8:47 pm - Sun, Aug 31, 2014
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You Almost Certainly Have Mites On Your Face

Think of all the adults you know. Think of your parents and grandparents. Think of the teachers you had at school, your doctors and dentists, the people who collect your rubbish, and the actors you see on TV. All of these people probably have little mites crawling, eating, sleeping, and having sex on their faces.

There are more than 48,000 species of mites. As far as we know, exactly two of those live on human faces. While their relatives mostly look like lozenges on spindly legs, face-mites are more like wall plugs—long cones with stubby legs at one end. They don’t look like much, and most of us have never looked at one at all. But these weird creatures are almost certainly the animals we spend the most time with.

They live in our hair follicles, buried head-down, eating the oils we secrete, hooking up with each other near the surface, and occasionally crawling about the skin at night. They do this on my face. They probably do it on yours. A group of scientists led by Megan Thoemmes and Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University found that every adult in a small American sample had face-mites on their faces—something that was long suspected but never confirmed. If you want to find humanity’s best friend, ignore dogs; instead, swab a pore and grab a microscope.

As I wrote back in 2012, the mites were discovered in 1841, but only properly described a year later by German dermatologist Gustav Simon. He was looking at acne spots under a microscope when he noticed a “worm-like object” with a head and legs. Possibly an animal? He extracted it, pressed it between two slides, and saw that it moved. Definitely an animal. A year later, Richard Owen gave the mite its name, from the Greek words ‘demo’, meaning lard, and ‘dex’, meaning boring worm. Demodex: the worm that bores into fat. We host two species: Demodex folliculorum (bigger, round-bottomed) and Demodex brevis (smaller, short-bottomed).

Scientists have since found Demodex in every ethnic group where they’ve have cared to look, from white Europeans to Australian aborigines to Devon Island Eskimos. In 1976, legendary mite specialist William Nutting wrote “One can conclude that wherever mankind is found, hair follicle mites will be found and that the transfer mechanism is 100% effective! (One of my students noted it was undoubtedly the first invertebrate metazoan to visit the moon!)”

But it’s always been hard to say exactly how common they are. The first estimate came from a 1903 study, which found the critters in 49 out of 100 French cadavers. The next count, from 1908, found them in 97 out of 100 German cadavers. Most studies since then have fallen in the range of 10 to 20 percent.

But these censuses were all based on visual counts. Someone would apply cellophane tape to skin to pull the mites off, or scrape an oily patch of face with a small spatula, or pluck eyelashes and eyebrows. But the creatures live in our pores and aren’t easy to extract. They’re also unevenly distributed. You might have a population living in your cheek; I might have one on my forehead. Unless you’re scraping and taping and plucking all over someone’s face, you might miss their mites.

So Thoemmes did something different. She searched for their DNA. The mites have this helpful habit where they… er… have no anus and never poo. Instead, they release a lifetime’s worth of waste when they die. That contains their DNA, which gives away the presence of the mites even when the creatures themselves are inaccessibly hidden.

Thoemmes developed a test for Demodex DNA and recruited willing volunteers at “Meet Your Mites” face-sampling events. “We had really good responses,” she says. “People act grossed out at first, but they get excited when they see the mites under the microscope.” She recruited 253 volunteers and saw the actual mites on 14 percent of them, in line with previous estimates. She also checked for mite DNA in 19 adults… and found it on all of them. Those results are published today in PLOS ONE, but Thoemmes tells me that the team has continued their work and more than doubled their sample size. Same result.

Obviously, this is a small and unrepresentative sample, but it clearly shows that visual counts grossly underestimate the proportion of people with mites. That, combined with over a century of other studies, strongly suggests that the mites are to faces as smoke is to fire.

Or, at least, on adults. Thoemmes also sampled ten 18-year-olds and found Demodex DNA on just 70 percent of them. This fits with what earlier studies had shown—the mites seem to become more common with age. They’re rare on babies, more common on teenagers, and universal in adults. No one really knows where we get them from. Dogs get their face-mites during nursing, and humans might do the same—after all, one study found a lot of Demodex living in nipple tissue. But the fact that some teens aren’t colonised suggests that we pick up these creatures throughout our lives.

The team also compared their mite DNA to sequences from other parts of the world. They found that D.follicorum doesn’t have a lot of genetic diversity. The ones living on someone in China are probably very similar to those living on an American face. D.brevis, on the other hand, is much more diverse, and a single face can house many different lineages.

These differences probably reflect the lifestyles of the two species. D.brevis snuggles deeply in our pores and stays there. As we travelled the world, it hitched along and co-evolved with us, giving rise of many distinct lineages. D.folliculorum is a shallower resident, and may move between people more easily. Brevis epitomises insularity, folliculorum symbolises globalisation. “This is an arthropod that’s likely living on everyone’s body,” says Thoemmes. “That’s a huge deal. They could tell interesting stories about the spread of humans across the world.”

Considering how common these creatures are, there’s still so much we don’t know about them. We don’t know where our two face-mite species came from, or what their closest relatives are. We also don’t know how many other face-mites exist. Each Demodex species seems to stick to one mammal host, and humans, dogs, and cats all have more than one. There are over 5,000 species of mammals, which means that there could potentially be 10,000 species of Demodex left to discover.

Images (top down):

  • Demodex folliculorum
  • Demodex brevis

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8:38 pm
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8:03 pm
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What Are Those Strange Things You See Floating In Your Eye?

Have you ever noticed a strange little worm-like speck drifting aimlessly about in your field of vision? These annoying little squiggly lines, or “cobwebs,” are called floaters and are experienced by around 70% of people. So what are they?

Floaters are actually shadows cast by objects suspended in the clear, gel-like substance that makes up the majority of the eye’s interior. This substance is called vitreous and helps to maintain the eye’s round shape. After passing through the lens, focused light has to pass through the vitreous in order to reach the retina at the back of the eye. It’s mostly composed of water but also contains proteins and various other substances.

Floaters are normally merely proteins of the vitreous gel that have clumped together. These stringy clusters of proteins block light and therefore cast a shadow on the retina. These floaters usually appear as transparent circles or tadpoles and stay permanently in your eye.

Sometimes, small hemorrhages in the eye can cause floaters as red blood cells enter the vitreous. This can occur if the gel pulls on blood vessels located in the retina. These floaters might take on a smoky appearance and disappear as the blood is absorbed.

Lastly, floaters can be caused by shrinkage of the vitreous gel that occurs naturally as we age. As the vitreous pulls away from the retina, bits of debris can enter the gel and become floaters. These usually look like cobwebs.

Floaters are particularly pronounced if you gaze at something particularly bright, such as a piece of white paper or a blue sky. You’ll notice that they move as your eyes move and appear to zoom across your eye as you try to look at them directly.

Floaters are usually just an annoyance that people get used to, but sometimes they can hamper vision and therefore require surgery. This procedure involves removing the vitreous and replacing it with a saline liquid.

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7:44 pm
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David Attenborough presents the amazing lyre bird, which mimics the calls of other birds - and chainsaws and camera shutters - in this video clip from The Life of Birds. This clever creature is one of the most impressive and funny in nature, with unbelievable sounds to match the beautiful pictures. [h/t]

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7:40 pm
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5,000 wasps found in St Cross bedroom

In decades of pest control John Birkett has seen many things, but nothing like this.
This giant wasps’ nest had eaten into the bed of a spare bedroom at a Winchester house.
Mr Birkett said: “In 45 years I have never seen anything like it. There must have been 5,000 wasps.”
The homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous, lives alone in the five-bedroom house in St Cross and had not been in the spare room for three months before her son opened the door and saw the huge nest. The window had been left open.
The wasps were chewing through the pillows and into the mattress to expand their home. The nest measured about three feet wide by two-and-a-half feet deep.
“I opened the door and I just couldn’t bloody believe it,” Mr Birkett said. “It was the most incredible thing I’ve seen.
“I got dressed up like a spaceman and tried to destroy as many as I could with the workers flying around the room.”
The nest split in half during the struggle, releasing 2,000 wasps. “I was covered in them,” he said. “The room was completely full of wasps.”
Mr Birkett, of Owslebury-based Longwood Services, used chemical spray to kill the insects during the two-hour operation on Sunday (August 24).

