One Fan's Opinion: Issue #3

Thu, August 25th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

You ever been a fan of some funnybook creator that your friends thought was just plain awful?

When I was growing up, I had a circle of pals who were fellow funnybook fans and there were guys who we all thought were pretty darned good and there were a few that we thought sucked and sucked hard. As the years went by I've learned to appreciate and even like a number of those fellows whose work we used to rag on.

Frank Robbins was the poster boy for awful art according to a number of fans that I hung out with back in the day-- and Don Heck was high on that list as well. Robbins had a knack for contorting figures in action in such a way that they appeared to be klutzes of the highest order and Don's stuff just wasn't very exciting-- he was as bland as rice cakes.

Years later, after much maturing, I'd run across collections of Frank Robbins' classic Johnny Hazard strip and I found it to be, frankly, outstanding. I'd become acquainted with an older fan named Rob Gluckson and he had passed on to me a "Shadow" cover which Frank had drawn which was positively breathtaking.

It turned out that Frank's work lost a lot in translation.

The unflattering inks which Robbins has applied to his work on "Captain America," the "Invaders" and "Daredevil" wrecked his incredible line work. Robbins was a master of shadow and his period work accurately captured the past in an authentic style. That, and his women were to die for.

Don Heck, too, lost a lot in translation. Nobody inked Don Heck like Don Heck! What had been made bland and uninspired in another inker's hand became an artistic tapestry of textures and detail. Frank's solo efforts were ballsy and bold with a jagged line which was often crude. but always a treat to look at. The assembly line method often used to produce comics on a monthly schedule did him no favors.

But these aren't the guys I had in mind when I broached the subject. The guy that I liked was Happy Herbie Trimpe.

But let me backtrack a bit...

The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was the "Incredible Hulk" #156. It was a terrific place to start. Artist Herb Trimpe was at the top of his game, writer Archie Goodwin wrote one hell of a tale and the new arrival, inker Sal Trapani made an impressive debut-- it was as though he was out to make everybody forget they'd ever heard of the book's former embellisher, John Severin. Letterer Artie Simek was in fine form as well and everything just clicked.

The story was the third Jarella tale. Archie took the character, which Harlan Elision had introduced previously in issue #140 and he spun a yarn like no other. It was Hulk vs. Hulk at the heart of the Atom and I had a ringside seat!

What a mag! One Hulk (the real Hulk) had Bruce Banner's brain-- the other was the unrestrained, dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers Hulk and the result was a truly amazing piece of work.

And to me-- as a kid-- it didn't make a hell of a lot of sense. I still thought it was awesome-- but without any knowledge of who these guys were and how they were under normal conditions, I was more than a little lost. It wasn't until I'd acquired several other issues from that run that I was able to make sense of it all and realize what a truly outstanding piece of work this particular issue was.

We had a lot of comics around the house when I was growing up. My Dad collected comic books and he bought them from when he was a kid right up until he was well past that. He probably would have continued buying them had EC comics not been run out of business. Once they were sent packing, there really weren't any comics aimed at a reader his age-- so he called it quits. The only time I knew him to buy a new comic book was when DC brought back Captain Marvel in the '70s (although his comic couldn't be called Captain Marvel because those guys at Marvel Comics swiped the name-- it was called Shazam). Most of the comics which he had in his stash had long since folded up shop when I started to buy comics. EC was out of business. Blue Bolt was gone as was Donald Duck, Captain Marvel, Little Lulu, Joe Palooka, Humphrey and most of the rest. Sure, Batman and Superman were still there, but at the time-- I wasn't interested in buying my Dad's comics-- I wanted something new. I wanted characters I could call my own.

Enter: the Incredible Hulk (or rather-- the "Incredible Hulk" #156)!

(And for those of you that suddenly get the bright idea that that's where the inspiration for the ever-Savage Dragon came from-- let me clue you in here and now that he started off as an amalgam of Batman, Captain Marvel and Speed Racer! His green skin and fin were originally a Batman-esque mask, but over the years I simplified the guy and lost a lot of the clunkier elements which I had borrowed from other characters).

I only bought the one issue.

