Comic book artists invented some of pop culture's most indestructible heroes. But when it comes to protecting themselves, these writers and illustrators turned out to be as vulnerable to personal setbacks -- health crises, foreclosures, insolvent retirements -- as Superman is to Kryptonite.
Even though comic books and the movies and television shows they inspire represent a multibillion-dollar business, the majority of their creators were freelance employees with modest (if any) insurance, pension and retirement benefits. Now that many of the artists who came to prominence during the silver age for comics have become too elderly or infirm to work, more than a few are battling to stay afloat.
"What we hear all the time is, 'I'm three months behind on the rent, and I'm going to be evicted tomorrow,' " said Jim McLauchlin, president of the Hero Initiative, an 8-year-old Los Angeles nonprofit dedicated to bailing out struggling comic book illustrators and writers. "And when you take a look at how the economy's been for the last couple of years, that's really going to magnify the need."
In addition to hosting a $150-a-head fundraising auction and party tonight at Los Angeles' Meltdown Comics & Collectibles, Hero Initiative will auction off lunches with distinguished artists during July 23-26's massive Comic-Con International in San Diego. The organization also will invite top illustrators (including "The Death of Superman's" Dan Jurgens and "Wolverine's" Daniel Way) to sign autographs and make quick sketches for convention visitors, with the fees charged going to Hero Initiative.
Gene Colan is one beneficiary of the program, which handed out more than $230,000 in services in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the most recent for which tax filings are available.
Colan, a renowned artist best known for his work on "Batman," "Daredevil" and "The Tomb of Dracula," said that like many freelancers in comics he usually worked without insurance and retirement coverage. "There was very little support -- there was nothing in terms of benefits," Colan said from Brooklyn. "Artists have always been oblivious to this kind of stuff -- all we needed was enough to support our families."
That changed, however, when Colan's health began failing 10 years ago. In addition to suffering a heart attack, the 83-year-old artist had glaucoma and then liver disease. "I looked like a prisoner of war," he said of losing 40 pounds to his illnesses. He had some insurance, he said, "but it couldn't possibly cover what I needed."
Gifts of several thousand dollars from Hero Initiative to Colan and his wife, Colan said, "helped pull the two of us out of a big mess."
Bill Messner-Loebs was in an even deeper hole. A writer and illustrator whose credits include "The Flash" and "Wonder Woman," Messner-Loebs and his wife lost their home;read=3912 to foreclosure in 2001, and after another housing setback were moving from cheap motel room to cheap motel room. Soon thereafter, essentially homeless, the couple was living in various Michigan church shelters for weeks at a time.
"In the midst of all of this, I was contacted by the Hero Initiative, and they gave us money a couple of times to pay for some hotel stays and build up our savings," the 60-year-old Messner-Loebs said from Brighton, Mich. The organization was also able to drum up some work for Messner-Loebs, who said he is now working on a "secret project" for DC Comics.
"We are doing much better than we were before," he said. "But I really can't imagine where I'd be without their help."
Ralph Reese, an illustrator for National Lampoon and Mad magazine and the "Flash Gordon" and "Magnus, Robot Fighter" comics, worked steadily until the comic book business consolidated in the 1990s.
"I had nothing -- there was no retirement plan, no pension, no healthcare benefits. That's the life of a freelancer," the 60-year-old Reese said from Staten Island, N.Y. "After 30 years in the business, I couldn't get any work. I had a wife, a 6-year-old daughter, and I eventually had to go out and drive trucks to make ends meet."
By 2005, Reese could no longer work because of a back injury, and his unemployment benefits didn't cover his medical bills. On welfare, Reese said he couldn't afford his prescription drugs or doctor visits. A $3,600 gift from Hero Initiative has allowed Reese to enroll in Medicaid. "I dedicated my life to something that ultimately didn't pay off and left me high and dry," Reese said.
To supplement (and pay for) its grants to artists in need (Hero Initiative handed out some $40,000 in June alone, president McLauchlin said), the nonprofit conducts regular live and online auctions of donated artwork, some from the strapped artists needing help (there are works from Reese now for sale).
The organization also helps curate tribute books, for which active illustrators contribute artwork to honor a specific artist in financial distress. The next such book, focused on "Green Arrow" and "Batman" writer and artist Ed Hannigan, is due in December and its proceeds will go to the 58-year-old Hannigan, who has multiple sclerosis.
"He's on Social Security disability," McLauchlin said. "So it's very difficult for him to do any work."