But he had mixed feelings about putting so many creatures to death. “It is amazing how they build it, by chewing the wood off gates and things. Although they are a pest in homes, they are a friend of the gardener by killing aphids.
“People think we’re out-and-out killers but I looked at that and thought ‘what a shame’ – it was a work of art and they worked so hard, but she looked at it and said ‘no no no – you’ve got to get rid of it’.
"The client was terrified."
Mr Birkett was able to save a hand-made blanket under the nest at his client’s request.

5,000 wasps found in St Cross bedroom

In decades of pest control John Birkett has seen many things, but nothing like this.

This giant wasps’ nest had eaten into the bed of a spare bedroom at a Winchester house.

Mr Birkett said: “In 45 years I have never seen anything like it. There must have been 5,000 wasps.”

The homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous, lives alone in the five-bedroom house in St Cross and had not been in the spare room for three months before her son opened the door and saw the huge nest. The window had been left open.

The wasps were chewing through the pillows and into the mattress to expand their home. The nest measured about three feet wide by two-and-a-half feet deep.

“I opened the door and I just couldn’t bloody believe it,” Mr Birkett said. “It was the most incredible thing I’ve seen.

“I got dressed up like a spaceman and tried to destroy as many as I could with the workers flying around the room.”

The nest split in half during the struggle, releasing 2,000 wasps. “I was covered in them,” he said. “The room was completely full of wasps.”

Mr Birkett, of Owslebury-based Longwood Services, used chemical spray to kill the insects during the two-hour operation on Sunday (August 24).

But he had mixed feelings about putting so many creatures to death. “It is amazing how they build it, by chewing the wood off gates and things. Although they are a pest in homes, they are a friend of the gardener by killing aphids.

“People think we’re out-and-out killers but I looked at that and thought ‘what a shame’ – it was a work of art and they worked so hard, but she looked at it and said ‘no no no – you’ve got to get rid of it’.

"The client was terrified."

Mr Birkett was able to save a hand-made blanket under the nest at his client’s request.

