Emanata: Remembering Dwayne McDuffie

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Dwayne McDuffie, the comics and animation writer, editor and producer who died this week following complications from surgery, wasn’t a particularly flashy writer: His aesthetic was to get out of the way of the way of the story. But he was a forward-thinking creator, and he quietly wrote a stack of comics and animated TV shows that stuck with the people who’ve seen them. The importance of a lot of his work has only really become clear in retrospect. If you’re only seeing McDuffie’s name going around now that he’s gone, here are a handful of his notable accomplishments.

Damage Control. Initially appearing as three miniseries between 1989 and 1991 (with another miniseries following up on World War Hulk in 2008), Damage Control was McDuffie’s first really durable creation. It’s a stab at what he called “an ensemble cast situation comedy” set in the Marvel Universe: a story about a company whose job is cleaning up after superhero battles. McDuffie could be a very funny writer (his legendary 1989 proposal for “Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers”–a hilarious and very compact critique of the black superheroes Marvel was featuring at the time–has been making the rounds again this week), and Damage Control is consistently charming in its own right. But it was also one of the first genuinely ground-level views of a superhero landscape: Its premise was that the presence of superhumans flying overhead would touch everything about the way the rest of the world lived.

The Milestone line. McDuffie was one of the chief architects of Milestone Media, an adventurous ’90s-era superhero comics imprint. Founded in 1993 by a group of African-American writers and artists, Milestone created a line of comics that didn’t take anything about the way superheroes had been done for the previous half-century as normative. Their lead characters were black, Asian and Latino, gay and transgender; their stories were set in a fictional Midwestern city, Dakota, instead of a thinly disguised New York. Milestone’s comics used coloring techniques that made them look different from everything else on the racks. They kept an eye out for new creators, some of whom have gone on to become major names in mainstream comics: J.H. Williams III, Tommy Lee Edwards, Humberto Ramos.

(More on TIME.com: The End of an Era? Memories of Milestone Comics)

Milestone was also smart about rights; the company licensed its publications to DC Comics, but didn’t sell its properties outright. And, even though Milestone only published its original line of comics for about four years, its characters were durable. Static, the 15-year-old superhero created by McDuffie and John Paul Leon, later resurfaced as the star of the animated series Static Shock, which ran for four seasons from 2000 to 2004; Xombi, created by John Rozum and Denys Cowan, will be relaunched in a new series (by Rozum and Frazer Irving) next month. (Techland’s Evan Narcisse recalled the Milestone line to mark last year’s publication of Milestone Forever.)

Justice League Unlimited. What might have been McDuffie’s highest-profile gig was his job as producer and story editor on the Justice League Unlimited animated TV series. You know: the version of the Justice League that reached more people than any other. The one that established John Stewart as Green Lantern to people who’ll wonder who this Hal Jordan guy is in the Green Lantern movie this year. The one that made the DC universe look rich and complicated and totally fun, rather than forbiddingly mired in minutiae. Later on, McDuffie wrote the Justice League of America comic book for a year and a half, although he apparently encountered an enormous amount of turbulence with his plans for the series. His run is still pretty enjoyable, despite its constant swerves in direction: McDuffie could always figure out how to make an abruptly rerouted story lively and graceful.

(More on TIME.com: R.I.P. Dwayne McDuffie)

His role as a guru to other creators. McDuffie was well-loved within the world of comics creators, not least because he was known for giving excellent advice. This blog post from Periscope Studio recalls a couple of classic pieces of McDuffie counsel, including his comment to Steve Lieber on how he managed to lose a lot of weight: “Steve, I quit eating bullshit.” Best dieting tip you’ll ever see.

The fact that there’s much more, and still not enough. In his 49 years–way, way too few–McDuffie wrote a lot more comics and TV shows than even most of his fans ever got to see. (This remembrance by Tim O’Neil makes his early-’90s run on Deathlok, which I’ve never read, sound totally great.) He wrote for Ben 10; he wrote a couple of comics about Prince (yes, the musician); he wrote a Double Dragon miniseries; in the mid-2000s, he fulfilled a professional dream by writing a well-received year-long run on Fantastic Four. McDuffie doesn’t have a particular, individual masterpiece that you can hand to someone who wants to know what he was about. What he gave us was at least as important, though: a body of work that brought about slow, subtle, genuine change in his form.

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