Interview: Dwayne McDuffie
Once upon a time, the future publisher of Image Comics, a savvy young web producer and the future writer of The Buy Pile at Comic Book Resources ran a comic book website together. This, of course, crashed and burned, but it offered the opportunity for some great sit downs, including this discussion with the one of the founders of Milestone Comics. Animation writer, comics legend and all around good guy, Dwayne McDuffie.
Many would consider him one of the industry's hardest noses, a creator with a strong sense of voice and identity. Too hardball for some former associates like Christopher Priest (the artist formerly known as Jim Owsley) still feel too burned by how the demise of Milestone Comics (Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate and Static were among the flagship titles) played out to bury the hatchet. Others, like John Paul Leon, immediately leapt back into the thick of things. After spending some time on X-O Manowar and the fringes of the industry, Dwayne McDuffie is back with a new series, a new show on the KidsWB! and a new campaign to bring high quality imagery into the minds of comic readers everywhere.
The fact that these images are predominately of color should be irrelevant. A conundrum, he's the man who once prided himself on terrifying people walking the hallways of Marvel's Bullpen, but who also has a passion for short lived television shows (claiming Sports Night, Freaks and Geeks and Homicide as loving recipients of his kiss of death). After much cajoling and a far-from-small number of tranquilizer darts, McDuffie sat down with NPO's hard man of letters, senior producer Hannibal Tabu for an almost amiable mano-a-mano about his new projects and his way of looking at things.
HT: Tell us about the Static Shock animated series. How does it relate to the comic book?
McDUFFIE: The show is surprisingly similar to the comic. The origin is the same, most of the characters from the comic are in the show, etc. Some details, like the costume, are different, but the tone and spirit are dead-on. Things are simplified, both because of the half-hour format and because the show is aimed at a younger audience than the comic. But if you liked Static the comic, you'll like Static Shock, the animated series.
HT: Static was really a groundbreaking book, dealing with teen violence, drugs and a number of other social issues before anyone else. Since the animated series is aimed at a younger audience, how will you be dealing with issues change?
McDUFFIE: They'll be simplified, somewhat. We can't, for instance, spend two years developing the sub-plot about Frieda's Bulimia Nervosa. Some issues we can't deal with in the same way. The cartoon won't be as violent as the comic has been, at times. Other issues, like the complex political web of Dakota are probably too complex for, or not of interest to a younger audience, so they won't come up in a major way. But as you've seen by now, we've already begun dealing with gang violence and race relations. Many of Static's other themes will show up over the course of the series. And you overlook that the most important element of Static is that it's fun. That comes over pretty much unchanged.
HT: There were parts of Milestone that were way out on the fringe that nevertheless came to the company's mainstream Shadow Cabinet members ended up hanging out with Static in Heroes, for example. Will we see more of that in the future on either the show or in the books?
McDUFFIE: In the books, count on it. In Rebirth of the Cool, both Heroes and Shadow Cabinet play big roles, as does Hardware, in his way.
HT: A lot of fans are really curious as to what happened with Milestone altogether. From having a consistent look on all the books, brilliant writing and art, and the world at your fingers, the books seemed to wander and lose focus. Could you briefly summarize the rise and fall of Milestone? What's the next publishing move for Milestone after the Static launch?
McDUFFIE: We'll be announcing our next publishing project in the pages of Static Shock #4.
HT: What creators can we look forward to on Milestone products in the future?
McDUFFIE: See above. I'm sure you'll be pleased.
HT: During the run of the comic, Static faced a lot of interesting villains. How many of them can we expect to see, and what new villainous challenges will face our young hero?
McDUFFIE: In the comics, Static will be facing the most powerful character in the Milestone Universe, ever. On the show, look for a mix of new villains, like the Breed and old favorites, like Rubberband Man and Hotstreak.
HT: The archetype of the teenage hero is an honored one in comics, from Spider-Man to Batman Beyond. How do you avoid falling into the same old storylines and cliches?
McDUFFIE: By keeping the book grounded in naturalism (not "realism," realism is boring). You just keep asking yourself, "What would somebody I know do if..?" Everything that's ever happened before is a cliche to someone. I don't worry about it. The superhero ditching his girlfriend isn't a cliche, it's a real problem. How it plays out is the interesting part.
HT: You've noted there are fewer people in Virgil's group of friends and a new costume. Other than that, are you changing Static's origin in an "Ultimate" style or sticking faithfully to the pre-existing continuity?
McDUFFIE: Neither. We're doing a simplified version of Static's origin. Basically the same, but with some details changed.
HT: Many creators, from Gettosake to Big City to Prophecy of the Soul Sorcerer have tried to carve a niche for Black or ethnic-themed comics. Few have had any longevity, with Milestone being the brightest example. Why is that, and what can a Black writer or book or company do to survive in this dwindling market?
McDUFFIE: I don't know what any publisher can do to survive in this market. I do know that the kind of marginalization that comes from being labeled "Black" or "ethnic" will scare off about 75% of your potential audience. We just try and do good books and hope we find enough audience to do some more.
As a creator of color, your work is going to be marginalized by the mainstream, there's nothing you can do about it. My concern has to be for the work itself. I'm out there to give the readers something worth their time. I can't do that while worrying about how I look to people who aren't my consumers. As a businessman, it's slightly different; you go out and meet retailers. You go out and talk to the fans, you do interviews, you challenge the grossest of the misstatements out there when you can, but again, you really don't have time to deal with that stuff not and run your business properly. The best thing you can do is survive.
HT: In all of comics, what books/characters would you love to work on, outside of Milestone?
McDUFFIE: I still want to do my Luke Cage revamp, but it'll never happen. I used to want to do the Fantastic Four, but now I've just got one great FF story I'd like to do. Let's see. Damage Control again, my version of Deathlok, Monica Rambeaux. I've got a great idea for a DCU book, but they aren't hearing it. Enough?
HT: In an old Marvel profile, you one said you wanted everyone to know that "deep down, I'm just as terrifying as I appear to be," or words to that effect. Still true?
McDUFFIE: You seen my picture?