This piece was meant to be a profile on Robert L. Washington III's turbulent career in the comic book industry and how The Hero Initiative helped him avoid returning to living a life on the streets. And while it remains that, it is also the last story the writer would share publicly.
Washington passed away June 6, a day shy of two weeks after our interview, at Mount Sinai Queens in New York City after suffering multiple heart attacks. He was 47.
Washington was initially difficult to get in contact with. The only phone number I had for him did not receive calls -- it turned out he hadn't been able to pay the bill in months. He also did not return my emails. He said he assumed I would have found a "bigger, more important name for the piece" by the time he read my message. But after a couple weeks, he returned my call and we scheduled an interview.
Washington did not have access to a private phone, so that Thursday afternoon I called him at Future Memories, Inc., where he was a customer service agent. When he answered the phone, his boss was standing next to him and he pretended I was another employer offering him a better paying job.
After a laugh and our initial greetings, I began to ask questions about his life. His voice was startlingly deep, and he enjoyed discussing his career as well as the characters he had created and worked on since first entering the comics industry 22 years ago.
When I began to ask him about his transition out of working on comics for a living and losing the life he had known, the amount of detail Washington offered greatly diminished. Although I could tell he had the desire to speak with me, it was apparent that he didn't wish to use our interview as a platform to simply tell the world of his troubles. Ultimately, our discussion centered more on the emotional support and respect the Hero Initiative gave him than the bills they helped him pay.
Washington's goal and agenda seemed obvious. "As a man of a certain age," he felt more than uncomfortable asking for handouts. But without savings, a decent salary, a retirement plan or any benefits from his life's work, he needed help more than he needed his pride. And he did need his pride.
Robert Washington wanted to repay the Hero Initiative -- if not with money, at least with his story.
CBR News: When did you first get in touch with the Hero Initiative?
Robert Washington: A year and a half ago. I've really been underemployed for three years. It's been hard to get full time work -- only on holidays or week-to-week things. It's still been pretty difficult for me. Four or six different times they've helped me since the first, when I can't make ends meet. More important than medical or financial, the emotional support has been very helpful. It's easy to feel forgotten. I never felt like a big guy, or that my career was a big deal; they make you feel appreciated, your work and your work ethic. Someone actually remembers, your work actually matters. The fact that you used to work on Superman, Batman, ends up feeling bittersweet when you're on the brink of being homeless. That's as important or more important than anything.
When someone mentions the Hero Initiative, what thought or memory first comes to mind?
How incredibly important they are and how they're such a unique organization. There are so many people like me, with much larger careers and projects with more important characters, and there's very little help for them. Middle-aged men have very little security. It's easy to focus on who will make the most difference, and that's usually moms and families. It's very difficult, even in private charities. The fact that the Hero Initiative is there is important for men my age and comic book people. There are a lot of people like me that got a very raw deal.
Over the course of your comics career, where did you work?
I started getting work right when I moved to New York City. Being hired out of the Marvel offices evolved into writing material for "Marvel Year-In-Review," then "Clive Barker's Hellraiser." Then freelance work and Milestone. I'm most known for [co-writing] the Static character, co-created the Shadow Cabinet, wrote many of the scripts for "Ninjak" and co-created "Xombi," although the recreated character was great. Around the collapse of industry, I worked on the last issue of "The Good Guys." After that, Defiant went out of business. As sales figures went down, I lost business and people were fired, editors weren't around to look at my work. In 1998-99, I had too many bills to pay, and had to get a real job.
What sort of work are you doing now?
I have a good speaking voice for phone jobs. I have a customer service job right now. I'm barely getting by -- I would like to move, but probably won't be able to for six or more months.
What was a day in your life like when you had steady comic book work?
Phenomenal -- I woke up when I wanted, did what I wanted, stopped by the office one week to drop off a script and a week later for the check. It was really great lifestyle. As long as you turn in the work, your lifestyle is completely your own. I will beat you up to get back to it. That was the early 90s until about 1998.
What was a typical day like before reaching out to the Hero Initiative?
Going on the Internet, which I could barely afford to -- I don't have a computer, so I use one at an Internet café. I'd collect cans for money for bus or train fare.
When did you first reach out to the Hero Initiative?
My first experience with them, I sent two or three emails before I got a response. I was absolutely desperate, and they bent over backwards to cut through the red tape and help me, which was very gratifying. 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. There's no doubt whatsoever that every time they helped me out, my only option was to pack up everything I own and be homeless. No question, it would have been about me starting out at square one. The shelter system in New York doesn't have a good reputation.
How did you feel writing your comic for the Hero Initiative's 2012 anthology?
That was really very difficult. I'm very old fashioned and not used to my issues being out in the public eye. That, and doing a convention for them, was very embarrassing, but my ability to pay them back is non-existent, especially the emotional support. If my public appearance motivates even one person to donate, I feel like I'm helping pay them back.
There are a lot of people that need help. I have concerns that they won't always be able to help me. The economy is bad, they will always want to help, but I don't know if they'll always be able to.
How do you feel when you contact them?
Almost every single time I receive assistance, I'm in tears. It's emotional. Every time I call them, it's because I need them. It's serious emotional relief that is impossible to describe. It's an extremely positive experience and I hope I could one day help someone else like they have.
With the current uptick in the comic book industry, have you found more work in recent years?
I haven't noticed more sources for work. There are more small companies, but the compensation isn't good. More venues -- but the same catch 22. You can't be an artist or a writer, you need to be both with a concept. If you don't have all those things, it'll be a hard, slow road. It's been hard to find people to work with in my career. I have a lot of ideas -- two or three editors at Marvel said they'd be happy to look at ideas, for the last two or three years to a decade, but don't have time. No one has looked at anything I've done in a decade, so I don't know if it's good or bad.
Has the Hero Initiative helped you in your search for work?
I've never really asked them for work help. They've helped me with immediate needs. I'm a guy of a certain age -- I'm not used to asking, nor do I think it'll ever get easier for me.
Looking back at your career and life, what would you stress to young writers and artists?
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.
Frankly, they should totally donate to the Hero Initiative. For every one person like me that steps up and admits there's a problem, there's probably a couple dozen people that haven't, yet.
The Hero Initiative is currently raising money to help cover the burial fees for Robert Washington. To donate, visit www.heroinitiative.org, click the yellow "Donate" button, click on "Add special instructions" and type "Robert Washington" in the field in order to earmark your contribution for the burial.