Robert Washington's words from the grave: "Have a backup plan."

201206190246.jpg

In all the hubbub of the last few weeks I haven’t been able to write about the passing of Robert L. Washington III, a comics writer who was a key part of Milestone Comics in the ’90s. He co-created Static and helped write BLOOD SYNDICATE and other comics for DC and Valiant. And then, things got slow. And Washington had troubles, years of them. And on June 7th at the age of 47, he died of multiple heart attacks.

201206190311.jpg
Just before his death, he’d been helped out by the Hero Initiative, as shown in the above comic which he wrote for a Hero Initiative anthology. Washington had been living marginally on part time jobs…and when he died, as you may have read, there wasn’t enough money left to bury him. Some folks have been collecting funds to give him a proper funeral; I’ve given and I would hope some of you reading this will follow that link and make a donation.

I remember Robert Washington. To be honest, he was pretty unforgettable, with a booming voice and an easy laugh. He also wore hats quite a bit, which always stood out. When Milestone was riding high, we were convention pals, of the casual sort you make, making jokes at BarCon, saying hello in artist alley. It was apparent to me that Washington was a “character”, like many of the people in creative businesses, but all the same, I didn’t expect him to get shoved into a pauper’s grave when he died.

Just a few weeks before his death, Ashley Soley-Cerro
interviewed Washington for CBR
. It’s painful reading, for what was and what could have been.

What was a day in your life like when you had steady comic book work?

Phenomenal — I woke up when I wanted, did what I wanted, stopped by the office one week to drop off a script and a week later for the check. It was really great lifestyle. As long as you turn in the work, your lifestyle is completely your own. I will beat you up to get back to it. That was the early 90s until about 1998.

What was a typical day like before reaching out to the Hero Initiative?

Going on the Internet, which I could barely afford to — I don’t have a computer, so I use one at an Internet café. I’d collect cans for money for bus or train fare.


This is the part that we all need to write in big letters on our walls however:

Looking back at your career and life, what would you stress to young writers and artists?

Have a backup plan. That goes for everyone that wants to go into media. Being really talented isn’t enough. Do something that’ll bring you a regular income in any other industry, you can work your way back into media. The people I know in my situation have no fall-back plan or another set of skills. I can’t think of anything more important for young comics, musicians, actors. Until people realize how smart, brilliant and wonderful you are — don’t be too proud, get your backup plan.

Frankly, they should totally donate to the Hero Initiative. For every one person like me that steps up and admits there’s a problem, there’s probably a couple dozen people that haven’t, yet.


We have a lot of Robert Washingtons out there…and many who don’t even have the talent and personality he was gifted with. It’s hopeless telling young folks what to do —I wish someone had told me to put more money in my retirement fund when I was a kid, but would I have listened? Nope.—but please…young comics pros, Robert Washington was once you, a funny guy writing books for the bigs, waking up every morning dying to write comics.

Consider giving some money to the Hero Initiative. They are doing some incredibly important work.

(And you know, Disney/Marvel and WB/DC should be giving, too. I know we’ve all been talking about Jack Kirby but if .1% of the profits or Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises were given to the Hero Initiative…think of it.)

If you won’t do that, at least make that backup plan. As William S. Burroughs put it, “Life is very dangerous and few survive it.”

Comments

  1. Sobering.

    And passing away at 47 is criminal. My heart goes out to Washington and the loss of his talent. I’m 49 and I regularly kick myself nowadays for my lack of a retirement plan.

    I give to the Hero Initiative. I’m a card-carrying member, but often I worry if that will be enough for this and the next generation of creators.

  2. And just weeks ago Scott Kurtz was explaining how the lack of fair compensation to creators was solved decades ago.

    Static had a cartoon series. He was an action figure. Stuff like this shouldn’t happen.

  3. Grady Hendrix says:

    I do think that the Hero Initiative should get more support from corporations, and I was surprised there wasn’t more push for this when the Avengers was released.

    The individual urge to give is fantastic, but a big dog like Time Warner could drop a donation that would make little difference to their bottom line, earn them a large amount of community goodwill, and make a real difference to the Hero Initiative.

  4. Allen Berrebbi says:

    Seriously, billion dollar companies like Marvel and DC can’t do more? Think of the PR benefits from the move.

    It’s aslo a way to give without acknowledging what they’ve done, a win-win.

  5. Creators need to learn hard lessons from these patron saints of the industry. Just like everyone else in the world with 9-5 jobs, the goal is to build a career…not just a few years where you had a few good runs.

    Its troubling how many contemporary creators don’t even think about long term career building, and just assume a charity will be around to pay their bills once their shelf life at the big 2 is over and they are no longer relevant in the industry. (which comes a lot quicker than they might think)

    I’d love to see a time when we no longer need the hero initiative.

  6. No one is walking around expecting a charity to pay their bills.

  7. @James are you really sure about that?

    This is Steve Perry all over again, a talented creator needed help, and the Hero Initiative gave too little too late.

    And shame to DC for not opting to share a few grand of their Static Shock money to pitch in.

    I keep coming back to Michael Netzer’s ideas concerning a comic book union, so at least this sort of thing cannot happen again.

  8. James O. Smith says:

    Yes, I am.

  9. I am also sure that no one is expecting others to pay their bills. The problems have already been addressed: no retirement plan and no back up plan.

    Rather than expecting others to pick up the bills, people just expect to work to a place where they have their dream job and then everything will take care of itself (and that’s not just creative people) but it doesn’t take care of itself.

