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The Hero Initiative: a charity for veteran comic book artists

Cartoonist Mike Grell sketches for the Hero Initiative and attendees of 2011's Mid-Ohio Con.
Cartoonist Mike Grell sketches for the Hero Initiative and attendees of 2011's Mid-Ohio Con.
The Hero Initiative

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Superheroes seem most notable these days for their ability to generate billion-dollar blockbusters. But while studios and comic book publishers have raked in the dough, the original creators of those crime fighters almost always worked as independent contractors, paid by each page of a comic they produced, not as salaried employees.

And that meant they rarely, if ever, enjoyed benefits like health insurance and retirement plans. As those artists become older, they sometimes face crippling bills and don’t have the resources to make ends meet.

The Hero Initiative is a charity designed to help these comic book legends get through difficult times, providing tens of thousands of dollars in emergency aid every year. The charity is at Comic-Con in San Diego this week, selling off artwork to raise money for the fund.

To get more of a background on the charity and the plight of veteran comics creators, we spoke with Jim McLauchlin, the co-founder and president of the Hero Initiative. When McLauchlin joined us on The Frame, he told us about the economic history of Superman's creation, the Hero Initiative's offerings at this year's Comic Con, and how the initiative was inspired by a program started by Major League Baseball.

Interview Highlights:

These artists weren't getting rich, but the characters they were creating became worth billions of dollars down the road. Superman, Batman, Spiderman — everybody was being invented in this period, right?

Yeah, pretty much the classic story of all that is the story of Superman. You had Jerry Segal and Joe Schuster, who were a couple of guys who basically sold the character for $130, plus a 10-year contract to do the character, to the company that we now call DC Comics.

But, when you think about what has happened in the wake of Superman, everything from all the publishing to the Superman peanut butter, to Superman television shows and Superman Underoos — the whole nine yards — $130 looks like quite a bargain for DC Comics.

Moving forward from the Golden and Silver ages of comics to about the year 2000, what happened to these artists and how did Hero Initiative come to be?

Hero Initiative started in 2000 because of my sports background. I used to be a sports writer, and Major League Baseball has something called BAT, the Baseball Assistance Team. They recognized that, today, every backup middle infielder is making $1.8 million, but you don't have to go back very far, maybe the mid-1970s, and players typically were making $10,000 and they had to have a job during the winter to make ends meet.

So the MLB went back and realized that there were a whole bunch of players who built MLB into what it is, and they set up a fund to help out some of the old-time athletes. Later, when I was working in the comics field, it seemed like something should really exist like that in comics.

You're working with artists who don't have insurance? They may not have retirement plans? What are the issues that you cover — is it medical issues, housing, life emergencies? 

It's all those things you mentioned. It's health, it is housing, it is emergencies, it's the walk-of-life things that we never see coming until sometimes it's too late. A perfect example is a guy named Joe Phillips. He's been a comic artist for about 20 years, he lives in San Diego, and Joe had to have a leg amputated several months ago.

Right when that happened, he was quite literally flat on his back for a while. It's very hard to get any work done or to even get around the house or prop yourself up and sit at a drawing board when you're in a situation like that. So Hero Initiative helped Joe pay the rent and keep things going for a couple months when he was in immediate recovery.

How do you go about raising your money? How does Comic-Con figure into your fundraising?

Most of what we do is in the comic market. It's fundraising that takes place at events, in the comics business, with a really dedicated audience. We have a great relationship with Marvel Comics and typically every year Marvel will do something in conjunction with us that we call the 100 Project.

There's a special issue of a comic, an anniversary issue or a new #1 issue, and Marvel will print 100 blank-covered copies of a comic. We'll send those out to 100 different artists, have them do an original drawing on the cover, and we'll auction off the originals and collect all the drawings into a book. Really, the 100 Projects have been wonderful sources of yearly institutional income for us. 

If people were to stop by the booth for Hero Initiative at the Comic-Con floor, what would be going on?

We'll be at booth 5003 at Comic-Con and over the course of the weekend we'll have a variety of different creators there, signing autographs, doing sketches. Scott Koblish, the artist on "Deadpool" from Marvel Comics, will be there, as well as Dan Jurgens, who's famous as the guy who did the Death of Superman storyline several years ago.

An interesting character you'll see there is a guy named Ethan Castillo, a 10-year-old artist who started self-publishing some projects and has been hitting the convention circuit with his family when school's out of session. 

We also spoke with Mike Grell, a cartoonist and writer who has worked on Iron Man, Green Arrow, X-Men, The Warlord, and John Sable (not too shabby, huh?). Grell told us about how his time working in the early days of comics left him without a safety net or a retirement fund, and how the Hero Initiative swooped in to save the day after a lengthy bout with illness.

Interview Highlights:

We know that the Golden and Silver Ages of comics were largely freelance, but what does that mean? Were you getting paid per page, per day? How did it work?

It was very much a piecework operation, per page. It was all done under "work for hire" as well, which meant that the company owned all the characters and you got your paycheck and a steady stream of income, and that was pretty much it.

But that means that when you get to be older, you realize you don't have a lot of benefits that are left over, or retirement or health insurance — the kinds of things that you would normally have from a full-time job. A lot of people of your era don't have access to those kinds of things.

There was, and is, nothing like that available. You were pretty much on your own, and a lot of us still are. Of course, when you're young and you still consider yourself to be a whippersnapper, it's no big deal — after all, you're going to live forever and you're never going to get sick.

But, as luck would have it, and life would have it, it doesn't quite work out that way. I found that out the hard way a couple years ago when I wound up flat on my back in a hospital bed and had no safety net, nothing to fall back on, no insurance, nothing. And that's where the Hero Initiative came in.

What were you suffering from, and how did they help you out?

I had a condition called cellulitis, which is a bacterial infection in one of the layers in your skin that affected my right leg. I honestly expected any day to wake up with no leg. I was 17 days in a hospital in a fairly intensive situation that just kept getting worse and worse.

When they figured out what it was, finally, they [put] me on a bunch of antibiotics, with a long recuperation period after that. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that this is a condition that can come back, and it did, about a year later. That was another nine days in the hospital.

With all of that building up, I was behind on my rent, I had medical expenses that I couldn't pay, and a friend of mine reminded me about the Hero Initiative. I knew they did good work and I knew that they helped a lot of people in trouble, but I just never expected that I would be one of those people.

What were they able to do for you?

Everything. They jumped in immediately and paid my medical expenses, paid my back-rent, provided me with living expenses to keep me going until I was back on my feet. It wasn't just the couple weeks in the hospital, but it was a six-week recovery period after that and then slowly, gradually getting back into being fully functional.

What would you imagine would have happened to you if you hadn't been bailed out by the Hero Initiative?

I would have had no other choice than bankruptcy. I mean, that's pretty much it. It's a harsh waker-upper, and it makes you think twice and it makes you count your blessings. One of the blessings that I can count in spades is the Hero Initiative.

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