Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wizard Features That Never Were: Bill Messner-Loebs Profile

I was heartened a couple weeks ago to be pointed to an article providing the latest update on Bill Messner-Loebs. Given all he has been through over the past decade, from health problems to monetary problems to losing his home more than once, it's nice to see Bill getting back on his feet and back into the comics game. He's a helluva guy, his wife Nadine is one amazing lady and they both deserve all the happiness they can get. So I'm very pleased to hear the Messner-Loebs are doing well.

But I also can't help but be reminded of the biggest "one that got away" of my tenure at Wizard and the feature I most regret not being able to complete.

In the fall of 2005, I had just been promoted from research assistant to staff writer at Wizard Magazine. Though my job title was new, I had already been writing part-time for several months and pitching various article ideas. Joe Yanarella, at the time Wizard's Senior Managing Editor, had been encouraging us all, younger staff members in particular, to search for people in interest in the comics industry who would make for compelling in-depth profile pieces. I had considered a few options, but after learning about the plight of Bill Messner-Loebs, I felt that his was a story that needed to be told.

I vaguely remembered the name Bill Messner-Loebs as belong to the guy who wrote significant chunks of The Flash and Thor when I was a kid, or more notably as the dude who replaced Wonder Woman with a redhead after Superman died and Batman got his back broken. I knew I hadn't seen his name on a comic in several years, but didn't think much of it, as there were plenty of writers and artists from my youth who I hadn't heard of in years.

However, scanning Comic Bloc one day around the summer of 2005, I learned what had happened to Bill Messner-Loebs. Here's the short version...

Bill Messner-Loebs was born with a cancerous tumor on his right arm which he had to have amputated while he was still a baby. Despite this setback, he went on to become a respected cartoonist and spent the late 80's and early 90's as a prolific writer for DC and Marvel as well as on several independent projects. But around the turn of the century, for whatever reason, work dried up and Bill found himself without any steady source of income. He was forced to spend what little he had left to care for his ailing mother, who passed away not long after, and on the medical expenses of his wife, Nadine, who suffered from various head trauma as a result of having had her skull fractured when she was mugged as a young woman. In 2001, Bill lost his car in an accident. On September 10, he lost his home when he could no longer afford mortgage payments (as he put it to me: "I was the unluckiest guy in the world--for exactly 24 hours). He bought a mobil home the following year, but it was infested with mold and then stolen. By 2003, the Messner-Loebs were splitting time betwen motels, shelters and the local senior centers.

The tremendous hardships that Bill and Nadine had suffered struck a chord with me, but more than that, what drew me to their story was the amazing upbeat attitude and determination Bill seemed to demonstrate in the article where I first learned all this. I wanted so badly to meet this man and bring his story to light. I pitched the feature to Joe and he was behind me 100%. It took some doing, but I was able to get in touch with Bill and arrange a trip to Howell, Michigan.

It was the first and only real trip I'd taken by myself "on assignment" and I was both excited and scared. I also felt the mounting pressure of presenting the Messner-Loebs' story to the masses, feeling that it would be far and away the most important thing I had ever done. I touched down in Detroit in early evening, picked up my first rental car ever, got a quick meal, checked into my hotel, and readied myself for what I knew would be a very important day.

The next morning, after enjoying the luxury of an onboard GPS for the first time, I pulled up to the modest hotel where the Messner-Loebs lived. Bill greeted me outside with a huge smile and a hearty handshake. His excitement to see me validated both my nervousness and commitment, but I also got the sense he'd be just as cordial if it was the mailman. Stepping into the single room Bill shared with his wife, I'll admit that my initial impression was of how small it was. These two people, both of whom had physical ailments I could only shudder at, were cramped into an incredibly compact living space with the accumulated possessions and knick knacks of two lives much longer than mine filling every corner. I saw the tiny bathroom out of the corner of my eye as Nadine proudly showed off to me their "home entertainment center," which consisted of homemade shelves stocked with a dozen or so DVDs and VHS tapes.

I'll confess I felt a bit bad that at age 23, my apartment was at least twice the size of the Messner-Loebs. However, whether they were aware or not, Bill and Nadine quickly dispelled any guilt or negative feelings I had with their outgoing sense of pride and general enthusiasm for the day ahead.

As we got in our cars and headed out for the Messner-Loebs' typical weekday, Nadine chose to ride with me, wanting to seize the opportunity for us to chat alone for a bit. On a personal note, a side effect of my irritable bowel syndrome and accompanying psychological hangups make it very difficult for me to ride in cars with people I don't know very well (let alone people I just met), but Nadine's leap into my passenger seat (impressive for a woman who has trouble walking unaided) didn't allow me much time for introspection, and off we went.

Where Bill was jovial and possessed of a seemingly carefree optimism when it came to the lot life had dealt him, Nadine wasn't bitter, but she was certainly driven. In the car ride from the Messner-Loebs residence to the homeless shelter they took me to as the first stop on our tour of their little world, she gave me not only her and Bill's personal story, but an impassioned crash course on the plight of the homeless and how people were falling into the cracks every day. For a kid who had grown up in a wealthy Jewish suburb in Massachusetts and seen but never really, truly experienced poverty, it was an eye-opener. Nadine's passion was contagious and by the end of the 15-minute drive, I felt like I wanted to try and change the world single-handedly.

We visited the church/homeless shelter where Bill and Nadine used to live. Again, it was eye-opening for somebody of my social background to imagine so many people--particularly the two people standing in front of me, each with physical ailments and neither exactly in their mid-20's--sharing the floor of a tiny room and managing to sleep. Bill told me about the various jobs he tried and failed to hold while they lived there, including a recollection of his time delivering pizzas and being laughed at by kids younger than me which I could tell was a struggle for him to even speak about.

From there, we headed over to the local senior center, where the bulk of my research was to take place. After a brief tour, Nadine left Bill and I alone and for the first time, we got a chance to talk one-on-one. I turned on my tape recorder and for the next three or four hours occasionally stepped in to steer the narrative, but for the most part just listened to a man tell me his life story. As a writer/reporter/whatever I was/am, it was an experience that I feel everybody working in journalism should have. Just sitting and absorbing another human being lay out their life to you from start to present is something you can't duplicate anywhere else. Fuck, even if you're not in journalism (some people would certainly say I never have been), you should find somebody much older than you and just ask them to tell you their life story.

Anyhow, I don't want to get into the specifics of what that fairly one-sided conversation consisted of, because there is part of me that hopes an enterprising young Wizard staffer like Kevin Mahadeo will read this and want to pick up where I left off (I've still got the notes somewhere, Kev). Needless to say it was epic, funny, heartbreaking, and everything else you'd expect from having read any snippets about Bill's story. His anecdotes about breaking into the comics business were eye-opening and his deflation over when he stopped receiving comps because there was nobody left at DC who knew who he was made me want to give him a hug. The affection with which he spoke about his wife and mother was as touching as the sense of regret he conveyed over receiving foreclosure notices on his house was heartbreaking.

For somebody in my position, it was great stuff. There was a part of me that felt bad that so many of the sad memories immediately struck me as incredible lead paragraphs, but this was balanced by the desire to share this man with the world, warts and all, and get him back to work. Because more than anything else--more than his health, his home or any of the other things he had lost over the years--it was clear after hearing him talk about comics for ten minutes, let alone off and on for several hours, that what he missed most was getting to write and draw for an audience.

