Jonas Black is 3 years old, and at the moment, is entertaining himself by blowing spit bubbles. He pushes all the saliva he can make against his lips and blows, until he creates a wet, wavering thing about to pop.
Jake Black is 32. He’s happy that he and his family settled in Eagle Mountain, glad that the worst crime his son has to grow up with is teenage vandalism, or people running stop signs. But to his adult sensibilities, bubbles made of spit are, well, disgusting.
“Ew, gross!” he says, dragging out both words as the saliva dries on his son’s lips. It makes his son laugh, so he says it over and over again. He says he’d do anything to make Jonas happy.
These simple moments form the daily life of Jake Black: father, husband, Latter-day Saint, comic book writer and cancer survivor. Although this family time seems blissful and mundane, Black’s life has been anything but ordinary for the last several years. From his work on DC Comics’s “Supergirl” series to his latest cartoon, the Jan. 6 episode of “Generator Rex” on the Cartoon Network, Black is making the kind of mark on written entertainment most superhero lovers only dream of, and he’s done it while fighting a worse enemy than most heroes imagine.
A promising beginning
At 12 years old, Jake Black was a nerd. He’d discovered the comic book character Archie one fateful afternoon at his parents’ house in Orem, and after that it only took a few trips to comic shops in Provo to get hooked.
Now he was wearing Star Trek shirts to school every day and hanging out with Trekkies who played the card game Magic. “We went to Star Trek conventions in uniforms,” he says. His was the character Worf in his yellow suit. “I don’t know much beyond full geek than that.”
But Jake was a determined geek. It wasn’t enough to simply read about Klingons and Starfleet. He had to write about them, too. And it wasn’t enough to simply write, either. He had to know whether his story was good.
So he mailed it to DC Comics.
“I just wanted some feedback and some instruction,” he said. It was 1991 and he was in fifth grade — a proper creative writing class was still several long years out of reach. “I thought that they would write back and say that I had talent, and that it was all awesome. I was pretty [gutsy] in those days.”
They didn’t say that it was awesome. But they did write back. On DC letterhead, Jake received advice that would reflect his entire career: If you want to improve, write every day.
If you ask Paul Levitz, president of DC from 2002-2009, he’ll say that comics are the “sweet spot” for today’s writer. Poetry means artistic freedom without the cash reward. Film might make you those big bucks, but it won’t necessarily provide the artistic satisfaction some long for. With comics, you get a reasonable amount of both money and creative expression.
But the industry isn’t easy to get into. “You have to knock very energetically for a long while on doors, to convince people to let you in,” Levitz said.
Jake did just that. From sending DC Comics his “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fan fiction to calling up the production offices of TV’s “Smallville” for an internship the afternoon before it premiered, Black never let anything stop him from doing what he loved.
“I’m a pretty driven person,” he said. “If I want to write something, I’m going to be knocking on that person’s door until they let me write it.”
Fifteen years after that first submission, Jake had already spent a semester interning with “Smallville,” writing viral marketing, making copies of scripts, organizing master videotapes, filing and answering phones while renting a friend’s guest apartment in Los Angeles. He started writing comics, and has freelanced since 2003 with some “Smallville” for DC and “Dead@17” for Viper Comics. Sure, he had left himself other career possibilities. He could have worked as a stage manager, like he had for the 2002 presentation of “Light of the World” during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He also could have found something to do with the degree in history he received from Brigham Young University in April 2006. But writing comics had always been his dream, an area where he felt he had real talent.
Although Jake is well versed in the world of superheroes, he also knows a thing or two about the role of a prince.
A fairy-tale romance
The love story of Jake’s life began with his mother. Cathy Black taught dance at Brigham Young University, and every once in a while a dancer would catch her eye as perfect dating material for her son.
It never worked out. By July 2004, Jake didn’t want anything to do with her recommendations. But when he ignored her request to date Michelle Douglass, fate had other ideas.
“I met him by accident a week later,” Michelle said. “I had an appointment with his mom, and he just showed up at her office wanting to take her out to lunch. His mom had just been to lunch, but I hadn’t. And so he took me out instead.”
That first date lasted 12 hours. On Jan. 8, 2005, only six months later, Jake and Michelle were married in the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Growing up, you always think, ‘I’m going to marry a lawyer or a doctor, a firefighter.’ ... Never in a million years did I imagine a comic book writer,” Michelle Black said.
But she loved his passion, regardless of what it was about. “I got a good one,” she said.
Four years later, they were watching Jonas grow through his first months. Jake was freelancing for DC from their new Eagle Mountain house and going to church every Sunday with his family. It seemed like a fairy tale until Jake received devastating news.
The hidden enemy
In 2009, Jake was diagnosed with stage II Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “It was funny,” he said, “it wasn’t ever a big dramatic moment like I don’t know how to tell you this or anything.” It was only a phone call, but it began the lowest point of his life.
“My son was 6 months old, and I wanted to be around for him. So the idea of not being was horrifying. My wife and I had been married just over four years. And you know, that’s not long enough.”
Jake had a lump the size of a ping-pong ball in his neck, and two more in his chest. He couldn’t put on weight and he was constantly tired. And that was before he started chemotherapy.
“It just attacks your body,” he said. “It was scary to watch my hair fall out. Scary to get down to 130 pounds and look like a concentration camp victim.”
