Monday, July 2, 2012

Appreciating Don Heck

My introduction to Don Heck’s art occured in the mid-1960s, when he was associated primarily with Marvel Comics super-heroes including Iron-Man, Ant-Man, the Avengers, X-Men and Captain Marvel. Through reprints in Fantasy Masterpieces I discovered that Heck produced interesting work in the pre-hero fantasy stories. Still, it was his art on the early issues of Tales of Suspense (which, for a time, was dramatically sub-titled “the Power of Iron-Man”) that impressed me the most, although his later run on Avengers was a close second artistically.

Don Heck’s earliest work appeared in 1952 at Comic Media, in titles such as Weird Terror, Horrific and Danger. Heck had a strong, clean line inspired by Milton Caniff. Focusing on crime and horror, Heck created simple, striking covers for the company. A memorable early Heck job was on Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, adapted from a then current TV series starring Buster Crabbe.

Heck's dynamic cover to Danger # 11, Aug 1954

A nicely composed early page from Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, circa 1955

By 1954 Heck began a long association with Marvel (then known as Atlas). Stan Lee put him to work on westerns, war, horror, crime, romance, jungle tales – you name it – and Heck did all of them with style. Heck even had a continuing feature in Navy Action (Torpedo Taylor). Heck’s war stories were particularly strong; his visual dynamics came through in these tales of heroic adventure.

Beautifully composed page from "Torpedo" Taylor, "Get that Sub!" page 2, from Navy Combat # 10, Dec 1956

Although he wasn’t associated with any main character, his five page western features, appeared in such titles as Gunsmoke Western, Kid Colt, Wyatt Earp and Two Gun Western, While not as detailed or authentic as John Severin, his westerns were dramatic and appealing. One book that Heck excelled on was the one shot Police Badge # 479 (Sept 1955). Heck drew two stories featuring a rookie cop, and he produced an exciting strip that featured dynamic layouts, attractive pencils and atmospheric inks.

atmospheric splash to "Night Rain", Police Badge # 479, Sept 1955

Heck could switch gears easily, showing an eye for fashion, design and attractive woman in books such as Love Romances. Heck was also excellent in fantasy and space opera, as witnessed in Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. Heck designed interesting space effects in stories such as “Rocket Ship X” (Strange Tales # 69, June 1959). The splash page emphasizes a sharp eye for spotting blacks and the story is nicely composed throughout.

Rocket Ship X-200, Strange Tales # 69, June 1959

Two pages that highlight Heck's cinematic eye, character types and expressive mood. "Something Lurks in the Fog!", pages 3 & 4, from Tales of Suspense # 24, Dec 1961  

While still working on fantasy stories, Lee required Heck to get involved in the growing super-hero line. Kirby couldn’t physically draw every book, and although he had worked on the initial design of Iron-Man, it was Heck who drew his initial appearance and reportedly designed the character of Tony Stark (visually patterned after actor Errol Flynn). Heck’s Iron-Man stories had a strong sense of design and a strong eye for placement of black areas. Heck drew interesting looking characters, and excelled at portraying attractive females (John Romita, no slouch in that department, rates Heck highly). Heck brought the characters of not only Tony Stark, but the supporting characters of Happy Hogan (a stoic chap whose appearance may have been influenced by comedian Buster Keaton) and Pepper Potts (her early incarnation inspired by actress Ann B. Davis) to life.

Heck’s art shone in the early days of the strip. Particular favorites include “The Mad Pharaoh” (Tales of Suspense # 44) where his line showed a distinct Alex Toth influence; a classy two part Mandarin story (Suspense #’s 54 & 55) featuring a striking splash page of Iron-Man hovering above the streets. The conclusion included a special feature:  “All about Iron-Man” which Heck went to town with employing crisp, striking inks; and the introduction of the Unicorn, an attractively designed villain. All of Heck's penciled and inked Iron-Man stories are worth seeking out - they include some of his very best work in the super hero genre.

An Alex Toth influence clearly shines through in this page from the Iron-Man story "The Mad Pharoah!" Tales of Suspense # 44, Aug 1963  

Iron-Man floats above the crowds, splash page from Tales of Suspense # 54, June 1964

When Stan Lee needed more production from Heck, others would be called on to ink his pencils, with varied results. With few exceptions (such as Frank Giacoia), Heck looked best inking Heck. While Heck did not have the intensity of a Jack Kirby (few did) he had an appealing style, and his solo work on the Avengers is noteworthy. Since most of his issues focused on a core group of Captain America, Hawkeye, Goliath, the Wasp and occasional appearances by Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Heck was able to concentrate on the characters and not be overwhelmed by cramming too many heroes onto the pages (as often happened in team books). Concurrent with his Marvel work Heck also had assignments at Gold Key (The Man from Uncle; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Twilight Zone; Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery) .  

Heck inks George Tuska pencils, an artist who would follow Heck and Gene Colan for a long run on Iron-Man beginning in 1968. Heck was a stylish inker and would have served Tuska well embellishing Iron-Man, or visa-versa. "Captives of the Mirage", The Twilight Zone # 6, Feb 1964. Tuska and Heck also get to draw host Rod Serling!  

After the Avengers, Heck would rarely be given the opportunity to ink his own pencils, and his work suffered accordingly. As the years wore on, he became Marvel’s resident utility artist; laying out stories for others such as Werner Roth on X-Men or finishing layouts over Romita’s Spider-Man. While serviceable, it detracted from his individual qualities. Occasionally, Heck would be given an interesting assignment, such as Captain Marvel, Captain Savage, or anthology stories in Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness. He was even graced with compatable inkers, such as Syd Shores, Vince Colletta and, on one occasion, John Severin.

