Imagine yourself at age 49. You’re successful in your chosen profession, working steadily, able to make a living and help put food on the table for your spouse and two kids. Things are calm and content. At least on the surface.
Then you discover you can’t see as well as you could. You have trouble seeing the lines that once were as clear to your eyes as the hands that drew them. You find that you’re working slower than you ever have before and that your highly professional work isn’t of the same level of quality of your previous work.
It’s terrifying, right?
That’s what happened to comic artist Phil Hester last year. A veteran of the comics industry with a line of credits dating back to the early 1990s, Hester discovered he was losing his vision after having a separate scare about his heart. No wonder he calls this last year the “worst year of my life professionally.”
I had the opportunity to speak to Hester about his health, the importance of health insurance, and the painful question of how vision loss can lead to existential questions about life. Hester was honest about the stress he went through and offers a caution to anybody who earns their living as a freelancer.
Hester recollected, “I had idiopathic cardiomyopathy. My heart was functioning at about 30% of what a normal heart functions. Since I was morbidly obese at the time, everyone assumed, ‘oh you’ve got blockages, we need to get in there and put a stent in there,’ and they got in there and found out I didn’t have any blockages since in fact I have low cholesterol. So there’s a good news, bad news thing. ‘Hey, good news, you don’t have any plaque in your arteries. Bad news, we don’t know why your heart works so poorly.’
“Thankfully I never spent the night anywhere,” he continued, “but just the cardiac catheterization to diagnose me, it was like a $25,000 procedure. Subsequently I lost a lot of weight and went on a lot of medications and now that issue is pretty much resolved. They’re probably never going to find out why it happened, they think maybe a virus. But still, even with my great insurance, that still cost me a lot of money. With my copays and my deductibles, it was still like if I didn’t have a little cushion built up, a little savings cushion, it would have been devastating.”
There are important lessons in Hester’s situation, about taking care of your health and managing your family’s long-term financial needs. His situation reminds us of the importance of getting health insurance and of protecting yourself as a responsible member of your family.
As he was dealing with his heart problems, Hester also realized his eyes were causing him terrible problems. “I started to notice this weird effect in my vision where glare, like sunlight, became very very oppressive to me,” he said. “I couldn’t look directly at any bright sources of light, even like a light bulb, without having to look away. I ascribed it to one of my medications. That was a known side-effect of one of my heart medications, so I just chocked it up to that.”
But Hester’s vision problems weren’t caused by a simple drug interaction. Instead his vision difficulties came from a nasty syndrome called Fuchs’ dystrophy, which over time turns a cornea into a lattice of edemas that fill and drain. They eventually become blisters that can cause blindness.
Hester pondered how his loss of vision affected his speed: “I noticed when I was 48 and 49 when I was drawing The Flash Season Zero and also working on The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Beyond Belief. Before this I had a reputation for being a pretty fast artist. And I was like, ‘Man, I’m going slow and I don’t know why everything’s taking so long, and I have to redraw things all the time’.
“I thought that maybe that’s just part of getting old. Maybe I just don’t have that stamina,” he continues. “Of course I ascribed some of that to my heart issue, and maybe I couldn’t work so hard because I was fatigued. Then by the time I had finally seen a cornea specialist, I realized it took me so long to draw because I was not seeing things properly. I had to draw and redraw.
“As a result it took me a year to complete that Beyond Belief four-issue miniseries,” Hester clearly felt frustrated as he shared this story. “I feel terrible about that. Right when I was diagnosed I went to the editor and the publisher and Acker and Blacker [the hosts of Thrilling Adventure Hour] and said, look, if you guys want to move on from me, go ahead, because I have no idea if I’ll even be able to draw comics in two or three months.
“Thankfully they stuck with me, they were like, you know what, we started with you, we’re going to finish with you. They took a hit from that because Image is not happy with that. Image is on a ‘no more late books’ pogrom, you know. They really don’t want more late books. They weren’t happy with that. But Acker and Blacker and my editor Nate Cosby stuck with me and I have to publicly thank them for that.” The relief in Hester’s voice was almost palpable as he related this story.
“And recently … I had a partial cornea transplant three weeks ago now in one of my eyes. They do one eye at a time for safety sake, in case one rejects or in case one develops an infection they want you to have one functioning eye. Already I can see better. Already I can work more quickly than I did a year before. It’s really been a godsend. I can’t possibly express how thankful I am to the donor family and to the surgeons who not only gave me my sight back, I mean, they give people’s sight back every day.”