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7:34 pm
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7:29 pm
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Using Afrofuturism to Power New Modes of Tech – Interview with Blogger Sherese Francis (Futuristically Ancient)
“Because the mask is your face, the face is a mask, so I’m thinking of the face as a mask because of the way I see faces is coming from an African vision of the mask which is the thing that we carry around with us, it is our presentation, it’s our front, it’s our face.”
– Faith Ringgold
What do we think of when we think of science and technology? Living currently in our high-tech, digital world with computers, the Internet, techies and laboratory scientists, many of us separate ourselves from science and technology as if they are not part of our everyday lives. Do we think of a mask as technology? I want to explore that idea.
A few weeks ago, I began reading Tempestt Hazel’s Black to the Future Series in which she interviews artists and intellectuals about Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism. While reading some of the answers of the interviewees, I recognized a subtle framing of and at times distancing from Afrofuturism based on electric and digital technology of the 20th and 21st century. Phrases like “I’m not a techie,” in a sense undermines how much science and technology are embedded in the creation of our lives and that they have existed longer and have a wider reach than we normally think. As the aesthetic movement of Afrofuturism gains recognition, we need to break down the boundaries of what we describe as science and technology.
Last year, I attended The Festival of the New Black Imagination where futurist Nat Irvin II gave a lecture on the importance of futuristic thinking that included a history of science and technological advancement, beginning with the Agricultural Revolution, which could also be called biotechnology. He claimed that only now we have reached an age of hybridity where man and machine are coming together.
Thinking back on that claim, I have come to disagree. We have always been hybrid creatures or cyborgs as Amber Case discussed in her lecture about prosthetic culture and cyborg anthropology. To say that only now we are, is to think in the same linear Western sense in which racists tell societies they consider primitive that Western culture brought them science and technology.
Science and technology are much more than machines and computers. If you look at the definition of both terms, their meanings are more inclusive. Science is the knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws. Technology is the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes or applied science.
Machines and computers are tools and instruments, which are all applied knowledge for specific purposes. Referring back to the theme of my post, how does that relate to the mask? Since technology is an application of knowledge, or, in other words, an extension and expression of one’s abilities and thoughts, then so is a mask, in both its creation and use.
Robert Pruitt’s Towards a Walk in the Sun
Many of us may think of a mask as only art or an object used in a religious ritual, but it is a tool or instrument applying some sort of knowledge as well. Like the mask, technology works as a medium; they let us do things we would not be able to do without them. A mask is an alternate face similar to prosthetic limbs, electronic pacemakers and even musical instruments that extend our bodies’ abilities. Astronauts and scuba divers basically wear masks and costumes that allow them to go where a normal human being would not be able to go. The mask shows us that we are cyborgs (cybernetic organisms). We are part natural and part created; we have been since as early as the agricultural revolution. This is the reason I disagreed with Irvin; any tool we have used has been an extension of us.
Rethinking of science and technology can also help us to rethink our views of our bodies and on religion. Think of it in terms of the Lucius Brockway’s line from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “We the machines inside the machine.”
Often art, the body and religion are positioned as the opposite or outside of the realm of these things, but I agree with ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt when she said in Games Black Girls Play that musical instruments and bodies are also forms of technology. Our physical bodies are manifestations of thoughts, knowledge, memories, experiences. Since we take in information from the world, the mind analyzes it and the body evolves accordingly. The development of our opposable thumbs, which allows us to create all the technology we have, can be considered a technological development.
In terms of religion or cosmology, for those who believe in a god or some sort of divine consciousness, creator or designer, and for those who believe we are spirits having a physical experience, our body then can be considered a tool or medium of a spirit of God. And if God is a creator or designer much like we are, then it is not perfect, but constantly experimenting and re-inventing itself based on its experience. This can connect creationism and evolution together. Also, depicting ourselves as both spirit and body represents another form of the hybridity that I discussed earlier.
As we look at our cultures through the lens of Afrofuturism and encourage younger generations to learn more about science and technology, I also encourage that expand on these to explore our cultures’ pasts, presents and futures. Re-evaluating our scope of and how we relate to science and technology could benefit us in the long run. They are more than the current advancements that developed in the industrial and post-industrial eras and that are exclusive to dominant cultures, upper classes and capitalists. All types of science and technology, whether it be in the form of a mask or a computer, allow us to fantasize about, explore and experience possibilities as well as understand ourselves and the world around us better.
Interview
1. How do you define technology? How do you define Afrofuturism? How do you participate in Afrofuturism?
My definition of technology came from reading Kyra Gaunt’s book, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop while writing my undergraduate thesis on The Percussive Approach in Hip-Hop. In her third chapter, Mary Mack Dressed in Black: The Earliest Formation of a Popular Music, one of the subsections was the “body as technology.” Here she describes her view on technology in terms of black musical production:
“In this way and others, the body is a technology of black musical communication and identity. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “technology” as “the practical application of knowledge, a manner of accomplishing a task (i.e., identifying with blackness, the African Diaspora, Africans), using a skill or craft, a method or process” (1999). Extra-somatic instruments … are acceptable media of artistic technology. The social body as a tool or method of artistic composition and performance, however, continues to be overlooked in the study of music … ” (59).
She continues to say how extra-somatic musical technology are extensions of what our bodies and voices naturally can do. Reading her words broadened my scope of what technology is and part of the inspiration for my post, The Mask as Technology. Technology is the application of knowledge and wisdom through the invention of extensions that compensate for our needs and desires and that reach across limitations and boundaries.
For centuries, Black bodies have been exploited as forms of slave/capitalist technologies, designed for the desires of white hetero-patriarchal cultures. Although I don’t tend to give Afrofuturism a specific definition as it means different things to different people, I view it as a tool, a kind of technology as well. I use it to reclaim our whole bodies (physical, mental, spiritual) through the exploration of various possible futures and presents in addition to revising or revealing (the meaning of apocalypse) various pasts of the African Diaspora using tropes of current speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, myths, legends, folktales, fairy tales, historical revision), magic(k), spiritual systems, science and technology.
I participate in Afrofuturism through my writing and studies, including my blog, Futuristically Ancient. I see myself as a kind of archivist, linking the past and future through recording the arts and cultures of the Diaspora that the mainstream may ignore or degrade to show Blackness and the Diaspora outside the box of expectations in which they are placed. What we have been told about who Black people and African descendants by others are filled with untruths used to control us and the imaginations of ourselves and what we can be and do; I want to show the various possibilities of Blackness and Black people that has already existed, still exist and will exist if we fight for it.
2. One criticism about Afrofuturism is that it does not advance technology or dream up novel technologies that can have practical, real-life applications. What are your thoughts on this critique? How does Afrofuturism/Black futurism inform your research and real-life work?
I wonder how Afrofuturism is perceived or used in their questioning. Are they using it as a singular movement or word in which they see only a small segment or its mainstream advocates, and then ask why they do not see a specific aspect there that they would like to see? Or do they see it like I do, as a tool to explore various areas and ideas of cultures of Black people and African descendants in and out of the mainstream that could result in those inventions. I know that there are people out there who are imagining or inventing new technologies because we are humans and humans are constantly engineering new technologies. We are inventive people who survive in times of necessity and within oppressive societies, in music, food, spirituality, electronics (think early days of hip-hop and rewiring the streets to power turntables), etc.
The focus should be redirected from inventing new technologies, because that will always come, to the cultures, spirituality, ethics and values around those technologies. How do we shape minds to think outside of the boxes of the oppressive cultures in which we live and develop responsible technologies? How do we cultivate cultures and critical thinking that will foster new technologies? How do we make available access to information, spaces and tools that will help people to create new technologies? It reminds me of Amiri Baraka’s essay, Technology and Ethos, where he says our machines are extensions of us, the creators, so they reflect our core values. Why does the typewriter look the way it does and why does it not function in another way? he asks. A lot of how we see technology is steeped in Western thought of efficiency, progress and making capital and not how it enriches our lives, the lives of other animals, plants and the Earth. We still have a lot of unlearning to do.
Afrofuturism has centered my thoughts, giving me an angle from which I could process them and research new ideas. It has allowed me as a writer to explore outside of conventional, singular narratives of Blackness, of gender, of sexuality, of culture, of religion and spirituality, of science and technology, of the construction of narratives themselves and so forth. Through it, I have a fresh way to look at the cultures of the world, including my own as an Afro-Caribbean-American woman, not through the mainstream’s eyes, but with eyes of understanding and connection. For example, I see now the genius of African-derived spirituality and religions like Vodou, which is often demonized and simplified through Christian morality and racist philosophy (and I was guilty of that as well); my research into it formed the basis of my upcoming essay, ‘The Electric Impulse:’ The Legba Circuit in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Afrofuturism was also the basis for my interest in mythic studies and mythic literacy, much of which has influenced my poetry writing as well.
3. What experiences and inspirations led you to create your blog? How has technology and the Internet revolutionized the way we share and participate in cultural phenomenon, such as Afrofuturism? What challenges are created by technology and the Internet?
The inspirations for my blog, Futuristically Ancient, came during my junior year in college. At that time, I was in a blogging class with Bridget Davis and the final assignment was to start our own blogs. I was thinking about what kind of blog I wanted to do, and I remembered watching a small portion on Youtube of John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History and I liked the connections it made between the past, present and future of the Diaspora through the investigation of memory, music and digital technology. So, I centered my blog around those ideas at first before I even knew the term Afrofuturism. But as I began to research more into related materials to his film and while doing research for my thesis, I came across the term Afrofuturism, and then my blog developed into what it is now. The name of my blog actually comes from a phrase someone had used to describe poet Aja Monet and it stuck with me, so I used it in addition to Aker, the Egyptian god of the horizon representing yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Technology, especially the Internet, has played a significant part in the spread of information about Afrofuturism and other cultural phenomena. Personally, as a blogger, writer and researcher, it has allowed me to voice thoughts and ideas that I rarely saw in popular spaces and share them with others in ways I would not have been as easily able to do before; it has allowed me to connect with others who are working in similar fields or whose work has similar tendencies; it has allowed me to more easily find materials and information, especially rare ones, to share on my blog and to use for research. So, it has been helpful to a person like me, who is introverted and kind of shy, to be able to put myself out there on my own terms. Like me, others have benefited from the more accessible information and connection to people all over the world through new technology and the Internet, which has allowed ideas about Afrofuturism to spread fast.
However, as with anything, there are downsides to technology and the Internet. People will use technology and the Internet to try to discourage us, to attack us because they see what we are doing as a threat to their way of life, to try to silence us especially if they have more capital and power to do so, to use our ideas to sell their own agenda without crediting us or to use our ideas against us. In some ways, old oppressions are magnified through the Internet and new technology because of how quickly and easily information can spread.
4. Where do you see Afrofuturism 10 years from now? How can marginalized communities and youth gain more access to Afrofuturism?
Ten years from now, Afrofuturism can go in different possible ways. It could become bigger and go mainstream to the point it is diluted and appropriated so much that it lacks power and we move on to the next movement, term, idea or whatever. Maybe it will have another or several names 10 years from now. Or hopefully, it can evolve and grow along with the changes in our cultures and technologies, which is why I like that it does not have a fixed definition. I want us to continue defining it for ourselves, especially with the controversy over the origin of the term. I want Afrofuturism to change and shape shift into various meanings depending on the different localities it reaches and how it can best benefit them. As Octavia Butler wrote, “God is change,” let Afrofuturism do that as well.
As for marginalized communities and youth gaining access to it, gatekeepers who have closer access or are in more privileged spaces need to continue sharing it and the ideas within it with those who are more marginalized or younger. For example, in the art world, much of the art tends to stay in higher-class institutions that are either out of reach or out of the means of more marginalized groups. That is why I like to go to events at museums or other institutions and review them, so at least some of the information discussed is available online for others who may not have access to them can learn.
But in the opposite direction, marginalized communities and youth should be encouraged to explore outside of the boxes that are placed on them. Our cultures need to not limit our freedom of expression and questioning, as I have seen in some spaces, like often the church. Explore the world around you, the worlds alien to you, in any way you can, whether it is traveling to another town or to a place in your neighborhood you never went before, going to the library and getting a book that is outside of what you normally read, or even thinking an unconventional thought on a common thing. Keep an open mind to the various possibilities of the world outside of your own direct reality.
Those ideas to me are already inherent in Afrofuturism – the need to explore and to invent, even if it is only in your head. Afrofuturism is just a new term for many of things we already do, but are either told we don’t do, suppress them or don’t realize it. We use our memories of our pasts and traditions of our cultures, reshape them and build new futures out of them in the new places we disperse and in the face of new crises and limitations of survival.

Using Afrofuturism to Power New Modes of Tech – Interview with Blogger Sherese Francis (Futuristically Ancient)

“Because the mask is your face, the face is a mask, so I’m thinking of the face as a mask because of the way I see faces is coming from an African vision of the mask which is the thing that we carry around with us, it is our presentation, it’s our front, it’s our face.”

– Faith Ringgold

What do we think of when we think of science and technology? Living currently in our high-tech, digital world with computers, the Internet, techies and laboratory scientists, many of us separate ourselves from science and technology as if they are not part of our everyday lives. Do we think of a mask as technology? I want to explore that idea.

A few weeks ago, I began reading Tempestt Hazel’s Black to the Future Series in which she interviews artists and intellectuals about Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism. While reading some of the answers of the interviewees, I recognized a subtle framing of and at times distancing from Afrofuturism based on electric and digital technology of the 20th and 21st century. Phrases like “I’m not a techie,” in a sense undermines how much science and technology are embedded in the creation of our lives and that they have existed longer and have a wider reach than we normally think. As the aesthetic movement of Afrofuturism gains recognition, we need to break down the boundaries of what we describe as science and technology.

Last year, I attended The Festival of the New Black Imagination where futurist Nat Irvin II gave a lecture on the importance of futuristic thinking that included a history of science and technological advancement, beginning with the Agricultural Revolution, which could also be called biotechnology. He claimed that only now we have reached an age of hybridity where man and machine are coming together.

Thinking back on that claim, I have come to disagree. We have always been hybrid creatures or cyborgs as Amber Case discussed in her lecture about prosthetic culture and cyborg anthropology. To say that only now we are, is to think in the same linear Western sense in which racists tell societies they consider primitive that Western culture brought them science and technology.

Science and technology are much more than machines and computers. If you look at the definition of both terms, their meanings are more inclusive. Science is the knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws. Technology is the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes or applied science.

