Joseph Illidge: How Dwayne McDuffie was 'a catalyst' for diversity in comics
This weekend at Long Beach Comic Expo, the comic book industry will celebrate diversity with the third annual Dwayne McDuffie Awards. Presented in honor of the acclaimed comic and television writer (Justice League, Ben 10), the ceremony, according to its official criteria, works on “broadening the range of characters portrayed in comics, adding to the variety of creators contributing to the medium, influence on the marketplace and contributions to the advancement of women, minorities and LGBTs in comic books and pop culture.”
One of the judges for this year’s ceremony is longtime comics veteran Joe Illidge. Illidge is currently an editor at comic publisher Lion Forge, where he is assembling a new shared universe of superheroes called Catalyst Prime with a team of top-level talent. Set to launch this May with a one-shot special before branching off into seven new titles, Catalyst Prime carries on the legacy of the Milestone imprint, which McDuffie co-founded in the early ’90s and created a wealth of imaginative new black superhero characters including Icon and Static (who then went on to star in a popular WB cartoon helmed by McDuffie).
In an exclusive essay for EW, Illidge shares his first encounter with McDuffie’s work, and how it has gone on to influence his current work with Lion Forge and Catalyst Prime. Check that out below, along with covers for the upcoming Catalyst Prime series Incidentals (above, by Larry Stroman, Rob Stull, and Snakebite Cortez), Noble (by Roger Robinson and Juan Fernandez), and Summit (by Jan Duursema and Kelly Fitzpatrick). Catalyst Prime: The Event hits stores May 6 as part of Free Comic Book Day.
The moment of change was 24 years ago for me.
It was February of 1993, and I was unemployed.
I walked into a small store on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, New York and looked at the spinner rack full of comic books. The comic book that stood out among all the others was a comic book called Icon. It was the second issue, which meant I missed seeing the first.
On the cover was a Black man and a Black teenage girl, two superheroes fighting a large group of S.W.A.T. officers, all dressed in advanced body armor with helmets and guns. The line “STOP! DO NOT HOP ON COP!” was under the title and over the image of battle.
I wanted that book, for reasons both clear and elusive to me at the time, and I couldn’t afford it, but I took note of the company behind the book.
A friend of mine told me about Milestone weeks earlier. He was an intern at the company, and they were about to launch a line of multicultural superhero comic books. As an intern, he was working for free, and without a reward of money. I had no interest in working for any organization without getting paid.
But that “Icon” comic book spoke to me. It was the evidence of empowerment, when I was feeling powerless. I knew at that moment, even with the absence of an immediate income, I wanted to be on the side where history was being made instead of the side of the observer.
That was the day my career in the comic book industry was born. Not the vague idea of working on comic books in some way, shape, or form. A real career in the field.
Meeting Dwayne McDuffie on the day of the interview was the next event.
Matt Wayne, an editor at Milestone Media, Inc., was in the room with both of us during the interview. Matt did most of the talking. Dwayne spent most of the time watching me, and while he was considerably taller and more massive than me physically, he was truly a giant during that interview because the silence coming from his side of the room spoke volumes about his presence as a person.
Despite the fact that I had totally blown the interview to hell, a friend spoke up for me, and Dwayne and his partners decided to give a young know-it-all a chance to make a contribution.
For the following years, along with the instruction and lessons from his partners at Milestone, Dwayne took me under his wing. He showed me the meaning of story, and the importance of being a participant in the story. Not a guest star, a side note, a sacrificial lamb, or a “lesser than.” An active participant within the story and a facilitator of story creation.
The ideas of impetus and catalyst would define Dwayne’s presence in entertainment industries for many years during and after Milestone’s creation.
Dwayne’s favorite comic book characters were The Fantastic Four. The original quartet. The ones who flew into space and accidentally gained powers from being bombarded with cosmic rays. Gifted with super powers, four people chose to use abilities gained through the impetus of science to be a catalyst for the human race’s capacity to push the boundaries of science and imagination.
In the origin of the superhero world of Milestone, known as “The Dakotaverse” as it was named after the main fictional city of Dakota, a large group of gangbangers was exposed to a toxic gas that was meant to weaken them so they could all be apprehended by the police. The gas had a secret ingredient that allowed people to gain powers based on their perception of reality. A mastermind in that world created the gas to facilitate the development of superpowered people. A new breed of heroes.
The impetus of science. Emergence of a catalyst.
Was Dwayne’s love of The Fantastic Four influential in the origin he shaped for the comic book universe he co-created?
Milestone Comics, as a publishing house (working in conjunction with DC Comics), was the starting point for the careers of many a writer, artist, and editor. People who worked at Milestone and people who did not. People who created the books, and people who read them. Both creator and fan were equally and profoundly impacted by the company’s presence, publishing slate, and mission statement.
The first example of a wide-scale universe of costumed heroes in which the cultural demographics closely mirrored those of the real world, Milestone helped activate the desire for world-building for many other people and companies, small and large.
Go to the various comic book conventions throughout the United States. Not just the most-hyped conventions, but the dozens of others in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, and the realization of new, vast worlds full of diverse characters with extraordinary abilities is evident in hundreds of comic books by dozens of creators.
Was Milestone influential in the manifestation of some of these varied fictional worlds?
Dwayne McDuffie died in 2009 and in the wake of his passing, the comic book industry was left with a gaping hole…but it was also galvanized.
Creators from various walks of life, people whose lives were touched by Dwayne’s work in various media, were compelled to make decisions, statements, stories…all of which would come from the same underlying unspoken sentiment:
“We will not go back to the way things were.”
This year, the various fictional worlds of heroes in comic books will be joined by a new one.
The publisher of this world, its origin partially born from the work of Dwayne McDuffie and his partners.
People inspired and empowered by McDuffie’s work helped shape the new world.
One in which a group of people from different cultural backgrounds attempt to do what most people would consider impossible. Traveling to the stars, in order to save the human race from extinction. The aftermath of their act will lead to the emergence of superpowered people on Earth.
An impetus of science.
This world is named Catalyst Prime.
Cause and effect. Impact and aftermath.
We have lost a friend, but we have gained so much from his presence, efforts, and stories.
The award for diversity in McDuffie’s name is a testament to his example and generosity.
We will never go back to the way things were. We’re headed forward to the horizon, pushing boundaries and testing the limits of our imagination as we go.
See you there.
-Joseph Phillip Illidge