Friday, February 25, 2011

Dwayne McDuffie, The "Kooky Quartet", And What Might Have Been

For nearly two years, I've had an idea in the back of my mind for a post about one of the Justice League's previous incarnations, but I kept putting it off and sticking it on the back burner. Unfortunately, the circumstance which finally drove me to finish it was the worst possible one. I was dismayed to learn that Dwayne McDuffie passed away  earlier this week. My heart goes out to his family and his friends. As someone who just lost a father a few months back, I know the loss they're going through right now.

While I did not follow his work as closely as some others did, I was most familiar with him through his work on the Justice League animated series (which, in my humble opinion, was one of the finest cartoons ever produced), as well as the Milestone comics and his brief runs on books like Fantastic Four, Firestorm, and Justice League of America. I'd like to take a moment to speak about the latter run today.

Having read some of  Dwayne's work prior to his JLA run, I was really looking forward to his run on the book. Suffice it to say, I was somewhat disappointed by how things turned out. Some of it fell in Dwayne's court. Granted, he had to tie up many of previous writer Brad Meltzer's loose ends, but his plots seemed to suffer from failures of imagination, at least in the earlier stages of his run. (Did we really need another Amazo arc so soon after Meltzer's?). But McDuffie's run was compromised by many factors beyond his control.

First, he was saddled with Ed Benes as a regular artist. Sure, Benes' heroes looked good, but as a storyteller, he was a great pin-up artist. His range of facial expressions ran the gamut from "A" to "B", and too often he sacrificed storytelling for his obsession with boob and ass shots. I've got nothing against ass shots -- Sally's blog is one of my favorites, and I love the work of Gil Kane, whose art also featured many ass shots. But with Kane, unlike with Benes, the storytelling always came first, the art had a much wider range of face and body types, and the ass shots were equal opportunity (we saw Robin's and Hal Jordan's keisters as well as Donna Troy's and Batgirl's). Benes also frequently required fill-ins, so only when someone like Van Sciver or Pacheco guested an issue did we see what Dwayne could have done with a better storyteller. Imagine if he'd had someone like, say, Doug Mahnke as his regular artist instead of Benes.

Worse, though, McDuffie was hampered by DC's editorial department and the nonstop stream of "events" that he was forced to either incorporate or avoid. He had to write around Ollie and Dinah's wedding, Salvation Run, the Tangent mini, and Final Crisis, and that was just in his first 10 issues! His ordeals with his JLA tenure were chronicled throughout the blogosphere, most hilariously here.

Finally, as a result of the editorially-mandated splintering of the team due to the events in James Robinson's execrable Cry For Justice miniseries, the "death" of Batman in Final Crisis, Superman's "New Krypton" storyline, and other books, McDuffie was forced to do without many of the League's most famous members.

And that's when things got interesting.

The remaining lineup after the membership reduction was John Stewart, Zatanna, Dr. Light (Kimiyo, not the rapist), Firestorm (Jason Rusch), and Vixen. The unique thing? This was the most ethnically diverse lineup the League's ever fielded. Not a white guy in the bunch. Only one white woman, for that matter (two if you count the recently-departed Black Canary, whom McDuffie had apparently been preparing to reinstate as leader prior to his dismissal).

Ethnicity aside, this was still a formidable crew. An honor guard Green Lantern. One of the DCU's most powerful and famous magic users. A master of light manipulation. A composite being who can fire nuclear blasts and transmute matter. And finally, a woman with the same abilities as Animal Man (the hero whose book put Grant Morrison on the comics map). That's nothing to sneeze at, folks. Even without Canary as leader, you've got a group to be reckoned with.

But you wouldn't have known it from the reader and editorial reactions. This lineup didn't get nearly the respect that they deserved. To far too many readers, it was Detroit League Redux. To them, it wasn't the real League without the Big 3 or Hal Jordan. Even Dwayne himself referred to the new lineup derisively as "Cap's Kooky Quartet" (a reference to the period in the Avengers when Thor, Iron Man, and the Pyms left and were replaced with Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye). And that was a damn shame, because this team had great potential. At the end of McDuffie's run, we saw some of that potential realized in the 3-issue Starbreaker arc, as they got to interact as a group both on and off the field.

And like that, he was gone.

Granted, with 5 or 6 regulars, the group may have been a few members light, but that's hardly unsolvable. In my estimation, all they really needed to add were a Superman-class powerhouse (to guarantee more action) and an armored Tony Stark-style techie. Who could Dwayne have gotten for those roles? Oh, I don't know! Maybe Icon and Hardware, two of his own creations? It wouldn't be the first time a League writer added one of own his lesser-known creations as a JLA member. Other JLA writers like Jurgens and Morrison have done that in the past. And how do you think the original Firestorm joined the League? Through a story by his co-creator, Gerry Conway.

Never mind violating the "Rule of 3" regarding black characters that McDuffie mentioned here, this assemblage would have blown it completely out of the water! And I couldn't think of a better writer to handle such a diverse group. For any flaws Dwayne had plotting the League, he had an extremely strong understanding of all the characters, from the Big 3 to the lesser-known members.

Observe this scene (beautifully illustrated by Rags Morales and John Dell) in which John Stewart gives Vixen his analysis of the strengths of Black Canary's leadership style in comparison to Superman's and Batman's.

What might have been.


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