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The World's Finest Presents

Backstage - Interviews - Dwayne McDuffie

With Static Shock and Justice League Unlimited now behind him, The World’s Finest caught up with Static Shock creator Dwayne McDuffie to discuss, in retrospect, his thoughts on the show. In addition to general comments, changes to the original Static character, troubles with the network and more are discussed in this all-new interview.

Interview conducted by Jim Harvey.

To start off, give the basic idea of how you came to create Static for the comic medium, and how you worked to translate that over to animation?

Static was a group effort. The guys who started Milestone Comics were sitting around trying to create the launch characters for a new comic book universe. Everyone agreed that we should have a teen aged hero and I'd previously tried to develop something along those lines, strongly influenced by Spider-Man, in the late-eighties when I was over at Marvel. I'd always been partial to Spider-Man as a child, particularly the teen version, and was disappointed with the adult, married to a fashion model Spider-Man who was running around in the comics at the time. He was cool but he wasn't my Spidey. I wanted to do a contemporary teen hero to fill that then-empty niche. I worked on it on and off for a while, developing Static as a Marvel Universe character but for various reasons, it didn't work out. I sort of dusted him off for Milestone and threw him into the pot. We all worked together to re-create the character as he would eventually appear in the comics.

A semi follow-up to question one, in the comics Static was apart of the Milestone Universe, while in animation he become a solid pillar in the animated DC Universe. Was that intentional, or did it just sort of happen?

For business reasons involving ownership and editorial control, none of the Milestone Universe characters were part of the DC Universe. DC just didn't do deals like that back then. By the time they were (only a few years later), we were already established, with continuity of our own that contradicted established DC lore. The Static Shock series didn't have any of these problems so when somebody (I don't know if it was my personal writing deity Alan Burnett, or somebody at the network) suggested a cross-over, everyone agreed that it was a lot cleaner to assume they were in the same universe, rather than having to muck around with multiple dimensions, or whatever.

From day one, you knew sacrifices would have to be made to get the series on Saturday morning. How did that affect you? How did that affect the character and what did you find was hard to let go out of the changes you had to make?

I wasn't involved in Static Shock development at all, other than putting together some reference materials and writing a long critique of an early draft of the series bible. The team was gracious enough to ask me, they had no obligation to do so. I *think* most of the development was Alan, Christopher Simmons, Scott Jeralds, Shaun McLaughin and possibly co-creator Denys Cowan. Whoever was involved, they did a great job. The change from Frieda to Richie as Static's confident was predictable, considering the intended audience. If I have to complain about any decision, it was killing off Virgil's mom (she's alive in the comics). It was important to me to present a black hero with a complete nuclear family, in part to combat an easy stereotype we see far too often in fiction, but also because Virgil's family experience was supposed to be similar to my own. To be fair, the show got couple of great stories from the situation, so even that worked out okay.

What do you think makes Static an engaging character, one an audience can share all his experiences with? What do you think is the appeal to these characters?

Static Shock is a straight-ahead empowerment fantasy, featuring a character who's a lot like his audience. He's a science fiction and adventure-loving kid who becomes a hero not because of tragedy but because it's both fun and the right thing to do. He's personable, funny and a good guy. You can see yourself behaving as he does (you know, if you had powers). He's a hero who could be you, which strongly suggests the converse, don't you think?

Early in the series, we saw Static battle issues like racism and mental illness. What was the goal behind these episodes? Did you feel that some issues that Static dealt with were important real life issues that needed to be tackled?

Static's adventures have always had one foot in the real world, even going back to the comic book days. There's only so much fighting guys with powers you can do before the audience starts to disconnect. Remember the premise, "what if a contemporary teen got super powers?"

Well, a contemporary teen lives in a world that includes racism, school violence, and homelessness, to name three, so why shouldn't Static? I don't see this as any different than Static buying CD's (although he'd be downloading MP3's if we were doing the show now), these things are just part of the world we're trying to reflect.

During the series, we saw Richie go from everyday sidekick to super-sidekick, dubbed "Gear." Why was Richie given superpowered when fans enjoyed him as Static's non-superpowered confidante? How do you think this situation was handled, and what are your overall thoughts on his character?

It was becoming increasingly difficult to work Richie into stories, without having him order Static around all the time over the Shock Vox. The chemistry between Phil and Jason is great and we didn't want to lose that, it was a core appeal of the show. Meanwhile focus groups were saying that kids loved the idea of Richie getting powers so he and his pal could hang out together while fighting crime. The answer seemed pretty obvious. Gear worked out very well for us, the ratings improved after he showed up and he arguably bought us an extra season on the air.