Hester’s gratitude continues: “They also gave me back my livelihood and a big chunk of my family’s future. So it was a really important thing for me. I’m in the middle of another book a new book called Shipwreck with Warren Ellis from Aftershock. I drew the first half of it before my operation and I’m drawing the second half of the new issue now with my new cornea. I don’t have that same intolerance to bright lights in that other eye and it helps me focus on things. I can’t wait to get the other one done now.”
Which is great news for Hester and his fans alike. After working in comics for nearly thirty years, including long runs on Green Arrow, The Irredeemable Ant-Man, The Wretch, Swamp Thing and many more, Hester feels he is just starting to emerge into being the kind of artist he has always aspired to become.
“I always looked forward to [my 40s and 50s] because the artists that I truly admired, and art, at least in cartooning, it’s one of those places that you don’t really hit your peak until you’re in your 40s, for most artists anyways.” Hester admitted. “There are outliers, there are certain people that peak in their 20s or whatever.
“But when I look at the guys that I think are, or gals that I think are real geniuses, like Toth or Eisner or Kirby or Ramona Fradon, they hit their 40s and 50s and were at their absolute peak. Some of those guys never came down. Joe Kubert never came down. It’s one of those professions where you don’t really have to step down. It’s not like you’re going to the hoop on a defender. You’re dealing with your own skill set and thankfully art is something that’s an accumulation of knowledge, both intellectual and muscle memory knowledge that just keeps building over time.
“So I never really had that fear that I was going to lose a step until I actually did. I didn’t think that was going to happen to me. And once again, knowing it was physical instead of creative was kind of a relief to me. I’m glad that happened instead of me losing ‘the fire’ or whatever. I still work the same.”
Just as important as professional satisfaction, though, is the ability to live a happy and secure life. That means taking care of yourself financially – something many freelancers neglect.
If Hester could share any bit of advice for a freelancer it’s to get medical insurance, no matter how tough it is to afford: “I guess if I have a lesson to impart to anyone it’s that insurance should be up there on your list. It should right behind the mortgage. Take a model a year behind on the phone if you have to, to pay insurance. Because we’re in this kind of unjust society as it is, as it’s composed right now in regards to healthcare, and you gotta watch out for yourself. It’s like going into the open ocean without a lifejacket. You’ve got to make it a priority because you can lose everything overnight.”
He continued, “It’s tough to explain that to somebody who is 24 because you’re still in the immortal phase at 24. It’s tough to explain to them that even if you take care of yourself, your body can betray you at some point and take away your livelihood. If we can all make it a priority, we have to.”
At this point Hester became even more passionate, with a call-out to all of us comics fans. “And I’d say to the people who are more fortunate, it’s just a drop in the ocean but supporting things like the Hero Initiative is really important for your fellow cartoonists who haven’t been as fortunate as you have, who unlike me see those rocks but can’t steer away from them. They could use a little help.
“It’s not like the Hero Initiative solves underlying problems a lot of these creators are facing but it can help to bear the minimum and like keep their lights on when they’re really struggling. I do a lot of work for the Hero Initiative and I always have. It’s a small way that people in this business who have succeeded can sort of buoy up those who maybe haven’t quite reached that level of success…”
Hester began to reflects on the quirks of the comic business: “A funny aspect of our business is, a lot of the people who are successes are successes on books created by people who didn’t get to share in the financial success of those projects. I’m living that right now in terms of the Suicide Squad movie. There’s a character I co-created that’s featured in the film prominently called El Diablo. It’s not like when John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell cooked up Suicide Squad, it’s not like they had a creator agreement in place that’s built in to pay them for the success of that project later. And John Ostrander, despite the fact that I think he’s a brilliant writer, you don’t see him writing Avengers right now. You can fall out of favor through no fault on your own. A lot of times, artists who are succeeding are standing squarely on the shoulders of artists who may still be struggling right now. And we sort of owe it to them to look after them a little bit.”
Phil Hester has added a lot to the comics medium over the years, from his early work for Majestic Entertainment, through his solidly professional work for Marvel, DC, Image and a host of other companies, and now to his personal renaissance.
Hester’s situation should remind us how quickly and easily all of that experience can mean nothing. Just one heart issue or eye defect and a talented creator stops working and becomes forgotten. Through adversity comes wisdom. Hester reminds us of some important wisdom: take care of yourself, invest in health insurance. And most importantly, help each other. Below is a link to the Hero Initiative. Please consider donating a few dollars to them today.