Machines and computers are tools and instruments, which are all applied knowledge for specific purposes. Referring back to the theme of my post, how does that relate to the mask? Since technology is an application of knowledge, or, in other words, an extension and expression of one’s abilities and thoughts, then so is a mask, in both its creation and use.

Robert Pruitt’s Towards a Walk in the Sun

Many of us may think of a mask as only art or an object used in a religious ritual, but it is a tool or instrument applying some sort of knowledge as well. Like the mask, technology works as a medium; they let us do things we would not be able to do without them. A mask is an alternate face similar to prosthetic limbs, electronic pacemakers and even musical instruments that extend our bodies’ abilities. Astronauts and scuba divers basically wear masks and costumes that allow them to go where a normal human being would not be able to go. The mask shows us that we are cyborgs (cybernetic organisms). We are part natural and part created; we have been since as early as the agricultural revolution. This is the reason I disagreed with Irvin; any tool we have used has been an extension of us.

Rethinking of science and technology can also help us to rethink our views of our bodies and on religion. Think of it in terms of the Lucius Brockway’s line from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “We the machines inside the machine.”

Often art, the body and religion are positioned as the opposite or outside of the realm of these things, but I agree with ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt when she said in Games Black Girls Play that musical instruments and bodies are also forms of technology. Our physical bodies are manifestations of thoughts, knowledge, memories, experiences. Since we take in information from the world, the mind analyzes it and the body evolves accordingly. The development of our opposable thumbs, which allows us to create all the technology we have, can be considered a technological development.

In terms of religion or cosmology, for those who believe in a god or some sort of divine consciousness, creator or designer, and for those who believe we are spirits having a physical experience, our body then can be considered a tool or medium of a spirit of God. And if God is a creator or designer much like we are, then it is not perfect, but constantly experimenting and re-inventing itself based on its experience. This can connect creationism and evolution together. Also, depicting ourselves as both spirit and body represents another form of the hybridity that I discussed earlier.

As we look at our cultures through the lens of Afrofuturism and encourage younger generations to learn more about science and technology, I also encourage that expand on these to explore our cultures’ pasts, presents and futures. Re-evaluating our scope of and how we relate to science and technology could benefit us in the long run. They are more than the current advancements that developed in the industrial and post-industrial eras and that are exclusive to dominant cultures, upper classes and capitalists. All types of science and technology, whether it be in the form of a mask or a computer, allow us to fantasize about, explore and experience possibilities as well as understand ourselves and the world around us better.

Interview

1. How do you define technology? How do you define Afrofuturism? How do you participate in Afrofuturism?

My definition of technology came from reading Kyra Gaunt’s book, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop while writing my undergraduate thesis on The Percussive Approach in Hip-Hop. In her third chapter, Mary Mack Dressed in Black: The Earliest Formation of a Popular Music, one of the subsections was the “body as technology.” Here she describes her view on technology in terms of black musical production:

“In this way and others, the body is a technology of black musical communication and identity. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “technology” as “the practical application of knowledge, a manner of accomplishing a task (i.e., identifying with blackness, the African Diaspora, Africans), using a skill or craft, a method or process” (1999). Extra-somatic instruments … are acceptable media of artistic technology. The social body as a tool or method of artistic composition and performance, however, continues to be overlooked in the study of music … ” (59).

She continues to say how extra-somatic musical technology are extensions of what our bodies and voices naturally can do. Reading her words broadened my scope of what technology is and part of the inspiration for my post, The Mask as Technology. Technology is the application of knowledge and wisdom through the invention of extensions that compensate for our needs and desires and that reach across limitations and boundaries.

For centuries, Black bodies have been exploited as forms of slave/capitalist technologies, designed for the desires of white hetero-patriarchal cultures. Although I don’t tend to give Afrofuturism a specific definition as it means different things to different people, I view it as a tool, a kind of technology as well. I use it to reclaim our whole bodies (physical, mental, spiritual) through the exploration of various possible futures and presents in addition to revising or revealing (the meaning of apocalypse) various pasts of the African Diaspora using tropes of current speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, myths, legends, folktales, fairy tales, historical revision), magic(k), spiritual systems, science and technology.

I participate in Afrofuturism through my writing and studies, including my blog, Futuristically Ancient. I see myself as a kind of archivist, linking the past and future through recording the arts and cultures of the Diaspora that the mainstream may ignore or degrade to show Blackness and the Diaspora outside the box of expectations in which they are placed. What we have been told about who Black people and African descendants by others are filled with untruths used to control us and the imaginations of ourselves and what we can be and do; I want to show the various possibilities of Blackness and Black people that has already existed, still exist and will exist if we fight for it.

2. One criticism about Afrofuturism is that it does not advance technology or dream up novel technologies that can have practical, real-life applications. What are your thoughts on this critique? How does Afrofuturism/Black futurism inform your research and real-life work?

I wonder how Afrofuturism is perceived or used in their questioning. Are they using it as a singular movement or word in which they see only a small segment or its mainstream advocates, and then ask why they do not see a specific aspect there that they would like to see? Or do they see it like I do, as a tool to explore various areas and ideas of cultures of Black people and African descendants in and out of the mainstream that could result in those inventions. I know that there are people out there who are imagining or inventing new technologies because we are humans and humans are constantly engineering new technologies. We are inventive people who survive in times of necessity and within oppressive societies, in music, food, spirituality, electronics (think early days of hip-hop and rewiring the streets to power turntables), etc.

The focus should be redirected from inventing new technologies, because that will always come, to the cultures, spirituality, ethics and values around those technologies. How do we shape minds to think outside of the boxes of the oppressive cultures in which we live and develop responsible technologies? How do we cultivate cultures and critical thinking that will foster new technologies? How do we make available access to information, spaces and tools that will help people to create new technologies? It reminds me of Amiri Baraka’s essay, Technology and Ethos, where he says our machines are extensions of us, the creators, so they reflect our core values. Why does the typewriter look the way it does and why does it not function in another way? he asks. A lot of how we see technology is steeped in Western thought of efficiency, progress and making capital and not how it enriches our lives, the lives of other animals, plants and the Earth. We still have a lot of unlearning to do.

Afrofuturism has centered my thoughts, giving me an angle from which I could process them and research new ideas. It has allowed me as a writer to explore outside of conventional, singular narratives of Blackness, of gender, of sexuality, of culture, of religion and spirituality, of science and technology, of the construction of narratives themselves and so forth. Through it, I have a fresh way to look at the cultures of the world, including my own as an Afro-Caribbean-American woman, not through the mainstream’s eyes, but with eyes of understanding and connection. For example, I see now the genius of African-derived spirituality and religions like Vodou, which is often demonized and simplified through Christian morality and racist philosophy (and I was guilty of that as well); my research into it formed the basis of my upcoming essay, ‘The Electric Impulse:’ The Legba Circuit in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Afrofuturism was also the basis for my interest in mythic studies and mythic literacy, much of which has influenced my poetry writing as well.

3. What experiences and inspirations led you to create your blog? How has technology and the Internet revolutionized the way we share and participate in cultural phenomenon, such as Afrofuturism? What challenges are created by technology and the Internet?

The inspirations for my blog, Futuristically Ancient, came during my junior year in college. At that time, I was in a blogging class with Bridget Davis and the final assignment was to start our own blogs. I was thinking about what kind of blog I wanted to do, and I remembered watching a small portion on Youtube of John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History and I liked the connections it made between the past, present and future of the Diaspora through the investigation of memory, music and digital technology. So, I centered my blog around those ideas at first before I even knew the term Afrofuturism. But as I began to research more into related materials to his film and while doing research for my thesis, I came across the term Afrofuturism, and then my blog developed into what it is now. The name of my blog actually comes from a phrase someone had used to describe poet Aja Monet and it stuck with me, so I used it in addition to Aker, the Egyptian god of the horizon representing yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Technology, especially the Internet, has played a significant part in the spread of information about Afrofuturism and other cultural phenomena. Personally, as a blogger, writer and researcher, it has allowed me to voice thoughts and ideas that I rarely saw in popular spaces and share them with others in ways I would not have been as easily able to do before; it has allowed me to connect with others who are working in similar fields or whose work has similar tendencies; it has allowed me to more easily find materials and information, especially rare ones, to share on my blog and to use for research. So, it has been helpful to a person like me, who is introverted and kind of shy, to be able to put myself out there on my own terms. Like me, others have benefited from the more accessible information and connection to people all over the world through new technology and the Internet, which has allowed ideas about Afrofuturism to spread fast.

