To say last night's Tribute to Dwayne McDuffie at Golden Apple Comics was crowded would be a colossal understatement.
Packed to the rafters and then some, fans, colleagues and friends turned out in droves to remember McDuffie, the creative force behind DC Entertainment and Warner Brothers Animation's "Static Shock," "Justice League" and "Ben 10: Ultimate Alien," as well as co-founder of the influential comic book company Milestone Media. Film director and writer Reggie Hudlin, Milestone co-founders Denys Cowan and Michael Davis and family friend Kevin Rubio appeared before the crowd to talk about McDuffie, his craft and his impact on all who knew him.
"The fact is, [Dwayne McDuffie] was one of the best writers in comic books, period," said Hudlin. Starting the Tribute after a moment of silence, Hudlin described McDuffie as a mentor and praised his role as the co-creator of African-American superheroes Static Shock, Icon and Hardware.
"Along with Denys and Michael, he created Milestone Media, which is the first black comic book company -- [and] when I say black comic book company, I mean they employed the best people of every ethnicity, and they created fantastic books that people still love and care about today," said Hudlin.
Revealing to a tearful audience that Sunday had been McDuffie's birthday, Hudlin said his mentor's selflessness was one of the many qualities that endeared him to colleagues and fans alike. "There's so many incredibly successful people in this business who owe their career to Dwayne," said Hudlin, adding, "He was called the Maestro by his fans! It's hard to be called the Maestro, but he was a consummate professional, so he could wear that [title], and he wore it well."
Cowan also spoke of McDuffie's humble nature, calling his time working alongside McDuffie at Milestone an "incredible experience."
"Dwayne was the architect of a lot of what we did at Milestone; we had a brilliant concept and wanted to do these comic books, and I could draw a little and Michael was creative as hell and Derek had business sense, but none of us could put together a comic book!" said Cowan. "[There] was one guy who could do it, and that was Dwayne."
Speaking about McDuffie's time at Warner Brothers, Cowan said people would often come up to him and express amazement at the writer's wide-ranging talent. "They used to say, 'You know Denys, Dwayne can write "Scooby-Doo" and he can write "Batman!"' They would just throw him everything [and] he'd do it and not even think about it, he was that good," said Cowan.
"A lot of people can write comic books and a lot of people can draw comic books, but Dwayne changed people's lives," said Cowan. "What he did affected a lot of kids, affected a lot of adults, and I run into people all the time telling me how much Milestone meant [to them]."
Tearfully, Cowan added, "If they're talking about how much Milestone meant to them, they're really talking about how much Dwayne meant to them."
Davis laughed as he recalled McDuffie's first year in Los Angeles.
"When Dwayne first came to LA, he was like a lot of people from the East Coast -- he couldn't drive," said Davis to laughter from the crowd. Davis remembered how he invited McDuffie to director Bill Duke's Christmas party. Before they went, however, McDuffie insisted on a haircut.
"If you know anything about black people from the inner city, the only place you can get your hair cut is in the hood -- but there's a pecking order in the African-American barbershop. Before you can join this conversation, you got to know what you're talking about, and who you're talking to, 'cause you can get shot!" said Davis. As the audience laughed, he continued, "So I'm telling this to Dwayne on the way to the barbershop in South Central. We get there and we walk in -- and the first thing he says is, 'What are we talking about?' To the entire group. I brace for the shot," said Davis, pausing for more laughter, "But that's just the way he was. He wasn't afraid of anything."
"He was six foot fifty and his voice sounded like a movie star," added Davis.
Famous for writing about thorny issues such as gang violence and racism in "Static" and other comics, McDuffie's bravery shone through his work.
"We couldn't have done [Milestone] without a brave editor-in-chief who was willing to talk about the issues that are important, and tackle things that were controversial. And they weren't controversial like Speedy taking drugs -- it was way beyond that kind of thing," said Cowan.
"Realistic depictions of black life are always controversial," added Hudlin.
Family friend Kevin Rubio emphasized how important McDuffie's work was to all who grew up watching "Static Shock" and "Justice League."
"This summer, when 'Green Lantern' comes out, there's going to be a whole generation of kids who walk into the theatre and say, 'That's not the Green Lantern; the Green Lantern is John Stewart.' And that's because of Dwayne," said Rubio, citing the African-American "Justice League" character. The audience loudly agreed, erupting into wild applause.
On a personal level, there was one comic book character Rubio said he definitively associated with McDuffie. "Dwayne is Superman. He's very big in stature but approachable and honest and humble and caring, and when you're with him, he made you want to be better," said Rubio.
All four agreed the best way for those listening to remember McDuffie was to read his work and share it with their children.
"You want to honor Dwayne? Get the comic books. Get the DVDs. Watch the shows. Talk to your kids. Tell them what he did. Tell them they're looking at these black characters because of Dwayne," said Cowan.
"Familiarize yourself with his work, share it with friends, with family, but most of all with the children. Because they deserve heroes," concluded Hudlin.