Maker of heroes

McDuffie's reach has extended to both Marvel and DC comics' universes, as well as TV cartoons like Ben 10 and (above) Justice League.

McDuffie’s reach has extended to both Marvel and DC comics’ universes, as well as TV cartoons like Ben 10 and (above) Justice League.

“I can work in my pajamas and I get paid for lying,” said Dwayne McDuffie, a comic book writer who has also won several awards for his work in animation, including the television shows “Justice League Unlimited (JLU),” “Static Shock,” and “Ben 10: Alien Force,” as well as comics, including Marvel Comics’ “Damage Control,” DC Comics’ “Justice League of America” (upon which the JLU cartoon is based) and its Milestone line of titles. “I like writing. I like telling stories. I love comics a crazy amount—it’s so much fun. It’s a labor of love, but it doesn’t really pay that much. I enjoy writing for animation, but it takes a lot of time and it’s a real job,” explained McDuffie, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and physics, respectively, from the University of Michigan. “Being a TV writer is like having homework for the rest of your life; you always owe somebody something. Very few evenings are yours.”

McDuffie promotes one of his many ventures. He's in high demand in the print and television industries.

McDuffie promotes one of his many ventures. He’s in high demand in the print and television industries.

McDuffie broke into comics during the late 1980s as an assistant editor for Marvel, where he worked for three years. There, he wrote a mini-series called “Damage Control”—a “sitcom within the Marvel Universe”—centering around a construction company specializing in fixing damaged property in the aftermath of titanic super-hero/super-villain battles. He cited the 1960s “Batman” TV series as its inspiration. “There was an episode where (Batman and Robin) had to make a U-turn and they dropped a drag-chute,” he said. “A couple of seconds later, this truck pulls up—the ‘Bat-chute pickup/retrieval service’—and I started thinking, ‘Wow, there’s a whole infrastructure to this super-hero stuff.'” In 1993, believing minorities were under-represented in comics, McDuffie co-created characters for Milestone Media, a sub-set of DC. Contrary to popular belief, even though Milestone’s creators and characters were predominantly black, McDuffie has reiterated time and again that Milestone wasn’t about creating just black super-heroes; it was about creating multicultural super-heroes, which included blacks.The first wave of Milestone titles were: “Blood Syndicate,” “Hardware,” “Icon,” and “Static.” Subsequently, “Xombi,” “Shadow Cabinet,” and “Kobalt” followed. While published through DC, the Milestone characters existed independent of the mainstream DC Universe (DCU). “We wanted to portray a fictional world that looked like the real world. We wanted to do the kind of comics that were very story-driven and character-driven, not pinup artwork-driven. A big part of it was creating characters from a wide-range of backgrounds—ethnic, religion, class,” explained McDuffie. “Usually, heroes are white, middle-class males or upper-class males like Batman. This made sense in the 1940s and 1950s, but it didn’t represent the world very well (in the 1990s), nor did it represent the audience very well.”

Dwayne McDuffie's Icon was one of the first African-American superheroes. 'We wanted to portray a fictional world that looked like the real world,' says McDuffie.

Dwayne McDuffie’s Icon was one of the first African-American superheroes. ‘We wanted to portray a fictional world that looked like the real world,’ says McDuffie.