However, as with anything, there are downsides to technology and the Internet. People will use technology and the Internet to try to discourage us, to attack us because they see what we are doing as a threat to their way of life, to try to silence us especially if they have more capital and power to do so, to use our ideas to sell their own agenda without crediting us or to use our ideas against us. In some ways, old oppressions are magnified through the Internet and new technology because of how quickly and easily information can spread.

4. Where do you see Afrofuturism 10 years from now? How can marginalized communities and youth gain more access to Afrofuturism?

Ten years from now, Afrofuturism can go in different possible ways. It could become bigger and go mainstream to the point it is diluted and appropriated so much that it lacks power and we move on to the next movement, term, idea or whatever. Maybe it will have another or several names 10 years from now. Or hopefully, it can evolve and grow along with the changes in our cultures and technologies, which is why I like that it does not have a fixed definition. I want us to continue defining it for ourselves, especially with the controversy over the origin of the term. I want Afrofuturism to change and shape shift into various meanings depending on the different localities it reaches and how it can best benefit them. As Octavia Butler wrote, “God is change,” let Afrofuturism do that as well.

As for marginalized communities and youth gaining access to it, gatekeepers who have closer access or are in more privileged spaces need to continue sharing it and the ideas within it with those who are more marginalized or younger. For example, in the art world, much of the art tends to stay in higher-class institutions that are either out of reach or out of the means of more marginalized groups. That is why I like to go to events at museums or other institutions and review them, so at least some of the information discussed is available online for others who may not have access to them can learn.

But in the opposite direction, marginalized communities and youth should be encouraged to explore outside of the boxes that are placed on them. Our cultures need to not limit our freedom of expression and questioning, as I have seen in some spaces, like often the church. Explore the world around you, the worlds alien to you, in any way you can, whether it is traveling to another town or to a place in your neighborhood you never went before, going to the library and getting a book that is outside of what you normally read, or even thinking an unconventional thought on a common thing. Keep an open mind to the various possibilities of the world outside of your own direct reality.

Those ideas to me are already inherent in Afrofuturism – the need to explore and to invent, even if it is only in your head. Afrofuturism is just a new term for many of things we already do, but are either told we don’t do, suppress them or don’t realize it. We use our memories of our pasts and traditions of our cultures, reshape them and build new futures out of them in the new places we disperse and in the face of new crises and limitations of survival.

