13 (14?) Comic Book Professionals Who Committed Suicide at Various Stages in Their Careers
1. Wally Wood (1927-1981)
Best known for his work with EC Comics in the 1950s, Wood made his mark in EC’s popular line of science-fiction books, in addition to his contributions to Two-Fisted Tales, Tales from the Crypt and Mad (where he was one of the founding cartoonists). He survived the near collapse of the comics industry in the 1950s by branching out into book illustrations, magazine covers and gag panels for men’s magazines; the ’60s saw him return to comics with art and stories for a plethora of publishers (including Marvel, where he established the look of Daredevil’s trademark red costume). He was also well-known among artists for his “22 Panels That Always Work,” a series of panels that served as examples of how to inject a bit of dynamism into a layout (or as Wood put it, “to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page”). Despite his status as an influential artist, Wood shot himself in 1981; his declining health (he suffered a stroke in ’78 that left him blind in one eye) and career troubles were likely factors. However, friends and colleagues were concerned about his mental health long before that; in 1972, Harvey Kurtzman, an EC editor who worked closely with Wood, recalled he “had a tension in him, an intensity that he locked away in an internal steam boiler. I think it ate away his insides, and the work really used him up.”
2. Jack Cole (1914-1958)
Every death is a tragedy, with suicides that happen without any explanation or warning even more so. Best known for creating Plastic Man in the ’40s, Cole’s offbeat sense of humor made the malleable character an instant hit, and Plastic Man was one of the few superheroes to see his book survive well into the superhero-unfriendly ’50s (it was cancelled in 1956 after years of reprinting classic Cole material). Its cancellation was hardly a crushing blow to Cole’s career; by that point, he had become lead cartoonist for an up-and-coming magazine named Playboy, and he had also sold a new strip, Betsy and Me, to the Chicago Sun-Times syndicate, which debuted in newspapers nationwide on May 26, 1958. But on August 13 of that year, after telling his wife he was going out to fetch the mail, Cole drove his station wagon to a nearby sports shop, bought a .22-caliber rifle and shot himself on a lonely gravel road near his Illinois home. He mailed two suicide notes that morning, one to his wife and one to Hugh Hefner; the letter to his wife was never made public and Cole’s short note to Hefner said nothing about his reasons, only assuring him that Cole’s actions had “nothing to do” with the publisher. To this day, Cole’s motives for killing himself have never been revealed.
3. Robert E. Howard (1906-1936)
Howard died in 1936, too soon to have had a direct impact on the comic-book industry, but it’s hard to imagine the business without Conan the Barbarian and his scantily clad imitators. Born Robert Ervin Howard in Peaster, Tex., in 1906, Howard lived in nearby Cross Plains, Tex., from age 13 until his death. During his short life, he dreamed up entire worlds of fantasy, including many tales of the Cimmerian savage and his daring exploits, selling his stories to pulp-magazine publishers across the country. By age 23, he was earning enough from his fiction to quit his stenography courses and become a full-time writer, but his mother’s failing health took a huge toll on his own mental health, and in the weeks leading up to his death he wrote out his will and borrowed a .380 Colt Automatic pistol from a friend. On the morning of June 11, 1936, shortly after his mother slipped into a coma, Howard asked a nurse if she would ever regain consciousness; when told no, he walked out to his car, fetched the gun from the glove compartment, and shot himself in the head. His suicide note was just two lines from the poem “The House Of Caesar” by Viola Garvin: “All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre/The feast is over and the lamps expire.”
4. Gray Morrow (1934-2001)
Dwight Graydon “Gray” Morrow gained many fans for his work in Warren Publishing’s stable of magazines (Creepy, Eerie, Blazing Combat), but he was an artist who dabbled in a little of everything: humor for Cracked, Westerns and superhero tales for Marvel, adaptations for Gilberton’s Classics Illustrated line, more superheroes for DC, teen humor for Archie. He also worked on such syndicated strips as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Prince Valiant, and the Tarzan Sunday strip, and the Tarzan Sunday strip, the latter of which he illustrated from 1983 to 2001. Though a talented artist with a reputation for realistic renderings, he often had difficulty getting hired, wrote comic writer and blogger Mark Evanier shortly after Morrow’s death: “Morrow was one of those artists — and sadly, there a number in this category — who are universally admired but often unhired. Editors who thought his work was beautiful often feared it was too realistic and well-crafted to sell comics.” With Parkinson’s disease affecting his ability to draw, Morrow shot himself at his Pennsylvania home on Nov. 6, 2001.
