Comic Art Friday: Hey, I know that guy!

Doc Savage and Doc Samson, pencils by Herb Trimpe

I don’t remember how many years I’d been reading comics before I could distinguish the work of one artist from another. Given that I started reading comics as a first-grader, I’m guessing that recognition took quite a while. But by the time I was thinking about comics critically — say, around age nine or ten — I could readily spot certain artists with distinctive styles, and could form preferences for one creator’s work over another’s.

Part of the reason I gravitated more closely to Marvel comics in those formative years was the fact that Marvel gave its artists more individual license than did DC. For the most part, DC’s 1960s comics all looked similar — almost as though they were drawn by the same (supremely busy) hand. The company imposed a strict house style to which all of its artists were required to adhere. DC editorial wanted Superman to always look exactly like the established model of Superman, whether he was being drawn by Curt Swan in Action Comics, Kurt Schaffenberger in Lois Lane, or Dick Dillin in Justice League of America. (There’s an infamous story about how, when the legendary Jack Kirby moved from Marvel to DC in the early 1970s and took over the Jimmy Olsen comic, DC editorial had another artist, Al Plastino, redraw all of the heads on Kirby’s Superman figures to conform to house style.)

At Marvel, the concept of “house style” was practically nonexistent. Even though Kirby’s powerful action scenes set the standard, none of the other Marvel artists were forced to ape the King precisely. In fact, the three artists who formed Marvel’s core talent in the mid-’60s — Kirby, Steve Ditko, and John Romita Sr. — all drew quite differently from one another. Kirby’s art was muscular, propulsive, in-your-face bold; Ditko’s was stiff, quirky, and often fantastical; Romita’s sleek, prettified approach reflected his many years drawing romance comics.

As Marvel grew into the next decade, the company continued to add artists to its stable whose work immediately stood out from everyone else’s. From a young age, I could identify the splayed hands, twisted posture, and bizarre up-the-nostrils facial perspective of Gil Kane; the statuesque, graceful, almost neoclassical anatomy of John Buscema; the fine lines and haunted eyes of Jim Starlin’s characters; the intricate detail of Barry Windsor-Smith. Ditko’s Spider-Man looked nothing like Romita’s or Ross Andru’s or Kane’s, or any of the others who followed him (not to mention Kirby, who — at the risk of speaking sacrilege — couldn’t draw Spidey very well at all), and Marvel seemed okay with that.

Among the first artists whose work I could pick out of a lineup was Herb Trimpe, who throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s was the regular penciler on The Incredible Hulk. Trimpe’s style had a unique, almost Ditko-esque angularity, particularly when it came to faces, that no one else possessed. His Hulk more or less became the template for the character. Much as when I close my eyes and think “Batman,” I envision the Caped Crusader as drawn by Neal Adams or Jim Aparo, or when I think “Iron Man,” I see George Tuska’s or Bob Layton’s, the definitive image of the Hulk in my mind will always be Herb Trimpe’s.

The 2005 Common Elements commission by Trimpe seen at the top of this post was one of my earliest “big scores” as a collector, in terms of commissioning an artist of whom I’d been a fan since childhood and whom I regarded as a “big name.” Even now, I don’t think I have another commission by an artist whose work goes back as far in my memory. I’ve been fortunate to commission several other artists I enjoyed in my youth, but probably none earlier than Trimpe.

At the time of this commission, I thought it would be fun to have Herb draw Doc Samson, a Hulk supporting character he co-created with writer-editor Roy Thomas. (Why not the Hulk? you ask. Because everyone asks Herb to draw the Hulk, I reply.) Of course, the natural Common Elements pairing would be another Doc — Savage, of pulp, comics, and kitschy ’70s film renown. Herb threw me for a loop, though, when he asked me what I wanted the characters to be doing in the drawing. As longtime Comic Art Friday readers know, I prefer to allow artists I commission to dream up their own scenarios, figuring that their ideas will almost invariably be superior to my own. But, since Herb asked, I suggested the arm-wrestling bit.

This remains one of just a couple of Common Elements pieces in which I had any input into the scenario design, beyond selecting the characters and artist. The only others that come to mind are Bob Budiansky’s Ghost Rider / Batgirl matchup, and Gene Gonzales’s “Catfight of the Bands.” Even in those pieces, everything beyond the one-phrase concepts “motorcycle race” and “battle of the bands” came from the imaginations of the respective artists, not from me.

That’s probably for the best.

Some three years after this commission was completed, I connected in person with Herb at a local comics convention. It was a rare treat to be able to thank him, face to face, both for this particular artwork and for all of his creations that I’ve enjoyed over the years. Herb even posed with his masterpiece for this photo.

Herb Trimpe and his Common Elements commission, WonderCon 2008; photo by Michael Rankins

There’s an interesting sidelight to the Herb Trimpe story. Herb worked for Marvel for a phenomenally long time, spanning the mid-1960s into the 1990s. Late in his Marvel tenure, his drawing style changed rather drastically, reflecting the line-intensive approach favored by then-popular artists such as Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld. Opinions differ as to whether Trimpe evolved his style on his own, as artists frequently do — think of Picasso’s many “periods,” for example; or, to choose a comics-related parallel, the stark switch in Bill Sienkiewicz’s style away from its early Neal Adams influences to something bordering on abstract — or whether he was pressured by Marvel editorial to stop drawing “old school” and come up with a more “up to date” look.

I don’t know which is true; perhaps the reality contains an element of both. As you can see in the drawing featured here, Herb’s recent approach is an amalgam of classic Trimpe and his latter-period comics work.

That, too, is probably for the best.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Comic Art Friday, Hero of the Day, Reminiscing, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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