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Race, Sci-Fi, and Comics: A Talk with Dwayne McDuffie
I originally wanted this to go up as a guest post when Our Lord and Master was away, but all good things…
The timing’s still okay, though, because these last two weeks have been big ones for Dwayne McDuffie. First, he opened up a whole new multiverse where the World’s Greatest Heroes face their murderous opposite numbers in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. The direct-to-DVD movie premiered on Feb. 23, and if you haven’t watched it yet, all you need to know is: Gina Torres as Superwoman. James Woods as Owlman. Yes, that James Woods. He kills it, too. Pun only slightly intended.
This week, in a slightly more quiet vein, he closes the door on another universe in the final issue of Milestone Forever. The two-part series serves as a sideways goodbye to Static, Hardware and the rest of the multicultural superhero reality that he, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Christopher Priest and others created more than 15 years ago.
I know TNC got all off-topic and name-checked Dwayne in his recent Captain America post. That’s most likely because, for me (and probably Ta-Nehisi too), McDuffie represents something of an ideal. Not only is he a self-described “proto-nerd” who made it to the promised land of professional comics writing, but he’s also transformed his career at least twice over. Whether he’s been a freelance writer, editor-in-chief or an animated series producer, the sharp edge of a black intellectual tradition always pokes through his work.
I sent Dwayne some questions over e-mail and reading through his answers makes me realize that my questions subconsciously focus on the theme of holding on and letting go. Dwayne’s answers also get at stuff that Ta-Nehisi keeps coming back to on this august slice of the interwebs—reinventing personal mythologies, pop-cultural representations of race and an investigation of what shapes our moral frameworks.
I was gonna call this one “McDuffie on Infinite Earths.” Anyway, start reading.
What was it like growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s? Does that experience show up in your writing in any way that you’re aware of?
I had a very pleasant, not wholly untypical middle class childhood. Detroit was a great city then, full of working class people with good jobs, and big plans for their kids’ futures. My folks were pretty much the same. My dad worked for the Federal Reserve, my Mom was a nurse who worked extra shifts so they could afford my tuition at Roeper, a nearby private school for gifted kids.
I read tons of science fiction that a family friend supplied me with, played sports, enjoyed comics, I loved the Science Fair, and entered as many as I could. So, you know, proto-nerd. Certainly my own experience as a motor-mouthed black fanboy informed my later work, Static could easily have been me at that age, if I’d had super powers.
The economic dissolution of Detroit that began after I’d moved away was one of the major inspirations for Dakota, my fictional, mid-western manufacturing hub gone to seed. The humanism at the core of all my work developed as I grew up in Detroit. I’d say my time at the Roeper School was the biggest part of that. There’s probably lots of other stuff in there that I’m not as conscious of, as well.
You went to film school at NYU. What were your student films like and what kind of movies did you see yourself making? Who are your favorite directors?
My NYU films were dreadful. I’d made several pretty good films at the University of Michigan in my spare time for fun, all comedies, all character and performance-based. When I went to NYU, I was much too serious about being in Film School, much too concerned with fulfilling the assignment, as opposed to expressing myself. I wasn’t having any fun, and the work showed it. My favorite director is Woody Allen. He’s still the largest single influence on my writing. I also greatly enjoy Preston Sturges and Paddy Chayefsky. But, Chayefsky’s talent is so individual that the only thing I’ve learned from him is I’ll never write a monologue as good as his worst one.
People think I’m kidding when I say this, but my fantasy career is writing and directing romantic comedies. If I ever produced anything as satisfying as Arthur, Hannah and Her Sisters, or even Flirting With Disaster, I’d be a happy man. If you look at my genre work, you’ll occasionally catch me indulging myself with the John, Shayera and Mari triangle in Justice League Unlimited, and with Gwen and Kevin on Ben 10: Alien Force.
I think Damage Control was the first thing I ever read of yours and, early on, I pigeonholed you as a “funny” writer.
I was just talking about this with my wife. When I broke into comics, I was doing a lot of comedy writing, and after Damage Control, it was hard for me to get assignments on straight superhero books. Now my manager is always after me to do more comedy samples, because I’m known as the boy’s action guy.
What was it like breaking in to the comics business when you did? You started out as an assistant editor at Marvel, right? Who were your mentors?
I started out at Marvel in 1987, thanks to a tip from Greg Wright, who I knew from college. I was extremely fortunate to work for Bob Budiansky, a talented editor, writer, and artist who had a perfectionist streak that annoyed me to no end at the time, but who inculcated me with a skill set that serves me well to this day. Sid Jacobson, who was the Editor-in-Chief of Harvey Comics for years, taught me how to write visually for comics. Thanks to him, when I moved over to TV, I already knew how to do it. I also learned quite a bit from his attitude towards the field, he wasn’t a “comics writer,” he was a writer; novels, journalism, songs—any and everything. I think he had the right idea. Mark Gruenwald was another Marvel mainstay who was very encouraging of my talents, such as they were at the time. Also Ernie Colon, and Archie Goodwin.
Your run on Deathlok seemed to be full of allusions to the black experience. The lead character’s trapped in a cyborg construct and has his body stolen from him. His fear and shame at how his family would see his new form keeps him from them. He’s literally separated from his own humanity. And the dialogues between the cyborg’s computer AI and Michael Collins riffs on the twoness that W.E.B. DuBois spoke about. How much of this was explicitly in your and Greg Wright’s pitch and how much did you slip under the radar?
None of it was in the pitch, but all of it was intentional. Invisible Man was, and still is, my favorite novel. I’d just read The Souls of Black Folk and was explicitly thinking about Skip Gates’ The Signifying Monkey. Godel, Esher, Bach and Derrick Bell’s dialogues about race and law sort of crashed in my head. Deathlok was a way of sharing some of my thoughts about all of this.
Foremost, though, Deathlok was supposed to be a modern-day take on Marvel’s The Thing (a man alienated by his surface appearance), as well as my own commentary on the “grim and gritty” trend in comic book heroes. Contrary to the fashion at the time, I wanted to do a superhero who was more moral than I, not less.
In the first few issues of Hardware, inventor Curtis Metcalf adopts his armored persona to take down his evil corporate boss Alva. Part of Curtis’ motivation was not getting a share of profits from his work for Alva and you’ve mentioned that their conflict paralleled the break some of the Milestone founders had with Marvel. What was that like, leaving the place where you’d found your feet in the comics industry?
I enjoyed my time at Marvel, and the people there, but it was time to go. I left Marvel because I’d hit the glass ceiling. I was never going to be promoted, so if I intended to make a mark in the business, it would be as a freelance writer, not an editor. Leaving Marvel allowed me to take assignments at several other companies, and ultimately, to help found Milestone.
Would anything be different about the Milestone Universe as a fictional construct if you and the other members were creating it today?
Absolutely. It was a product of the times, and times have changed. Any future Milestone work has to reflect contemporary reality just as directly as the old stuff reflected its time.
There seems to be a strong streak of humanism in your work. A pacifist professor is trapped in a killing machine in Deathlok and imposing a “no killing” parameter. Augustus Freeman becomes Icon to be an example of what people can achieve. Even Dharma’s motivation for manipulating the future betrays a belief in the primacy of human agency. There’s a Deathlok quote from Beyond! that exemplifies what I’m trying to get at: “Cynicism isn’t maturity. Callousness isn’t strength. Pretending you don’t care so you don’t have to try isn’t ‘winning.’ What you do with your life matters. I suspect, deep down, you already know that.” Are these humanisitic elements a conscious result of your philosophy on life, or something more coincidental?
They’re conscious, but I couldn’t help it if I tried. That stuff is me to the core. You’ll find it in almost everything I write, from Rocket’s fiery humanism, to Superman’s midwestern sense of fair play—even in Owlman’s misguided nihilism, which is rooted in a fundamental belief in the importance of human agency.
Deathlok’s moral system boiled down to his catchphrase, “You have to do what’s right, not what’s easiest.” It’s simple to say, but very hard to live up to. Deathlok generally does a better job of it than I do personally, but I try to learn from the example of the characters I create. In many ways, they’re better versions of me.
You’ve talked about how the character of Buck Wild came about as a commentary on the complicated love/hate relationship you had with Luke Cage. Do you still feel the need to address that relationship today? Did doing those issues with Buck help work that stuff out?
I’d worked those issues out even before I started Milestone. I just wanted to share those ideas with the comic book readership in an entertaining matter. Interestingly, those stories are about to be reprinted this summer as Icon: Mothership Connection. The excesses of Blaxploitation comics characters like Cage is the past, though. I’m much more interested in dealing with the stuff that’s going on now: more green characters with their own monthlies than black characters, a criminal lack of people of color in writing and editorial positions on mainstream books, et cetera… The last time I tried to write about that stuff in a mainstream book, my story was bounced (by the same people who asked me to write about it, mind you), and my editors wanted to replace it with clichés from twenty years ago, clichés that not coincidentally shielded mainstream readers and comicbook creators from any responsibility for the current state of affairs. I passed on that. I’ll write about those issues again when I have more control over the content.
I found your take on superhero romance during the Justice League cartoon series to surprisingly adult, given the target audience. The relationship between John and Shayera and the flirtation between Batman and Wonder Woman both seemed to rotate on a “wrong side of the tracks” premise. Were you drawing on real life experiences for those?
Not really. In both cases, I became the primary writer of relationships set up by other writers. I tried to stay true to what they set up, while bringing some of my own perspectives to the mix. I like writing romance, though, and both of these runners were fun to work on.
When I told Ta-Nehisi that you’d agreed to an interview, he was thrilled. He said that there were many times—way before he knew you were on the project—that he felt like somebody black was working on Justice League. He also wanted me to ask you how conscious of race you were while working on that show and Justice League Unlimited?
Well, producer James Tucker was on Justice League from day one, so Ta-Nehisi was right. I’m conscious of race whenever I’m writing, just as I’m conscious of class, religion, human psychology, politics—everything that makes up the human experience. I don’t think I can do a good job if I’m not paying attention to what’s meaningful to people, and in American culture, there isn’t anything that informs human interaction more than the idea of race.
You can see hints of Song of Solomon in Icon and maybe a little bit of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in Hardware (where Curtis starts off operating from a vengeful drive but eventually matures to a justice-for-all mindset)? Is there any literature or a writer who’s influencing you now? Like, where you read something and think, I wonder if there’s something I can play with there?
I’m in a very strange reading phase right now. I’m obsessed with paperback original crime novels from the ’50s through the ’70s or so. It’s people writing very quickly, for money, with very little filter on their world view, so as long as their entertaining, they can talk about whatever they like. Comics used to be like that, I guess I’m just nostalgic.
I’m currently reading a lot of Ed Lacy, whose 1957 Toussaint Moore novel, Room To Swing, is still one of the best, most human portrayals of a black character ever in detective fiction. I imagine him hanging out on the porch with Easy Rollins, and talking about life. Let’s see, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day really knocked me out. I also just discovered Percival Everett, how the hell did I not know about this guy? I’m reading a lot of Steven Pinker, surely that stuff will come out somewhere, sometime.
Really though, my major writing influences right now are from television. The Wire is a work of art on par with the best in any field of human endeavor. I’ve not tried anything on that scale in comics, and I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge, but I’d sure like to try.
On another level, I loved Sports Night and Arrested Development. I should mention something on the air now, shouldn’t I? I love House and the main character reminds me of my take on Hardware -my family has accused me of being like very much like both characters. I can’t decide if that’s a compliment. Probably not.
You’ve made a point of using a trickster motif in lots of your work. Hardware’s girlfriend makes mention of it in one of her lectures, and you’ve used a character based on Anansi in your JLA run and on the Static TV series. What is about the trickster concept that in intrigues you?
Fucking with people’s heads as a teaching device (and also just for fun) appeals to me. I’m a firm believer in the Socratic Method (that’s how I break stories on shows I run) and information that doesn’t fit the paradigm is the universe’s way of asking you a question. It’s sort of the flip side of the scientific method, another favorite of mine. Anansi, Bugs Bunny, Groucho; they’re all bomb-throwers, using language and imagery in ways that force you to challenge your fundamental assumptions about The Way Things Are. That’s sort of the definition of a story; something happens that challenges your worldview, and you seek a resolution that either reaffirms what you knew to be true—or you learn that the world is richer and more complex than you thought.
In Jeffrey Brown’s book on Milestone, there’s a story about how Static makes a reader own up to his own racism. Do you think that comics still have that power today?
That’s the power of storytelling, to put you into someone else’s head, to allow you to see things from another point of view. Comics definitely still shares this power with all stories, even if mainstream comics doesn’t use it that much.
Is it wrong to read finality into Milestone Forever? It seems like an ending, but in comics, nothing stays dead too long. Is there a point to be made about the black cultural norm of re-invention?
You just cut to the quick of it. After you read the conclusion, it’s pretty clear that this story is about the consequences of creation, and the deciding when it’s time to let go.
Your fans come from a lot of different places and perceive you in very different ways. The Ben 10 crowd wants you to answer all their Omnitrix questions, some comics fans harsh on for you “black-ifying” everything you write and others want you to “fix” every black character in the Marvel or DC universes. How aware are you of all of that? Is there a way to harness fan service into your writing process or is that like playing with fire?
To me, fan service is fine, as long as you don’t let it get in the way of telling the current story. The percentage of the audience who are caught up in those kind of details are an important part of the audience, but they’re also a miniscule one. If you overfeed them, the other 95 percent of the audience will go find something else to do with their free time.
Did your quadruple bypass change the way you approached your work? I’m thinking of the fact that, in your JLA run, the team essentially disintegrates without the Big Three of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman serving as the heart of the team. Was the fact that you wrote the team as fragile reflecting how you felt?
That’s kind of a stretch. Those story decisions came from above, I just tried to write around them. My surgery certainly affected my work. I work less now, just because I’m not physically able to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. So I pick my projects more carefully, and work more sensible hours. I also try and spend more time with family and friends, because after open heart surgery, it occurs to you that you have a limited amount of time to spend with them. I don’t feel remotely fragile, though. I’m a 6’7” 300 pounder, and since the surgery, I’m in better health than I’ve been since my college days.
You wrote two Batman stories that focused Blink, a blind man who could see through the eyes of others. Blindness runs in your family but what made you decide to tackle it as a macguffin in a story?
My father was blind, and Blink’s Lee Hyland shares my father’s given name, and his mother’s maiden name. Seeing the world through other people’s eyes is a fairly consistent trope in my work. “Blink,” and “Don’t Blink” were just using genre conventions to literalize an idea I’ve explored many other ways. I think those stories came out great. I wish DC Comics would do a trade edition of them, like they said they were going to a couple of years back. Maybe if enough people ask?
Two summers ago, you struck a deal with DC Comics to integrate Milestone’s characters into the DC Universe. But, what seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm by all parties soon fizzled into near-invisibility for the characters you had been shepherding for so long. Do you look back with regret at making the deal?
And here’s the perfect place to plug Milestone Forever, now on sale. At the conclusion, my character Dharma makes a decision similar to one I had to make. We agree completely on the outcome.

