Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Appreciating Don Heck

My introduction to Don Heck’s art began in the mid-1960s, when he was associated primarily with Marvel Comics' super-heroes, including "Iron Man," "Ant-Man" and The Avengers. Reprints in Fantasy Masterpieces educated me on Heck's stylish monster/science-fiction short stories, that while only six or seven years old, seemed like a discovery from an ancient age. As my collecting interests grew, I became aware of his facility in an array of genres, including romance, war and westerns. Through fanzines and interviews I learned of his beginnings, both the high-points and pitfalls of toiling in the comic book field. Heck struggled at times to maintain his identity, and in later years didn't often get the choice assignments, passed over for younger, more popular artists, but his contributions to the field deserve recognition.      

Don Heck’s earliest work appeared in 1952 at Comic Media. He contributed across the line in Weird Terror, War Fury, Horrific, All True Romance, Death Valley and Danger, where he illustrated his first feature, "Duke Douglas," a spy series that appeared in issues 7-11. Heck had a strong, clean line, inspired by master cartoonist Milton Caniff, revered in the field for his work on the Newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates. Heck created simple, striking covers and interior art for the company. 

While Heck's early efforts were stiff in spots, he was clearly growing as a sequential storyteller. This story shows a Jack Davis influence. "Full Moon," Weird Terror # 5, May 1953.  Image from Comic Book Plus:   

Death Valley # 2, December 1953. Image from Comic Book Plus:

 Weird Terror # 11, May 1954. Cover from Comic Book Plus:

Danger # 11, August 1954.
Heck's impressive cover art for Comic Media showcased a strong eye for composition, as the above examples demonstrate.  

Along with Comic Media, Heck also worked for Harvey, Toby Press and this one-shot published by US Pictoral in 1955, Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, adapted from the 1955-57 syndicated TV series starring Buster Crabbe. Heck's skillful storytelling displays an obvious Milton Caniff influence.    

In late 1954 Heck began a long association with Stan Lee's Atlas line, which would later become known as Marvel. Lee obviously took note of the artist's versatility and kept Heck busy on a variety of genres: western, war, horror, crime, romance, jungle tales – you name it – all produced with a level of pure craft. Heck worked on continuing characters in Navy Action ("Torpedo Taylor") and Jann of the Jungle ("Cliff Mason"). Heck’s war stories were particularly strong; his visual dynamics came through in these tales of heroic adventure. 

A beautifully composed page from "Torpedo" Taylor". "Get that Sub!", Navy Combat # 10, December 1956.

Although Heck wasn’t assigned any of Lee's feature characters (The Kid from Dodge City ran for just two issues before it was cancelled) his five page fillers appeared regularly in titles including Gunsmoke Western, Kid Colt Outlaw, Wyatt Earp and Two Gun Western. While not as detailed or authentic as John Severin's art in the genre, Heck's cowboy epics showcased an artist whose confidence came through on the printed page. 

 Heck's sketchy line was perfectly suited to the gritty atmosphere that exemplified western fare. His characters, clothing and settings echoed (and no doubt were inspired by) western films. "The Day of the Gun Duel!," Gunsmoke Western # 41, June 1957.   

Heck excelled on the one-shot title Police Badge # 479 (September 1955). Heck drew two stories featuring a rookie cop, sinking his teeth into an exciting strip that featured dynamic layouts, attractive pencils and atmospheric inks.

Heck's dramatic splash page to "Night Rain",  Police Badge # 479, September 1955.

Heck could switch gears easily, showing an eye for fashion, design and attractive women in titles such as Love Romances, My Own Romance and Teen-Age Romance. Heck enjoyed working on fantasy and space opera, contributing to Mystic, Strange Worlds, Journey into Mystery, World of Fantasy, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish.

 Heck gives the protagonist a mixture of beauty and vulnerability. "Incident in the Rain!," Love Romances # 102, November 1962. Heck: "I couldn't draw girls at all in the beginning - that was my worst feature, and me a fan of Caniff's! I decided i'd better start learning."  

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.

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

While continuing to draw fantasy, western and romance stories in 1962, Stan Lee put Heck to work on his first super-hero feature. Jack Kirby couldn’t realistically draw every book, and although he created the initial design of Iron Man (used as the cover of Tales of Suspense # 39, March 1963), Heck penciled the debut story and designed the character of Tony Stark (modeled on actor Errol Flynn). Heck's flair for character types brought supporting characters Happy Hogan (a stoic chap whose appearance may have been influenced by comedian Buster Keaton) and Pepper Potts (who Heck noted was visually based on actress Ann B. Davis) to life.