“Jake and I had to make some adjustments at home,” Michelle said. “He slept in the basement rather than in our bedroom, because he was closer to a bathroom down there. The chemo would make him throw up a lot.”
Jake’s chemotherapy treatments took place at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. In a room with several other patients, Jake received a cocktail of four different drugs, dripped through an IV for six to seven hours at a time. While he sat in a chair and waited, often playing the video game Tetris on his phone, Michelle would take Jonas for a drive.
“We just put him in the car when I’d take Jake to chemo,” she said, “and I would just drive around. Because that’s the only way Jonas would sleep, is if we put him in the car.”
Michelle often worried on those drives. “At the time, cancer meant death. I didn’t know any better,” she said. She had to prepare herself for the impossible, to wonder what she would do if she had to support Jonas as a single mom. She wasn’t working, and she knew that life insurance could only hold out for so long. How could she afford to do it on her own?
“I thought I was going to lose my husband.”
In June that year, Jake began to struggle with breathing. At first the doctors thought it was pneumonia, but they quickly learned otherwise: It was one of the chemotherapy drugs damaging his lungs. One early morning, he was hospitalized.
On June 25, the night Michael Jackson overdosed, Jake almost died. He wasn’t able to breathe, and while the nurses quickly put him on oxygen and stabilized him, the situation was serious enough for the hospital to call his wife.
“She says I said, ‘I don’t want to die alone,’ ” said Jake. “I don’t remember saying that. I remember saying I didn’t want her to get a phone call that I was dead.”
Michelle called one of her sisters to take care of Jonas, so she could go to her husband. She sat with him and held his hand for six hours.
“While she was coming, I kept saying to the nurses and the doctors, ‘My wife’s coming, my wife’s coming,’ — I was holding on so much for her to get there. As melodramatic as that may be, it was very real.”
After that scary night, they removed the damaging drug from his chemo routine, and he continued the last couple of months with only three bags per session. But the scare couldn’t be erased so easily.
“We would cry together, because we didn’t know what the future would hold,” Michelle said, trailing off into silence.
But for Jake and Michelle, surrender was not an option.
The strongest part of Jake’s life had always been his faith. His faith in God, his faith in people, and his faith in the future.
When he was 19, Jake traveled to Alberta, Canada, as a missionary for the LDS Church. He spent two years there, playing bingo with senior citizens and teaching unmarried 18- to 30- year-olds at the Edmonton Youth Shelter about God and Jesus Christ.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is not required for any member to complete a mission. Jake’s parents, having both been introduced to Mormonism in their adult years, had not done so, and he had no legacy of it. But he chose to serve anyway.
“I believe that much in the message that my church has to offer, and I wanted to share it with the world,” he explained.
Cancer could do nothing against such powerful conviction. If anything, it increased it.
“I didn’t doubt my faith ever during cancer,” he said. “We all come to a point where we do question our faith, and we do look at evidences in our lives, and we do go in prayer to God and ask, ‘Is this real? Is this really real?’ And I’ve done that throughout my life. But having cancer, and just seeing what I believe to be God’s hand in my life, it has to be real. It has to be true.”
“During the cancer experience, it was hell,” Michelle said. But she feels it has only changed herself and her husband for the better. “He has had even that much more faith in God and faith in people. It’s refined him.”
Even during cancer, despite their close call, Jake and Michelle found ways to keep fighting. Jake kept freelancing, despite being very sick. “He was able to choose the hours he worked, so if he felt tired he could go sleep. But if he was up to it, he could come in his office and work,” Michelle said.
She, herself, found strength in the community, in the neighbors whose own faith called them to help by making dinners for the couple on days Jake had his chemo appointments, cleaning their house and doing their laundry. “I think that definitely helped to pull me through,” she said.
Cancer also gave each of them something far more valuable than a paycheck with Superman on it, or even the gift of a meal. It gave them memories.
For Jake, it’s his fondest memory yet of his son:
“I’d been in the hospital for a week, and my wife and son came to get me. My room was at the end of a hall, facing the hall where the elevators were. And he walked out, he had a little breathing mask on. ... He stepped out of the elevator, and he looked and saw me lying in my hospital bed, and started a full run down to see me.
“He loved me so much, he wanted to run through the hospital wearing his little mask.”
For Michelle, it’s her most powerful memory of her husband:
“During the cancer experience, we went out on the porch and just spent some normal time together, sitting on our bench on the porch. And laughing. He was pale, he was skinny, his eyes were sunken in and he had no hair. No eyebrows. But we were laughing.”
Jake’s bout with cancer is something neither of them will ever forget. It is, as Michelle put it, “a permanent part of our lives.” Despite several fundraisers, the Black family still has $10,000 in debt to pay for his treatments, and chemotherapy has damaged his clarity in thinking and memory. It is also possible that Jonas will be the only child he ever has. But all of cancer’s horrors have only increased the family’s appreciation for life, and strengthened their sense of hope.
Hope for tomorrow
Jake Black is still writing comics and superhero television shows. Online reviews praise his recent comic, “Five Senses,” and he finally was able to write for the kids’ television show “Batman: Brave and the Bold” with episode 22 of its second season. His next project is a non-fiction book, a collection of 15 stories from Mormons who have experienced cancer as a patient, a loved one or a doctor. His own story will be the introduction.
“I think it’s really important to put my experience out there,” he said. “If the details of my experience can help someone else, then that far outweighs any discomfort I might have in talking about it.”