Kwanza Osajyefo shares how Dwayne McDuffie inspired him
This weekend at Long Beach Comic Con, comics will celebrate diversity with the second annual Dwayne McDuffie Awards. Presented in honor of acclaimed comic and television writer Dwayne McDuffie (Justice League Unlimited, Ben 10), the ceremony, stewarded by Award Director Neo Edmund, seeks to “raise awareness of the need to broaden the racial and gender representation of the characters we see on the pages of comic books, and to also broaden such representation of those who create this beloved form of visual storytelling.”
McDuffie’s inspiration stretches far and wide, in particular having been the inspiration for Kwanza Osajyefo’s current Kickstarter campaign. A former DC digital comics editor who assisted in launching the company’s Zuda imprint, Osajyefo launched a campaign timed to Black History Month to fund a new original superhero science fiction graphic novel called Black. Illustrated by Inkpot Award-winning artist Jamal Igle (Molly Danger, Supergirl), with a creative team that includes DC Comics illustrator Khary Randolph and former DC and Vertigo editor Sarah Litt, Black is the story of a man named Kareem Jenkins, who is tasked with keeping history’s biggest secret.
In an exclusive essay for EW, Osajyefo shares how McDuffie changed his life, and what his inspiration means to the evolving diversity in comics. You can find more information about the Kickstarter here.
On the Shoulders of Giants: How one hour with Dwayne McDuffie inspired my career in comics
This month we honor the contributions that Black people made to the United States. In the comic book industry, the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics celebrates works promoting diversity in content or collaboration.
The award honors its namesake, Dwayne McDuffie, a man who had a profound impact on comics, and personal influence on me.
As I stepped off the elevator of a nondescript Midtown office building and into a narrow hallway of doors, my stomach was in knots. At 17 years old and having never had a real job, I nervously scanned for a floor directory, while at the same moment worried that my Malcolm X baseball cap, wild-printed button down shirt, pony tail, and trench coat were not appropriate interview attire.
In 1993, comic book writer Dwayne McDuffie teamed up with industry veteran comic book artist Denys Cowan, along with Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle in an groundbreaking partnership with DC Comics to create Milestone Media. The company would have near autonomy to produce multicultural characters, with DC providing mass distribution.
In that same year, I had graduated high school and been accepted to the University of Maryland at College Park. In my family, I was unquestionably destined for higher education, but that day I was willing to throw it away for what this moment could lead to. I found the door marked “Milestone Media,” turned the handle, and walked in.
Buzzing around the office were faces of every color. The few times I’d been to my parents’ workplaces it was clear they were some of the only people of color at their company. At Milestone, though, black, brown, beige, and pale faces walked the floors, passed around artwork of my new favorite characters, and chatted on their phones.
“May I help you?” someone asked me, snapping me out of my starstruck daze. “My name is Kwanza… I have an appointment to see Dwayne McDuffie.” The words sheepishly crept from my mouth, barely audible. “Have a seat, and I’ll let him know you’re here.”
My love of comics started when I was very young. I had a voracious appetite for books, and would read anything lying around. When my mom would take me to visit with family, they never had anything to read except the same Archie digests – but it was something. On one particularly memorable visit, I saw a new book. It was titled, “The Asgardian Wars” – I was hooked.
I’d read Peanuts and my dad sometimes had Richie Rich and other Harvey Comics lying around, but this was different. From then on I was on the lookout for any chance to read a comic book. We didn’t have much money in my early years, but by the time I reached middle school I was saving my allowance and walking to school to save up bus fare, all so I could buy my favorite titles.
Coincidentally, a comic shop was on that walk and after learning comics’ publishing routine, I became a weekly visitor. Once I took notice of the credits and realized people made the stories I loved, I decided to become a comics creator when I grew up.
I’d draw and write every day. Come up with stories of all sorts. Some about my favorite characters, others of my own creation. Wanting to meet my heroes, I attended conventions and waited on long lines to get my favorite issues signed, determined to one day be behind a table signing my own books.
I was aware that I was Black, but my mother had raised me to think I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. She never mentioned race as a barrier to anything I wanted in life, though I knew some people didn’t like others because of skin color.