Heck’s art on Iron Man's early stories was particularly effective. Favorites include “The Mad Pharaoh” (Tales of Suspense # 44) where his line showed a distinct Alex Toth influence; a two part Mandarin story (Suspense #’s 54 & 55) featuring a striking splash page of Iron Man hovering above the streets (this issue included a special feature:  “All about Iron Man,” where Heck's inking was particularly crisp); and the introduction of the Unicorn (Suspense # 56), an attractively designed villain. All of Heck's penciled and inked Iron Man stories are worth seeking out - they showcase some of his very best work in the super hero genre.

In his Comics Feature interview Heck noted: 

 "..I was more or less inspired in some cases by stuff I had seen that Alex Toth was doing, and so I was having fun with it, and I saw Toth was working with a Rapid-O-Graph [a technical pen], and I did an Egyptian story with all of these characters, and it was the first time I used a Rapid-O-Graph."  

"The Mad Pharaoh!" (Tales of Suspense # 44, August 1963) was the impressive result. 

Iron Man weightlessly floats above the Manhattan crowds; one of Heck's most accomplished pages of the period. Tales of Suspense # 54, June 1964.

When Stan Lee gave Heck an additional title to draw in mid-1964 (taking over the reigns from Jack Kirby on The Avengers with # 9, cover-dated October) he had to relinquish inking for the first time in his career. Dick Ayers, Chic Stone and Mike Esposito filled that position, and while they were all talented craftsman, the results often diluted Heck's pencils. Heck remarked on inking in his interview in Comics Scene # 21, November 1982 (conducted by Richard Howell):  

"I would much rather finish my own work. Obviously, if I do that, I’m not going to do as many pages per month, as far as that goes, but I like to get into the characters. I like to work with the whole feeling of the story. And I think you--I do, anyway--draw better if you do the whole drawing."   

Upon his return to Marvel, John Romita's first job was inking Don Heck's pencils on The Avengers. Heck had assisted Romita on a few romance jobs at DC, and both were noted for their attractive women. The Avengers # 23, December 1965. 

While Heck's art was not as inventive or intensely powerful as Jack Kirby's (few artists were) he had an appealing style, and his run on The Avengers is noteworthy. Although Heck didn't particularly enjoy working on a team book (or superheroes, for that matter), the stories he drew focused on a core group consisting of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (the latter two replaced for a time by Goliath and the Wasp), allowing him the ability to focus on characterization and human drama in lieu of the typical congregation of heroes and villains.

Concurrent with his mid-1960s Marvel work Heck freelanced for Western Publishing/Gold Key on an array of popular TV adaptations: The Man from UncleVoyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery. "The Ten Little UNCLEs Affair," The Man From U.N.C.L.E. # 5, March 1966. Mike Peppe inks. 

After Heck was taken off his assignment on The Avengers he roamed around Marvel's line as a utility player, laying out stories for Werner Roth on X-Men and finishing John Romita’s breakdowns on Amazing Spider-Man (often completed by Mike Esposito on inks). While serviceable, this piecemeal approach deprived Heck of his individual qualities. Heck returned to full pencils on Captain Marvel, Captain Savage and anthology stories in Tower of Shadows, Chamber of Darkness, Our Love Story and My Love. Heck's best work in this period was undoubtedly his non-superhero stories, a genre that he flourished in during the 1950s, when he was not inclined (or prodded) to emulate Jack Kirby's Wagnerian visuals.  

In the mid-late 1960s Heck rarely was given the opportunity to ink his own pencils and his work suffered accordingly. On occasion he was paired with a compatible inker, such as veteran artist Syd Shores. "The Junk-Heap Juggernauts!", Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders # 13, April 1969.   

Master craftsman John Buscema was a friend and admirer of Heck's art. They were only paired together a handful of times, but Heck's delineation on this page is indicative of his sharp, rich style. "A Time to Die!", Tower of Shadows # 1, September 1969.  

When Marvel returned to the romance genre in 1969 after a five year absence with the debut of My Love and Our Love Story (Love Romances was cancelled in 1963), it was only natural for Don Heck, who was noted for illustrating stunning women, to contribute his artistic skills to both comics. This splash teams him with another noted romance artist, John Romita. "Why Did I lose You, My Love?", Heck pencils; John Romita inks, Our Love Story # 1, October 1969.    

In addition to their new romance titles, Marvel initiated two fantasy/mystery comics, Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness, where Heck was again put to good use. Heck composed a page with an instinctive understanding of where the "camera" should be placed. This is a rare instance of Heck inking his own pencils in this period. "Evil is A Baaaad Scene!!", Tower of Shadows # 4, March 1970.  

In the early 1970s Heck switched allegiances and moved to DC, where his skills were better utilized. There he was often assigned strips starring female protagonists. In addition to superhero/adventure series/titles Wonder Woman, "Batgirl" and "Rose and the Thorn," he worked on numerous romance and mystery stories. Heck's work flourished in extra-length Gothic thrillers The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love/Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion and Sinister House of Secret Love

Heck's eye for contemporary fashions and beautiful women combined to produce many exceptional covers for DC's romance line. Girls' Romances # 156, April, 1971. Dick Giordano inks.  

When given the opportunity to draw more realistic scenes and settings Heck stretched his muscles. This atmospheric page includes an impressive point of view shot in panel five.  "Kiss of Death," The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love # 3, February 1972, Heck pencils and inks. 

Heck's clean storytelling and fluid inks enliven this "Batgirl" page. "The Deadly Go-Between!," Detective Comics # 416, October 1971. Heck pencils and inks. 

Back at Marvel in the mid-1970s Heck penciled a few superior jobs, including stories for Giant-Size Dracula and Giant-Size Defenders. As the decade wore on, though, both Heck's assignments and inkers were wanting, and his work fell out of favor. Heck was often the guy editors summoned when deadlines loomed; assured that he would get the work done on time. Being a professional he always came through, but the finished product was usually not on the level fans expected, and he - not the editors - would get the blame. 

Author Steve Gerber praised Heck for his storytelling on "Too Cold A Night for Dying!" in Giant-Size Defenders # 3. Vince Colletta inks. 

Disappointed with the treatment he received at Marvel Heck returned to DC in 1977, remaining with the company until 1988. There he had runs on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Steel, the Indestructible Man and Justice League of America. Some of the DC editors were more accommodating to Heck, either providing sympathetic inkers or granting him the chance to do the complete job. The results were usually superior. 

Western and Superhero genres meet in this nicely composed page featuring Green Lantern and Jonah Hex, from Justice League of America # 199, February 1982. Brett Breeding provides the sturdy inks.  

Like most comic book artists Don Heck was probably an enthusiastic moviegoer who studied cinematic techniques. While fans got a kick out of seeing Heck's versions of Jimmy Olsen, Adam Strange, Deadman, Blackhawk and Woozy Winks, Heck himself might have been more enthused over drawing stars Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robertson, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper and Harpo Marx! "All This and World War, Too!" Roy Thomas script; Heck pencils and inks. DC Challenge # 9 July 1986.   

In addition to his DC efforts, Heck's art appeared in other venues from time to time. including the magazine anthology Adventure Illustrated (# 1, Winter 1981). Heck drew three illustrations to accompany  a chapter from Owen Wister's 1902 western novel "The Virginian." The artist's exuberance for the material is echoed in his delightfully fluid technique.  

Heck returned to Marvel for the final time in 1989 when work dried up at DC. He penciled, inked or provided finished art on Avengers Spotlight, Marvel Comics Presents, Thor and various features. Heck also worked for a few independent publishers including Topps Comics. Don Heck passed away on February 23, 1995, at the age of 66.

One of Heck's last jobs was drawing a Jack Kirby designed character, Nightglider, for Topps comics. "She Glides in Beauty Like the Night...," Nightglider # 1, April 1993. 

 Don Heck has been described by his peers as an amiable, hard working, no nonsense guy; a visual and verbal mix of Leo Gorcey and Art Carney, equipped with a great sense of humor. A self-effacing man, Heck was not afraid to speak his mind when prodded (typical of his working class upbringing in the streets of Jamacia, Queens). 

In a career spanning more than 40 years Don Heck produced a body of work that is worthy of appreciation. Unjustly and often cruelly denounced by the fan press in his later years, Heck was deeply wounded by these assaults, but he bravely weathered the storm and was determined to continue perfecting his skills, as this exchange with Will Murray illustrates:

Murray: So you maintain your edge by drawing, no matter what.

Heck: I draw all the time, yeah. I've got a whole bunch of pages where you're just drawing figures there, [working] with that, trying different things that you're working with. 

In retrospect, Heck deserves recognition as a distinctive artist who performed his greatest work in genres other than superheroes. While often overlooked in the past, many of his stories are being preserved in attractive hardcover editions such as Marvel Masterworks. Online, a large portion of his stunning early efforts for Comic Media are available to read at Comic Book Plus, and fans can discuss, share and study Heck's efforts on Facebook. In looking over his body of work many comics scholars and aficionados are reassessing the quality of an artist who, working in the shadow of Jack Kirby, was often overlooked. Removed from that shadow a talented craftsman comes to light.

This is a revised, updated and greatly expanded version of an article that originally appeared in Alter Ego # 42. 

Don Heck; A Work of Art by John Coates is an essential look at the artist's work and was an invaluable resource tool in reworking this article. It can be purchased from TwoMorrows or at Amazon:

To see a fine selection of Heck's Comic Media work (and view full issues of comic books in the public domain) go here:

To share your thoughts and art on Don Heck join the Don Heck Appreciation Page