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While the plight of Stan Lee provoked sympathy and a desire to help from all corners, his story is just one example (albeit an extreme example) of the difficulties faced by a number of comic book industry professionals. With a workforce that is predominantly freelance, and reliant on finding favor with fans, editors and publishers alike, it’s an industry that is unforgiving for anyone suffering illness, financial hardship or just simple bad luck — which is where the nonprofit organization the Hero Initiative comes in.
The organization was started in 2000 under the name ACTOR (which stood for “A Commitment To Our Roots”) and was renamed in 2006 as a way to prevent confusion over the group’s comic industry focus. It was created as a way for fans and industry professionals alike to give back to the figures who helped shape the stories and characters that audiences loved so much. Any creator who has worked in the comic industry for 10 years is eligible for assistance because, as president of the organization Jim McLauchlin puts it, “Everybody in this business can be 90 days away from ruin.”
The origin of the Hero Initiative has an unlikely starting point, it turns out: Major League Baseball.
“I have a background as a sports writer,” McLauchlin tells Heat Vision. “Major League Baseball has a parallel organization called BAT — Baseball Assistance Team — and they recognized that, before the days of free agency, baseball players would have to get a job in the winter to make ends meet. Now if you’re a back-up middle infielder you’re making $2.9 million a year, as baseball has grown more and become richer, so they wanted to do something to help older players.”
McLauchlin got to talking with his friend Mark Alessi, who at the time was the owner and operator of the now-defunct comic book publisher CrossGen.
“One day, we were talking about the Baseball Assistance Team and why wasn’t there anything like that for comics,” he says. “And Mark was like, ‘Why isn’t there anything like that for comics? You should do one.’”
Despite initial reluctance — “I said, ‘That’s a terrible idea. I don’t have the time or inclination, and I wouldn’t even know where to start,’” McLauchlin remembers, laughing — Alessi followed through on the idea, putting his legal team to work to get everything in motion. “I don’t think much of the conversation, but flash forward maybe a month or so later, I get a call from Mark saying, ‘Hey, you’re gonna get a FedEx package tomorrow from my lawyers. Sign here, notarize there, put together a provisional board of directors, and you’ve got a charity,’” McLauchlin recalls. “I thought, ‘This wasn’t what we talked about,’ but at the same time, it kind of felt like destiny. So, I signed and I notarized, and got everything going. It happened that quickly and that randomly.”
McLauchlin — who has worked as a senior writer and contributing editor for industry Wizard Magazine for 11 years in addition to contributing to Playboy, Wired and The Los Angeles Times — describes his current role as president of the nonprofit as being, in practical terms, “50 percent a case worker and 50 percent a party planner.”
“That’s really what it is,” he explains. “Here’s this guy with this problem, how do you best fix that problem, what is the solution you can apply? Money can a big part of the solution, but you can’t just throw money at the problem; whatever underlies that problem doesn’t just go away. You have to have a plan going forward so that whatever that person’s predicament doesn’t rear its head again.”
Of course, raising the money to spend on solutions requires what McLauchlin calls the party planner angle.
“It’s events, it’s things we do at conventions and so on,” he says. That means, ‘Okay, what’s the presence going to be? Are we bringing some talent in? Is there talent that wants to appear at our booth? Are we doing an event the night before to raise some money?’ It’s planning product, too: ‘Here’s a tote bag! What should we have on the tote bag?’”
The organization’s board of directors — a 14-strong group that includes Marvel Entertainment CCO Joe Quesada and Archie and Avengers writer Mark Waid — is also split between fundraising and problem-solving missions.
“We have our executive committee, which is — for want of a better term — the ‘current people’ in the business, and it’s our job on that end to handle the fundraising aspects,” McLauchlin explains. “On the other end, there’s the dispersal committee, and it’s their job to vote and make decisions on what we’re going to do. Most of those people are what I call the Elder Statesmen of the business. It’s Roy Thomas, it’s Denny O’Neil, it’s John Romita [Sr.] and George Perez and Jim Valentino, who literally have a 40-year, in some cases, 50-year, 60-year, track record in this business.” The latter group, McLauchlin says, are “much more of a peer group” to older creators who may require the organization’s assistance.