  10. I believe there are many persons receiving aid who do not need it, so that when legitimate cases, like Washington III, need help none can be found fast enough. Obviously.

  11. James Smith says:

    Possibly. Probably. But that’s a different discussion. And “belief” is irrelevant.

  12. spiderrob says:

    Save your money people. That way if you are a flash in the pan, you have some left over through the lean times.

  13. Bryan Uhlenbrock says:

    @Richard: Are you really sure about that?

    Sorry, it was a cheap & easy comeback. But really: do you have any facts behind your belief, or are you just believing whatever is most convenient for you to believe? I doubt that the Hero Initiative is just handing over money to every Lazy Lardass that happens to walk in the door…

  14. I don’t know what the solution here is, but it would be a huge help if some of either Marvel of DC’s income could be used as a tax write-off to an industry charity.

    Even to the level that they replace their computers on an extended schedule. It’s Criminal that Robert Washington didn’t have a computer to write on. I’ve always tried to find a good home for my aging computers. You never know what a talented creator is working on. Marvel has helped several creators without broadcasting what they’ve done (ie: Gene Colan thanks to Clifford Meth).

    This was a HUGE failure of us as a community…any number of us could have given him our old machines! It’s not always a corporate problem, but seriously embedded in how the industry looks at bright shiny new talent while throwing the old pros to the dogs. We are living through incredibly rough times, and those that don’t know that are clueless.

    Robert Washington, I wish I’d known you better. Rest in peace, sir.

  15. @Thad
    Did Static ever actually get an action figure? I remember Dwayne McDuffie complaining that one had never been made.

  16. It’s not just that Washington didn’t just have a computer, but he also didn’t have the money for the Internet service. Granted, if he had a laptop he could pick up free wi-fi at a coffee house, or something.

    But that’s a quibble. The pith of what Mark Mazz said is correct.

    Many creators replace their computers / equipment regularly. It would be wonderful if there was a way to get those devices to other creators in need (sadly, the shipping would cost an arm and a leg and create a logistical mess), but if the Hero Initiative or CBLDF set up something at San Diego or New York I would donate money and materials to such a cause. Not just for the aging and ill, but also the upcoming creators.

    Offering folks the tools to make their lives (and others) better is what a community is all about.

  17. Al™ says:

    Life in the Arts is never easy. For the few who make it big, there are many many who either scrape by, or might do relatively well until they fall out of favour.

    Like one former manager told me “a career does not consist of just one job”. Always be planning your next step.

  18. This is, as you say, advice for everyone. But the cost for this advice is too high.

    So what can we do? Start a petition for Disney/TW to donate to match donations to the Hero Initiative? Is there one already? The Initiative does good work — I think a corporate donation there would be more helpful to the ongoing problem than something for people who are already gone.

  19. I don’t foresee corporations donating to something like this at all. Ever. it doesn’t do them any good to admit “yes, there are freelance artists who do work for us that need help because they can’t always cover their living expenses.” And that’s what donating money to The Hero Initiative would do.

    I’m a freelance artist. My dad is a freelance artist. One of my best friends has owned and operated a used book/comic shop for 20 years. Many crises have come up (losing a home, car accidents, cancer). You absolutely have to plan carefully and act like every job might be your last regular gig. Save money like a miser. Consider health insurance second only to your mortgage or rent or whatever (yeah – the power bill comes third, because lights aren’t gonna help you when you’re diagnosed with cancer). Stay away from credit cards. Drive that paid-off car until it falls into the ground. Seriously consider whether having kids is a good idea given the stability and frequency of your income. Eat right and exercise regularly.

    Living the life of a creative artist is rewarding in many ways, but not often financially. It’s a hard life sometimes and not always fun.

  20. What is devastating emotionally to many struggling comic creators is watching things that they created make large amounts of money for others while they, themselves, suffer in poverty.

    I agree that too many artist are poorly equipped to handle appropriate management of the money they do make. That is one of my biggest peeves about art schools, they spend so much effort on teaching technique but never enough on teaching the business of being an artist.

    Comic convention’s should conduct seminars and be a vehicle for creators to gain guidance and support regarding personal economics.

    “Give a man a fish and he won’t starve for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he won’t starve for his entire life.”

  21. >> I don’t foresee corporations donating to something like this at all. Ever.>>

    They already do, some of them.

    Marvel’s donated time, artwork, books for auction and more, as have other publishers. And various publishers were involved in starting it up in the first place.

    Joe Quesada’s currently a board member. Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson used to be one.

    kdb

  22. I was shocked when I learned of Robert’s death last week. I knew Robert but had no idea he was involved in comics. I knew him as an avid and skillful boardgame player and we had been playing together twice a month for quite some time. He not only never said he was in comics, he never even implied he was having financial difficulties.

    Robert had a voice tailor made for voiceover work, an even and easy going personality that never seemed to go into a bad mood, and he was a smart guy who could learn some obscure board game and master the rules effortlessly. He already is missed.

  23. It’s sick that there is an industry that allows there to be a need for something like Hero Initiative to keep those who work in it from being homeless. The comics industry is rapacious. I remember when young artists were hired sometimes from other countries because they had a lower page rate. And how many artists who had made a name for themselves still couldn’t gain a foothold in the business…have to sell themselves anew and beg for work with every new project, every new editor.

  24. Skyhawk says:

    @Matt
    Did Static ever actually get an action figure? I remember Dwayne McDuffie complaining that one had never been made.

    One was released as promo for Subway kid’s meals. Now and then they pop up on Ebay. Right now there is a Static lead figurine out in comic shops.

Speak Your Mind

*