01 March 2011

Dwayne McDuffie, Static, and Clarence Thomas

Early last month I caught up on Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool, a collection of two miniseries from the last two decades featuring the young superhero Static. With his smart mouth, nerdy real life, and lack of a millionaire crime-fighting mentor, Static is much more like Spider-Man than like other teen heroes I could name, but I’m trying to sample all the basic literature.

Static was one of several characters that writer Dwayne McDuffie co-created for Milestone Comics, founded in the 1990s to feature superheroes of color. Static became the best known through an television cartoon. More recently DC Comics bought the Milestone properties and, in its syncretic way, incorporated McDuffie’s city of Dakota into the DC Universe. McDuffie scripted the Justice League for several months, and Static worked with the Teen Titans.

McDuffie died unexpectedly last week after heart surgery. That produced an outpouring of rue and remembrances from comics pros and fans. Several people linked to McDuffie’s 2000 essay about learning that Justice Clarence Thomas enjoyed Milestone comics:

He really liked Hardware, he said, but his favorite was Icon, a title that featured a character who is, like himself, a black conservative. There was more to the conversation but I missed most of it due to the small stroke I'd just had.

The thing is, while Clarence Thomas likes my stuff, I most decidedly don't like his stuff. Look, I'm politically to the left of… well, everybody, actually. On the other hand, Justice Thomas is a truly uncommon creature, a black political conservative. Now, if you only see black men on cable news talk shows, where all black men are conservatives (Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Alan Keyes, Armstrong Williams) you probably don't think this is unusual. Well trust me, it is.

It's really quite difficult to find an African-American who (like Justice Thomas) was alive during Jim Crow, who actually saw the Voting Rights Act end legal discrimination at the polls, and who is the successful beneficiary of Affirmative Action (but now says that he's against it). It was easier to justify my character Icon having those beliefs; he's also a space alien who can fly. . . .

The real problem didn't come to light until I sat down to write the next script for Icon.

And couldn't.

Every time I started to write dialog for Icon, I froze. "What will Clarence Thomas make of this?" I'd think, "Am I unwittingly aiding the black neocon movement?" Fortunately, I was able to get back into the game in a few weeks (and fill-ins by Kurt Busiek and Jackie Ching kept the book on schedule until I got my chops back).
Thomas mentions his childhood fondness for comics in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, specifically mentioning “Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt, Outlaw, the misunderstood western heroes,” as well as “superhero comics, particularly Superman, Green Lantern, Flash and Spiderman [sic].” That book doesn’t suggest that he maintained the hobby as an adult, however.

Also worthy of note: McDuffie’s 1989 memo at Marvel about young black superheroes on skateboards. (Static rides around on some sort of flying manhole cover instead.)

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