Robert L. Washington III 1964-2012

A week ago I found out that Robert L. Washington III had passed away on June 6th at the age of 47.

the writer as depicted on his Milestone Media trading card

Comic-Book Resources has a notice at its news blog Robot 6 that includes a reproduction of Washington's last piece of work, a one-page strip for Hero Comics 2012. It's a first-person piece, illustrated by Chris Ivy, in which the writer shares some of the struggles that prompted him to seek help from The Hero Initiative — a non-profit organization, mentioned on this blog before, which provides financial assistance to creators in dire need of it.

Unlike the few people who've been the subjects of memorials here and the several more whose passings I'd hoped to note — the comic-book industry lost a number of outright giants last year — Washington was neither a legend with a storied career, a creator who produced beloved works from my childhood, nor someone that I knew. But he wrote the hell out of a series called Static, which launched in 1993 from Milestone Media in association with DC Comics — later adapted into the Kids' WB animated series Static Shock. And he died way too damned young after some tough times.

one of the covers to 1993's Static #1

Washington co-wrote Static at first with Dwayne McDuffie, another great writer and a great guy lost to us last year at just 49. Founded by McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Derek T. Dingle, and Michael Davis, Milestone aimed to bring greater diversity to the mainstream comic-book market and the superhero genre in particular by focusing on minority characters. Its first volley of monthly series included three titles headlined by African-American men (well, one was an alien, but so is Superman) and a fourth starring a multicultural group. I'd only been freelancing seriously for outlets like Comics Buyer's Guide for about a year when Milestone started up; not long after it debuted I began working on the sales floor at Fat Jack's Comicrypt in Philadelphia, and I hope that I talked up Static — my favorite of the Milestone titles (good as some of the others were) with the possible exception of the weird, next-wave addition Xombi — to an extent worthy of the enjoyment that I got from it.

a page from "Everything but the Girl" in 1993's Static #2

Static was for me the first mainstream comic-book series to recapture the potent mix of adolescent angst and action on which the early Stan Lee & Steve Ditko Spider-Man stories were built 30 years earlier at Marvel. I'm a tremendous fan of the initial run of The New Teen Titans done by Marv Wolfman & George Pérez at DC in the 1980s, as well as of Scott McCloud's Zot! published that same decade by Eclipse. But Titans focused on group dynamics within a teen-superhero support system, and most of its characters were actually of college age; Zot! was, for all its brilliance at mashing up high-school heartache with fantasy, tangential to the superhero genre as recognized by most fans (which, like Paul Chadwick's Concrete, is what made it so interesting). Static focused on one kid, Virgil Hawkins, who like Peter Parker had to deal with the great responsibility thrust upon him by virtue of the great power he suddenly acquired, all while worrying about girls and grades and, given the realities of his surroundings, gangs. Original penciler John Paul Leon, inked most often by Steve Mitchell, complemented Washington's scripts perfectly.

The likes of Static wouldn't be seen again for... well, as it turns out, just a few short years, when Kurt Busiek reimagined the Valiant Comics series Ninjak with artist Neil Vokes after the company's acquisition by Acclaim Entertainment. Coming on to co-write with Busiek six months in, and then finish the series' run from Busiek's outline, was one Robert L. Washington III. Many folks have tried to emulate and update the classic run of Spider-Man's creators, sure, but few have succeeded — and did succeed, I suspect, because they were not so much trying to do classic Spider-Man as trying to do good comic-book work with ingredients similar to those in classic Spider-Man. In addition to Static and the Ninjak revamp, I would include among the successes DC's mid-2000s take on The Blue Beetle, written by John Rogers (at first with Keith Giffen, then solo), designed and initially drawn by Cully Hamner, later drawn by Rafael Albuquerque.

a page from "Burning Sensation" in 1993's Static #1

Static turned out to be the Milestone series with the most lasting presence, thanks to the Static Shock animated series and the title character's usage in recent incarnations of DC's Teen Titans following the absorption of the Milestone superheroes into the prime DC Universe. Washington likely saw little to no compensation for the Static Shock episodes based on his work, however, and he wasn't involved with either of the Static revivals in DC's comic-book line — not the Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool miniseries in 2001, written by Dwayne McDuffie and drawn by John Paul Leon, nor the Static Shock ongoing that was one of DC's first wave of New 52 titles in 2011 (since canceled). You can find the stories from 1993's original Static #1-4 and 2001's Rebirth of the Cool #1-4 collected in the 2009 Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool trade paperback.

the writer as depicted on his Hero Comics 2012 contribution "One More Time"

Washington's mother and two of his sisters were able to attend a funeral service for him on June 25th in New York City, something that wouldn't have been possible without the generosity of literally hundreds of contributors via The Hero Initiative. After reading about his passing and seeing a comment following Robot 6's obit from an old friend of Washington's who asked for donations towards such a service, I finally purchased a Hero Initiative membership for the first time in several years. Despite the worthiness of the organization, I'm just not in a position to be as philanthropic financially as I'd like due to my own health struggles, but even when we'd prefer the reverse to be true money often speaks louder than words — and I know that the price of my membership (as well as the statement made through bolstering the roster of Hero Initiative membership by yet one more person) will surely do more for creative people in need than these words I'm typing ever could. Unless you're a comic-book reader moved by these words to donate to The Hero Initiative yourself, that is. Ashley Soley-Cerro conducted an interview with Washington shortly before his death that was published posthumously at Comic-Book Resources on June 18th; if my words don't move you, maybe Washington's will.

The Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool collection is available from Amazon. If you purchase it or anything else by clicking on the preceding link, Blam's Blog will get a small commission on the sale. While I don't know who's buying, I am shown what's being bought, and I will gladly pass along the tiny amount received from any sales of the collection to The Hero Initiative — but even though it's a good read, given how infrequently I get payments from Amazon if you're actually looking to contribute you should donate directly.

Images copyright year of creation their respective rights-holders. 
Static is a trademark of DC Comics.

1 comment:

  1. You're so right about all of this. Static was great stuff. Washington had a sad follow-up to his brief comics career. I'm glad that The Hero Initiative was able to help somewhat, but neither private organizations nor public services that step in as a last resort are the real solution. Like so many other industries, the US comics biz (whatever that even means anymore) needs to treat the creative people who feed the gaping maw of more-more-more product appropriately.