There’s no one way that the Hero Initiative connects with the creators it helps, according to McLauchlin; creators have contacted the organization directly, or the organization has searched out individuals based on reports or tips from others. That latter example, what McLauchlin calls “a middle step” in the process, is the most common method of discovery.
“There’s almost invariably someone in the middle,” he says. “People can be prideful and don’t want to admit when they’re in a hole, or having trouble and can’t take care of something. Very often, we’ll get a call from someone saying, ‘Hey, I’m friends with Person X. You should look in on Person X.’ I’ve come to know that, when I get that call, that’s a clue and I should call Person X. I call them and they’ll say what the specific circumstance may be — you know, ‘I’ve got liver cancer and I’m three months behind on rent. I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to call you guys, it’s no big deal.’ And that’s kind of a big deal!”
The experience of Keith Champagne, a comic book writer and artist, fits into that model. Champagne — who had himself worked with the Hero Initiative to fundraise before he’d needed its assistance — had suffered an accident during a camping trip that required surgery and a break in his workload if he was to recover.
“Comics is a small industry and when I got hurt, someone suggested to Hero that they check in with me,” he says. “I initially declined their assistance but Jim made it clear that if I needed anything, to just reach out and they’d there to help. About a week later, when it became clear how long I was going to be immobilized, out of work and unable to earn for — and how my savings was almost instantly devoured, I swallowed my pride; it’s hard to ask for help, and dropped Hero an email. They jumped into action immediately.”
Nancy Collins, a novelist and comic book writer, is someone else who has been helped by the organization when she lost her day job following her car giving up the ghost. “It did not occur to me to reach out to the Hero initiative at first,” she remembers. “Instead, I contacted a publisher looking for pick-up work — writing a fill-in issue or one-shot — to try and raise money for what I needed help with. He recommend HI and gave me their contact information, and said he’d put in a word for me.”
Within 48 hours she’d heard back from the organization, and within two weeks she had a check to replace her car.
“In my case, what they helped me with didn’t involve my health, but it still saved my life. The 20-year- old clunker I was relying on to commute to and from my day job abruptly blew its head gasket on the expressway on the way home from work this time last year. Within minutes I lost both my car and my job, and I live in a part of the Atlanta Metro area that doesn’t have public transit,” Collins says. “When they told me my request had been approved and a check was in the mail, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. A year later I still have my car, a new job, and fresh career prospects I would not have expected.”
In an era where social media is often viewed as one of the primary tools to create change on any number of levels from personal to professional, societal to corporate, McLauchlin sees the Hero Initiative as something that allows people to make a more direct, tangible difference in the lives of any number of comic industry professionals whose work they’ve admired.
“Whenever people say ‘What can I do for Hero Initiative?’, I always tell them, ‘Five bucks.’ It’s the simplest thing, it’s the easiest and it has the most impact,” he says. “Your five bucks, and that guy’s, and the other dude’s — it all starts to add up. Likes on Facebook, I don’t know what that means, I don’t know how to quantify that. But putting a warm meal in somebody’s belly or paying their rent — we can do that five bucks at a time.”
Champagne says he gets emotional thinking about Hero Initiative being there for him.
“On a practical level, the organization literally helped me keep the lights on and feed my family which, you know, is amazing in itself,” he says. “But on a deeper level, at the worst time in my life when I was immobilized, helpless, in constant pain, stressed to the max … their assistance was a big step in helping me to feel like I was taking control again. That this hurricane of bad fortune wasn’t going to sweep me away. They bought me time to heal.”
McLauchlin has learned to accept the kind words from those the initiative has helped.
“I know it sounds hokey — this is something I used to dismiss, I thought people were being hyperbolic — but I’ve had dozens of people tell me to my face, ‘You saved my life. Your organization saved my life,’” McLauchlin said. “The first few times I heard it, you don’t want to believe it because you don’t want to think somebody is that close to the edge. But by now, I believe it. Now, when I hear it, I say, ‘I believe you, and thank you, and let me shake your hand. Let’s keep going.’”
More information about the Hero Initiative can be found here.
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