5. Nekojiru (1967-1998)
Chiyomi Hashiguchi’s pen name was a blend of the Japanese words for “cat” and “soup” — an appropriate choice, considering most of her stories used anthropomorphic cats as their main characters. The Japanese manga artist’s professional debut, Nekojiru Udon, appeared in the June 1990 issue of the Garo monthly anthology. When she took her own life on May 10, 1998, there was some speculation it was in response to the death of a popular Japanese rock star who had been found hanged in his Tokyo apartment the week before — but she left no suicide note to explain her decision, and her husband dismissed any link between the two artists’ deaths. Cat Soup, a surreal 2001 short film that won numerous international awards, was based on her work.
6. Malcolm Jones III (1959-1996)
Best known for his inking on DC’s Sandman series, where he added depth and texture to the work of such pencilers as Mike Dringenberg, Kelley Jones and Colleen Doran, Jones also inked The Question, Hellblazer, Green Arrow and other DC titles. His penciling credits included Young All-Stars, Batman, The Question and Ravage 2099. Michael Davis, who co-founded Milestone Media in 1992, recalled in 2008 how he once asked Jones to join their start-up, but was rebuffed: “I knew (we all knew) that Malcolm was a troubled soul and I’m sad to say that when he committed suicide a few years ago I was not that surprised. [Milestone co-founder] Denys [Cowan] and I would often talk about how to deal with Malcolm and reached out to him many times. That does little to erase the feeling that we somehow let our friend down.”
7. Jaxon (Jack Jackson, 1941-2006)
In his obituary in Austin’s American-Statesman newspaper, Jack Jackson was hailed as “a Texan’s Texan” who was — to his artistic credit and the detriment of his bank account — “always a little too ahead of his time.” He published the underground comic book God Nose in Austin in 1964, three years before alternative comics came of age half a continent away in San Francisco. Five years later, he moved to that city and co-founded Rip Off Press, a publisher that would play a huge role in the countercultural comix movement. Later, long before other artists took to the medium to write historical non-fiction, Jaxon (the pen name he used back when he wanted to keep his day job) created comics that delved deep into American history, challenging his readers to confront the often brutal facts about Texas history and the making of the American West. Jaxon’s body was found outside the Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Stockdale, Tex., in June 2006; he was struggling with diabetes and prostate cancer at the time of his death.
8. Charles Crumb (1942-1993)
It’s safe to say Charles Vincent Crumb, Jr., will be less remembered for his own work than for the influence he had on the career of his younger brother, Robert. As detailed in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, the 1995 documentary about the family that created one of the counter-cultural movement’s most famous cartoonists, Charles was a gifted cartoonist who inspired Robert and their younger sibling, Maxon, to become artists. Unfortunately, Charles was also a depressive recluse who rarely left his mother’s house (Charles Sr. died in 1982), and so his work wouldn’t be discovered by a wider audience until it appeared in Zwigoff’s film. His art was typical of that created by people with psychological issues, with endlessly repeated lines and every inch of white space obsessively filled in with intricate details. Although his work did win some acclaim and there was even talk of director David Lynch writing a screenplay for him, Charles took his own life in February 1993, one year after being interviewed for Crumb.
9. Martin Emond (1969-2004)
Creating work under the pseudonyms “Martyfuck”, “Martywood”, “Mickey Martin” and “MFE”, Emond was a New Zealander whose friends remembered as always drawing, even at a young age. His big break came in 1992, when he showed his sketches to musician and comics publisher Glenn Danzig during the latter’s visit to New Zealand; in the years that followed, he drew for Marvel, DC, Verotik and Heavy Metal. Many of his illustrations were also produced as screenprints for a popular New Zealand clothing label. Although his work was popular with fans and he moved to the U.S. to shop his Switchblade character around to Hollywood studios, he hanged himself in his own studio. In an interview with a New Zealand magazine, fellow artist Simon Morse said Emond had suffered from depression for a long time: “He’s never been happy in his skin or on this plane of existence,” Morse said. “No matter how much success he’d get, it didn’t matter, it didn’t mean anything to him.”
