wrote the screenplay for the recently-released All-Star Superman.

McDuffie aspired to bring out the humanity of superheroes, through depicting them

“…in situations where being strong, or being able to fly or fight aren’t the answers,” McDuffie said. “We’ve dealt with teen pregnancy, abortion, racism and anti-Semitism. Being able to hit somebody harder doesn’t help you deal with that.”

Los Angeles Times, Feb 24, 2011.

From Minstrelsy to McDuffie: A Brief Synopsis

Since the birth of R.F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid and Charles Saalburg’s The Ting-Ling Kids in 1895, sensitivity to the representation of African American comics characters in particular has become more widespread—thanks to the likes of Morrie Turner (Wee Pals), Bill Cosby (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids) Kyle Baker (Nat Turner) and McDuffie.

In Jeff Chang’s essay “Morrie Turner and the Kids” (The Believer, Nov/Dec 2009), the author explains how early cartoons depicting African Americans borrowed from the familiar stereotypes found in minstrel shows, or minstrelsy. Minstrel shows, beginning in the mid-1800s, were performances given by a band of entertainers with blackened faces, who sang songs and performed skits whose origins were supposedly African American. Chang cites Christopher P. Lehman, who suggests that traces of the vaudevillian humour and slapstick entertainment engendered in minstrelsy snuck into the characterization of popular cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, with their kid gloves and two-tone mugs.

Lehman argues in The Colored Cartoon that jazz was key to both [Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny]. Mickey’s famous first sound appearance in Steamboat Willie (1928) was set to a tune based on the minstrel song “Zip Coon.” He also argues that Tex Avery infused Bugs with a black aesthetic of folktale trickster moxie and urban bebop cool (Chang, 6).

McDuffie attempted to create comics that broke through the enduring stereotypes common to the entertainment and publishing industries since the birth of minstrel shows.

You only had two types of characters available for children,” Mr. McDuffie told The New York Times in 1993. “You had the stupid angry brute and the he’s-smart-but-he’s-black characters. And they were all colored either this Hershey-bar shade of brown, a sickly looking gray or purple. I’ve never seen anyone that’s gray or purple before in my life. There was no diversity and almost no accuracy among the characters of color at all.

New York Times, Feb. 23, 2011.

Wee Pals

Chang’s essay acknowledges Morrie Turner as the first artist to consciously celebrate multi-ethnicity in his cartoons, with the introduction of Wee Pals in 1965. Turner was inspired by his own childhood, living in a ghetto in West Oakland, California during the Depression. Turner’s kindergarten class was comprised of African American, Mexican American, Chinese American, Japanese American and Native American kids.

With the outbreak of WWII, Turner joined the 477th Army Air Force Bomber Group, an all-black unit. The military facilities where Turner lived were all segregated. Following the Second World War, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lobbied production studios such as Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz, and Paramount to combat the stereotypes and prejudices so often encountered in popular cartoon and movie depictions of black people.

Though the NAACP’s efforts led to a more balanced portrayal of black characters in the comics, in the 1950s African American cartoonist Oliver Harrington emigrated to Paris to avoid persecution by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Harrington was a vocal advocate of justice for African American people, and openly criticized the government’s lack of involvement in investigating racially motivated lynching and crimes. The work of Harrington and Jackie Ormes (the first female African American cartoonist) was only available in newspapers published specifically for black readers.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, on the other hand, enjoyed widespread popularity and notoriety, and ran in newspapers from 1913 until Herriman’s death in 1944. Jeet Heer has brought renewed attention to Herriman in terms of his ethnic identity, with the essay “The Kolors of Krazy Kat” in Krazy & Ignatz: The Complete Full-Page Comic Strips, 1935-1936.

Herriman played with black and white, in life and in art. His grandmother was born in Havana; his parents were listed as “mulatto” in public records and his own birth certificate read “colored.” But when he died, “Caucasian” was written on his death certificate. He apparently spent much of his life passing for white (Chang, 5).

After the war, Turner got married, joined the Oakland police, and passed his time during the night shift doodling. Turner began to submit his cartoons for publication and was well received.

Turner went to a Charles Schulz presentation at a local cartoonists’ meeting, and was inspired to create an urban version of Peanuts, which eventually became Wee Pals. Wee Pals was born amidst the assassination of Malcolm X, the Voting Rights Act and the Watts riots.

 

Following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, Wee Pals’ syndication increased from six newspapers to over one hundred. Both Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and Bill Keane (Family Circus) would introduce black characters (Franklin and Morrie, respectively) into their strips soon afterward.

In 1967, Turner was invited to tour Vietnam as part of a National Cartoonists Society delegation, an experience that reinforced his anti-war sentiments, but also a sense of his feeling truly American.

Turner’s Sunday pages were printed in colour starting in the 1970s. As Chang explains,

The palettes for the Sunday color pages were constraining: only a pinkish tan was called “flesh.” Presenting the skin tones of a multiracial cast, especially a range of black characters, became a weekly problem. Nipper might be rendered in a muddy brown, Randy in orange, Mikki in purple. When Turner complained, the syndicate asked him, “Did you get your check?” Turner registered his protest through Oliver in a four-panel daily. “Boy!” the child mused, “The manufacturers of flesh-colored band-aids would go broke in this neighborhood!” (Chang, 9).

In the 1970s, an animated cartoon called Kid Power debuted, based on Wee Pals. Turner’s rainbow cast enjoyed book publications and commercial spinoffs, and he took part in the White House Conference on Children.

Morrie Turner had paved the way for a new generation of black cartoonists. In the 1980s, several black cartoonists found their way into the mainstream, among them Ray Billingsley (Curtis), Robb Armstrong (Jump Start), and Barbara Brandon-Croft (Where I’m Coming From). In 2003, the National Cartoonists Society awarded Turner a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dwayne McDuffie also promoted social justice in his comics, receiving a Humanitas Prize in 2003  for a Static Shock comic addressing the issue of gun violence.

“We pardon in the degree that we love.”

“You don’t feel as real if you don’t see yourself reflected in the media,” [McDuffie] told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1993. “There’s something very powerful about seeing yourself represented.”

New York Times, Feb. 23, 2011.

REFERENCES:

Chang, Jeff. “Morrie Turner and the Kids.” The Believer: The 2009 Art Issue. Nov./Dec. 2009. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Publishing LLC.

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