How did Carol Borden become a fan of DC superheroes? Did she uncover the truth that criminals were a cowardly and superstitious lot? Was she packed into an interstellar cradle and shot into space with the blind hope that she would be found and raised to value truth, justice and the superhero way? Or was there a peculiar transformation as she bathed in her television’s mysterious, immeasurable rays while she watched one program…Justice League! Captivated by the imagination of one man… Dwayne McDuffie!
Dwayne McDuffie is probably best known for Milestone Media, a company he co-founded in 1993 with three other African-American creators—Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle. Milestone was devoted to creating and promoting multicultural superheroes like Icon, Hardware and Static. Milestone published comics through DC, but retained creative rights and control. In 1997, Milestone stopped publishing comics, but went on to produce a Static cartoon, Static Shock. In 2008, DC merged the Milestone and DC universes hopefully enabling Milestone’s heroes to reach more readers and setting up situations for heroes like Superman and Static to interact.
But they already had interacted—or at least Green Lantern, a few Batmans and Static had—in a 2005 episode of Justice League Unlimited, “The Once and Future Thing: Time, Warped,” written by Dwayne McDuffie.*
And though television is a massive, cooperative effort and I don’t want to diminish the accomplishments of people like Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Glenn Murakami and Andrea Romano, McDuffie had a huge role in shaping everything about these characters and their stories. He produced all three seasons of Justice League. He wrote 34 of 65 episodes and was story editor on many more.
And his vision of superheroes and superhero stories appealed to me tremendously. It was his Superman that started me thinking about what I thought about the Man of Steel. McDuffie wrote a line that’s central to how I think about Superman now. Confronting Darkseid, a being intent on turning the earth into a mass of firepits and devastating the universe, Superman says:
I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard. Always taking constant care not to break something. To break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t ya, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose, and show you just how powerful I really am. (Clip here)
I feel for Superman not just because he has to take such care, a feeling I understand more and more as an adult, but also because he takes such damage because he can—flying into volcanoes, being hurled into the sides of mountains, leaving craters everywhere, because he could. And somehow, the damage he takes is so visceral to me in the show. In many ways, the Superman of my heart is now McDuffie’s Superman.
McDuffie’s writing is smart, solid, funny and humane. The work that obviously goes into it, isn’t itself obvious. Everything seems to flow from character, which I always like. It’s far more important to me than continuity. His characters have complicated personalities, motivations and relationships (including some fine romances). So I have become interested in new heroes and villains. When I think of Green Lantern, I think of Justice League‘s Green Lantern, John Stewart. And the thoughtful, affectionate characterization is especially apparent with traditionally minor DC characters like Vigilante and Shining Knight. No matter how much I like various takes on the Question—Greg Rucka’s Renee Montoya, Dennis O’Neil’s urban shaman or Steve Ditko’s original Objectivist antihero, I just plain love the Question as a conspiracy theorist voiced by Jeffrey Combs. Vixen’s having totemic animal powers has always troubled me a bit, because of the long, racist history of associating Black people, especially Black women, with animals. But in Justice League, Vixen is such a well-delineated character—self-assured, thoroughly high femme—that I think instead, “Of course, she fights in heels.”
It says something when a superheroine’s footwear seems more a matter of character choice than genre convention. It says, damn fine writing.
With the popularity of the animated Justice League, DC asked McDuffie to write the Justice League comic. The idea was bring some of his charm and depth to the comic. It didn’t work out that way. McDuffie was constrained and frustrated by editorial decisions and let go for talking about them.
I appreciate that he keeps going, doing good work. McDuffie could’ve stopped with Milestone Media, Static Shock or Justice League, animated or otherwise, but I’m so glad he hasn’t. I’m glad he’s still animating. It is a great place to have an impact on the future of heroes, super, alien or otherwise. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose Green Lantern is John Stewart. As usual, I realized I was a fan when I immediately wanted to see Ben 10: Alien Force and Ben 10: Ultimate Alien after reading he was producing them. I’m looking forward to his animated adaptation of Grant Morrion and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman especially after his excellent adaptation of Morrison’s Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Morrison can be cold and McDuffie added warmth to that story, particularly with his handling of Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz and Rose Wilson’s dalliance. I read that McDuffie would like to write romantic comedies. I’d so watch them.
Rest assured, dear reader, that regardless of her origin, whatever obscured planet or hell dimension Carol Borden emerged from, she will continue to write about comics (and cartoons).