Comics is a cruel, cruel business.
I talked about that cruelness a few weeks ago in this column and I have to revisit it again this week in light of the terrible news about the health of comics great Tony DeZuniga.
If you haven't heard, the great artist of Jonah Hex and other great comics of the '70s and '80s has recently had a stroke and is currently rehabilitating in a hospital in the Philippines. This is terrible news for anyone, but it hits Tony especially hard because the system in the Philippines is very different from how it is here. In the Philippines the hospital collects money every day. Every single day the family of the person in the hospital has to come up with $1000 cash to pay for that day's medical costs. A grand, every single day.
Of course, this is on top of all the stress and pain and family trauma that happens when you have a terribly sick family member. If you've ever had a parent in the hospital with a terrible medical condition, you know what I'm talking about. It's an emotionally devastating time for any family as they deal with their pain and stress, and stress about money just adds another level of crazy stress to everything.
I don't know about you, but for me and my family, to have to come up with a thousand damn dollars a day would be really hard to do after just a few days. The more the meter was running and the more that I had to produce; the harder it would get for us. I know that there are many people in the industry who are working hard to do what they can to help the DeZuniga family, but it has been a long and tough slog for the DeZunigas. Though Tony has worked some conventions in recent years (I have a lovely print of Jonah Hex that is one of the prides of my collection), he hasn't received much work lately, and I'm sure that the family could use every dollar they can get.
Unfortunately this sort of situation has led to a terrible cycle in the comics industry: a beloved and respected creator falls sick, the industry rallies around them, and we all make a small and heartfelt effort to help them. I was proud several years ago to be part of the team that helped the great Dave Cockrum recover some royalties from his creations of several characters from the X-Men. I was delighted to donate to the causes of Ed Hannigan and Bill Mantlo and many, many others. I love being part of this process and am always delighted to be able to give something back to the creators who have given me so much joy throughout my life.
And that's all well and good. The creator gets come extra cash, the fans get to do a mitzvah for a man they like. Everybody wins, right?
They do, but what happens after the initial wave of cash is gone. What happens after the auctions are over, after the special books sell out, after the special artist's auctions are all sold on eBay? We've all moved on with our busy lives. We've already done our part for the man or woman whose work we've loved so much. They've made their couple grand from the donations, and then that whole area has dried up – and then what happens?
For a lucky few – and believe me, knowing what he went through, I'm very hesitant to call him lucky – but for the lucky few like Dave Cockrum, their agents are able to arrange an annuity so that the creator and his family are able to live out the rest of their life with a few dollars in their hands.
But for others, the rank and file guys who were not so fortunate to work on the most popular comics to come out of the 1970s, the story is a little bit different. For all the work they did in the industry, these people are largely forgotten now. Their work sits languishing in back issue bins and the occasional TPB, waiting forlornly for a current comics fan to stumble across the comic on in some great website or just by dumb luck. These creators are remembered – sometimes vaguely – by fans who remember their work from years ago. But these comics aren't making them a damn penny.
The promise of digital comics changes all that. The promise of digital comics finally, at long last, makes the comics industry like the music or book publishing industries, where creators continue to make royalties on work they created years before, because contracts allow them to make that money. These royalties are a real annuity, a flurry of cash – sometimes small, sometimes large – that appears in the writer's or musician's bank account, quarter after quarter, year after year, because they created a work that is resonant and that people actually care about.
Because for a really astonishingly small cost, a creator can get their old comics out there on Amazon and the Nook Store and iBooks. It can sit out there in the stores, freed from its captivity in latex comic bags and longboxes, making a buck ninety-nine per copy for the creator, copy after copy, quarter after quarter, year after year.
That's the real mitzvah we can do for creators, to allow them to get their old material out there in digital form and making money for them once again. Because God knows that if you had a chance to read an issue of a comic like Nathaniel Dusk by our dear friend Don McGregor and the great Gene Colan and Tom Ziuko, you wouldn't just be delighted to pay a buck ninety-nine for it; you'd be so delighted that you'd want to buy all eight issues of this series, every issue of Don's Sabre and his wonderful Ragamuffins and everything else for which Don owns the copyright. Don and friends make real money, you add real pleasure to your life – everybody wins!
With his books available in online stores, Don would suddenly be making royalties in his elder years, just like any retired rock musician or an author with a large back catalog who makes money off of the legacy content that he created. What fan of Don's writing who owns an iPad or Kindle Fire could resist spending a small amount of money to give themselves joy in reading some of the greatest comics of the era?
Best of all, this isn't an act of charity to buy the book. Oh, some people might try out a comic because of the wish to make a bit of a difference in a man's life. But how many would buy it simply because they like a creator's work and want to enjoy themself? Is there anything better than allowing someone to make a great living giving pleasure to someone else?
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do the same for some of our other creators who need a good deed? Wouldn't it be great if we could get some of Tony DeZuniga's old work into digital form so his family could earn some extra cash in their time of need? I hope we can get to that point soon. Hmm… I smell a side business.
As the old expression goes, "give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach the man to fish and he'll eat forever."
Comics is a cruel, cruel business. But it doesn't have to be.