Thanks for everything, Dwayne McDuffie
Dwayne McDuffie passed away today. In the fields of comics and animation, he was a tremendous talent who leaves behind a remarkable body of work.
Dwayne was also an enormously classy fellow, who was a frequent contributor to several comics forums I frequent. He could be counted on to tell it like it is in the industry. This sometimes got him in trouble with the higher-ups, but fans always appreciated his candor and generosity.
I also saw him show a near-unearthly level of tolerance when dealing with racist crap. I won’t dignify the critics by repeating their arguments here; merely state that the unearned flak he took at times made me frankly ashamed to be a comics nerd. But he was endlessly patient when dealing with that stuff; it just slid right off him. I really respect that level of self-control.
McDuffie was a highly regarded comic writer, which if it seems I’m glossing over with faint praise, is only because I haven’t read a whole lot of what he’s written. He was instrumental in the Milestone line over at DC, and wrote “Damage Control” for Marvel, one of the first really clever deconstructionist takes on “what the hell happens after the heroes leave the scene?” But my personal knowledge ends there, so I’ll leave it to people more well-versed in his comics canon to speak highly of what he did.
But I was very familiar with his work as an animation writer and producer, specifically “Static Shock” and “Justice League/Justice League Unlimited.” And I will say without hyperbole: Dwayne McDuffie was the finest writer to ever work on superhero animation. He had a deep understanding of what made animation tick, and what made superheroes tick, and most importantly, how to make them both work together. (This is harder than it seems. Some incredibly talented television writers have taken shots at superhero comics, with mixed results, and plenty of fantastic comic writers have done only middling work on TV.)
He was an early writer on “Justice League,” and it was under his guidance as story editor in the back end of season 2 that the series really began to shine. In particular, a string of episodes starting with “Hereafter” and rolling through the end of that season were what really made us take notice – when the show went from “You know, this is really quite good and a lot of fun” to “People are going to remember this one for YEARS.”
He followed up with “Justice League Unlimited,” which expanded the show’s cast and universe. The two seasons he produced are each masterclasses in structure and how to create a coherent season arc. In particular, the first “JLU” season was a thing of pristine beauty, which a tightly wound story that ramped up smoothly over the course of the season tied together plot points and callbacks that went all the way back to the first shot of the first episode of “Batman: The Animated Series.” Hell, he even brought back the Phantasm. But even as people like me reveled in the nerdiness (seriously, you’re a pretty hardcore nerd even you even know who the Phantasm IS), it was done in a way that made sense to anyone who didn’t have a Ph.D in continuityology.
How well did it all work out? Let’s put it this way: For 13 years the DC Animated Universe ran nearly continuously with a hopscotching continuity through Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Justice League and no doubt one or two others I’m forgetting. (There were other DC shows and still are, but they’re disconnected from this particular long-form univdrse.) It was nerd glory. And by the time JLU was wrapping up that first season, it looked poised to end; indeed, McDuffie and company thought it was over when they created the final episode, “Epilogue.”
It was likely his finest animation hour – a wrapped-up bow and exclamation point at the tail end of the DC animated canon. And when it was over, I said “You know, if this is where it all ends, I’m actually kind of cool with that.” Because it was that good, a pitch-perfect conclusion.
But as it turns out, it wasn’t quite the end; higher-ups ordered another season of JLU very late in the game, and McDuffie turned out one more wacky season. After the careful plotting of his previous story, it seemed like his approach was “What the hell, let’s just go crazy.” And go crazy he did, creating a 12-episode romp that gleefully folded in everything from the Super Friends to the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Hell, he predicated his series finale on a KISS in-joke. It all closed out on one of the greatest superhero fight scenes ever portrayed on-screen, with Darkseid vs. everyone, a good half-dozen “hell yeah!” moments, culminating in the bit where Superman – ah, screw it, I’ll just link to the scene:
Detractors point out that Superman promptly got his butt whupped after this and needed Batman to make the save, but still. HOW. HARDCORE. IS. THAT?
Anyway. I digress. The point is that McDuffie, as an animation writer, was structurally disciplined and extremely technically sound, and while those sound like faint praise, I assure you they are very big deals. Most importantly, his work was a whole hell of a lot of fun.
Rest in peace, Dwayne McDuffie. All my condolences to your family and loved ones. On behalf of nerddom united, thanks for some great rides.
— Paul F. P. Pogue