Dan DiDio, DC senior vice-president and executive editor, added: “Icon, even though he has the strength of Superman, has a different story that I always remember from the ‘Icon’ series. To me, Rocket was the real star of the book. It’s a teenage girl who dealt with pregnancy and ultimately rallies to become a hero there. That’s a fabulous story—really deep, rich character.” While these characters were cutting-edge and the stories were thought-provoking, 1993 marked a glut of new comics companies that overcrowded the market. This occurred on the heels of the formation of Image Comics in 1992. As a result, many retailers and readers erroneously assumed that the Milestone titles wouldn’t interest non-African-Americans, thus receiving limited exposure. Despite mainstream media attention, Milestone was virtually ignored by the majority of the industry press. The cover price of Milestone comics were higher than normal at the time due to its state-of-the-art coloring process, which occurred at a time when overall comics sales had hit their peak. Milestone canceled several of its lower-selling series in 1995 and 1996, and aborted plans for other titles. It canceled its entire comic book line in 1997, discontinuing some of its remaining ongoing series in the middle of storylines. “In October 1995—which was Black October—the orders for every (comic) book you can imagine went down drastically. We were a smaller publisher. The retailers were concentrating on having enough money to get their ‘Batmans’ and ‘X-Men,'” recalled McDuffie. “(Milestone) sales were okay. I think when we stopped publication, ‘Icon’ was still selling 70,000 copies, which is still profitable. That was okay—it’s great for today—but we saw where it was going. We were leaking sales every month, stores were going out of business like crazy, so we decided to focus on (licensing) and things where we knew we could make a profit. As much as we loved comics, we were trying to stay in business.” At that point, Warner Animation bought the rights to “Static” and turned it into an animated series, which is how McDuffie broke into that medium. From there, he wrote “JLU,” which aired 91 episodes, becoming the executive producer. “To (air) 91 episodes in a marketplace where (cartoons) usually run 52 episodes is unheard of—it’s quite an accomplishment. Usually, at 52, the people who invested in the cartoon get their money back. Anything past 52 is gravy. The whole ‘JLU’ run has been a treat,” said McDuffie. Today, McDuffie splits his time between animation and comics.”My main job is ‘Ben 10: Alien Force,’ which is about to become ‘Ben 10: Evolutions.’ We’ve done 46 episodes of ‘Alien Force,’ although we’ve only aired the first 26, so far. We were just nominated for 3 Emmys for our work on the first batch. We’re just starting up with ‘Ben 10: Evolutions’… a sequel to ‘Ben 10: Alien Force,’ and that takes the bulk of my time. I’m also doing a couple of video game scripts and writing two direct-to-video movies for Warner.”McDuffie is also reintroducing the Milestone characters, to which he and fellow creator Derek Dingle own the rights, into the DCU proper. DiDio, a key figure in negotiating the deal between DC and McDuffie, believes the Milestone characters have a sensibility that doesn’t copy DC’s current line of characters.”To be very frank, it’s a wonderful addition to the DCU. They really add to the overall texture of the DCU rather than just repeat the same themes—that’s what makes them interesting,” said DiDio. “That’s why I wanted to bring them in—not just do Milestone books, but have them interact with the existing DCU characters right now because, I figure, it widens the overall perspective of our universe and expands what people perceive the DCU to be. Milestone has so many strong characters. By reintroducing them and bringing them into the DCU, it makes it a bigger and better place.”That suits McDuffie just fine. “Multicultural characters are a mainstream thing. If they’re segregated, you limit your potential audience,” said McDuffie. “The reason they weren’t in the DCU proper in the first place is because there wasn’t a business structure in place that allowed them to be in it, but also allowed Milestone to retain editorial control. It always bothered me that it was somewhat segregated. I want to reflect a multicultural world and the best way to do that was to infuse new characters into the DCU, which was already around. It wasn’t possible at the time, because of the lack of a business structure. Within a couple of years of us doing the Milestone deal, DC had worked out a structure that allowed creators to own and control their characters yet still be in the DCU.”While some Milestone characters will be appearing in several DC titles, there are plans for some to get a monthly series, but no further details are given. Plans are also underway for the original 1990s Milestone stories to be collected in trade-paperbacks. “What makes everything we’re doing now to make the Milestone characters so strong is Dwayne, who created those characters, is writing those characters. He’s able to set the template and the tone and the voice, so that anyone else who uses them, we can just point and say that this is the tenor that we want to maintain with these characters that feels correct,” said DiDio. “Another thing that Dwayne’s also very helpful with is that any time a Milestone character’s being used, we run the scripts by him because he knows those voices the best. My goal is to do the best interpretation of these characters and the only way I can do it is by making sure the people who created them are comfortable with the story being told. So Dwayne is very involved, which is good. Dwayne’s one of the top creators in the business and to have somebody like that be so passionate and so supportive is what makes it special.”Although grateful he’s making his mark in two different media, McDuffie laments his time not being his own.”I don’t know how the big guys who do TV shows and movies do comics—and keep doing ’em—because, man, it’s crazy,” he said. “It’s such a drain on your time. I wake up at 5 a.m. to do my animation scripts. I should get up at 4 a.m.”


  1. Scott Rowland - n/A

    Great article! I’ve been a comics reader for over 40 years, and the Milestone characters (and more importantly, the stories told about them) are some of my favorites. Dwayne McDuffie is extremely talented, and I’m glad he is doing well in animation, but I’d sure like to see mor3e comics from him.


  2. Shona Jones

    I love Dewayne’s work. I just saw his latest animated film and his writing is just GREAT stuff.


  3. Keith Vrabec - 1986

    Dewayne lived next door to me at in Couzens 2100. My son is his greatest Ben 10 fan. GREAT JOB DEWAYNE!!!!


  4. michael ewing - 1976

    Not to pengeon hole Mr. McDuffie, but I really hope he does another straight to video JLA, because HE IS extremely talented.


  5. Devon A - 2007

    So excited to share with my children that the creator of some of their favorite comics is not only Black but also a U-M alum!


  6. Zakariyya McCullin - 2010

    Dwayne McDuffie you have a lot of talent. I really liked the work you did in Milestone Media and the Justice League Comics. I hope you can supervise the new Static series.


Leave a comment: