RIP Robert Washington III

It’s not so long ago that we lost Dwayne McDuffie, the co-originator of Milestone, a comics imprint within DC that in addition to creating new characters and comics that were accessible to a new audience, did so in ways that reflected and appealed to a culturally diverse young readership. The breakout title, and character, was Static, very much modelled on the young McDuffie himself, a science geek with greater confidence about the laws of the universe than the ways of women.

Co-writing Static, and making other contributions to Milestone, was Robert Washington III. And now Robert too is dead. He died homeless, at 47. The same age I am.

Writing is not something I’d recommend as a career path. It’s a lifestyle choice as much as anything. The highs are fantastic; the buzz of writing a script, the bigger one of selling it, and seeing it realised. There’s not a lot that can match that kind of thrill. Even when things don’t go quite as they might have, it’s easy enough – because it’s true – that next time can be better. Sometimes, that’s the way it works out.

There’s a kind of attrition that happens along the way. Commit to creativity, and pretty much nothing in life is fixed. Things that others take for granted, it’s not always easy to if you’re hoping to support yourself through the products of your imagination. It’s arguable that my two brief spells in mental hospitals have a lot to do with the stresses of trying to support myself through writing. Equally, it’s feasible that the same psychological issues fuel my creativity, which is pretty much the argument about being bipolar, a label I don’t identify with – if only because the meds I take daily keep signs of it in check.

If it weren’t for the love and financial support of my parents, it’s possible that I’d have lost my house during one of my two run-ins with psychiatric illness. That experience led me to work for four years, three shifts a week, as a support worker in a hostel for people with enduring mental health problems.

Robert Washington’s family weren’t able to support him. The other work he did wasn’t enough to support him. There’s still the prospect that he may be buried in a pauper’s grave, though there’s a campaign to raise funds for a decent funeral. This is the last interview he did, and it includes a link that will enable you to contribute, which I hope you do.

Work for hire, whether it’s for comics companies or tv broadcasters, is not something you can rely on. You can’t rely on getting it. You can’t rely on it paying you decently. You can’t rely on being asked to work again for the gatekeepers who OK’d you last time. I don’t say that with bitterness, just to point out the reality of the situation.

It’s a reality that drove Dwayne McDuffie to become a co-founder of the Milestone imprint, so that he profited from the characters whose adventures he and others – including Robert Washington III – chronicled. I’m not interested in whether Dwayne should or could have treated Washington any differently. What happened, happened. Some great work was created during Milestone‘s time. People got to do work they’d never have got the chance to do elsewhere, even if they didn’t get a slice of the pie.

Milestone is one of the inspirations for the work I’m doing with artist/designer Andy Tudor and producer Gael McLaughlin. Together, we are Storia. And the work we’re creating is owned by us, and in its own way has the ambition and commitment to quality that is evident if you check out Milestone‘s work. Slowly, patiently, we’re developing concepts that can exist in many forms: as webcomics and gaming apps, novels and films. And we’re hoping to share some of the products of our efforts in the autumn – work that’s come from us, is owned by us, that we get to make money from as long as we live. That’s a choice you can make as a creator – one to stand by and live by. I want my success, and yours, to be a tribute to those like Robert Washington III whose progress on that journey was brought to an end tragically early.