Friday, May 29, 2015

Don Heck's Pre-Superhero Art 1952-1962

Don Heck is recognized in fan circles for his contributions to Marvel's early superhero line, in particular "Iron-Man" (in Tales of Suspense) and The Avengers, but his style, greatly influenced by the craftsmanship of master cartoonist Milton Caniff (of Terry and the Pirates fame) was often at odds with the overwhelming, massive figures and fantastic stylizations of Jack Kirby, whose shadow loomed large.

Heck held his own at Marvel in their early days, "batting" third in the lineup after Kirby and Ditko. Dick Ayers, the fourth player in that era, while corralled to draw superheros on occasion ("Giant-Man"; "Human Torch") became identified with the long running war title Sgt. Fury. By 1966 fellow Timely-Atlas veterans John Romita, Gene Colan and John Buscema returned to the fold, followed by newcomers Jim Steranko, Barry Smith and Neal Adams. These artists had a stronger feel for the dynamics of superhero fare, leaving Heck in the role of utility player, filling in wherever he was needed. This led to frustration for the talented artist, and his better efforts appeared (often unnoticed) in genres unrelated to superhero fare. Heck's virtues blossomed in more character driven situations, romance and mystery being two such examples. Heck's fluid line (particularly when he inked his own pencils), lush brushwork and superior pacing, coupled with a flair for drawing ordinary people served him well over the course of four decades.This post will focus on his seminal, pre-superhero work, circa 1952-1962. 

War Fury # 1, September 1952, Image from Comicbookplus, where you can see the entire story (and many other Don Heck covers and stories)

Heck started out working in production for Harvey comics in 1949. It wasn't until 1952 that he had the opportunity to draw his first comic book story, working for editor Alan Hardy at Comic Media. "The Unconquered" is Heck's first published story, although he recalled "Harrigan's Hat", which appeared in the following issue, as the first story he drew (due to scheduling issues it's possible the earlier story saw publication after this one. The art in Harrigan's Hat looks less assured than "The Unconquered"). The splash page indicates real talent, and it's evident that Jack Davis (who was then drawing for the popular EC comics line) was an influence on Heck's faces and figures. 

                 "Hot Steel!" Danger # 4, July 1953. Image from comicbookplus.

Although some of Heck's early art for Comic Media are journeymen efforts he rapidly picked up the craft and language of a comic book page, grasping the language of the medium, particularly page composition, pacing, camera angles and characterization. The splash panel of "Hot Steel" is an example of Heck's powerful use of blacks; the two bottom panels focus on setting and people. 

                            "Witch Girl!" Weird Terrors # 10, March 1954.

Heck drew primarily for Comic Media from 1952-54, focusing on genre stories for their crime, western, romance and horror titles. The splash to "Witch Girl" combines a mood drenched opening scene with four panels showcasing a bevy of beautiful women. 

"Crash in the Alps", Ken Fitch script; Don Heck art, Danger # 8, March 1954. Image from comicbookplus.

Heck shows an affinity for presenting the elements as an integral part of the story, a talent that cartoonists as diverse as Chester Gould and Gene Colan excelled at. The splash panel depicts blinding snow and places the antagonist (and in effect the reader) directly into the story. 

                                       Danger # 11, August 1954.

Heck's covers for Comic Media in the early 1950s were poster-like compositions, drawing the reader in and telling a story with startling simplicity. 

 "Intrigue", Danger # 9, May 1954. Image from comicbookplus.

An interesting group of characters, use of montage and a pretty woman. While some of Heck's earliest attempts at drawing woman were unexceptional, he soon mastered the art of rendering attractive females, a talent that served him well throughout his career.

After Comic Media closed its doors in 1954 Heck found work at other companies, including Toby, Charlton and, notably, for Martin Goodman's Atlas line. Under editor Stan Lee, Heck's illustrations and storytelling became more confident. Heck's range and versatility was a boon to Lee; his artwork appearing across the line in war, western, crime, mystery, jungle and romance stories. Below are just a few examples of his unique artistry.

           "Rookie Cop" Police Badge # 479, issue # 5, September 1955. 

Despite the numbering (which was likely continued from a cancelled comic) Police Badge # 479 was a one-shot title that followed the exploits of rookie cop Jim Hudson. Don Heck illustrated two of the three stories featuring the policeman (the third story - and the cover - was drawn by artistic powerhouse Joe Maneely). Heck's ability to compose a page, particularly the middle tier sequence, is one of his great strengths. It would have been interesting to see Heck continue on this strip, but the exploits of patrolman Jim Hudson came to an abrupt end after this issue, never to be seen again (unless he HAS been revived and I'm unaware of it. If so, I'm sure someone more knowledgeable than me about post 80's Marvel will clue me in).

            "The Defeat of Colonel Yeng", Battle # 44, January 1956 

Heck drew many war stories, lending his talents to the genre over the years, from War Combat in 1953 to Captain Savage in 1969. Heck's portrayal of men in combat was peppered with personality. 

Page 3 of the untitled opening "Torpedo Taylor" story from Navy Combat # 7, June 1956. 


  "Get That Sub!", the second "Torpedo Taylor" story in Navy Combat # 7, June 1956  

"Torpedo Taylor" headlined Navy Combat from 1953-57, a character Heck was assigned to and drew every story of. Almost. Heck completed the splash page of a Torpedo Taylor story he was working on but was informed to go no further - publisher Martin Goodman was not buying any new work for the foreseeable future. The story was later completed by Joe Maneely and appeared in Navy Combat #18 (August 1958). Heck, along with most creators, were laid off for a period of time, but was called back by Lee in July 1958 and became a Lee regular. Heck did exceptional work on Torpedo Taylor, adding detail and craft to the depiction of submarines and underwater adventures.   