Heck went to work for DC in the early 1970s and was better serviced, inking his own pencils at times, or teamed with exceptional inkers like Dick Giordano (Giordano loved inking Heck, and did many romance covers).

Heck's eye for contemporary fashions and attractive women is evident on this cover, inked by Dick Giordano, from Girls' Romances # 156, Apr 1971

 Heck also drew many attractive Bat-Girl back-ups. In the mid-1970s, back at Marvel, he rendered a few superior jobs on Giant Size Dracula and a Giant Size Defenders that Steve Gerber wrote and highly praised, As the 1970s wore on, though, both his assignments and inkers were less than acceptable, and his work fell out of favor. Heck often inked others work, usually in a scratchy, loose style that lacked the solid blacks that enhanced his earlier work. As Heck moved into the 1980s his inking improved, and he was occasionally given the opportunity to ink his pencils, notably on a run of the Flash.  

An example of Heck's late era work that has a distinct charm and proves how good an artist he was. Illustration from "The Virginian", Adventure Illustrated # 1, Winter 1981 

Western and Superhero genres meet in this nicely composed page featuring Green Lantern and Jonah Hex, from Justice League of America # 199, Feb 1982. Attractive inking by Brett Breeding.  

In DC Challenge # 9, July 1986, Don Heck gets to pencil and ink some classic characters. On this page we see Jimmy Olson, Adam Strange, Deadman, Blackhawk and Woozy Winks! The story also featured Chalengers of the Unknown, Metron, Enemy Ace, Dr. Fate, Plastic Man and cameos of Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robertson, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper and Harpo Marx! I kid you not!  

Don Heck did some exceptional work in his 30 plus year career (Heck passed away on February 23, 1995). Although influenced by Caniff, his style eventually became recognizable and individual. Unjustly and often cruelly denounced by the fan press in his later years, Heck was deeply wounded by these assaults. In retrospect Heck deserves recognition as a distinctive artist who performed his greatest work in genres other than superheroes. While these genres were often overlooked in the past, they are now preserved in hardcover editions such as Marvel Masterworks. His Atlas era art is a joy to behold, and many are finally experiencing the quality of an artist who received little respect working in the shadow of Jack Kirby. Removed from that shadow, a talented craftsman is finally revealed.
This is a revision of an article that originally appeared in Alter Ego # 42. 


Kid said...

I'm a big fan of Heck's early art, but some of his later work was a little too loose and sketchy for my tastes. His early Iron Man and Avengers stuff is a joy to behold, as you rightly pointed out, Nick.

As you'll know, Marvel mis-spelled the word 'Pharaoh' as 'Pharoah' in an early Iron Man adventure. It was corrected for subsequent reprints. However, when the Masterworks and Omnibus editions decided to present the stories with their original mistakes, where earlier, uncorrected proofs could not be found, they had to alter the corrected versions. This resulted in some mistakes being overlooked, so in the case of that Iron man tale and the FF Pharaoh Rama-Tut one, both spellings appear in some instances.

George Freeman said...

I've loved Heck's work since I was a little kid. The first Avengers comics I bought were drawn by Heck and the first collectable comic I remember buying was "Captain Gallant". Too often editors would hire strong inkers to try to tone his work down or make it more mainstream looking. But he was always his own best inker. He was also one of Kirby's best inkers as well. When Kirby had an outside project to sell he often hired Heck to ink it.
Not to mention the amazing job inking Ditko on Tales of Suspense47:

Nick Caputo said...

I agree that some of Heck's art in the 1970s was very loose and sketchy. His work on Avengers and Daredevil in particular, but the inkers he was saddled with only made matters worse. Folks like Nike Esposito, Frank Chiaramonte and John Tartaglione didn't reinforce Heck's pencils or weaker spots.

George: I absolutely agree that Heck was a superb inker over Kirby, I particularly enjoyed his Captain America stories he inked in Tales of Suspense. Heck also did a nice job over John Buscema on a few stories.

Rip Jagger said...

Well done. It's very nice to see a craftsman of Heck's quality getting some praise. He is derided all too easily by folks. Heck as a stylist is instantly recognizable, and his work was full of warmth and character, something woefully missing from much modern comic art.

Rip Off

Nick Caputo said...


Thanks. Heck's stylistic imprint is memorable and I find myself appreciating his work more as I get older. He did his share of fine work for decades and I'm only sorry he wasn't heralded enough when he was with us.

Grandpa Chet said...

Outstanding! Heck has been one of the great unsung..or rarely sung -.heroes of the Silver Age and I've been screaming this since he was taken off Iron Man - and Ironed Man, for that matter. He was one of only two artists who made Iron Man's armor look like metal, the other being Kirby when inked by Ayers.
The worst thing that happened to him, was when it was discovered how quickly he could turn our an emergency story. He saved Giant -Sized Avengers 4 (5?) but the pages looked it. What was it - two days that he and Esposito finished that Mantis Marries a Tree story?

Nick Caputo said...

Grandpa Chet,

Thanks. Heck was one of the talents that could get work out quickly when needed and save a deadline. When he took his time though, and was paired with a decent inker (which wasn't often) or better yet inked himself he did some fine work.