When Milestone Media was announced, my understanding of the nuances of race matched my youth. It had not occurred to me how underrepresented Black faces were in media, let alone in the comics I had come to love. It was just the norm to me, but the first time I saw an image of Static… that was me. That was my face. I could fly. I had to make comics at Milestone.
I scanned the indicia for the company phone number, took a deep breath, and dialed. Someone picked up and honestly, I don’t remember what I said on that call but it ended with, “Okay, so we’ll see you then.”
“Dwayne is ready for you.” I bolted up, and was lead into his office. If you never had the opportunity to meet Mr. McDuffie in person, he was a tall man, larger than life and having great presence. He shook my hand and invited me to sit across from his desk and show him my work.
I passed my portfolio to him, hoping he wouldn’t notice how worn and secondhand it was. Someone had thrown it in the trash, and while we weren’t as poor in these days, I certainly didn’t have money to buy a new one. Dwayne flipped through my drawings, character descriptions, and plot synopses, intently examining one set then coming back to another.
He closed my folder and said, “These are good, but we’re already working on characters and stories similar to these.” I don’t think I had much of a poker face then, so perhaps Dwayne saw I was a bit crestfallen. “How old are you?”
For the remaining hour, Dwayne and I talked. He asked why I’d created diverse characters and what I wanted to do in comics. I told him about how long I’d been a reader and that Milestone had a profound impact on me.
In no clichéd way he suggested I complete my degree, told me how interning with publishers worked, and that it was a good way to break into the business. Dwayne also explained why Milestone was necessary and unprecedented in an industry I definitely knew nothing about. He also hinted at hurdles that I might face as a person of color in comics.
I scribbled down names, numbers, and notes on everything he said, and it wasn’t until he said farewell and I was ushered to the door that I realized the wealth of knowledge he’d shared with me. Dwayne had taken the time to entertain this random kid off the street and impart to me wisdoms that wouldn’t even register in my mind until long after I’d left his office.
What I did know was that a Black man had determined his own fate in comics and I wished to do the same.
The sun eventually set on Milestone Media, but Dwayne continued to be a force of influence. His work on the Justice League animated series remains some of best stories to feature DC Comics’ cast of characters, and elevated John Stewart (Green Lantern) and Hawkgirl in the public conscious.
Years later, when I became a digital editor at DC Comics, I’d always wanted to reach out to Dwayne. To let him know that the kid with the busted old portfolio had taken heed and made his way into the business. Unfortunately, time and work never seemed to offer an opportunity to make contact.
The last time I saw Dwayne McDuffie was at San Diego Comic Con just after the web imprint I launched at DC Comics, Zuda, had been shuttered. I was standing at the DC booth, aching for escape. In the distance, I saw him pass by, and was determined to say hello again but was stopped by an attendee. I’d turned my head for a moment and he was gone…
Dwyane passed away the following year, and the void he left wasn’t simply in the hearts of those who knew him but in the hearts of those he had had an impact on – whether he knew them or not. Since that day in his office I’ve always wanted to thank him, for being so generous with his time to a random kid of the street. I wanted to tell him what a fan I was of not just his work, but of his person, and that I pursued a career in comics because he’d proved I could.
I’d worked my way up through the industry like he did. Following in his footsteps, I launched my own line of diverse characters at DC Comics under the Zuda imprint. I wanted to share these accomplishments with him and let him know how grateful I was for one hour in 1993.
Dwayne McDuffie knew what was missing in comics, the voices that went unheard, and through sheer will, intelligence, and determination made effort to change the course of an industry. He was as much a Black superhero as any he created, and he’s been a man I’ve patterned my career and actions after.
Black is my attempt to continue walking the path Dwayne McDuffie’s carved out for all of us. It’s because of his efforts that I was inspired to pursue making an original graphic novel that explores the question, “In a world that already hates and fears them – what if only Black people had superpowers?”
Thank you, Dwayne McDuffie. I only hope that my work inspires others as yours inspired me.
Your eternal admirer,
Author/Co-Creator of Black