          "Is There No Man for Me?", My Own Romance # 73, January 1960

This panel of a couple walking down a quiet street is indicative of Heck's impeccable artist's "eye". Much like a set designer, his use of scenery such as the expansive tree and the picket fence creates a warm, romantic mood.

             "If Love Be Blind!", Love Romances # 85, January 1960

The little touches in Heck's romance stories are delightful. The woman walking the dog in panel two and the cheerful police officer add an impeccable sense of charm to the tale.  

             "Incident in the Rain!", Love Romances # 102, November 1962 

Heck's use of silhouette in panel one perfectly compliments the woman's dialogue, emphasizing the characters loneliness. With little background details Heck's emphasis is on the protagonist. Heck's romance art was always top-notch and he would return to the genre in the late 60s and early 70s for both Marvel and DC. 


 "The Fastest Gun Alive!", Stan Lee script, Gunsmoke Western # 63, March 1961 

 "To The Last Man!", Stan Lee script, Gunsmoke Western # 68, January 1962

Don Heck was very much attuned to the trappings of the western genre,blending all the elements with unerring ease: scenery, attire, setting, character types - all add to the storytelling. Although Heck was rarely given lead features to draw (Kid Colt, Outlaw; Rawhide Kid; Two-Gun Kid) his five page fillers were almost always worthwhile additions to the total package. 

"The Deep Freeze", Carl Wessler script, Journey into Mystery # 37, August 1956 

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

                    "Nightmare!" Tales of Suspense # 16, April 1961

Don Heck's pre-hero fantasy stories are often overshadowed by the towering monsters Jack Kirby created month after month, or the evocative, detailed renderings of Steve Ditko, but many of his mini-thrillers are imaginative efforts that deserve attention. Heck had the ability to use the tools of his trade - particularly black ink - to drench a tale in darkness and create a feeling of menace. Like many of the better artists of his era, Heck could effortlessly transition from the lighter tales of romance to the darker shadows of fantasy fare. 

              "I Can See Tomorrow!", Tales to Astonish # 5, September 1959 

It was often the smaller moments in Don Heck's stories that pointed out how observant an artist he could be. The above panel is a perfect example. The protagonist is a small figure in a "long shot" that encompasses a city street. In the foreground are two women chatting on a stoop. Heck's superb composition enhanced what could have been an average close-up. While the two women are superfluous to the story (they have no dialogue balloons and were probably not even in the script directions) their presence adds a special cadence by being part of the urban neighborhood. 

While Heck's art in later years became looser and often weakened or mangled when inked by others, when given the chance Heck continued to do what he did best: bring everyday people - and a part of himself - to his cartooning.  

              "..I always liked regular stories. I like people." Don Heck 



Brad said...

okay, you completely changed my opinion of him. I only knew a few early issues of Ka-zar that he did that never clicked for me, but these examples are masterful. Thanks

Kid said...

Nick, you may take a bit of time between posts, but they're well-worth waiting for. Don was one 'Heck' of an artist (someone had to say it), and his artwork was superb. His work became a bit too loose for me in the late '70s & '80s, but he was a major talent of his time, and should never be forgotten.

Smurfswacker said...

I hope this brings the Heck supporters out of the woodwork. Back during the Marvel Age of Comics it was fashionable to criticize his work. I must admit I wasn't that crazy about his superhero stuff. But I'd early learned to recognize his style and found his "ordinary person" art in places like Dell's "Frogmen," GK's "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," and others. At the same time those reprint Giants showcased a lot of his weird-story work. I loved all that stuff. Very talented artist, quite under-appreciated.

Nick Caputo said...

I'm glad these examples of Heck's art brought a change of heart. His work in the 1970s was erratic and often hampered by less than sympathetic inkers. His best work in that period was often in the romance and mystery genres where he seemed more comfortable. His body of work is impressive and there is much to explore.


I'd like to turn out more posts, but every time I try to do something "small" it somehow grows larger. I was originally going to write a short post on Heck's everyday people, but I wasn't happy with the results and put it on hold until I figured out where it was going.


It looks like there is a lot of love for Heck these days, which I'm happy to be a part of. Heck was unjustly attacked in the 80's by his critics, who had little knowledge of his contributions to the field. I always felt he was a fine artist who was not always served well by the material he was given. I suspect he tried even harder in later years to show what he could do and quite liked many of those later efforts.

Jacque Nodell said...

I have to say, I'm not usually the biggest Heck fan when it comes to his later romance work. So sorry! ;) However! I really do like this earlier work you've shown -- especially panel two of the "Incident in the Rain!" story. Thank you for sharing and giving me a new perspective on his work!

Jerry Fuentes said...

I appreciate the leading role you've played in the reevaluation of Don's work. Your articles and blog posts have certainly led the way for fans to learn that there was more to Don's legacy than his years struggling with trying to make his superhero work more dynamic. Keep up the good work!

Nick Caputo said...


No need to apologize. I've not seen a lot of his later romance work but I have enjoyed some of the covers he produced for the line. However I do believe Heck did exceptional work on his late 50s-early 60s romance art and this story is a favorite.

Nick Caputo said...


Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad if my showcasing Heck's early work makes a few folks rethink their attitude. Many have not been exposed to anything BUT his superhero efforts. Over the years I've discovered many artists who were much better in other genres than any of their superhero work.