(WJBK) - It was late February when I first learned about Bill. My wife was at dinner with her mom and stepdad and came home with the story: this guy used to write comic books, was credited in the Wonder Woman movie and now he’s homeless. Oh yeah, and he only has one arm.
A one-armed comic book artist who’s credited in one of the biggest movies of the year, yet lives out of his car? Sounds like a story is in there somewhere.
I reached out to her stepdad, Scott, who is a pastor at First Presbyterian in Brighton. He met Bill in a church program called Severe Weather Network, which despite its name has nothing to do with meteorological formations. It’s a collaborative effort in Livingston County where churches host the homeless during winter months - kind of a “share the task, help a lot of people” thing.
When his church was up, Scott met Bill and learned a little about his story. Bill gave Scott a card and the contact info was passed along to me. On a Tuesday, I called Bill and left a message. Then I waited.
It was a few days before I heard anything- this didn’t surprise me; he was homeless after all - I didn’t know if the phone number I had was still active, I didn't know if he even wanted to talk to a reporter at all, hell, I didn’t know anything about this guy. But on Friday afternoon, an Ohio area code was calling me and I rushed to answer.
Bill Messner-Loebs was incredibly nice. A little hard of hearing and I had to repeat myself a few times as I explained who I was and why I was calling.
“I’d like to do a story on you, on your life, on what brought you to where you are now”, I told him. He was receptive to it but couldn’t do it that weekend - he was headed to the Great Lakes Comic Con in Warren to try to sell some prints and make a little money. I assured him that was no problem and suggested we meet to tape an interview that following Wednesday at Scott’s church. He agreed, apologized for the audio inequities and hung up.
Wednesday it was. I would get to finally meet Bill. I honestly wasn’t sure he’d show. I told my photographer as much, warning him that maybe we’ll have an interview and maybe we won’t. I didn’t know homeless life and it seemed like he was a busy guy. But Bill was waiting for us when we arrived. He’s in his late 60s (or as he likes to say “70 lite”), and was wearing a clean cut collared black shirt, with short white hair and a trimmed but straggly white beard. And, of course, the one arm - it was hard to miss that. We set up shop in a large meeting room with a big cross on the wall and got down to business.
THE RISE AND FALL
Bill’s life story started in Ferndale but he was a bit of an Army brat, spending some time in New Orleans and Maine before heading back to the Mitten after college.
His comic book career started quickly after that and he dabbled in a bit of mainstream and secondary comics. Sketching in his free time, Bill created his longest-running original character, ‘Wolverine MacAlistaire’, who fell into adventures all around his home state of Michigan in the 19th century.
Meanwhile, he took ‘Jonny Quest’ from the ‘60s TV show and turned it into a 31 issue series and his talent grabbed the attention of DC Comics. In the late 80s when they pegged him to work on ‘The Flash’, then ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Thor’.
The road was long and prosperous for Bill and it all peaked in 1993 when MTV took his book ‘The Maxx’ and turned it into a series. The checks were large and the acclaim was far reaching. Life was good.
And then, it wasn’t.
After ‘The Maxx’, Bill and his wife Nadine moved into a nice home. But life happens and disease spares no one. Bill’s mom got sick. Then his wife got sick. Like any house, there were issues that required money to fix. Before he knew it, his Maxx money was more like minimum money. September 2001 was when he finally lost the house and was evicted. The date? September 11, 2001.
Bill said he had exactly one day to feel bad for himself and then the planes hit the towers. He watched the coverage and realized that there are bigger problems out there than his.
The guy gets evicted and has the wherewithal to see the larger picture? Go figure.
DISASTER STRIKES, AGAIN
Bill found a new house after that - a mobile home in a nice mobile home park where neighbors look out for each other. He and Nadine lived there for over 15 years until another disaster struck. While receiving the Bill Finger award at San Diego’s Comic Con (the super bowl of Comic Cons) Bill learned that a gas leak had sprouted at his house.
Upon arriving at the scene, the Fire Marshall declared that the premises were unlivable and Bill and Nadine agreed. There goes house #2.
So now Bill goes from church to church with his car as the placeholder in between. He works part time for Panera and just recently started picking up janitorial work at one of the churches.
He said he works about 16-20 hours a week, which is good, but when you sprinkle in the inconvenience of being homeless, it doesn’t leave him much time to draw. That sucks because damn, Bill is good. He’s innovative: back in 1991 he introduced one of the first gay characters into the DC universe. Until he took the ‘Pied Piper’ and relaunched him as gay, the only homosexual comic book characters were flawed people who could be “fixed”. But in 1991 Bill took a chance, when that type of thing was a little harder to pull off.
