Toon Musings: Retirement Plan
In the mid-eighties, the awful realization that I had entered my late twenties overtook me. It was at this time that I once again took up the reading of comic books, after a hiatus of about twelve years. Make of that what you will. Those were heady times in the graphic novel industry; the direct market (retailers could buy directly from publishers at more favorable terms, but with no returns allowed) was beginning to establish itself, sparking a renaissance in funnybooks as evergreen products, rather than periodicals with a limited shelf life. Disallowing the return of unsold inventory meant that publishers could take a chance on independent and creator-owned titles, and smaller publishers and shops specifically targeted to comics readers could operate with much lower risk, provided they could accurately predict demand.
I had lost interest in conventional superhero books in the mid-seventies; but while my interest in comics was newly rekindled, my tastes remained reassuringly puerile: science fiction, fantasy, humor, and the occasional exploration of the new, dark, gritty, unconventional superheroes… y’know, for old times’ sake. If my tastes had been a little more mature, I might have enjoyed tales of 19th century frontier life,— tales like Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire. I didn’t read the title (number 35 in Rolling Stones’ list of the 50 best non-superhero graphic novels), but I knew about it. The creator, William Messner-Loebs, is a rare talent; his artwork had a loopy grace, strikingly reminiscent of The Spirit’s Will Eisner. I can’t speak to his storytelling skills, but writing comics is what he has done for the balance of his career: Jonny Quest for Comico, Thor for Marvel, The Maxx for Image (made into a miniseries for MTV), The Flash, Impulse, Jaguar, Dr. Fate, Hawkman, for DC, the well-regarded Epicurus the Sage for DC, and a nice, long stretch writing Wonder Woman, also for DC, for which he got a ’special thanks’ credit in the recent film. He just last summer was presented an award for “Excellence in Comic Book Writing”at the San Diego Comicon. And now, a Detroit TV newshound has discovered that he’s homeless.
That an accomplished and even acclaimed practitioner in his field, one with a proven track record and apparently undiminished skills should be working janitorial jobs and living out of his car is scandalous. And this isn’t the first time he’s been in these straits; back in 2001, his family faced a number of medical crises which resulted in eviction from their home. The current difficulties stem from a gas leak at their current residence, which resulted in an inspection of the home, which was condemned due to mold and other issues. Some hoarding behavior might also be involved. Further complicating Mr Messner-Loebs’ situation is the fact that he has only one arm, the result of an illness while he was an infant, which somewhat complicates his employment prospects, to be sure.
Making a living as a cartoonist can be a precarious enterprise. The big publishers have perfected a kind of assembly line process, with each task assigned its own worker bee, its own interchangeable cog in the larger comics-producing machine. We like to think we’re making Art, but we’re really just cranking out widgets; at least, that’s how the bean counters at the big publishers see it. Most cartoonists, comics writers, and artists are hired as independent contractors, for fairly meager pay, on what amounts to a temporary basis. Freelance work can be sporadic, and benefits like health insurance are generally lacking. Navigating this morass takes energy and not a little bureaucratic savvy, which not everyone has — and the situation is only getting worse. No doubt our oligarchs would like to move everyone to this model: get work when and if you can wherever you can scrounge it up, don’t get sick or hurt, keep those dozens of balls in the air; but if you screw up, even for an instant…, it’s the ice floe for you! William Messner-Loebs, as talented as he is, is the canary in this coal mine.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.