Honoring Earl Kress and Dwayne McDuffie 

By WGAW member Stan Berkowitz 

Photo credit: Michael Jones
Charlotte (Fullerton) McDuffie and Denise Kress join previous years' recipients after accepting AWC Animation Awards on behalf of Dwayne McDuffie and Earl Kress. Pictured: (Back L-R) Paul Dini, Stan Berkowitz, Alan Burnett, Gordon Bressack, Patric M. Verrone, Mark Evanier. (Front L-R) Charlotte (Fullerton) McDuffie, Denise Kress 

On November 17, 2011, the Guild’s Animation Writers Caucus held its annual meeting to honor the winners of the Caucus’ Animation Writing Award. Now in its 14th year, the award is given for body of work and service to the animation community. Normally a festive event, the ceremony this year had a distinctly bittersweet tone because the two award winners, Earl Kress and Dwayne McDuffie, both passed away in 2011.

Earl's lifelong love affair with animation began in childhood, and his first credits date from his early 20s. According to friend and colleague Tom Ruegger: “Earl wasn’t just a fan of cartoons—he was a student of them. He knew them backward and forward. Within the flow of normal conversations, Earl regularly quoted lines from his favorite cartoon characters, often with appropriate vocal impression—‘I'll do the thinning around here,’ ‘I hate meeces to pieces,’ ‘Exit, stage left’—as if this was the way everyone conversed. But Earl's cartoonic interjections were not non sequiturs. They usually fit the conversations perfectly.”

Earl spent years at Disney and later at Warners, where scripts he worked on for Pinky and the Brain earned two Emmys and an Annie Award. He also wrote for Animaniacs, Transformers, Baby Looney Toons, Taz-Mania, and many, many others.

But Earl’s credits comprise only half the story because right from the beginning, he was a dedicated supporter of the labor movement within the animation industry. For years, he was a member of the Animation Writers Caucus board of directors, and, somewhat surprisingly, he was also active in a competing labor organization, The Animation Guild. His explanation for this seeming inconsistency was simple: He was willing to work wherever he could to do whatever he could to help animation writers.

And help them he did. Earl fought tirelessly for higher minimums, residuals, credit arbitrations, and health and pension benefits. Most recently, he negotiated very low earnings requirements to help more writers (and artists) qualify for TAG’s health insurance. Today, scores of writers and their families who would otherwise be uninsured are covered because of his efforts.

Earl’s career spanned 35 years; Dwayne’s animation writing career lasted only a little more than decade, but it was a fruitful period. His origins were in comics, where he co-founded the Milestone comic book company, dedicated to creating minority superheroes. When one of those heroes inspired the Static Shock animated TV series, Dwayne began writing scripts for it.

It wasn't long before Dwayne moved from Florida to Los Angeles and his talent started to get some recognition; soon after arriving, he earned a Humanitas Prize (shared with Alan Burnett) and an Emmy nomination for his work on Static Shock. When that series ended, he wrote on Justice League, for which he received a Writers Guild nomination for a script he co-wrote.

After that, he moved on to Ben 10, which continues to be one of Cartoon Network's most successful franchises—just ask any kid. And despite a busy writing and producing schedule at Cartoon Network, Dwayne found time to write three animated superhero features for direct-to-video release.

Mainstream success didn’t divert Dwayne’s attention from his lifelong commitment to diversity nor did it temper his dislike of the stereotypes often seen in cartoons and other media. Sitting on a panel in 2010, Dwayne glowered as he listened to another panelist describe the difficulties he had in trying to write for a “typical” African- American character. When it was his turn to speak, his advice to this other writer was characteristically pithy: “Have two,” he said, meaning that if the writer had to create two African-American characters instead of just one, he would be forced to view them both as unique human beings, not as a stereotype meant to represent an entire minority.

Speaking at Dwayne’s memorial in May 2011, his friend Matt Wayne said: “We need to consider that Static was smart rather than street smart, that he was a middle-class kid who lived in a house, not another embarrassing cliché from some fictionalized Harlem that only exists in a comic book editor’s brain. We should strive, as Dwayne did, to give our fictional worlds human depth. We need to worry about getting all that right. And we may even have to worry about raising the lowest common denominator to do it.”

As a measure of how large and varied the animation writing community now is, Dwayne and Earl never worked together. They did, however, have acquaintances in common, one of them being Alan Burnett, another winner of the AWC Animation Writing Award. “I had the privilege of working with Earl and Dwayne up until the end, and two more disparate writers in our field you’ll not find,” Burnett said after the event. “Yet they were alike in many ways: They had an encyclopedic knowledge in their respective domains of animation and comics, a tremendous empathy for fellow writers and people at large, and a natural, soft-spoken gentleness. To accomplish what they did took a steely resolve, and they had that for sure. But I come away from their passing remembering their sweet natures and easy smiles. They were true gentlemen of this industry.”