For the Hero Initiative, 2009 has already been a whale of a year - and we're just reaching the halfway point.
The non-profit charitable organization, whose mission is to help older comic book creators in need, has played host to many convention appearances, parties, and they're just getting warmed up. For more, we spoke with Hero's Jim McLauchlin.Newsarama: To start with Jim, it seems like you guys have been busy of late, with a 100 Bullets party, Hero Comics, lots of conventions, and so on.
Jim McLauchlin: Yeah. It’s odd. The “back office” stuff churns at a pretty constant clip, I think, but in a public perception sense, it probably looks like loud bursts followed by quiet periods. I’ll take a look at our PR calendar, and sometimes there will be nothing we’re sending out for three weeks, then four press releases in four days. It’s just timing. The hum of the machinery behind the curtain remains pretty constant.
NRAMA: So taking a quick look at some of these events and so on…the 100 Bullets party. What’s the genesis of that?
JM: Well, we hired a new employee, Christina Zietsman, a few months ago, and I spent about two days with her right off the bat on “employee orientation” and training and so on. I wanted a meeting space that could also kind of immerse her in the culture, and I knew Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard here in L.A. has a large room in back they use for parties, as an art gallery, and for various other things. I asked if I could use it for this meeting, and they happily agreed. In that, I just got to chatting with Meltdown’s owner, Gaston Dominguez, and he started talking about some of the parties they did. They had one celebrating the final issue of Y: The Last Man, and what with 100 Bullets coming to an end, it seemed easy enough to replicate that idea and ’port it into a 100 Bullets shindig.NRAMA: It seems you guys are going a little higher-end on this. You’ve got food sponsors, drink sponsors, a pianist and torch singer…
JM: Yeah. I’m more a KISS guy myself—Keep It Simple, Stupid. But both Meltdown and Christina wanted to dress it up a bit. And hey, it’s Meltdown’s house, so I guess they get to make the rules. And they’re experts at this stuff. It’ll be a full-on, tricked-out dog-and-pony show by the time it’s all done. We’ll make a few more announcements soon with some cool add-ons as soon as I get them confirmed. And there should be one more big surprise right at the end that we won’t announce to anyone. You’ll just have to be there.
NRAMA: Now this was your first year for a Hero Initiative membership program. How’s that worked for you?
JM: Pretty well. Certainly not land-office business, but it’s been profitable, it’s been fun, and hokey as it sounds, you meet some new friends in it. I’ve been in touch with a lot of folks who signed up for memberships, and met some really great folks. So that’s cool.
I went into the membership program with conservative expectations in Year One, figuring it would take some time to grow. I think for Year Two in 2010, we can definitely grow it. We’ve got a solid base now as a start.
NRAMA: But to grow it, you’re actually cutting off memberships soon for 2009, right? Isn’t that nonsensical?
JM: Ah…maybe. I hope not! But I really believe in, as I finger-quote it as we speak, “value for the dollar.” Especially in, as I finger-quote some more “the economy we’re in.” Bottom line, it just feels cheeseball to me for someone to get billed a yearly fee for less than a half-year membership. So, yeah, end of June, we’re closing off new memberships for 2009.
NRAMA: So does the program then continue?by Stephen Segovia JM: Oh, yeah. Like I say, we now have a base that I think we can grow for 2010. The parts of the 2010 membership plan will be rolled out over the next weeks and months. We’ll have a new membership card design, all new premiums, and so on. And everyone who is a 2009 member will get to sign up for 2010 at a special members-only discount as well. So I really encourage people, if interested to sign up now. It’ll save you some bucks next year, man!
NRAMA: You’re doing your next “100 original covers” thing with Marvel right now, with Wolverine, right?
JM: Yeah, I’ve got the books out to 100 artists, and they’re starting to roll back in now. As of this AM, I’ve got…let’s see…19 back so far. So we’re getting a good dent in it. We’ve set up a page on our Website where people can see some of the covers as they come in, and I’ll slide you an extra one we haven’t shown off yet so you can share it with the Newsarama readers. So many people are asking when these will be auctioned off, when the book’s coming and so on, but I just don’t know yet. I have 81 artists yet to heckle! We’ll keep everyone posted in all the usual ways when we have answers.NRAMA: And Hero Comics. What’s the genesis of that?
