Ethan Sacks: Inciting Change, One Panel At a Time
Stuyvesant alum Ethan Sacks uses his storytelling and artistic skills to fuel his fight for change, cultivating comics that ignite both emotion and action.
Reading Time: 7 minutes
The genre that first comes to mind when you think of impactful rhetoric probably isn’t comic books. Perhaps you envision brochures with brazen calls to action or searing opinions pieces analyzing politics. Stuyvesant alumnus Ethan Sacks (‘90) uses his storytelling skills and artistic passions to bring light to overlooked personal experiences and widespread issues, creating comics that ignite both emotion and action. In addition to his comic book writing, he also excels in the world of journalism. Sacks has produced a diverse array of work over his multifaceted career, a journey he described during an event organized by English teacher Annie Thoms for her Writing to Make Change class, as well as in a follow-up interview with The Spectator.
Sacks’ writing career began at Stuyvesant, where he wrote for Antares, Stuyvesant’s science-fiction/fantasy magazine. He was eager to continue writing in college at McGill University, so he chose to pursue journalism. He wrote for The Tribune, where his love for journalism blossomed. “I basically lived [at the The Tribune office],” Sacks described. After graduating from McGill in 1994, he secured a job as one of the first writers for the New York Daily News website, which his team launched in the early days of the dot-com boom in the late 90s. While at the Daily News, Sacks oversaw everything from sports coverage to entertainment to breaking news. In 2010, he worked as part of the award-winning team behind the “Miracle on the Hudson” coverage of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s 2009 emergency landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River.
In 2016, Sacks wrote a New York Daily News article on May 4—the unofficial “Star Wars Day”—that kick-started his comic book career. “I interviewed this actor named Paul Blake, who played Greedo, that green character that Han Solo shoots in the Cantina,” Sacks said. His discussion with Blake inspired him to write a Star Wars comic book based on the scene. “It stuck in my mind,” Sacks explained. “I thought it’d be very funny to [write a comic about] a murder investigation on Greedo.”
To begin, Sacks reached out to Joe Quesada, Marvel’s chief commercial officer at the time. “I was like, ‘I can’t get this story out of my head. I would like to, if it’s okay with you, write a spec script, on the off chance you guys would publish it. I’ll just donate the money because I’m a reporter,” Sacks said. Thus began a whole new career—one that would go on to touch the lives of many.
Sacks mentioned that he was discontent with his work as a journalist at the time. “When I started [with] the Daily News, there were 450 reporters and editors. [At the time that I left] there were 48, to give you an idea of how the newspaper [was] shrinking. Every year, I was seeing layoffs, and I was watching my mentors basically get laid off,” Sacks recalled. He managed to avoid the layoffs himself, but the newspaper industry was still struggling around him as print readership declined amidst the new digital landscape. “I was kind of miserable at work, because newspapers [were] still dying.”
Months after writing the Greedo comic, Sacks received a life-changing email from Quesada: “[He said], ‘I think you can write comics, and I think you should do it for a living.’ And so he did everything he could to sort of pull me into Marvel,” Sacks described. Sacks decided to give comic book writing a try for fun—something his job lacked at the time. “Coincidentally, the Daily News had buyouts that month, so I actually took one. It was like for 20 years, I had seven months’ pay. If I was going to [leave], that was the time. Everything kind of lined up, and that’s sort of how I left full-time journalism.”
To ensure his financial stability while expanding his comic writing career, Sacks began working part- time at NBC News. “Especially early on, I didn’t have enough work, and so I stayed in journalism a little bit. I knew some people in NBC News, and they pulled me in,” Sacks recounted. Sacks continued working in journalism while exploring his new interest: comics. “So I found this balance. And that was key,” Sacks explained.
NBC also granted Sacks more creative freedom than he had at the Daily News. “I think the best journalism I've done was at NBC News, because they were very receptive to ideas that [...] I would come up with,” Sacks remembered. “The [article] I’m most proud of was talking about ‘Fight the Power,’ the  song by Public Enemy, and sort of how it became an anthem [for the Black Lives Matter movement] and how it’s still used [today],” Sacks reflected. NBC was a hub for change and literary independence, providing Sacks a jumping-off point for his comic activism.
