Norm Breyfogle’s left hand has drawn many a superhero, including an acclaimed run of Batman comics in the ’80s and ’90s. But this week, speaking from a Michigan nursing home bed where he’s recovering from a December 17 stroke, Breyfogle told Paste that his left hand’s heroic act that day was managing to lift a glass of water.
And yet, he says, “I’m crying tears of joy every day. It’s almost like my stroke has been a blessing.”
Like many comic book artists before him, Breyfogle is experiencing the brutal reality behind the superhero glamour, where freelance artists with marginal or no insurance can find themselves crushed under medical bills from career-altering illness or injury. Even in the Affordable Care Act era, health-care security eludes many artists, including ones with histories as extensive and reputable as Breyfogle: the creator teamed with writer Alan Grant on notable Batman and Detective Comics runs, as well as co-created the character Prime, who played a key role in both the Ultraforce comic and cartoon for publisher Malibu.
Yet, he’s also basking in the love of the tight-knit comics industry that passionately protects its own. Thousands of fans have donated more than $89,000 (and rising) to an online fundraiser to help address $200,000 in medical bills. The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to helping comic book creators in need, is also extending a helping hand along with Batman publisher DC Comics, which announced the publication of a hardcover anthology of Breyfogle’s Batman work due for July.
Breyfogle finds a weird irony in the fact that such a devastating crisis has reconnected him with so many fans — and provided him the chance to attract new ones. He has no idea whether he will regain full use of his left hand that’s drawn hundreds of capes and cowls throughout his years. But he has vowed to learn to draw with his right, and to expand on his fiction-writing via voice-transcription software.
“It’s too bad that it appears my comics career has been cut off for at least a while — maybe for good. But my creativity hasn’t,” Breyfogle says. “I made a career out of drawing company-owned characters written by other people. I always thought that I had a writer inside me. Now I’m being forced to take a chance on something nearer to my heart.”
But first the 54-year-old faces “grueling” recovery from a stroke that numbed his entire left side; luckily, his vision and intellectual faculties were not affected. But he must re-learn such basic motions as walking, and work to regain use of his hand. That therapy will take at least half a year and comes with a six-figure price tag.
“The medical bills were insurmountable,” says Wendy Wiegert, Breyfogle’s sister-in-law, who runs the online fundraiser along with Norm’s brother, Kevin. They’ve had to “exhaust Norm’s life savings” to cover current bills. Even the generous fan donations will cover only a “month or so” of the rehab he needs, and that’s not counting his living expenses. Wiegert — who’s in recovery herself from throat surgery — admits all the work is “crippling” to her own organic-plant business, too.
Breyfogle, who wears his left-wing politics on his sleeve — or his Facebook page, anyhow— is a fan of Obamacare, but was uninsured at the time of his stroke. “Stupidly, I did not sign up for Obamacare,” he says. “I just never got around to it. I was on the hamster wheel of meeting deadlines. I was in denial.”
But comics fans shouldn’t be lulled into thinking their favorite artists have an immediate safety net in the Obamacare era, says Jim McLauchlin, president of the Hero Initiative. Today’s insurance benefits often only provide a drop in the bucket to help satiate medical bills like Breyfogle’s, he said.
McLauchlin, who does have insurance, said he recently had surgery himself. “I’m still out-of-pocket about 3,500 bucks, even with quote-unquote name-brand insurance,” he said. “I think the Affordable Care Act was an amazingly positive step in the right direction,” but there are still plenty of cracks to fall through.
That’s where The Hero Initiative comes in. McLauchlin co-founded the organization 15 years ago, inspired by a similar Major League Baseball program to help ex-ballplayers from the days before multi-million-dollar contracts. Since then, the Initiative has aided about 70 comics artist and writers with approximately $750,000 in emergency funding.
Peter David is one such creator who received aid from The Hero Initiative. The well-known author of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man 2099 suffered a stroke similar to Breyfogle’s in 2012. He told Paste that although he had insurance, he still needed a patchwork of help to cover his bills. Marvel offered help within an hour of when news of David’s stroke broke.
“If not for Marvel, I would have had to file for bankruptcy,” David says. He also received help from The Hero Initiative, from fans, and from other authors — including Stephen King, who formed a Hero-like nonprofit of his own called The Haven Foundation.
McLauchlin says fans often assume that major comic-book corporations are heartless money-grubbers that don’t care about the artists who helped build them, but that assumption is far from the truth. “The greatest supporter of The Hero Initiative from Day One is Marvel Comics,” he says.
“DC Comics has called Norm to personally talk to him” about his needs after the stroke, and pledged a donation, says Wiegert. DC did not respond to Paste questions, but it just announced a July publication of Legends of The Dark Knight: Norm Breyfogle Vol. 1, a hardcover collection of his and Grant’s classic Batman work.
Fans still remain a crucial part of the equation as well, whether through direct donations or through purchasing such works. Breyfogle chokes up when he speaks of the “immense financial response from my fans. I’m just overwhelmed by it…I love every one of them.”
McLauchlin says the best long-term assistance — and something Hero also helps with — is getting a comic artist back in the business. Once-famed artists falling out of work belies much of the financial trouble seen in these situations, McLauchlin says, noting, “Unless you’re Stan Lee…your career is on the sine wave. It’s up and it’s down.” That’s been the case for Breyfogle, who moved back to northern Michigan 15 years ago for lower-cost living. He’s had recent comics assignments, including a stint on Archie, but the jobs have dwindled.
Breyfogle says the renewed attention to his work is one of the blessings disguised by his plight. He sees it as an opportunity to expand his writing of fiction and poetry, which he has experimented with online in recent years. A thoughtful speaker with a penchant for complex words and big ideas, he describes how his college studies moved him away from born-again Christianity into an interest in metaphysics and philosophy.
“I’ve got something to say. I’ve got a philosophical outlook,” he says. In fact, while awaiting his voice-transcription tech, he’s already writing in the most ancient of ways — in his own head, memorizing his own works by retelling them to friends and family. He shared one such piece with Paste, a “parable” about his stroke experience:
“It was like I was in a pitch-black room and didn’t know anything else…but there was a spark of imagination in me that could see a paradise, and hope was paradise outside that room. For all I knew, the pitch-black walls stretched to infinity. I felt like there was no reason to live in just a pitch-black room. The main purpose I could find in life was to dig through the wall and see if paradise was out there. I had no idea how far I had to dig…I was willing to dig until I died, or forever, for that matter. [I made a tiny hole and] I was so exhausted. My fingers were bloody stumps. I couldn’t dig anymore. The only thing I could do was appeal to any benevolent beings that might help — pray, in other words. I’m not a religious man. My prayers, quote-unquote, were answered by that pinhole.” And that pinhole, he concluded, indeed expanded and enabled him to step into a paradise.
“That’s a symbol of my state,” he says. “It was shock and it was pain. But it blew my heart wide open.”