When Bill finished (or got as far as he could before I could see that I needed to go or risk missing setting offf the series of dominos necessary to catch my return flight), I shut off my tape recorder and we headed to the center's computer lab to say goodbye to Nadine. At this point, I remembered that Joe had entrusted me with a very expensive camera to get some shots of Bill and endeavored to do so with limited success. Bill walked me out to the parking lot where before we parted I surprised him with a copy of the fresh off the presses Infinite Crisis #1. He had mentioned to me over the phone he hadn't gotten to read a new comic in ages, so I thought he'd enjoy this, but I was also curious to get his reaction to where characters he had once shepherded stood years later. He mostly laughed over how hard it was for him to follow a Universe he had once been so intimate with, but also remarked how different digital coloring had made the art (and how he didn't know if that were a good thing or a bad thing) as well as how much violence they got away with (referring to the Freedom Fighters massacre). He flipped to the end and bugged his eyes out for a moment upon seeing the Golden Age Superman and then related to me one final personal memory about how he and his colleagues never thought Marv Wolfman would be able to get away with killing off the original Superman back in 1986 and then bid me adieu. I got back in my rental and waved so long to my whimsical, fascinating new friend.

On my ride back to the airport, I feverishly called Joe on my cell phone, excited to tell him what an unequivocable success the trip had been. As was his general habit, Joe let me ramble for a bit, then calmed me down and sobered me up a bit, saying it was great that I was excited, but that we needed to keep the bigger picture in mind and continue pressing forward rather than me getting ahead of myself. Joe Yanarella is a great editor for many reasons, but one of the first and foremost is that he keeps a steady focus and makes sure to temper his writers' enthusiasm while not deflating them. He was 100% correct as me getting overly anxious about my first impressions and writing the story in my head over the course of a three hour plane trip would inevitably lead to a less than perfect product.

To keep my mind on the story but also not leapfrog the editing process, I info dumped every detail of my trip I could remember from my brain to my laptop while I was waiting in the airport. By the time I boarded the plane, I had a lengthy Microsoft Word document to e-mail off to Joe.

Unfortunately, by the time I walked into Joe's office to discuss my notes the following Monday afternoon, the high of my trip had given way to reality. Joe confirmed what I had already figured out over the weekend: we had a great start, but not enough to move to the next step. I had some great stories and lot of interesting comic book-related stuff, but it was the human interest angle that was going to make this story special, and I didn't have enough of it.

I had a couple follow-up phone calls with Bill and got additional material, but it wasn't the same as being there in person. At the same time, the same forces that usually conspired against features like this one were going full force. We hit the holiday crunch period where I had to contribute to the content-heavy Year End/Year Preview back-to-back. By the time it was 2006, Joe was taking on new responsibilities as Wizard continued to evolve and so was I as my job continued to grow. We both kept vowing to get back to the Messner-Loebs feature (or as Joe referred to it, "Detroit"), but after that initial period of high energy, it just wasn't happening.

Personality profiles and other timeless features were a tough beast at Wizard (as I'd imagine they are most places). They're huge and they require immense amounts of work, but at the same time, there's no due date, so there's always something more pressing that grabs your attention. With the Bill Messner-Loebs profile, that's what happened, more or less.

However, while the feature was very much a casualty of typical publishing problems that are tough to avoid, I have to take a great deal of the responsiblity here. If I had been more prepared going into my trip to Michigan, I would have gotten the stuff I really needed and we could have rode that early momentum into a quick turnaround on the piece. In part, I can blame my inexperience, but at the end of the day the fault still lies largely with me.

To the day I left Wizard, the Bill Messner-Loebs profile was the one feature I most wanted to get done. I kept in touch periodically with Bill (still do), but never really made much progress beyond the winter of 2006. Fortunately in the time since, many others have told at least parts of Bill's story, but I still kick myself for not being able to complete my personal passion project and for not somehow translating that incredible afternoon spent at a Michigan senior center into print.

I'm sorry I never got to tell your story, Bill; a large part of me still hopes I will, someday, but all of me is just happy to hear you're doing well, even if I'm not the one spreading the news.

1 comment:

KP said...

I still think I have a tape of a follow up call you did with Bill that I half transcribed as an intern. I'll look for it over Christmas.