Race, Sci-Fi, and Comics: A Talk with Dwayne McDuffie

I originally wanted this to go up as a guest post when Our Lord and Master was away, but all good things…

The timing’s still okay, though, because these last two weeks have been big ones for Dwayne McDuffie. First, he opened up a whole new multiverse where the World’s Greatest Heroes face their murderous opposite numbers in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. The direct-to-DVD movie premiered on Feb. 23, and if you haven’t watched it yet, all you need to know is: Gina Torres as Superwoman. James Woods as Owlman. Yes, that James Woods. He kills it, too. Pun only slightly intended.

This week, in a slightly more quiet vein, he closes the door on another universe in the final issue of Milestone Forever. The two-part series serves as a sideways goodbye to Static, Hardware and the rest of the multicultural superhero reality that he, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Christopher Priest and others created more than 15 years ago.

I know TNC got all off-topic and name-checked Dwayne in his recent Captain America post. That’s most likely because, for me (and probably Ta-Nehisi too), McDuffie represents something of an ideal. Not only is he a self-described “proto-nerd” who made it to the promised land of professional comics writing, but he’s also transformed his career at least twice over. Whether he’s been a freelance writer, editor-in-chief or an animated series producer, the sharp edge of a black intellectual tradition always pokes through his work.

I sent Dwayne some questions over e-mail and reading through his answers makes me realize that my questions subconsciously focus on the theme of holding on and letting go. Dwayne’s answers also get at stuff that Ta-Nehisi keeps coming back to on this august slice of the interwebs—reinventing personal mythologies, pop-cultural representations of race and an investigation of what shapes our moral frameworks.

I was gonna call this one “McDuffie on Infinite Earths.” Anyway, start reading.

What was it like growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s? Does that experience show up in your writing in any way that you’re aware of?

I had a very pleasant, not wholly untypical middle class childhood. Detroit was a great city then, full of working class people with good jobs, and big plans for their kids’ futures. My folks were pretty much the same. My dad worked for the Federal Reserve, my Mom was a nurse who worked extra shifts so they could afford my tuition at Roeper, a nearby private school for gifted kids.

I read tons of science fiction that a family friend supplied me with, played sports, enjoyed comics, I loved the Science Fair, and entered as many as I could. So, you know, proto-nerd. Certainly my own experience as a motor-mouthed black fanboy informed my later work, Static could easily have been me at that age, if I’d had super powers.

The economic dissolution of Detroit that began after I’d moved away was one of the major inspirations for Dakota, my fictional, mid-western manufacturing hub gone to seed. The humanism at the core of all my work developed as I grew up in Detroit. I’d say my time at the Roeper School was the biggest part of that. There’s probably lots of other stuff in there that I’m not as conscious of, as well.

You went to film school at NYU. What were your student films like and what kind of movies did you see yourself making? Who are your favorite directors?

My NYU films were dreadful. I’d made several pretty good films at the University of Michigan in my spare time for fun, all comedies, all character and performance-based. When I went to NYU, I was much too serious about being in Film School, much too concerned with fulfilling the assignment, as opposed to expressing myself. I wasn’t having any fun, and the work showed it. My favorite director is Woody Allen. He’s still the largest single influence on my writing. I also greatly enjoy Preston Sturges and Paddy Chayefsky. But, Chayefsky’s talent is so individual that the only thing I’ve learned from him is I’ll never write a monologue as good as his worst one.

People think I’m kidding when I say this, but my fantasy career is writing and directing romantic comedies. If I ever produced anything as satisfying as Arthur, Hannah and Her Sisters, or even Flirting With Disaster, I’d be a happy man. If you look at my genre work, you’ll occasionally catch me indulging myself with the John, Shayera and Mari triangle in Justice League Unlimited, and with Gwen and Kevin on Ben 10: Alien Force.

I think Damage Control was the first thing I ever read of yours and, early on, I pigeonholed you as a “funny” writer.

I was just talking about this with my wife. When I broke into comics, I was doing a lot of comedy writing, and after Damage Control, it was hard for me to get assignments on straight superhero books. Now my manager is always after me to do more comedy samples, because I’m known as the boy’s action guy.

What was it like breaking in to the comics business when you did? You started out as an assistant editor at Marvel, right? Who were your mentors?

I started out at Marvel in 1987, thanks to a tip from Greg Wright, who I knew from college. I was extremely fortunate to work for Bob Budiansky, a talented editor, writer, and artist who had a perfectionist streak that annoyed me to no end at the time, but who inculcated me with a skill set that serves me well to this day. Sid Jacobson, who was the Editor-in-Chief of Harvey Comics for years, taught me how to write visually for comics. Thanks to him, when I moved over to TV, I already knew how to do it. I also learned quite a bit from his attitude towards the field, he wasn’t a “comics writer,” he was a writer; novels, journalism, songs—any and everything. I think he had the right idea. Mark Gruenwald was another Marvel mainstay who was very encouraging of my talents, such as they were at the time. Also Ernie Colon, and Archie Goodwin.

Your run on Deathlok seemed to be full of allusions to the black experience. The lead character’s trapped in a cyborg construct and has his body stolen from him. His fear and shame at how his family would see his new form keeps him from them. He’s literally separated from his own humanity. And the dialogues between the cyborg’s computer AI and Michael Collins riffs on the twoness that W.E.B. DuBois spoke about. How much of this was explicitly in your and Greg Wright’s pitch and how much did you slip under the radar?

None of it was in the pitch, but all of it was intentional. Invisible Man was, and still is, my favorite novel. I’d just read The Souls of Black Folk and was explicitly thinking about Skip Gates’ The Signifying Monkey. Godel, Esher, Bach and Derrick Bell’s dialogues about race and law sort of crashed in my head. Deathlok was a way of sharing some of my thoughts about all of this.

Foremost, though, Deathlok was supposed to be a modern-day take on Marvel’s The Thing (a man alienated by his surface appearance), as well as my own commentary on the “grim and gritty” trend in comic book heroes. Contrary to the fashion at the time, I wanted to do a superhero who was more moral than I, not less.

In the first few issues of Hardware, inventor Curtis Metcalf adopts his armored persona to take down his evil corporate boss Alva. Part of Curtis’ motivation was not getting a share of profits from his work for Alva and you’ve mentioned that their conflict paralleled the break some of the Milestone founders had with Marvel. What was that like, leaving the place where you’d found your feet in the comics industry?

I enjoyed my time at Marvel, and the people there, but it was time to go. I left Marvel because I’d hit the glass ceiling. I was never going to be promoted, so if I intended to make a mark in the business, it would be as a freelance writer, not an editor. Leaving Marvel allowed me to take assignments at several other companies, and ultimately, to help found Milestone.

Would anything be different about the Milestone Universe as a fictional construct if you and the other members were creating it today?

Absolutely. It was a product of the times, and times have changed. Any future Milestone work has to reflect contemporary reality just as directly as the old stuff reflected its time.

