Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dwayne McDuffie: On Panthers, Ben 10s & Denning & Rainiers; The Man Who Lived Like Them, Humanely Honorable

Dwayne McDuffie - On Panthers, Ben 10s & Denning & Rainiers; The Man Who Lived Like Them, Humanely Honorable - by Don McGregor

Dwayne McDuffie stood tall, as a man, as a talent, as a friend.

I had tears in my eyes when I read that Dwayne McDuffie was no longer in the world.

My throat closed up, as if I could not swallow the knowledge that Dwayne was gone, that I would never again hear his voice, that there would never be more words written by him to grace the world.

In the comic book medium, one that has more than its share of scoundrels, Dwayne was honest, kind, compassionate, intelligent and amazingly talented.

We had a lot of loves in common. We had experienced some similar emotional batterings in our personal lives. We both had heart problems at an early age. I don’t recall talking about Panther’s Rage in the first times we met, although we could have, but we did talk about our shared love of comics, of story-telling, of television series that spoke to our hearts and minds. I continually learned he had a deep abiding response to writers who also spoke to me, like James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, John D. MacDonald and Evan Hunter. More than once he badgered me that I should write Detectives Inc. as a novel and then Denning and Rainier would join the ranks of those fictional series. Yes, I hear you, Dwayne.

In the 1990s I recall sitting with Dwayne and Denys Cowan on wide cement steps outside the San Diego Comic Convention center, somewhere where people would not immediately recognize us, talking about what had happened to us over the years within comics, how difficult it was to get diversity into the medium without it being labeled in terms that were essentially negative in the minds of many who ruled the industry.

Denys told me he thought I was a black writer when he first read the books, and that I was, to use his words, “whiter than white,” and we all laughed on those steps, and we all knew we had earned the laughter.

Dwayne and I sat in a Spaghetti Factory restaurant during the early years of Milestone, and he asked me if I would write for them. I talked with him about doing a story that dealt with a gay black lawyer with AIDS, and a mother who uses the Race Card to get her son out of an institutional asylum and resulting matricide, and Dwayne never blinked.

Believe me, most editor/publishers would done more than blink.

The story was based on someone I actually knew, and my wife, Marsha, visited, not knowing the mother’s corpse was just beyond the door. The lead homicide detective said if she had insisted on entry into the apartment she would have been another victim. I never would have had a clue about where she was, or where she had been.

Dwayne sent me a staggering amount of Milestone Bibles, incredibly detailed backgrounds of characters and settings, the page count somewhere, if memory serves, around a couple of hundred pages in length in each binder. I still have them. I’m a pack rat. Every once in awhile I run across them, and I’m still impressed.
It reminds me of how much dedication and research and energy Dwayne put into the projects he did. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything as thorough, ever, by a creator, as those Bibliophiles, most which probably would never show up on a printed page. That is the level of commitment Dwayne McDuffie had.

The timing for me developing that series was bad, and the only reason I did not work with him then, which I always wished I had been able to do. Maybe only weeks before I had committed to Jim Salicrup to write Zorro for Topps Comics as a monthly book. From the beginning I was doing research on early Los Angeles, Mexico, the divergent Indian tribes in California, the Mission system, and the global situation that impacted on that isolated place. I had already turned down doing an X-Men series on developing the other planet origins of Professor X, (They wanted me to define a place as I had done with Wakanda, that had been little more than a concept) and had no second thoughts about refusing that.

But I really wanted to work with Dwayne McDuffie.

I didn’t, because I knew I would end up screwing both Dwayne and Jim Salicrup, because I was being overly optimistic about what I realistically could fulfill as a writer, and that would be on me, hurting people whom I really liked and admired.

One of the most difficult things to do is take complex, serious material and place it into the superhero genre without the danger of trivializing something emotionally complex, with no easy answers. Dwayne understood that; he was such a consummate story-teller and empathic human being.

I’m not sure when I first read Dwayne’s piece on the day he spent his coins on a comic book, and about the impact that Panther’s Rage had on him. I know at some point in time he told me that he read the book until the cover came off it, and that in his youth he did not exactly comprehend why it moved him so much. I suspect that a lot of times it isn’t until much later that we realize why things affected us the way they did.

In 2010, when Cory Sedlemeier talked with me about Marvel reprinting Panther’s Rage and Panther Vs. The Klan, I asked Cory if we could print the letters that were in those comics and also Dwayne’s piece on that summer day when he first discovered the Black Panther.

Dwayne was busy with a number of projects, including overseeing Ben 10, and writing many of the episodes, and inter-acting with a variety of talent on that show, as well as being involved in other stories separate from the Ben 10 universe.

I asked Dwayne if he would mind if his piece were a part of the Black Panther Marvel Masterworks. Despite his busy schedule, despite all the plates he was already spinning about the tall poles, he not only said, “Yes,” but that he wanted to re-write it. I kept telling him it was fine the way it was; I didn’t want to make more work for him, but he insisted. That’s the kind of man Dwayne McDuffie was.

When I read his Afterword in the published book, with his vivid recollection of his friend, Alan, and what that comic meant to him, he brought me to tears. Years after those books were published history, and the costs of taking a lonely stand took more of a toll on me, Dwayne was one of the people who helped vindicate some of those lonely stands for me about what could or could not be done in comics during the 70s. The stories we tell do have impact and can affect the individual spirit and future.