JM: Scott Dunbier, who’s now over at IDW Publishing, put together a similar project last year for the Comic Legal Defense Fund. Scott asked if he could do something this year for Hero, and it’s one of those things that takes approximately one nanosecond to say “yes” to. Scott’s a damn good guy just for wanting to do it, and it’s cool, ’cause it really has that “friends and family” vibe, and Scott has some damn good friends. It’s Gene Ha, Howard Chaykin, Matt Wagner, J. Scott Campbell, David Lloyd, pretty much your archetypal “all-star cast.” So yeah, we’re damn happy. Now we just gotta hope we sell a kabillion copies!
NRAMA: Now you actually have some Hero…what would you call them? Recipients? Working on this as well, right?
JM: Yeah. There are five, stand-alone, 1-page stories in Hero Comics where several beneficiaries tell their own stories, and how they interacted with Hero. It’s Gene Colan, Josh Medors, Bill Messner-Loebs, and one “anonymous” guy that I wrote up. Dave Simons was in progress on a story as well, but very unfortunately, he just passed away. He hadn’t drawn anything yet, and had just turned in his script. So we’ll have to re-jinky a bit. We’re looking at doing a Dave Simons tribute page in its place.
NRAMA: So what’s the idea in getting these guys in as part of the book?
JM: Part of it is allowing readers a real first-person look at what we do. There are some very compelling, very real stories in that. The other part is that the guys telling their stories are getting paid some nice page rates by Hero, so it’s another way of putting a nickel in their pocket as well. I’m doing mine de nada, as is the artist who drew it, Rodolfo Migliari. Actually, technically, Rodolfo and I are both being paid $1. We need to do that to keep it nice-and-legal, as there has to be some valuable consideration in exchange for the work.
NRAMA: Are you going to spend that $1 all in one place?
JM: [laughs] Maybe! There’s a really nice Twix bar I’ve had my eye on, you know.
NRAMA: When’s the book hit? I remember the dates seemed kind of screwy.by Pop Mahn JM: It’s in the Diamond Previews for items shipping August, 2009. But it’ll actually be in stores the final week of July, on July 29. We’ll have copies just before that at San Diego con as well, and a massive signing with a lot of the talent involved. We’ve confirmed Howard Chaykin, Gene Colan, J.G. Roshell, Richard Starkings, David Lloyd and Kaare Andrews for the signing. Kaare’s another guy doing a story for the book.
NRAMA: Speaking of conventions, you’ll be at both Heroes Con and Wizard World Philadelphia the same weekend. How do you swing two events like that at the same time?
JM: It’s easy for me—I just don’t go! Christina will be running the show at Philly, and we have an absolutely aces volunteer who handles a lot of stuff in the Southeast named Chris Klamer who will take care of business in Charlotte for Heroescon. George Pérez will be the anchor for us in Charlotte, and George and Brian Pulido—both of whom are on our Board of Directors—will be doing a Hero Initiative panel at the con Friday at 3:30.
NRAMA: How about Philadelphia?
JM: Steve Dillon’s the main guy there. We’re bringing in Steve from the UK to the show. Steve’s gonna hang-and-bang in the U.S. for a few days after as well, and he’ll be doing a signing in Manhattan at Jim Hanley’s Universe Wednesday, June 24 at 6 PM.
NRAMA: Now all this is all on the “front end.” What happens on the back end? Money comes in, but how quickly can money go out?
JM: Sometimes real quick. May was a $40,000-plus month. Over 40 grand going out the door. I remember I even had to caution our Disbursement Committee, ’cause I knew stuff was going to be rolling down the pike pretty fast and furious. I let them know, “Hey, we have a lot of need all of a sudden. I’m gonna be hitting you with a lot of petitions from a lot of folks. As always, vote your conscience, vote your head and vote your heart. But also know, this is what we’re here for, and we have the dough to cover this right now.”