There seems to be a strong streak of humanism in your work. A pacifist professor is trapped in a killing machine in Deathlok and imposing a “no killing” parameter. Augustus Freeman becomes Icon to be an example of what people can achieve. Even Dharma’s motivation for manipulating the future betrays a belief in the primacy of human agency. There’s a Deathlok quote from Beyond! that exemplifies what I’m trying to get at: “Cynicism isn’t maturity. Callousness isn’t strength. Pretending you don’t care so you don’t have to try isn’t ‘winning.’ What you do with your life matters. I suspect, deep down, you already know that.” Are these humanisitic elements a conscious result of your philosophy on life, or something more coincidental?

They’re conscious, but I couldn’t help it if I tried. That stuff is me to the core. You’ll find it in almost everything I write, from Rocket’s fiery humanism, to Superman’s midwestern sense of fair play—even in Owlman’s misguided nihilism, which is rooted in a fundamental belief in the importance of human agency.

Deathlok’s moral system boiled down to his catchphrase, “You have to do what’s right, not what’s easiest.” It’s simple to say, but very hard to live up to. Deathlok generally does a better job of it than I do personally, but I try to learn from the example of the characters I create. In many ways, they’re better versions of me.

You’ve talked about how the character of Buck Wild came about as a commentary on the complicated love/hate relationship you had with Luke Cage. Do you still feel the need to address that relationship today? Did doing those issues with Buck help work that stuff out?

I’d worked those issues out even before I started Milestone. I just wanted to share those ideas with the comic book readership in an entertaining matter. Interestingly, those stories are about to be reprinted this summer as Icon: Mothership Connection. The excesses of Blaxploitation comics characters like Cage is the past, though. I’m much more interested in dealing with the stuff that’s going on now: more green characters with their own monthlies than black characters, a criminal lack of people of color in writing and editorial positions on mainstream books, et cetera… The last time I tried to write about that stuff in a mainstream book, my story was bounced (by the same people who asked me to write about it, mind you), and my editors wanted to replace it with clichés from twenty years ago, clichés that not coincidentally shielded mainstream readers and comicbook creators from any responsibility for the current state of affairs. I passed on that. I’ll write about those issues again when I have more control over the content.

I found your take on superhero romance during the Justice League cartoon series to surprisingly adult, given the target audience. The relationship between John and Shayera and the flirtation between Batman and Wonder Woman both seemed to rotate on a “wrong side of the tracks” premise. Were you drawing on real life experiences for those?

Not really. In both cases, I became the primary writer of relationships set up by other writers. I tried to stay true to what they set up, while bringing some of my own perspectives to the mix. I like writing romance, though, and both of these runners were fun to work on.

When I told Ta-Nehisi that you’d agreed to an interview, he was thrilled. He said that there were many times—way before he knew you were on the project—that he felt like somebody black was working on Justice League. He also wanted me to ask you how conscious of race you were while working on that show and Justice League Unlimited?

Well, producer James Tucker was on Justice League from day one, so Ta-Nehisi was right. I’m conscious of race whenever I’m writing, just as I’m conscious of class, religion, human psychology, politics—everything that makes up the human experience. I don’t think I can do a good job if I’m not paying attention to what’s meaningful to people, and in American culture, there isn’t anything that informs human interaction more than the idea of race.

You can see hints of Song of Solomon in Icon and maybe a little bit of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in Hardware (where Curtis starts off operating from a vengeful drive but eventually matures to a justice-for-all mindset)? Is there any literature or a writer who’s influencing you now? Like, where you read something and think, I wonder if there’s something I can play with there?

I’m in a very strange reading phase right now. I’m obsessed with paperback original crime novels from the ’50s through the ’70s or so. It’s people writing very quickly, for money, with very little filter on their world view, so as long as their entertaining, they can talk about whatever they like. Comics used to be like that, I guess I’m just nostalgic.

I’m currently reading a lot of Ed Lacy, whose 1957 Toussaint Moore novel, Room To Swing, is still one of the best, most human portrayals of a black character ever in detective fiction. I imagine him hanging out on the porch with Easy Rollins, and talking about life. Let’s see, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day really knocked me out. I also just discovered Percival Everett, how the hell did I not know about this guy? I’m reading a lot of Steven Pinker, surely that stuff will come out somewhere, sometime.

Really though, my major writing influences right now are from television. The Wire is a work of art on par with the best in any field of human endeavor. I’ve not tried anything on that scale in comics, and I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge, but I’d sure like to try.

On another level, I loved Sports Night and Arrested Development. I should mention something on the air now, shouldn’t I? I love House and the main character reminds me of my take on Hardware -my family has accused me of being like very much like both characters. I can’t decide if that’s a compliment. Probably not.

You’ve made a point of using a trickster motif in lots of your work. Hardware’s girlfriend makes mention of it in one of her lectures, and you’ve used a character based on Anansi in your JLA run and on the Static TV series. What is about the trickster concept that in intrigues you?

Fucking with people’s heads as a teaching device (and also just for fun) appeals to me. I’m a firm believer in the Socratic Method (that’s how I break stories on shows I run) and information that doesn’t fit the paradigm is the universe’s way of asking you a question. It’s sort of the flip side of the scientific method, another favorite of mine. Anansi, Bugs Bunny, Groucho; they’re all bomb-throwers, using language and imagery in ways that force you to challenge your fundamental assumptions about The Way Things Are. That’s sort of the definition of a story; something happens that challenges your worldview, and you seek a resolution that either reaffirms what you knew to be true—or you learn that the world is richer and more complex than you thought.

In Jeffrey Brown’s book on Milestone, there’s a story about how Static makes a reader own up to his own racism. Do you think that comics still have that power today?

That’s the power of storytelling, to put you into someone else’s head, to allow you to see things from another point of view. Comics definitely still shares this power with all stories, even if mainstream comics doesn’t use it that much.

Is it wrong to read finality into Milestone Forever? It seems like an ending, but in comics, nothing stays dead too long. Is there a point to be made about the black cultural norm of re-invention?

You just cut to the quick of it. After you read the conclusion, it’s pretty clear that this story is about the consequences of creation, and the deciding when it’s time to let go.

Your fans come from a lot of different places and perceive you in very different ways. The Ben 10 crowd wants you to answer all their Omnitrix questions, some comics fans harsh on for you “black-ifying” everything you write and others want you to “fix” every black character in the Marvel or DC universes. How aware are you of all of that? Is there a way to harness fan service into your writing process or is that like playing with fire?

To me, fan service is fine, as long as you don’t let it get in the way of telling the current story. The percentage of the audience who are caught up in those kind of details are an important part of the audience, but they’re also a miniscule one. If you overfeed them, the other 95 percent of the audience will go find something else to do with their free time.

Did your quadruple bypass change the way you approached your work? I’m thinking of the fact that, in your JLA run, the team essentially disintegrates without the Big Three of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman serving as the heart of the team. Was the fact that you wrote the team as fragile reflecting how you felt?

That’s kind of a stretch. Those story decisions came from above, I just tried to write around them. My surgery certainly affected my work. I work less now, just because I’m not physically able to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. So I pick my projects more carefully, and work more sensible hours. I also try and spend more time with family and friends, because after open heart surgery, it occurs to you that you have a limited amount of time to spend with them. I don’t feel remotely fragile, though. I’m a 6’7” 300 pounder, and since the surgery, I’m in better health than I’ve been since my college days.

You wrote two Batman stories that focused Blink, a blind man who could see through the eyes of others. Blindness runs in your family but what made you decide to tackle it as a macguffin in a story?

My father was blind, and Blink’s Lee Hyland shares my father’s given name, and his mother’s maiden name. Seeing the world through other people’s eyes is a fairly consistent trope in my work. “Blink,” and “Don’t Blink” were just using genre conventions to literalize an idea I’ve explored many other ways. I think those stories came out great. I wish DC Comics would do a trade edition of them, like they said they were going to a couple of years back. Maybe if enough people ask?

Two summers ago, you struck a deal with DC Comics to integrate Milestone’s characters into the DC Universe. But, what seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm by all parties soon fizzled into near-invisibility for the characters you had been shepherding for so long. Do you look back with regret at making the deal?

And here’s the perfect place to plug Milestone Forever, now on sale. At the conclusion, my character Dharma makes a decision similar to one I had to make. We agree completely on the outcome.

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7:14 pm
These Long Years, and the Miles: Remembering Dwayne McDuffie

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