The year before the Black Panther Masterworks I met with Dwayne in a New York City restaurant. His wife, Charlotte, was sick with the flu, and I missed my one chance to meet her. At the time I was having a real shortness of breath, and going through a series of tests, and I was putting off until after the winter months having more tests done. I’d had a heart attack when I was forty. My dad had died of heart problems during the winter, and while I’m not overly superstitious, I know it influenced my decision to hold off until April. During that time Steve Gerber and Marshall Rogers died. I read quotes by some people in the comic biz about me, re-writing history, my history as it were, while I was still alive. I recall telling Dwayne, “If this all goes South come Spring, don’t let these mother-fuckers get away with changing where they stood on race and sex.”

For me, Dwayne was like the image that I had used so often on Detectives Inc., of Denning and Rainier, standing back to back in a dark, rainy alleyway. You never had to look to see if the other was there. That person truly did have your back.

And thus the reason I said those words to him. I said those words only to one other person in comics, Dean Mullaney, who knew what was going on behind the scenes.
I trusted Dwayne, implicitly.

I flew out for Robert Culp’s Memorial in 2010 (I am losing way too many people I treasure) and I was only going to be there for two days. The one person I met was Dwayne.

I’ve seen people write that Dwayne seldom smiled, and that when he did, it was bright and joyous. Well, it was. But I have to say I saw Dwayne smile a lot, and laugh, when we weren’t on serious topics.

We smiled and laughed a lot that day. We went out to eat, and then we talked for the longest time in his car. He’d only just started driving he told me, and he used the GPS everywhere he went. I told him if I had a 50/50 chance of being right on whether to turn left or right, bet against me, because 95% of the time I’d be wrong, and my problem was I didn’t know how to start or program a GPS.

My excuse, Dwayne had a degree is Physics.

At some point we were talking about old Warner Brother’s TV series, especially the private eye shows such as 77 Sunset Strip. Many times after that talk I would think, I have to ask Dwayne how he became a fan of those shows. He was much younger than I, so I know I was 13 when they started, but off the top of my head, I’d say Dwayne wasn’t even born yet. I would always forget to ask.

Dwayne told me stories about meeting Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. when he was doing voice work for a cartoon Dwayne was working on, and how Efrem eventually, as he became comfortable during the time to start talking about working on those shows.

I told him if there were any series I wanted on DVD it was those old Warner Brother TV shows, with all the bumpers that made each episode seem so special, and to include the trailers separately, the way Gary Gerani and Steve Mitchell did on the Thriller DVD set.

In the midst of talking about those things, we were both smiling and laughing, and I suspect I was eating up Dwayne’s valuable time, I told him about an episode of 77 Sunset Strip entitled, “Reserved For Mr. Bailey.” Efrem Zimbalist was the only actor on screen for the entire hour. I had never been able to see a print of it since its original airing, and yet I somehow knew it was John Dehner’s voice off screen.

I was talking about the ghost town setting for that show when Dwayne asked me if I would consider writing a Ben 10.

Of course I said, “Yes.” We would finally have a chance to work together.

And in fact, in our original talk, the spring board for the episode came from “Reserved For Mr. Bailey,” but don’t look for anything remotely connected to it in the final script, “Night of the Living Nightmare.” There’s no ghost town. There are many other characters in the story. Thematically it goes for something totally different. But the initial idea of waking up to a living nightmare was still there.

When we were getting ready to say “Good-bye,” Dwayne’s eyes twinkled, with this kind of glee, and he said, “I can’t wait to see what kind of trouble you’re going to get me into.”

Argh! I told Dwayne, “Oh great! Just put the pressure on, why don’t you? Like this isn’t challenge enough.”

It was a challenge, because I knew from experience that Ben 10, since this was one of Dwayne McDuffie’s babies would have a complex mythology, and you couldn’t just know it 10 seconds out of the starting gate.

I was right.

We talked a number of times on the phone. I’m sure he was swamped with meetings, but he always called, he always got back to me. He’d tell me characters he would want in the story. I would scribble notes and hope I could decipher them afterwards. I found character biographies on the Internet, but there were some I was sure I must have misspelled, I couldn’t find anything on them.

I was always hesitant to call Dwayne; I knew he had more things to do than hold Don McGregor’s hand.

I asked him about somebody named “Eatle” and another character he’d told me to include, whose name escapes me right now, and told him, I can’t find anything on them. Dwayne laughed. Yes, he laughed. And told me that was because no one had seen the characters yet and that’s why no one knew them. I believe I told him something like, “Oh, this is like a Mission Impossible plot, you’re just trying to drive me nuts now.”

When the script was finished, he asked me what I thought. I told him the only thing I was concerned with was that he liked it. If he was happy with it, I was happy with it.

Just the week before he died he wrote me a GMail telling me that if I wanted I should put something up on Ben 10 when I was ready.

He said “Night of the Living Nightmare” would probably air in early 2012. The show seemed a long way off. I thought we had all the time in the world.

I wanted to write something about doing the show, but also about Dwayne, and what his words meant to me, and about those times we’d been together.

We didn’t have all the time in the world. You think you do, and one of the good ones is gone, and you don’t.

I've written this piece with fond remembrances, but the joy I thought I’d have in writing it is stolen that he didn’t have a chance to see the words.

I miss him already.

March 2, 2011
-Used with the express permission of Don McGregor-

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