Robert L. Washington III: 1964 – 2012

The comic book biz is one of those fields that, to outside fans, often appears to be a glamorous occupation.  But sometimes a case will occur that serves as a reminder that, like any other industry or occupation, it is filled with its share of hardship & tragedy.  Such is the case of Robert L. Washington III, who passed away on June 7 at the age of 47.

Washington was not an especially prolific writer, and his career in the comic book field was confined to the 1990s.  But during that brief time period, he made a significant impact.  With co-writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist John Paul Leon, he created Static for Milestone Media, which was published through DC Comics.  Washington would write 18 issues of Static.  Among his other credits were The Batman Chronicles and Extreme Justice for DC, as well as Ninjak for Valiant Comics.

Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool trade paperback

I first became familiar with Static when it was adapted into the very enjoyable animated series Static Shock, which debuted in 2000 and ran for four seasons.  Several years later, the first four issues of Static (along with a later miniseries) were collected in a trade paperback, Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool.  I bought that, and found it a great read.  It is a real shame that DC did not publish any subsequent volumes.  I’ve been meaning for some time to track down the back issues of Static, but it is something I never got around to.

Washington also wrote a two part tale in 1995 for Valiant Comics’ entertaining Timewalker series.  Timewalker featured the immortal Ivar Anni-Pada, a millennia-old being who traveled back and forth in time via portals called “time arcs,” having all manner of adventures.  Washington’s story “Ashes of the Past” appeared in Timewalker #12-13.  Ivar arrives in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, where he attempts to prevent the lynching of an African American teenager who has been accused of assaulting a white woman.  In contrast to many of the stories in the Timewalker series, it was a very serious, somber tale.  Ivar, despite all his powers, is unable to stop a great tragedy from unfolding.

timewalker 12

The story by Washington that has really stood out in my mind all these years was an emotional two part Firestorm piece “Storm’s Clearing” that appeared in the DC anthology series Showcase ’96.  “Storm’s Clearing” addressed the alcoholism of Ronnie Raymond, as he enters a treatment center to deal with his addiction.  It was a very serious and adult look at the problems of substance abuse.  The unconventional artwork by Randy DuBurke added to the story’s impact.  Years later there were elements to it that I would look back on and identify with when dealing with certain of my own personal problems.

Following the severe downturn of the comic book industry in the late-1990s, Washington found himself out of work.  According to Comic Book Resources, he was able to obtain employment in such odd jobs as a call center and a warehouse.  Tragically, Washington found himself homeless on several occasions, and was forced to rely on financial assistance from the charitable Hero Initiative.  Washington was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in Queens after suffering a heart attack on June 6, and passed away the next day.

For me, the story of Robert L. Washington III serves as a cautionary tale of the comic book industry.  Despite being a talented writer who had co-created Static, a groundbreaking character who went on to star in a very successful animated series, Washington was reduced to very dire circumstances before passing away at much too young an age.  And there just seem to be too many stories like Washington’s, of creators who worked for DC or Marvel or Archie, only to then be left bereft, their creations taken out of their hands, the profits they generated falling into the pockets of corporate owners.  In a better, more just & fair world, Washington would still be alive, and writing a new Static Shock series for DC.  But that was not to be.

Showase 96 7 pg 24

After Washington’s death, I could not help but bitterly muse that all too often the mainstream comic book industry has taken its best & brightest creators, chewed them up, and spit them out.  Although an extreme example, Washington is just the latest occurrence of a comic book professional falling by the wayside while the corporate machinery of the big companies continues to chug onward.

Other individuals wiser than myself have looked at Washington’s unfortunate plight and taken from it the lesson that those who would enter the comic book biz should have a back-up plan, some other career or occupation to fall back on.  I certainly hope the young creators of today will take this advice to heart.  Perhaps then in the future we will have fewer tragedies such as that which befell Robert L. Washington III.

Fury of Firestorm #9 and the problem of making comic books accessible to new readers

There are two things that I really do not like about current mainstream superhero comic books, both of which I’ve mentioned in the past.  The first is decompressed plotting.  The second, which I am going to go into more detail today, is that the scripting on many series is simply not “new reader friendly.”

On more than one occasion, former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter has commented that every issue of a comic book series is someone’s first.  Therefore each issue should contain enough information so that a new reader can quickly get up to speed.  Whatever you may think of Shooter, his is a valid point, one I firmly agree with.  I do not necessarily think you need two or three pages recapping previous issues, as typically was done in the past.  But a few narrative captions or lines of dialogue certainly would not hurt matters.  Regrettably, very few writers currently utilize this technique, and most editors do little to encourage them.

In other words, if someone were to randomly pick up an issue of any title currently published by DC or Marvel that they had never read before, there is a good chance that it would be difficult for that person to figure out what exactly is going on.  This problem really presented itself in The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #9, which came out last week.

I picked up Fury of Firestorm #9 due to it crossing over with Justice League International #9, a title I have been reading regularly.  Firestorm, in contrast, is a character I’ve never been especially interested in.  The only time I ever followed the series was when Jamal Igle was penciling it several years ago.  So I was coming to this new Fury of Firestorm series without any knowledge about the characters’ current status quo post-Flashpoint.  In other words, FOF #9 really needed to be one of those “new reader friendly” books that I’m talking about.  Unfortunately, it was not.

Fury of Firestorm #9: at least it has a nice cover

FOF #9 is co-plotted by Ethan Van Sciver & Joe Harris, with the script by Harris.  Considering that the story was continued from the pages of JLI #9, I feel that Van Sciver & Harris, in writing this issue, should have kept in mind that some brand-new readers, such as myself, would be picking up FOF for the first time.  The script by Harris could have  informed readers who these characters are, given some background information, perhaps briefly recapped their origins.  This would not have been unduly awkward exposition, because the members of the Justice League have never met the Firestorms before.  So it would make perfect sense for Booster Gold and Batman to be asking these guys to explain who they were.

Harris, however, passed up this chance to introduce the book’s cast via the device of explaining it to the League.  So we have a group of atomic-powered superhumans fighting it out in Paris, and I am not really sure who any of them are.  In addition, there were a couple of brief scenes that took place somewhere in the Middle East involving two characters.  One was apparently Ronnie Raymond, who I remember as the original Firestorm from way back when.  The other…. well, he is not named.  I was totally in the dark about what was going on with them.

I feel Van Sciver & Harris missed a perfect opportunity to make Fury of Firestorm #9 a jumping-on point for the series.  Instead, I found much of the story to be confusing.  That’s too bad, because I was open to trying the series.  After all, I recall that when I picked up Blackhawks mid-run, I was in the dark about what was going on, but the writing by Mike Costa was both interesting and comprehensible enough to hook me, which led to me picking up the entire eight issue run.  Paul Levitz always does an excellent job at introducing the large cast and multiple subplots of Legion of Super-Heroes each issue.  In contrast, at least as far as the writing goes, there wasn’t anything in FOF #9 that made me especially intrigued to continue following the book.

Trust me, I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews like this.  Ethan Van Sciver is an incredible artist (also, I’ve also met him at conventions on a few occasions, and he seems like a nice guy).  Indeed, his cover artwork for FOF #9 is stunning.  Likewise, the interior artwork from Yildiray Cinar, Marlo Alquiza, and Norm Rapmund is equally good.  So it’s a real shame that the writing by Van Sciver & Harris did not match that high standard.

Not to single out Fury of Firestorm #9.  This particular comic book just seems to epitomize for me a problem emblematic of much of the industry.  I really feel it is one of the major reasons why comic book sales have continued to decline year after year.