Honor the Past
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a celebration to honor the 85th birthdays of two treasures of the comic industry: legendary artists Joe Sinnott, for my money easily the best inker to ever grace Kirby, and Ramona Fradon, who helped define Aquaman and co-created Metamorpho.
If you're not familiar with Joe or Ramona's work, go educate yourself. Both have a long list of impressive credits. But to me, even more amazing is they're both still incredibly sharp of mind, and still producing great artwork. Joe still inks the "Amazing Spider-Man" Sunday strip and Ramona still takes on commission work. Both still appear (and sketch) at conventions.
I actually flew out to the Detroit Fanfare con with Ramona and my buddy and fellow writer Todd Dezago in September. While we waited for our transportation to pick us up at the airport in Detroit (and while Todd was actually off looking for our transportation), I got a chance to chat with Ramona about her career. Her number one complaint? Working with writers who didn't understand how to write a visual story, who didn't understand how many actions could fit in a panel, and how many panels could fit on a page. Apparently some things never change, because that's still an all-too-common complaint of artists today.
The birthday gathering began with lunch at a diner in upstate Saugerties, NY, Joe Sinnott's hometown (which also happens to be my wife's hometown). A crowd of local and semi-local creators attended, including Joe and Ramona, Walter and Louise Simonson, John Byrne, Joe Staton and his wife Hilarie, Todd Dezago, me, and a trio of inking greats: Tom Palmer, Dan Green and Terry Austin (who organized the whole thing). I paid for Joe's lunch, despite his protests that it wasn't necessary; we finally agreed that when I turn 85, Joe would buy my lunch.
Afterwards, the party moved to Terry's house in a neighboring town for birthday cake. And inevitably, what happens when you get a bunch of creators at a party is... we talk comics. We talk about what everyone is working on. We talk about creator-owned projects vs. work-for-hire projects.
I spent a lot more time listening than I did talking that day. The accumulated comics experience and knowledge in the room was pretty stunning. I got to listen to Dan Green and Walter Simonson talk about first meeting one another years ago in the coffee room at DC Comics, their respective first jobs in the business, and memories of Joe Orlando and Julie Schwartz. I got a peek at some pages from Walter's upcoming "Legion of Super-Heroes" issue. I heard little bit about John Byrne's future projects.
I was also fortunate enough to have Walter place a Thor sketch in my "Thor: Artist's Edition." So, yeah, go ahead and be jealous.
A week later, I saw Joe again, this time at the Albany Comic Con, which is the local show for me and other creators in the area. I asked Joe if he might have time to draw a sketch in a copy of the "Thor: Warriors Three" hardcover I had, so I could donate it to be auctioned to benefit Hero Initiative (Joe drew the lead story reprinted in that collection). You can see Joe's gorgeous Thor sketch along with this column. Pretty sweet lines for 85, huh? The auction for the book should start next Tuesday on Hero Initiative's ebay page.
Just to be sure no one misses the point: an 85-year-old man donated his time and skill to help out an organization that lends aid to comic creators in need... almost all of whom are many years his junior. I think that's pretty great.
Comics as a whole spends so much time looking for the next new, hot thing, we often forget where we came from. And who got us to where we are. We all stand on the shoulders of people like Joe Sinnott and Ramona Fradon. But the industry doesn't do a great job of taking care of its elder statesmen. Which is a primary reason I support Hero Initiative every chance I can.
Hero Initiative began as a gleam in the eye of Jim McLauchlin, former Wizard writer, former editor-in-chief for Top Cow, and my current nemesis in our fantasy football league. Jim, like me, is a former sportswriter. Major League Baseball has a fund called BAT -- Baseball Assistance Team -- that raises money for the needs of former ballplayers (most of whom played in the years before today's mega-salaries). But comics never had anything of the sort.
Hero Initiative would not exist without Jim McLauchlin. And more than likely, it would not exist without Mark Alessi, founder of the late, lamented CrossGen Comics. It's easy to turn Alessi into a villain, considering CrossGen's crash and burn, and the number of creators who got burned in the process. Some of Alessi's reputation in that respect is deserved. But there was another side to the man, one which doesn't really get discussed. Alessi had great respect and love for the comics and creators of the past. You could see that in the art collection that hung on the studio walls. And you could see that in Alessi helping Jim get what would become Hero Initiative off the ground.
Of course, it wasn't called Hero Initiative then. It was A.C.T.O.R. (A Commitment To Our Roots), a name Alessi coined despite the obvious problem of it being a charity for comic creators and not... well, actors. Not completely shocking, I guess, considering he also came up with the names for the CrossGen titles "Crux" and "Negation," among others.
This is the way Jim tells it: "The first time was probably summer of 2000. Mark loved the idea of a charitable organization for comic creators, and mentioned that he had lawyers on retainer already at CrossGen. He offered to get them working on framing a corporation and filling out the paperwork. He helped me considerably in coming up with a structure, and visualizing what the organization would be. I started balking early on, realizing that this was really a large, and admittedly scary, undertaking. He kept pushing me, and truth be told, I'm damn glad he did. Simply put, he gave me the balls to start this. We were official by February 2001, I believe."
To date, Hero Initiative has dispersed more than $400,000 to help creators with everything from medical care to simply putting food on the table. Go to the website and see what they do. See who's involved (hint: their last names include Perez, Romita, Chaykin, Simonson, Quesada, Waid, O'Neil, Thomas and others).
I'm honored I was able to help Joe Sinnott and Ramona Fradon celebrate their 85th birthdays. I marvel (no pun intended) at both of them. But I also know that many creators are not as fortunate in their golden years. Spare a thought for them, and if you can, maybe a few bucks for Hero Initiative.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, "Voodoo" for DC and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com