One of my heroes has died.
It came out of nowhere; I'm shocked, there was no advance warning, just one day everything was fine, and now... I'm stunned. I'm staggered. I don't...well
Like most people, I first became aware of Mr. McDuffie when "Static Shock" hit the air in 2001. I was going through one of my periodic "Everything sucks" phases, and the dodgy animation and generally annoying music didn't appeal to me, but one of my kids liked the show, and I make a point of watching TV with my kids whenever possible. It seemed tailor-made for me to hate, political correctness on parade, like a latter day "Captain Planet" or whatever. The operative word there is "Seemed:" in fact, I quickly realized I was watching something that was solid and intelligent, and even inspiring. The first episode that really drove this home for me was called "Frozen Out," which started out seeming like a Kwanzaa story, but ended up being about the plight of the mentally ill and homeless. It actually put a lump in my throat. I had never been affected by a superhero story that way before. It wasn't the only time. Yeah, there were some clunkers, yeah, there were undoubtedly some episodes that didn't have the full impact on me because I'm not a part of the culture they were aimed at, but it was a really good, really smart show that actually meant something.
A friend once told me that the show got cancelled *BECAUSE* it wasn't what I'd assumed it to be: It wasn't politically correct, or preachy, or whatever, it was, at root, a story about a good kid with a loving family who try to do right in a world where it would be oh so very easy to just give in and roll with the rabble. Static was a hero inside, the powers were incidental to that.
So that's what Mr. McDuffie gave my kids and me. I looked into his past, and discovered that he'd co-founded Milestone. Milestone comics first started hitting the stands in 1993. McDuffie had already been around for a long time, but I never really noticed him, even though I'd read a number of comics he worked on, most notably "Damage Control."
Milestone comics were an interesting experiment, both from a marketing standpoint, and also from a technical standpoint. Color printing technology had really only gotten good at showing subtle ranges of skintones. Milestone was the first company to really make use of the ability to depict ethnic groups in pretty realistic fashion. And they chose to do so. Nearly all the characters in Milestone were black, or Asian, or other minorities. This was a huge deal in the day, and really even today when the majority of comics characters are white folk.
I tracked down some and read them while "Static Shock" was still on the air. I was intrigued, a lot of them were really good, much better than I was expecting. They weren't content to simply imitate the mainstream comics, they went their own way, and what I really liked about them was that when they hit on social issues it felt much more organic, less forced, less "This is a Lesson" than when DC or Marvel did it. More to the point, though, Milestone showed different *kinds* of black people, Asians, hispanics, etc. Since the comics were aimed at minorities, they didn't feel compelled to portray society monolithically: there were good black people, bad black people, educated folks, uneducated folks, people down on their luck, rich folk, all with very different personalities. There was no "Token" in them, and I think that was a very large, very important part of the exercise. If it wasn't, well, it's still the thing I took from it.
Milestone was financially unsuccessful, was purchased by DC, and folded a year later. Seven years later, Static Shock went into production, and despite what that one friend of mine said about the show "Failing," the fact is it ran for four years and 52 episodes, which is a pretty successful cartoon by most yardsticks. Yeah, they wanted a fifth season, and yeah, they didn't get it. So what? TOS wanted a fourth year and didn't get it, either. The effect a good show has isn't just financial, it's influential.
Static segued into McDuffie becoming part of the DC Animated Universe, a family of several overlapping shows set in the same fictional timeline, with frequent crossovers and references: Batman TAS, Superman TAS, Justice League, JLU, Teen Titans, Static Shock, Batman Beyond, a handful of movies, a couple web cartoons. It was a pretty fascinating thing. McDuffie eventually ended up as the showrunner for Justice League Unlimited, and he produced an extended series of episodes that our own Republibot 2.0 said at the time "Is the tightest scripted arc-driven television since Babylon 5." I think he was right, frankly.
When the DCAU fell prey to a palace coup and a new regime in the byzantine internal politics of Warner Brothers, he moved on to other projects, both in comics and on TV. Most obviously, he's been involved with the Ben 10 franchise since 2008. My kids love those shows, too.
I spoke to him once. I'd written a review of an episode of "Alien Force," and he emailed me to say he really appreciated what I'd said. I thanked him and asked him for an interview, and he readily agreed. It never worked out for scheduling reasons - he was a very busy man - but he was the nicest guy in the world to talk to. I feel honored that I got to speak with him at all, just a tiny bit, but there were so many things I wanted to know about his work. In particular, I really wanted to know about the large part the Church played in Static's life, and whether or not that was echoed in McDuffies' own, or if it was just kind of an ongoing way to examine aspects of the character, kinda' like Stan Lee did with Nightcrawlers' Catholicism.
And now I never will. It sounds stupid to say this about someone you never knew, but I feel a little empty. He was a steady part of my entertainment diet for more than a decade, and he wrote really good stuff. It wasn't cookie cutter, it wasn't "Cause of the week," it wasn't cheap, it was...well, it was better than we deserved. It really was. He was a better storyteller than we deserved, and there were so many stories yet to tell.
I feel like a library just burned down.
Details on Mr. McDuffie's death are sketchy at present. All that is known is that he was having surgery two days ago, and he evidently passed away from complications arising from that.
Our prayers go out to his soul and to his family.