He developed a ‘Wonder Woman’ character named Artemis who is rumored to pop up in Wonder Woman 2. He even developed a homeless character for a comic book series called Bliss Alley, that he wrote before he became homeless. How’s that for ironic?
The whole time I was talking to Bill, I had this nagging feeling in my gut that his name didn’t seem all that unfamiliar. I know I’d never met him before (I would remember a one armed comic book artist) but still, “Messner-Loebs”… it seemed so recognizable.
IT GETS PERSONAL
I grew up on comic books. Every Saturday in the summer, my dad and I would sit on the front porch, he’d have a beer and I’d have a Cherry Pepsi, and we’d read comic books.
I remember one time The Flash said, “That’s a damn shame” and I asked dad what that word was. He told me it was “darn” which didn’t look phonetically correct but dads are never wrong so I went with it.
We’d read The Flash (my favorite), Batman, Superman, Justice League, anything really. Those comic books were my treasures and I’d stare at the covers for hours, putting them in protective sleeves and organizing them by character, then by date, then by story line then back to character. I looked at those books so many times that I was certain Bill’s name was on there. I had to go find out.
I descended into my parent’s basement and went right to the shelf where the box labeled “Derek’s Comic Books” was located, a box my mom has been trying to get out of her basement for years. As I flipped it open, the memories of those books came rushing back to me. The feeling of reading them with my dad when I was 6. The warmth of going to the store and picking them out. There aren’t many things that can melt away the stresses of adulthood like rummaging through your old things in your parent’s basement.
And then, there it was. One book with Bill’s name on the cover. Then two. Then six. And damn (darn) did I remember them. The one with The Flash racing Superman was one of my all-time favorites, but not only that, but it was the comic book where Bill introduced a gay Pied Piper.
I don’t remember 6-year-old me reading that story line, and I don’t remember how Dad handled it (Bill was curious about this) but I remember the cover. And I remember his name on it.
I sat there in silence for a few minutes.
I don’t know what I was hoping for but seeing his name hit me like a ton of bricks. Those comic books created some of my favorite memories as a kid and Bill wrote them. He created, fought for and worked on those stories and I read them with Dad while drinking a Cherry Pepsi.
Now the man who gave me those memories was living out of his car. I’d love to say at that moment I jumped up with a specific plan to help him get on his feet but in reality, I sat there and cried.
PROBLEMS PILE UP
The story we were working on about Bill was lurching forward but we needed more video of Bill. I reached out to him and we settled on a Wednesday morning to connected again - two weeks since our first meeting. He also passed on the address of his mobile home, so we could get a few shots of it if we needed. We did, so after our hour-long meeting with Bill we ventured a few miles south to his old mobile home park.
It wasn’t hard to find; the white trailer with concrete steps and boxes on the front porch. To say there were a lot of boxes would have been an understatement - the place was packed with stuff. I went out to chat with a few neighbors and they all confirmed that Bill and Nadine hold on to things.
The park manager was there the day of the gas leak and said the Fire Marshall came and declared the home unlivable based on what he found in their trailer. The gas leak was the least of Bill and Nadine’s concerns: there was too much stuff, likely more than a little mold, and no air circulation. It wasn’t officially condemned, but it might as well have been. Unless you have a death wish, that place was a good as gone.
We only had an hour with Bill the last time we interviewed him because he needed to get to his job. I couldn’t let him go without showing him that his stories in 1991 had made their way to my front porch.
When I showed him the books, I could see the passion rush back into Bill’s face as he grinned larger than I’d seen in our two-week friendship.
He took me through the books, through the other guys that worked on them, who was who and what they were doing now. Then he signed it simply, “Derek. Bill Messner-Loebs”.
6-year-old me has never been more excited.
During my interviews with Bill I asked him a lot of questions: Should people feel bad for you? No, he said. What’s the one thing you want? A job drawing again. What’s the lesson he’s learned over the years? People are, in general, good.
But it was when I watched him pack up from our final interview that I saw the thing that sticks with me.
He slowly put the caps on his markers one at a time, quietly stacked up his papers and put them in his bag. He shuffled over to Nadine sitting in her wheelchair who asked, “How did it go”?
“Good”, he said as he placed his bag down and put his hand on her shoulder. “Well, it’s off to work now. Do you need anything before I go”?
“No, I’m fine” she said. They looked at each other for a second, with reassurances in their eyes that no matter what, everything will be.
There’s good news: since we interviewed Bill. He’s getting help after being approved for a housing choice voucher and he and his wife are searching for a place to live.
They’ve been helped the Severe Weather Network. There are currently no county-run homeless shelters in Livingston County, making the program the only emergency housing option in the area. CLICK HERE to check out their GoFundMe page.
If you’re able and willing to offer some assistance to Bill, email firstname.lastname@example.org