What Happened To Bill Jaaska?
The recent reporting of the passing of Bill Jaaska got me thinking; the comic book industry, and the world, can be both cruel and fickle. I’m currently finding it hard to grasp that an artist such as Bill Jaaska can disconnect from the world, and both Marvel and DC, to the point where his death remained relatively unknown for months. I have to ask, what was Marvel and Dark Horse doing with his royalty cheques? His Hulk and X-Men work have remained in print since their were first published, in Visionary, Classic and Essential volumes, and will more than likely stay in print until Marvel close down. Did anyone ever bother to at least try and track him down? Did anyone find him, or know where he was? That he passed away penniless in a boarding house emphatically answers the last question, but another still remains; what happened to Bill Jaaska?
Bill lived his whole life in Milwaukee, which is where he died. His parents put him up for adoption at birth, while he was never officially adopted he was placed into a home with foster parents, and, unusually, he remained with his original foster mother until she passed away. By all accounts he had a relatively happy and stable childhood. Beyond that there’s not a lot of information about Bill and his life. It appears that he was never interviewed during or after his career and I can’t find any reference of him appearing at any convention at any stage in the 1980s or 1990s when he was active in comic books. During his peak period in comic books he operated out of his own studio, but that was closed once he ceased working in comic books in the mid 1990s.
Bill broke into comic books in late 1986. He started, like most of his peers of the time, with the minor publishers; in Bills case his first major work was with the now defunct First Comics, in particular on Mike Grell’s creation Sable, where he was part of the relaunch of the title with Marv Wolfman. Bills cover art was one of the best features of the book, simple yet highly effective. To study those covers now would be to make a study of simplicity in regards to storytelling and, at times, Bill’s work was more reminiscent of Mike Zeck than Mike Grell. Bills art graced either the cover or interior pages of Sable for twenty issues. Bill also worked for Eclipse, working on Airboy and Lt. Rosa Winter.
After staying with First, and Sable and Judah The Hammer in Nexus, until 1989, Bill then found work at the Big Two: DC and Marvel. At Marvel Bill began working on no less a title than the Uncanny X-Men. At the time the X-Men had exploded, both due to a long running storyline by Chris Claremont and stellar art by the likes of Marc Silvestri, Rick Leonardi, Jim Lee and others, such as Keiron Dwyer and Arthur Adams (on the annuals of the time). Bill provided the art to two issues; issues #263 and #265, Mike Collins did the art for the alternating issues until Jim Lee took over with issue #268 (after sharing art chores with Whilce Portico for issue #267). From there Bill worked on fill in issues of Wolverine and Sgt Fury, before drawing two fondly remembered issues of The Incredible Hulk. At the time, much like the X-Men, the Hulk was one of the Marvel titles. Dale Keown’s artwork was making people sit up and take notice, and Bill rose to the occasion. His first issue was a simple exercise in fill-in, detailing a Christmas fight between The Rhino and the Hulk, with humorous results. His next story, Hulk #380, was part of the regular storyline and is fondly remembered by writer Peter David, who called Bills work ‘effective’. So effective was the art that David has intimated that it was crucial to the overall impact of an already powerful story. Other than his sole job on Sgt Fury, all of Bill’s Marvel work has remained in print, via Peter David’s Hulk Visionary series and various Essential and Classic reprints. Somewhere there must be a sizable royalty cheque with Bill’s name on it.
While he was working at Marvel Bill also began working for DC. His first work was an issue of Checkmate, followed by Bill finishing an issue of Swamp Thing along with Shade The Changing Man. He also provided the art for a three issue Terminator mini-series for Dark Horse titled Hunters And Killers, which was recently reprinted as a DVD digital comic. Once he'd finished with the Terminator, Bill began the second longest run in his career, on no less a title than Teen Titans, replacing the likes of George Perez and Tom Grummett. Sadly there was something of a backlash directed towards Bills art at the time, which continues to this day. Part of the problem wasn’t so much that the art was bad, because it wasn’t, but more that Bill wasn’t George Perez. The same debate surrounds Bills X-Men work, with people looking at Bills art as not being on a par with Jim Lee, an unfair criticism, as people could also argue that Jim Lees art isn’t as good as Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Michael Golden, John Byrne or Alex Toth, all of whom also worked on the X-Men. It appears that Bill’s last work was on issue #23 of Turok for Acclaim. This issue was inked by Charles Yoakum, who recently said, “Bill was doing a rather strange over-rendered pencil style that did not mesh well with my inks at the time. But that was what needed to be done so I did it. Since it was only a single issue I didn't have the editors give me his phone number so that I could call him. I turned it in, submitted my voucher and moved on to an issue Eternal Warrior.”