Any comments and thoughts on the supporting cast in the animated series?

We were blessed with an outstanding cast of regulars (and guest stars too!), led by our equally outstanding voice director, Andrea Romano. The cast created character relationships deeper than the scripts, relationships that seemed to bleed past the boundaries of the stories. You know these guys had lives and adventures beyond what we happened to see on the show.

The series also featured a host of guest-stars, from super-heroes to super-stars. For the celebrities, such as Shaq and Lil' Romeo, why did you choose those particular actors? What was it like to work with some of Hollywood’s, and sports, biggest names? Are there any particular moments that stood out for you during these episodes? Explain, if possible?

Almost all of them were terrific: strong stories on their own with the added bonus of a celebrity guest star. I thought the Shaq episode, for instance, revealed a lot about Virgil's character and his relationship to his community. Shaq was a suggestion of the network, I think. Romeo was a fan of the show (a fact that was written into the script, he was a great sport) and that was another episode that worked out well. On the other hand, "Hoop Squad" was just a train wreck. Actually, more like a head on collision of two trains full of stink bombs. I don't think anyone much wanted to do the episode but the studio was always so nice to the show that when they asked us to do it, we sort of took one for the team. It was really fun meeting Karl Malone, though. Not only was he a great guy who good-naturedly struggled through the ridiculous technobabble we wrote for his character, he stayed after and signed autographs for everybody. Also, he's even taller than me (I'm an elfin 6'7"), so for once I didn't have to stand in the back of the group picture all by myself.

We've seen Static appear in Justice League Unlimited as his future self. If you could apply this situation to the comic version, and have the ability to present us a Static of the future, how would you handle it? Why?

Long before Static Shock ever aired, I wrote a comic book script set in the future called "Whatever Happened To All The Fun In The World?" that chronicles Static's last adventure. It's quite different than what we did on the show but I can't say more because I still intend to publish the story some day. Oddly, there's a direct reference to the comic story in "Future Shock." I say oddly because the writers of the episode never read the comic script!

Speaking of Justice League Unlimited, what was it like to work on a series like Static Shock, and then be launched into the Justice League Unlimited?

Really, really fun. I worked on both Static Shock and Justice League as a freelancer. I actually moved to California for a staff job on Justice League. To go from working on characters I helped create to working on cultural institutions like Superman and Batman has been one of the biggest thrills of my professional life. But Static's still my baby.

Understandably, Static Shock coming to an end must have been difficult. I remember you mentioning that a major factor for Static not getting renewed was the lack of merchandise. Is there a way you can go into more detail about that, involving the whole situation involving Static's lack of merchandise, and how that played a role in the non-renewal of one of Kids'WB!'s major series?

Not too much detail to add. American animation costs more to make than can be recouped from network licensing fees. That means that for a show to be profitable, it needs other revenue streams like toys, clothing, novelties, et cetera. Static Shock enjoyed massive ratings throughout its run. In its final season on Kids WB, only Pokemon consistently outperformed it. When it moved to Cartoon Network in reruns, it did even better, initially finishing just behind Family Guy. One single Friday night episode did a 5.2 rating. That meant 5 million people were watching it at the same time. Staggering when you consider that the comic book ran 45 issues and only sold a couple million copies combined. Despite this, Static was unable to attract toy companies or other licensors. After five years, we had a Subway value meal, two Scholastic book adaptations, one DVD and a Gameboy Advance game (that so far hasn't been released). We couldn't even get DC to do a Static Adventure-style comic book. Without these monies coming in, it was a gift to get to do 52 episodes.

With the series now over, for the time being, what are you most proud of when looking back at the series. What do you think could've been done better, and what was absolutely perfect?

You know what? 13 years ago, me and some friends sat in a restaurant all night and daydreamed about the kinds of stories we would tell if we had the chance. We wanted to expand the concept of superhero to include characters that kind of looked like us, who had some of the same background, experiences and dreams as we did. We wanted to create something fun that a new generation would respond to the same way we responded to our childhood heroes -and damn if we didn't succeed beyond my wildest dreams. Today, Static Shock is a household name with millions of fans of all ages (Is there stuff I'd do differently? Yeah, almost all of season four but why nitpick?) Static is the most successful thing I've ever helped create and I'm both proud and gratified that people have taken it into their hearts.

The World’s Finest would like to thank Dwayne McDuffie for his participation in this Q & A.

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