NRAMA: So how does that “work”? What’s your Disbursement Committee decide?
JM: The long, long, long story short is that we’ll often get a call from a creator, or sometimes a close friend. Usually, someone’s in a fairly desperate straight—housing and medical seem to be the big needs. They’re very often really close to eviction or default on housing, or sometimes at a point where they have so much in unpaid medical bills that they’re being refused service. We’ll get in touch, examine the situation, get copies of bills and all other documentation, and the Disbursement Committee will huddle and vote on just what to do. We’ve been able to save people’s homes, prevent evictions, get people back in with health care providers to get treatment they desperately need. I remember specific instances—and yeah, instances with an “s,” as in more than one—where we’ve had elderly creators who needed oxygen tanks to breathe, and couldn’t afford them. We had to step in and pay for them.
NRAMA: That’s…just crazy.
JM: Well, if the truth be told, that’s just one small symptom of how we deal with health care in this culture. And if we go down that path, we’ll be on the phone for hours and still not find a solution. It’s a much larger, cultural, “global” problem. But we can put some nice Band-Aids on it, at least.
NRAMA: We just touched on “the economy being what it is.” Are you in a time of greater need right now?
JM: Well, the need is constant. It’s tough to say if it’s “greater” in any quantifiable sense. My gut says if I had to say, I’d say, “yeah,” and maybe by…I dunno. Ten percent? Twenty? I think if you really watched something as simple as your own bottom line, your own checkbook balance, you really noticed the economy going down the tubes a lot earlier than when Wall Street started to panic, or when things like AIG or Bear-Stearns became constant front-page items. We noticed a lot of those harbingers about two, maybe going on three years ago.
Now granted, May and $40,000 out the door in one month was a big spike. We certainly don’t expect that to continue on an ongoing, monthly basis. Projected over the course of a year, that’s almost half a million dollars. And to be perfectly frank, we certainly don’t have anything near the cash reserves to weather a $500,000 year—we’d be tits-up, or have to do some sort of massive scramble. And my gut there tells me that we’d do the scramble. We’d just find a way. I guess. I hope!
So that’s why the constant job of fundraising, and products, and events, is constant and ongoing, and so damn important. [laughs] I’ve always loved the Jefferson quote that “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” I’ve learned that eternal fundraising is the price of running a charity.
NRAMA: So Jefferson right back at you: How do you remain vigilant?
JM: I think we have to provide value for the consumer dollar, same as any business. The biggest harbinger I saw a couple years ago was the vanishing of what is known in this business as the “unsolicited” donation, that $25 check or whatever that randomly shows up in the PO box. If people have a few extra bucks and want to share the wealth, they might make a smallish donation to the United Way, Hero Initiative, whatever. About 2-3 years ago, those “unsolicited” donations pretty much went the way of the dodo. We still get a few, but certainly not many. That was one of the horsemen on the horizon we saw that economic times were changing.
So yeah, it’s providing value for the dollar, which is why I always mention products and events. Like Hero Comics, 100 Bullets, or whatever. I think that if we create stuff that people want, we’ll do okay—again, same as any business has to do.
NRAMA: So what’s the other part of the back end? What do you hear from creators you help?
JM: Y’know, I hear crying a lot. I really do. And I mean that in a good way. I think it’s just the breaking of a dam sometimes, and an emotional release. I can’t tell you how often I’ll be speaking to someone on the phone after the Disbursement Committee has decided what to do, and I’ll tell Artist X, “Yeah, no problem. Gimme the address and an account number, and we can pay off that hospital bill. Give me your landlord’s name and number, we’ll take care of the back rent, and get you paid off for next month as well. And we’re sending a check to you so you can get some groceries.” People just break down and start crying. I think it’s the stress of all these things ending, the cracking of that ice…it’s an emotional moment. The mind, the body, something…it doesn’t know what to do. So it cries.
It’s odd, but I’ve come to not look at a full-grown adult crying as anything bad. In fact, it’s good. For so many people, it’s the end of a long and painful road.