We moved around a lot. I didn't have a regular haunt where I could pick up comics had I the desire to pick up more (although a few scattered comics entered my life regardless). I wasn't a collector-- not really-- I just had a couple comics. It wasn't until my older brother brought a stack of "Incredible Hulk" comics home from school and I acquired them in trade for a turn or two washing dishes that I really got bit by the funnybook buying bug.

The "Incredible Hulk" was my book and Herb Trimpe was my favorite artist.

Herb was the first artist I knew by name.

His work was solid, powerful and his storytelling was crystal clear.

I started buying the "Incredible Hulk" on a regular basis right around the time Wolverine showed up (#181, remember?) and I was in heaven! When there was a "Marvel Treasury Edition" (I loved those things) starring ol' Jade Jaws, I snapped it up and when Stan Lee's "Origins of Marvel Comics" came out-- I devoured it (that was the perfect Christmas gift-- so perfect, as it turned out, that I got two of them from different, unsuspecting sources). Stan said, in the book, that the Hulk "found his pappy in Happy Herbie Trimpe" and it didn't take much to convince me!

When "Hulk" #185 hit the stands, I was convinced that there would be no topping this issue! This was the event that the book had built up to for the better part of a decade (give or take-- the "Incredible Hulk" had a six-issue run which began in 1962, prior to my arrival on this planet, but it ended with #6 and it would be a few years before he got another shot at a solo mag). The Hulk fought General Ross! And it wasn't just another General Ross commanding the army to pummel ol' lettuce lips-- the General himself climbed into a super powered battle robot and faced the man-brute man-to-man!

By this point Herb Trimpe was inking his own work and Len Wein was writing the book. This was a match made in heaven! Len "got it" in a way no writer has before or since! He understood that writing a brainless brute was not a limitation-- that there were a million things to be done with the guy! The dumb Hulk in Len's care was misunderstood, violent, touching, unrelenting and often hilarious. I never understood later writers' desire to make the Hulk into, essentially, the same as everybody else: smart, handsome and loved by millions-- give me a Hulk that's as dumb as a post any day!

But I digress...

Herb Trimpe made it all work. His Hulk looked like the Hulk to me. "Incredible Hulk" #185 was a masterpiece (and no, I'm not going to spoil it for you-- go get your own copy). I couldn't imagine how they could top this! Somehow-- it all just clicked, seamlessly-- even with a string of rotating writers, it worked. Herb kept it grounded in reality and each writer kept the amazing soap opera elements rolling, year after year.

It never occurred to me that Herb would ever leave.

When Herb left the "Incredible Hulk" to go draw Iron Man, I was devastated. How could he do this? How did this happen? He was the Hulk's "pappy"-Stan Lee said so! How could he go?

Herb went on to draw "Iron Man," "Godzilla," "G. I. Joe," "Shogun Warriors," "Marvel Team Up," the "Defenders," "Machine Man" and countless others and I followed him from book to book-- sometimes it was damned cool-- sometimes, not so much. To me, it never clicked the way it had on the "Hulk."

Years later, with those of us who would become "the Image boys" being all the rage, some nitwit (and I'll withhold his name to keep him from the public stoning which would no doubt follow) suggested to Herb that he update his style and look at the work of one of the eventual members of our illustrious group and the result was far from pretty.

Neal Adams once said that an artist's style is everything they do wrong. That if they drew perfectly, their work would look like a photograph. When an artist tries to imitate another artist, it's not as though they lose their own natural shortcomings, they simply compound the problem by adding the deficiencies of another to their repertoire. Herb's work never looked worse. Eventually Herb was, unceremoniously, shown the door.

That was the end of that.

And that's the Herb Trimpe people seem to remember.

But-- damn it-- if you tell me he sucks, get ready to hear an earful. Herb got me interested in comics and, although there are plenty of others who have influenced me more, I learned a lot from Herb Trimpe.

And Bruce Timm will set you straight about Frank Robbins.

And Alan Gordon will defend the artistic merit of Don Heck.

Every artist-- to some fan-- is a "fan favorite." And don't let anybody tell you otherwise. It's okay to like somebody's stuff even if nobody else agrees with you. Stand by your man (or woman for that matter).

And if you drop by the house-- don't be surprised if I pull out the original art from issues #156 and 185 of the "Incredible Hulk" in an attempt to make a believer out of you.

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