10. Milt Stein (1921-1977)
Like a number of early cartoonists, Milt Stein moved back and forth between the early animation studios and the comic-book publishers; he spent a lot of time in the early ’40s producing work for Timely (Marvel) Comics while working as an assistant animator for Fleischer Studios (the New York City studio that was the first to put Superman on the silver screen). Up until the 1950s, he created a large number of funny-animal books for several comic publishers, including Quality Comics (“Flatfoot Burns” and “Inkie”), Marvel (“Silly Seal” and “Ziggy Piggy”), Better Publications (“Supermouse” and “Bonny Bunny”) and Fawcett (“Snortville Sneeze”). He focused on animation later in his career (animating, among other shows, 1966’s Marvel Super Heroes), and he’s generally considered one of the industry’s overlooked talents. Sadly, by 1976 he was in poor health, and the pressures of caring for both his family and his mentally challenged brother led him to commit suicide the following year.
11. John Hicklenton (1967-2010)
Several of the artists on this list committed suicide at a point in their lives when their diseases made it difficult for them to do what they loved; Hinklenton is no exception. After living with multiple sclerosis for 10 years, the British artist traveled to a Swiss clinic to end his life on his own terms. Best known for his work in 2000 AD on Judge Dredd and other strips, Hicklenton appeared in a British television documentary, Here’s Johnny, that followed his fight with the condition. “Drawing is my walking now; I run with it, I fly with it,” he said in the film. “It’s keeping me alive. I have a thing with it. I can’t wait to get a piece of paper with a pen because it’s what I can control. I haven’t got MS when I’m looking at my pictures and I haven’t got it when I’m drawing them, either. It gives me an ability to express that fear.” He completed his last book, 100 Months, the day before he traveled to Zurich as one of the highest-profile Britons to defy that country’s assisted-suicide laws.
12. Akio Chiba (1943-1984)
Born in Shenyang, Manchuria, during the Japanese occupation of that part of China, Chiba made his professional debut in 1967 with his manga Sabu to Chibi; he would go on to be known for publishing works in both shōnen (stories targeting young boys) and shōjo (stories targeting young girls) magazines. Captain, a 26-volume series about baseball players that ran from 1972 to 1979, was adapted into an anime series in 1980 (Play Ball, another baseball story that ran in 22 volumes between 1973 and 1978, was adapted into another anime series in 2005). It’s believed a bipolar disorder is what drove Chiba to commit suicide in late 1984 at age 41; his final book, Champ, was published earlier that year.
13. George Caragonne (1965-1995)
George Caragonne was a man who wanted to be a bigshot in the comic industry. After paying his dues writing stories for Captain America, Planet Terry and Top Dog for Marvel, he joined former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter at Valiant Comics and later tried his hand at his own publishing ventures before an acquaintance introduced him to Bob Guccione. The Penthouse publisher was looking for someone to create comic features for his magazine, and Caragonne eagerly took the job. After several had been produced, Guccione ordered a standalone magazine of comics, and the first issue of Penthouse Comix appeared in the spring of 1994, followed by several other erotic titles in a fast-growing line. That success did something to Caragonne; as Evanier recalled in 2005, “Once a man who’d refused to smoke, drink, use drugs or engage in premarital sex, he was suddenly doing all of those and in excess… especially the drugs.” Soon, there were rumors of financial improprieties, and he was locked out of Penthouse’s offices pending an audit. A few days later, he took the elevator to the top of Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis Hotel and jumped 500 feet to his death.
14(?). Joe Maneely (1926-1958)
We’ll never know if Joe Maneely fell or jumped that fateful night, but one thing is certain: had he lived to see Marvel’s ascendancy, he would have been one of the greats. “He would have been another Jack Kirby,” Stan Lee once said of him.
Maneely was one of the stars of Atlas Comics, Marvel’s corporate predecessor, churning out hundreds of pages and covers during the 1950s. Horror, jungle, crime, historical fiction, science fiction — he did it all at Atlas, particularly Westerns, where his heroes, villains, sidekicks and bit players were always designed as more than mere stock figures. His many accomplishments during this period included the co-creation of the Black Knight, the Ringo Kid, the Yellow Claw and Jimmy Woo (a secret agent who would go on to join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the ’60s as one of the few non-stereotypical Asians of the time). On the night of June 7, 1958, Maneely died when he fell between the cars of a moving commuter train on his way home from Marvel’s New York offices to New Jersey. His last original published story was the Ringo Kid tale “One Bullet Left” in Gunsmoke Western #53 (07/59), and his final published comics work was the cover of Gunsmoke Western #55 (11/59).