The 'Upgrade Soul' author pens a guest essay in honor of the Dwayne McDuffie Awards
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Credit: Lion Forge

This weekend at Long Beach Comic Expo, the comic book industry will celebrate diversity with the fourth 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 people in comic books and pop culture.”

Last year’s winner of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity was Ezra Claytan Daniels, who wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Upgrade Soul. The comic tells the story of elderly couple Hank and Molly Nonnar, who decide to take part in an experimental rejuvenation procedure. Things take a turn, however, when the experiment results in strange clones of themselves.

In an exclusive guest essay for EW, Daniels reflects on the importance of diversity in culture and history. Check that out below, along with preview images for Upgrade Soul. The graphic novel is being solicited by Lion Forge this fall, and will be available in a new edition this September.

Upgrade Soul Pitch 1
Credit: Lion Forge
Upgrade Soul Pitch 1
Credit: Lion Forge
Upgrade Soul Pitch 1
Credit: Lion Forge

Episode 5 of the 2014 Cosmos reboot featured the story of a penniless Bavarian boy named Joseph von Fraunhofer. Born in 1787 and orphaned at the age of 11, Joseph was forced into hard labor. He toiled every living day in the brutal heat of a glass workshop, and spent every night performing chores in his master’s home.

When he was 14, the workshop collapsed, burying him alive. A rescue effort led by Prince Maximilian Joseph saved his life. The prince took an immediate interest in the precocious boy. He provided him with books, and forced his master to allow him to study. The boy showed an extraordinary aptitude for the burgeoning field of physics, and at 21, with money given to him by the prince, he was able to pursue a formal education. Within just a few years, Joseph von Fraunhofer invented the spectroscope, one of the most important scientific advancements in human history.

This historical anecdote left me shaken. To this day, the thought of it makes me feel angry and deeply heartbroken. Throughout modern history, and all over the world, millions of brilliant minds have withered and died anonymously, never having had their opportunity to blossom. Some weren’t rich enough, some weren’t male enough, some weren’t white enough. All of them deserved better.

History is thick with stories of genius stifled because it wasn’t contained in the “appropriate” body. At the dawn of the modern world, one’s chances of contributing their talents to society if they weren’t rich, white, straight, male, or preferably all four, were essentially nil. Today, it’s not much better — at least not where it matters most. It’s true our entertainment is (albeit slowly) diversifying. We certainly couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) imagine a pop landscape devoid of Beyoncé, but imagine that world — a world where only rich straight white men could create pop music. That’s still largely how things look in the sciences, in academia, in government, and in business, where too many of our best minds are being ignored or underutilized. Imagine the scientific progress unmade, the diseases uncured, the industries unlaunched, the literature unwritten.

Now imagine, just for a moment, how much more advanced human civilization would be today if everyone, in every field of study and industry, was allowed to contribute equally. Close your eyes and see it. That’s the image that brings me to tears every time I conjure it. As a science fiction writer, I admit to sometimes seeing through a lens of apocalyptic drama, but given the challenges we currently face, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to state that diversity is critical for the survival of the human race.

Let’s be clear: Diversity means more than just seeing more women and minorities in action movies and comic books. But it’s in our popular culture that the seeds for meaningful diversity are sowed. Little white boys don’t have to look far to see themselves represented as leaders, heroes, or — even in the absence of talent or ambition — as unremarkable men randomly tapped to save the world. It’s only natural that they would feel, in adulthood, worthy of and entitled to positions of leadership in the workplace. No other group of people benefits from that kind of cultural reinforcement.

When non-men and people of color are represented positively in popular culture, it has the dual effect of giving little girls and children of color role models, as well as teaching little white children that women and minorities have value to contribute. In practice, the effects are truly profound: Astronaut Mae Jemison was famously inspired to join NASA by Nichelle Nichols’ groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. My own white grandfather was inspired to accept my black father at least in part by his adoration of Sidney Poitier’s dignified performance in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

I never got the opportunity to meet Dwayne McDuffie before his untimely passing, but his is a legacy that truly encapsulates the higher value of diversity in popular culture. He devoted his life to representing characters of color such that they would inspire and illuminate, and his comics and animation work, particularly Static Shock, directly inspired me to pursue the same goal. Winning last year the award named for him was the greatest honor of my life. While I’m not wrong to feel constant guilt for not doing enough to fight the bigotry festering in every corner of the world, this award was a deeply inspiring affirmation that the meager work I am doing is valued.

This affirmation, in turn, emboldened me to double down in my commitment to championing diversity. The graphic novel that won me the Dwayne McDuffie award, Upgrade Soul, was a truly underground, self-published and self-funded endeavor. With the attention brought by the award, I was suddenly thrust into a position I never thought I would find myself in: one in which multiple publishers were vying to publish my book. Among them was Lion Forge, a publisher whose commitment to diversity is expressed not only in its catalog (which features the direct descendant of Dwayne McDuffie’s Milestone superhero empire, Catalyst Prime), but is reflected at every level of its staff, management, and even ownership. Lion Forge wasn’t the biggest publisher vying for my book, but it was really the only choice. And it’s one I think Dwayne McDuffie would’ve approved of.

It almost feels destined that this year’s award will be bestowed on the same day Black Panther opens in theaters. The film would certainly not exist (or at least not be breaking records prior to even opening) if Dwayne McDuffie and his cohorts hadn’t laid the groundwork for modern Black comics fandom with Milestone Media. This weekend, millions of children all over the world will visit an Afrofuturist utopia that promises to be both a heartbreaking vision of the world we could’ve had, and a template for what we can and must strive for. This is the power of diversity in popular culture, and this is why the Dwayne McDuffie Award is so important.

Credit: Lion Forge