Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Best of Us

I've written this first sentence a dozen times. Nothing I write seems quite right in tone or content. It's especially hard considering that this isn't an essay anyone thought they'd be writing for a good many years: even considering how much he'd already accomplished, Dwayne McDuffie wasn't even fifty yet. How the hell are we supposed to make sense of that?

I didn't know McDuffie the person. I never spoke with the man or exchanged words with him online. The only way I knew MCDuffie was through his writing. And I guess, as awful as this is to have to say, I never really appreciated just how much his writing meant to me until I heard he was dead. In mainstream terms he wasn't particularly prolific, but everything he wrote seemed to matter. He didn't seem like the kind of person who ever gave less than his all for any assignment, either writing for his own projects or work-for-hire scripts. The best kind of compliment I can pay any writer, especially in such a debased medium as superhero comics, is that he always took the time to think before he wrote. He meant every word.

All of which is well and true, but what does it mean? I never knew McDuffie, but I knew his work, and his work has meant the world to me. There aren't many people in comics whose work has had quite the influence on me that McDuffie's did. When I read he had died, it felt almost like I had lost a member of my family. I regret, probably more than I will ever be able to express, that I never got the chance to shake his hand and thank him for the stories he gave me.

Others will no doubt speak eloquently about the fact that he wrote - for television, no less! - arguably the best Justice League in history, Morrison notwithstanding. Considering how easy it is to do wrong by those characters, and consequently just how much influence that particular incarnation of the franchise will continue to exert over superhero fiction for many years to come, this is no small feat in and of itself. I am likewise certain people will discuss the many facets of his work for Milestone - the fact that he (along with Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek Dingle) created a whole new world out of scratch while still retaining both their ownership stake and their dignity in the process is fairly remarkable. The fact that, in doing so, he carved out a place on the stands for characters and creators who were not predominately white, male and straight is also worthy of lasting attention and respect.

But the reason McDuffie means so very much to me can be directly traced to the handful of comics he wrote in the late 80s and early 90s, when he was still a young staff editor at the Marvel. During that period he co-created two of my very favorite comic series: Damage Control (with Ernie Colon) and the second Deathlok (with Gregory Wright). I don't know if I've ever discussed either book before, but if I haven't that is solely an oversight on my part.

I'm just going to state plainly that I don't think there are any comics I've read and reread over the years more often than the three original Damage Control miniseries. That might seem like an odd choice for someone's favorite comic, but there you go. I remember just about every page and every joke of every Damage Control story to this very day, and it's been at least ten years since the last time I read any of them. In my mind I always want to couple Damage Control with DC's Ambush Bug, and if you're unfamiliar with Damage Control that might serve as good a point as any for comparison. Both series fulfilled similar purposes for their respective companies: in an era of pervasive seriousness and parodic excess, they were high-minded satire aimed squarely at the industry's worst impulses. But whereas Ambush Bug was cynical to the bone - and downright angry in places - Damage Control remained thoughtful and forgiving in tone throughout. It's the work of someone who deeply, deeply loved both the genre and the medium, and used the strange soapbox of a high-concept superhero sitcom as a means to articulate what exactly he loved about this strange genre.

In many important respects, for all its status as a comedy book, Damage Control was in tone and theme an extremely important precursor to Marvels. It might seem like a stretch unless you've actually read the series. McDuffie seemed to instinctively "get" something that few other superheroes writers ever seem able to exploit: the emotional connection between readers and the superhero characters with whom they grow up is a very powerful and very real bond. It can be disconcerting and even poignant for the lifelong superhero reader to be pulled by the writer out of their heroes' heads in order to witness the same action as focalized through the eyes of otherwise "normal" perspective characters who are stuck living in the dirty aftermath of these thrilling adventures. It's that moment in Marvels when Phil Sheldon first sees Spider-Man as a truly frightening, alien creature, when the reader forgets for a moment that he knows who Peter Parker really is - that's also where Damage Control begins, albeit to far more humorous effect. Looking at the most familiar conventions of the genre with fresh eyes can be just as much a source of comedy as tragedy - who does get to clean up all those superhero messes?