And that is where Bill’s all too short career in comic books ended. By my estimation Bill provided art to around fifty issues in total, give or take a few that I’ve not been able to track down. Marv Wolfman was the writer on more issues that Bill drew than anyone else, from the start of his career with Sable to almost the end with Teen Titans. “Bill was highly underrated by the fans because I think his style was so different from what was expected on the Titans book,” says Marv, “namely the Perez look. Now, nobody loves George and his work more than me, but I wanted a new look to the book and Bill's unique style gave that. Unfortunately, the fans never saw Bill's pencil art, which I did. It was exciting, emotional and filled with drama. Also, his story-telling was truly excellent. I do think his inking may have hurt his drawing as it made it more sketchy than his pencils showed. But I loved working with Bill and really loved the unique approach he took with the characters. His Starfire buried story was a really excellent job. I didn't know Bill all that well personally. I think we may have met at a convention or two, but I'm not 100% positive. But we talked on the phone and we got along very well. I had no idea Bill had died, and I give his family my warmest and deepest condolences.”
Once his art career finished Bill began to move from rooming house to rooming house and appeared to live the life of a rootless loner. His foster mother passed at some stage and the trauma of this might have led Bill down the road he went. Other information is sketchy; he may have had issues with his eyesight, which, if true, would explain why he stopped drawing professionally. Among his few belongings were details of an eye surgery facility, at which he had booked himself an appointment, but, sadly, we won’t know for sure. According to Bills sister, Maija, “There was a photo he took of himself on his cell phone and his left eye looks really cloudy (although it may just be the angle of the photo that is making it look that way). He also had several pairs of very thick glasses.” Bill appears to have given up on art as a profession, and was receiving public assistance. However, according to one of the other residents of Bills last rooming house, he also worked temporary jobs from time to time, but had nothing stable. There was artwork, and drawing materials amongst Bills effects, showing that Bill never fully turned his back on his artistic ambitions. Bill was clearly fully functional and able to live independently, but all appearances point towards him being quite the struggling loner.
Thankfully it appears that Bill’s passing wasn’t a painful one. According to the Medical Examiner, the cause of death was due to an embolism and there’s a strong suggestion that some of Bills medical problems might have been due to a congenital disorder. Again, according to the Medical Examiner, Bill came back to his room and thought he might not have been feeling well and decided to lie down to rest. At some point he simply and quietly passed away and was found where he lay, in his bed.
Bill’s story was one of the saddest that I’ve seen in recent times. I used to see, and hear, such stories on a daily basis in my previous job but this was one of the first times that I’d seen such a tale of woe in relation to the comic book industry. The history of comic books is littered with creative people who faded away and ultimately passed away in sad or tragic circumstances, but most of these stories appeared to have ended in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Once the internet began to bring people closer, and agencies such as HERO began to actively seek out and assist creators who’d fallen on hard times, stories such as Bills have become rare. It seems impossible that a creator can fall so low and be totally forgotten in this day and age. There are several people who make it their life to find these creators and assist them, generally without fanfare. People such as Dr Michael Vassallo, Jeff Jaworski and a few others not only track people down, but also attempt to re-engage them with society at large and make people aware that they’re out there and, generally, find them work in the form of commissions. Without Jeff, for example, artists such as Keith Pollard and Ron Wilson might still be living, quietly, largely forgotten by the comic book industry and relegated to being both a memory and the subject of “I wonder where they are now,” questions.
Why did Bill withdraw from society and exactly how did he pass away? They’re questions that deserve asking and deserve an answer, but sadly we may never know. Whatever demons haunted Bill, and what drove him more than likely went with him to his grave. People generally disengage from society for a number of reasons. These can include mental illness, a dependence upon alcohol or drugs or just a desire to vanish, so to speak. Some are forgotten by society at large, and some of these reasons, and more, appear to be the case for Bill. Bills family strongly suspect that he may have had some mental health issues, based on the state of the last room he lived in, combined with material that he kept, and some private writings he left behind. In a tragic twist, Bill passed away only days before DC released a trade paperback reprinting his Shade The Changing Man work for the first time.
Bill appeared to never have reached out to those who could have assisted him, either family or professionally. It’s easy to speculate that he might not have been aware of organisations such as HERO, but you’d hope that if he’d ever made contact with any former colleague or an employer such as Marvel, then the suggestion would have, hopefully, been made. We may never know. What we can learn from this is that there are still a lot of people out there who aren’t as well off as most, or have disengaged and more than likely believe that they’re forgotten by society at large. To that end if you know someone in such a situation then do the right thing, reach out to them and offer assistance. If they refuse then just let them know that someone cares. Sometimes that's all that's needed.
My thanks to Maija Jaaska and Marv Wolfman for their assistance with this story, and my deepest sympathies to the Jaaska family for the sad loss of Bill Jaaska.