UPDATED 2012 06 23. Updates below. Thirty years ago, Robert Washington III dreamed of writing stories for comic books. He dreamed of creating new heroes, including ones who were African-American, like him. And he was able to do this, for a while. During the mid-nineties, comic writing was his full-time gig. He gained many fans, and his most famous character even made it to television. But industries have their ups and downs, and by the late nineties the comic industry had bottomed out. Comic writing was no longer a way to make a living, at least not for Robert. Unlike many of his peers, he didn’t write other, more lucrative types of material, and he wasn’t able to juggle a rent-paying day job and the world of superheroes. He had admirers, but no money, no steady job, and no desire to share his troubles with his friends. When he died of a heart attack two weeks ago, many of his old friends were shocked to discover that he had fallen on such hard times. This post is to tell you a little about Robert Washington, how his family and friends are raising money for a cremation, and how a very special organization is trying save other comic-industry writers and artists from destitution.
I went to school with Bob Washington, from grade school through high school. He was one year younger than me. At our small, private school, everyone knew everyone. Even if kids had completely different interests, it was impossible not to interact. Still, I think I learned more about Bob after we graduated, from the few times we talked in the mid-eighties. We argued about politics; he maintained that the entire welfare system should be dismantled. He felt that it made people weak and dependent, that is was oppressive, rather than uplifting. This conviction is probably why, when his fortunes went south, he didn’t reach out to his old friends. He probably felt that he should have been able to make it on his own. In fact, in his last interview, he talked about how difficult it was for him to admit that he needed financial help. He just disappeared, something that, in the last century, it was still possible to do.
Robert Washington is best known for Static, the character he co-created in 1993 with former classmate Dwayne McDuffie and artist John Paul Leon. Bob wrote or cowrote the first eighteen issues of the comic. The Static character got his own animated television series, Static Shock, on the WB in 2000. He teamed up again with McDuffie and Leon in 1994 to create Shadow Cabinet, and wrote for many other comics, most notably the Justice League spin-off Extreme Justice, Timewalker and Ninjak.
Eventually Bob did reach out to Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that provides emergency medical aid, financial support and employment assistance for displaced comic-industry writers and artists. He described the positive impact their aid had on his life to interviewer Ashley Soley-Cerro: “More important than medical or financial, the emotional support [from Hero Initiative] has been very helpful. It’s easy to feel forgotten…. The letter that accompanied the review of my case was just as important as anything, reminding me that someone is out there remembering me and that my work does have value.” (Full interview here.)
Hero Initiative asked Bob to contribute a story about how they had helped him to their fundraising publication Hero Comic 2012. He didn’t like to make his troubles public, but he very much wanted to repay the organization for aiding him. In the interview referenced above, he said, “If my public appearance motivates even one person to donate, I feel like I’m helping pay them back.”
Jim McLauchlin of Hero Initiative sent me a copy of the comic, illustrated by Chris Ivy, so I could reproduce it here. It was Bob’s last work.
On June 6, 2012, Robert Washington suffered multiple heart attacks, the first while he was at work as a customer-service rep for an etailer. Somehow his boss was able to reach a few of his former colleagues from Milestone Comics; they contacted former Milestone managing editor Matt Wayne, who was also a former classmate of Bob’s. After Bob died in a hospital in Queens, people from The Roeper School, Hero Initiative and the world of comics worked together to find Bob’s family and raise funds so that his remains would not be consigned to a potter’s field. They were successful. As I write this, Bob’s sister is heading to New York; the family is planning a cremation. Hero Initiative is collecting donations on behalf of Bob’s family; any money that isn’t used for funeral arrangements will be donated to Hero Initiative in Bob’s name.
I’ll close with some final words from Robert Washington. During his last interview, Ashely Soley-Cerro asked him if he had any advice for young writers. He replied:
“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.”
UPDATE! As of Friday, June 22, 2012, Hero Initiative has received over $8200 for Bob. His mother and sisters have arrived in New York from Detroit to claim his body and plan a memorial service, which is tentatively scheduled for Monday, June 25 at the Ross-Roden Funeral Home in the Bronx. Bob will be cremated, and his remains buried next to his grandmother in Detroit. All monies that aren’t used for funeral arrangements will be donated to Hero Initiative in Bob’s name.
UPDATE! Saturday, June 23, 2012. Memorial service information:
Monday, June 25th, 7pm
Ross-Roden Funeral Home
725 E. Gun Hill Road
Bronx, New York 10467