Good evening. Thank you, Library of Congress and National Book Festival, for inviting me to share the stage with such esteemed authors, and to speak with all of you. I am deeply grateful for this honor.
I’m a comic book guy, so tonight I’d like to talk about another comic book guy. Dwayne McDuffie was one of my favorite writers. When I was growing up, he was one of the few African Americans working in American comics. Dwayne worked primarily within the superhero genre. He got his start at Marvel Comics but eventually worked for almost every comic book publisher out there. He even branched out into television and wrote for popular cartoon series like Justice League and Ben 10.
Dwayne McDuffie is no longer with us, unfortunately. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 49. But within comics, his influence is still deeply felt. I was lucky enough to have met him once. About a year before his death, we were on a panel together at Comic-Con. I had the opportunity to shake his hand and tell him how much his work meant to me.
In a column Dwayne wrote in 1999, he talked about his love of the Black Panther, a Marvel Comics character. The Black Panther’s secret alias is T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He has super senses, super strength, and super agility. He’s an Avenger, though he hasn’t yet made it into the movies.
The Black Panther wasn’t created by African American cartoonists. He was created in July of 1966 by two Jewish Americans, Stan Lee (who was born Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (who was born Jacob Kurtzberg). By modern standards, the Black Panther is not a flawless example of a black superhero. In their first draft of the character, Lee and Kirby called him “the Coal Tiger” and gave him a goofy yellow and black costume. Even in his final form, his superhero alias includes the word “Black.” This is true of many early African and African American superheroes, as if what makes them remarkable is neither their superpowers nor their heroism, but their ethnicity. Most problematic, though, was that Marvel made their most prominent black superhero the star of a series called “Jungle Action.”
All of these flaws were lost on Dwayne McDuffie when he first encountered the Black Panther in 1973, at the age of 11. What struck him was the character’s commanding sense of dignity. The Black Panther wasn’t anyone’s sidekick. He wasn’t an angry thug. He wasn’t a victim. He was his own hero, his own man. As Dwayne describes it, “In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.”
Dwayne’s love of the Black Panther eventually blossomed into a love of comics in general. Dwayne was a smart guy with a lot of options in life. He’d earned a master’s degree in physics. But he chose to write comics as his career. I would argue that without the Black Panther, this flawed black character created by a writer and an artist who were not black, there would be no Dwayne McDuffie the comic book writer.
Dwayne wasn’t just a writer, he was also a businessman. In the early 1990’s, he teamed with a group of writers and artists to found Milestone Media, the most prominent minority-owned comic book company that has ever existed. The Milestone universe have since been folded into DC Comics, so these days characters like Static Shock and Icon—characters Dwayne co-created—fight crime alongside Superman and Batman.
In the early 1990’s, I was finishing up my adolescence. I visited my local comic bookstore on a weekly basis, and one week I found a book on the stands called Xombi, published by Milestone Media. Xombi is a scientist who became a superhero after he was injected with nanotechnology. He allied himself with a secret order of superpowered nuns. One sister was known as Nun of the Above, another Nun the Less. Together, they protected the world from all kinds of...