Sacks offered a glimpse into how the life of a comic book unfolds, comparing the process to working on an assembly line. “The writers at the start of the assembly line, we start with an outline, send it to the editor, the editor [...] edits accordingly. And then we write a first version of a script and that goes to the artists, the artists do what's called layouts which are basically like rough storyboards,” Sacks elaborated. Then, colorists are recruited to add and fill colors, while letterers assemble word balloons, captions, and sound effects. Overall, Sacks estimates that it takes about four months of work to produce a comic book of approximately 150 pages. This intricate and involved process finally results in a finely-crafted and visually engaging product.
Sacks’ most impactful comic, A Haunted Girl (2023), stemmed from a deeply personal—and emotional—place. In 2019, Sacks’ daughter Naomi Sacks, who was a freshman at Stuyvesant at the time, was hospitalized for depression. The immense guilt Sacks felt during this time inspired him to write. “[During visiting hours] I came up with this idea, and I wrote down a single line in a reporter's notebook, which was: ‘The fate of all life on Earth rests with a girl who doesn’t know if she wants to live,’” Sacks recalled. “I was like, that’s going to be my starting point for this story, and it’s going to be about somebody that is like her: battling depression, battling these inner demons. At the same time, there has to be a reason, [which] I [hadn’t] come up [with] yet, that she has to save everyone else. So she has to save herself and save everyone else. I just wanted something to inspire her to keep fighting.”
Fortunately, Naomi recovered with the help of therapy and medication. Around a year ago, Sacks approached her about writing the comic with him. “[I told her that] ‘if you want to do this, you have to believe like I do that it has this higher purpose, and that is to try to inspire other people.’ And so yeah, she joined. I reached out to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and they did a sensitivity reading and [provided] a resource guide.”
The reception to A Haunted Girl has been overwhelmingly positive. “We had an interview with CBS News with an anchor who has been very upfront about her own mental health struggles. And, we had a big signing at Forbidden Planet, which is a comic store [in New York City]. During Comic Con, we had two pretty big panels,” Sacks said. After speaking to crowds of people at these events, many expressed gratitude to Naomi for sharing her story. “A lot of interviews will start with ‘I’ve gone through this,’” Sacks explained. Not only does reading the comic leave a mark, but writing it was very fulfilling for Naomi. “She loved the creative process. The whole [process] so far has been great for her,” Sacks said.
In fact, addressing pressing current issues and touching the lives of many is something Sacks has done in his other comics as well. In addition to A Haunted Girl, Sacks mentioned his comic series Covid Chronicles as a work he is proud of. In the comic, Sacks included the true story of a respiratory therapist in Orlando who risked his life every day during the peak of the pandemic. “He was exposed to these patients as he's intubating them, and he got sick and almost died. And he was intubated in his own hospital and his life was saved by his colleagues. And then within six weeks of almost dying, he's back at work,” Sacks said. “When I heard this story [...] I reached out, and I thought this symbolizes [...] what it’s like for first responders and how important they are.”
During Sacks’ signing tour around the US for Covid Chronicles, he experienced a special encounter in Orlando—the real-life respiratory therapist the story was based on was the first person at the signing. “He talked about how special it was to his family,” Sacks said. “You know, a lot of times you're sitting at home, at a desk in front of a computer and you don't really have that feedback or, you know, interaction. So it’s kind of nice to feel that sometimes.”
Sacks receives plenty of fulfillment from his writing, but he also prides himself on his charity work. “There are certain stories I did that I really love how they came out, but one thing I did that I am very proud of is I started this charity initiative with Disney,” Sacks said. While working at the New York Daily News, Sacks had the chance to combine altruism with his work. “[I would find] a children's charity that was tied into a thematic connection to one of the Marvel movies. Disney would rent out a theater, these kids would come and then the actors would surprise them.” This endeavor was a win-win for all. “The Daily News had the human interest story, Disney had good publicity, the actors felt good, but most importantly, these kids, you know, had that experience,” Sacks explained. Much of his work, even outside of the comic book realm, has focused on uplifting others.
Spreading awareness comes in many forms, whether it be social media activism, storytelling, or writing comic books about a personal struggle with mental illness. Through A Haunted Girl, Sacks spread awareness of mental illnesses and inspired others struggling with similar situations. Simultaneously, Sacks used this creative outlet to help himself process his complex emotions and support his daughter.