It's easy to overlook the influence of books like Damage Control and Ambush Bug as rejoinders to the "serious" deconstruction of Watchmen and Dark Knight. Serious is easy to respect, funny is easy to dismiss - and besides, both books require a fair bit of "inside baseball" knowledge in order to fully comprehend. But consider for a moment the fact that the industry was able with relative facility to metabolize and neutralize the satire in Watchmen's - despite Moore's best intentions - whereas Ambush Bug pissed people off in a way that wasn't so easily forgiven or commodified. In that instance, it wasn't hard for people to completely misread Rorschach because Rorschach was still close enough in execution to the characters he was supposedly designed to parody that less discerning readers could still see him as an admirable character if they already believed the Punisher and Wolverine to be admirable. Ambush Bug was harder to deal with because the central figure being parodied was the fan himself. That's also why Marvels still unsettles me after all these years: it's a story about fandom, about the act of reading so many superhero comic books that the reader is almost tempted to believe he's a part of the stories himself - except for the fact that he's not.

Damage Control wasn't particularly scabrous, but by relocating genuinely human comedy and interpersonal drama to the context of a larger-than-life superhero fantasy universe, the series made a well-spoken and articulate argument for the genre's continued relevance. Like all the other great "deconstructionist" superhero comics, it was a reflexive text that used the audience's intimate understanding of genre expectations as the starting point for further inquiry. Think about it: how many of the great superhero books from this era - from every era since the late 80s, actually - begin with the overturning of a single trope, one single structural change that sets off the chain of narrative dominos that creates the story? Watchmen suspends the rule about heroes being ethically uncompromised; Squadron Supreme suspends the rule about superheroes always maintaining the status quo in contemporary society; Marvels suspends the rule about actually following the heroes on their adventures and instead leaves the viewer on the outside looking in, receiving only partial glimpses of what would, in reality, be far more bewildering phenomena than most superhero comics ever acknowledge. Damage Control suspends a seemingly trivial rule, but an important one: what happens to the damage that gets left behind in the wake of superhero fights? Wouldn't it make more sense if, instead of being handled politely off-panel, there was an entire mini-industry of specialized construction and demolition experts devoted specifically to cleaning up the messes left behind by superhero fights and other superhuman events? McDuffie followed the repercussions of the change with deadpan rigor: of course you're going to have problems with specialty contractors, super-villain collection officers (When Doom Defaults!), labor disputes, and government procurement scandals. Sometimes the Punisher shoots up your offices because he thinks the Kingpin is on your board of directors - and sometimes the Kingpin is on your board of directors.

In many respects the 1990 Deathlok relaunch could not have been more unlike Damage Control, but both books shared a willingness to challenge the audience's expectations of superhero genre conventions. In the case of Deathlok, the book suspended the customary rule (a rule not just for comic books but for action movies and adventure novels, too) that violence is an acceptable means to the end of conflict resolution. Think about that for a second: think about how profoundly different most heroic fiction would be if violence - guns and knives and fists - acted the same way in movies as in real life. That would force the audience to make an entirely different set of moral calculations when consuming their media: which would you rather watch with your friends after a hard day's work, Bad Boys II or The Wild Bunch? Those types of movies simply couldn't be enjoyable any more.

Deathlokwas a collaboration between McDuffie and Gregory Wright, with Denys Cowan joining the creative team after Jackson Guice pencilled the first two issues of the origin miniseries. The new Deathlok, far from a bloodthirsty warrior trapped in a post-apocaylptic future, was a highly-educated, pacifistic family man who resisted the use of violence as a means of solving problems in any circumstances - and, oh yeah, he was also black. So, to draw you a picture: here was the massive Deathlok cyborg - you know the one - a massive, incredibly strong revivified corpse with robot limbs, strong enough to crush steel in his bare hands, with a gun that can kill anything on the planet . . . and yet, morally opposed to the use of violence under any circumstances, and concerned solely with finding a way to return home to his family.

You can imagine how well that went over in the halcyon days of 1991. Maybe I didn't appreciate at the time just how strange the concept must have been for most readers. It was the living definition of "swimming against the stream": the letters' pages were filled with openly hostile letters deriding the pacifistic Michael Collins and longing for the day when Deathlok would overturn his "no killing perameter" and once again solve the world's problems with a bullet. The whole point of McDuffie and Wright's Deathlok - at least the first-half of the series, before commercial pressures mooted the concept and McDuffie left to devote his energies to Milestone - was that violence is never, or very rarely, the answer to difficult problems. I can't think of many - any? - comics that have ever dealt so openly and lucidly with the most basic ethical questions at the heart of superhero fiction: what are the ethical responsibilities of power? When is it ethical to exercise power, and when is it unethical? It's not simply "with great power there must come great responsibility" - that's elementary. The real question is whether or not it's even possible to exercise great power in a responsible fashion. Superhero comics might seem like an unlikely venue to explore these ideas with nay candor, but McDuffie devoted much of his career to the thoughtful exploration of these concepts. It really wouldn't be an exaggeration to call Deathlok the "first" Milestone book, if one were interested in that kind of labeling - not just because it was a "black" book by predominantly "black" creators (although that was certainly an element) - but because the book dealt maturely with the idea of violence as something other than a blank canvas for fantasy wish-fulfilment. I like the idea that writing the type of comics he wrote carried with it a kind of personal integrity that you just don't see very often: writing about pacifism in superhero comics, openly deriding the gun-toting anti-hero in the age of Cable - in this industry, that takes some cajones.

But if you were to ask me the one thing I most associate with Dwayne McDuffie - well, it might sound silly, but remember that Bullpen Bulletin profile from the top of the page? For those too young to remember, they used to run those every month, with the intention of giving faces and a personalities to the legions of editors and staffers filling the Marvel offices. I don't know how the offices look now, but to judge by the employee profiles of twenty years ago, Marvel was a fairly strange place to work (or, at least, a place with a very lax dress code). But I remember McDuffie's profile specifically - it's stuck in my head after over two decades - because of one little detail. Did you catch it? Under the question, "Greatest unfulfilled ambition in the comics field," he answered, very simple, "To write the Fantastic Four."

Now, I'm an old-school Marvel Zombie, and for an old-school Marvel hand, there's simply no doubt that Fantastic Four is the flagship of the fleet, the crown jewel of the entire Marvel Universe. Fantastic Four was the first, and even if it's rarely been the most popular Marvel property, it has always retained - at least for me, and I know I'm not the only one to feel this way - the pride of place. Getting to write the Fantastic Four is putting yourself in the direct line that began with Stan & Jack all the way back when - that's history like few other things in comics. There are only so many people who have ever written "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine." Not all runs are created equally, obviously, but it's nevertheless an exclusive club - one of the most exclusive clubs in all of comics. Here, back in 1989, McDuffie was putting his chit down on the table, saying that one day, he was going to join that club. And you know what happened?

Twenty years later he got his wish, and got a full year's run on Fantastic Four.

Now, anyone looking at his bibliography and seeing that year on FF tacked on towards the end, between JMS and the Millar / Hitch runs, might otherwise be tempted to dismiss the run as a trifle. But I remembered: I remembered that Bullpen Bulletin page from 1989, and I knew that Dwayne McDuffie - whatever else he had accomplished or still had yet to accomplish in his long and storied career - had been waiting his whole life to write this book. And that is simply beautiful: I'm certain that his year on FF was by no means the most important or influential thing he ever wrote, not by a long shot, but I know with equal certainty that it was important to him. Because, you know, if you're the type of person who says in your late 20s that your greatest unfulfilled professional ambition is to write the Fantastic Four? Well, that is something you're always going to carry with you, because it means something to you from a very deep place.

I respect that, and I respond to that, because I feel that too. If you grow up hard on the streets of Detroit and your favorite comic book is Fantastic Four? Well, I don't know from the former but I do the latter, and its a small enough group of us who do. Practically family. And the fact that, before he died a ludicrously unnecessary and tragically early death, he got to hold in his hands a good inch and a half or so of Fantastic Four comics with his name on the cover? That's a small thing, but those are the kinds of small things that make life worth living.

Dwayne McDuffie was the kind of writer who wrote the things that you carry with you for the rest of your life - some of them seeming trifles, but in hindsight all crafted with great skill, great respect, and an even greater commitment to basic human decency. He wrote about the things that mattered to him, and he wrote about crazy ideas like ethics and education and community in such a way that made you believe that he cared about these ideas as more than just words. He did it all in the context of superhero comic books - he tried to encompass a whole world of diversity and experience within the constraints of a morally-blinkered and ethnically whitewashed subgenre of childrens' pop ephemera. It mattered to him, and if you read his words it mattered to you, too.

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