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Wed, March 18th, 2009 at 3:28pm PDT | Updated: March 18th, 2009 at 5:52pm

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

A friend and I were talking at the 2002 San Diego con. He had just introduced me to two colleagues and we began discussing the artists and writers that had shaped Marvel Comics in the ’60s and ’70s. We talked about the renewed interest in their contributions and how there seemed to be a concerted effort to get an oral history of that time down before it was lost. We each had a story about reading a recent article or book or viewing a panel discussion, and were all in agreement that such respect and praise were long overdue.

During a pause in the conversation, I informed my friend that I had to run if I was going to catch the Herb Trimpe panel. As I spoke, I heard some muffled laughter and turned to find out what joke I had missed. As I did, it dawned on me that someone was laughing at what I had just said. My friend, realizing the situation, politely pointed out that I was Trimpe fan from way back and that I wasn’t making a joke. I stared at this person, waiting for some equally polite response, but instead of some embarrassment and an apology, I was met with a raised eyebrow and a practiced sneer.

Those who know me will tell you I never shy away from a fight. I thrive on debate and itch to defend positions I feel strongly about. I found myself scrambling for a quick retort, one so razor sharp that any comeback, no matter how measured or eloquent, would seem impotent. I stood there waiting, fishing for the perfect death-words to strike them both down with… any second now… any… second… but nothing came. I was completely thrown off my game by the sudden shift in the conversational tone. Red-faced and angry, I hunched my shoulders, muttered something under my breath and walked away.

Herb Trimpe is remembered for drawing the first appearance of Wolverine

I had encountered comics fans that disliked Trimpe’s work, but none so openly hostile and none where I felt such a need to answer back. What made this incident particularly frustrating was that no one was in a better position to defend Trimpe’s work than myself. I have been a fan from the age of eight, when I began poring over his work, copying the cool panels and teaching myself to draw. My studious nature eventually led to a career as a professional comic book artist and a life dedicated to the study and appreciation of all things cartooning. I have thought long and hard about what should have been said that day in 2002. I have run through countless variations on the words that should have pierced the air and how I wish I could have that moment back — only this time prepared. Of course, I cannot. But this article hopefully, will bring some degree of closure for me, if not full redemption.

Let me start off by saying that, while I am a Trimpe fan, I do not think he was the greatest artist to ever work for Marvel Comics. My devotion is deep, but it is not a blind devotion that sees only the triumphs and not the failings. Trimpe was a solid artist who left a singular, lasting imprint on the character he is most closely associated with, the Hulk. Trimpe was never great in a Jack Kirby or John Romita sense, but he was good enough to warrant more credit for his efforts and contributions than he has gotten thus far.

The question that begs is why? Why does a man who shaped the Hulk into an icon seem all but forgotten by fans and something of a footnote in Marvel’s history?

A MARVEL FIRST

Trimpe’s footnote status at Marvel is even harder to understand when one considers his path there. Trimpe started working in production at Marvel in October 1966, shortly after his discharge from the Air Force. He was 27 at the time and just beginning his professional art career. After working on Westerns for six months, Trimpe was offered “The Incredible Hulk,” thus becoming the first artist to come through Marvel’s farm system and land a major book.

Remember, in the mid-’60s, Marvel was populated with seasoned vets. John Romita honed his skills doing romance comics, while John Buscema had worked for Dell, Atlas and others. Gil Kane came from DC’s superhero line and Steve Ditko from Charlton. George Tuska, Don Heck, Dick Ayers and Gene Colan filling out the rest of Marvel’s regular roster, were all pros with proven track records. Virtually a rookie, Trimpe took over “Hulk” in 1967. For this alone, Trimpe deserves better from Marvel’s history department. It seems that every year, Marvel publishes yet another revision of its self-venerated history, each with the obligatory mention of Trimpe in connection with “Hulk” #181, Wolverine’s debut. Whether acknowledged or not, Trimpe was the first in-house artist to hit big at Marvel, and they continually miss the chance to tell this story and to give some credit where credit is due.

"Incredible Hulk" art by Herb Trimpe

I should also add that Trimpe not only took over penciling “Hulk,” but within a year was inking the book as well. A noteworthy achievement at a time when few old timers, let alone newcomers, were able to juggle both ends of the job. Producing eighteen to twenty pages of quality finished art each month was just something most guys could not do, but Trimpe did it and did it well.

INKER ROULETTE

As someone who was a comic book inker for 13 years, I fully understand the ways an inker can help or harm an artist’s work. The synergy of the right inker over the right penciler can produce magic. Joe Sinnot over Jack Kirby, Terry Austin on John Byrne, Alex Garner paired with Jeff Campbell, are all examples of that comic book kismet that can happen when talent collides.

Trimpe was lucky and talented enough to ink a good portion of his early work on “The Incredible Hulk.” He had proven that he was a deft and capable inker, and after a short stint with Dan Adkins and a few fill-in issues by John Severin, Trimpe was awarded inking chores himself. Not a bad move from an editorial perspective. Trimpe, at that point in his career, was a better inker than he was a penciller. And because inking is the art of embellishment, it only stands to reason that he should do his own embellishing.

Trimpe did double duty on “Incredible Hulk” for twelve issues, during which time his work took what I consider to be its first great leap. The production demands did Trimpe’s work wonders. From “Hulk” #118 to “Hulk” #130 the art became increasingly more confident, with Trimpe’s ink line becoming bolder and more fluid, while his storytelling grew more experimental and cinematic. Slowly, the clumsy figures and camera angles that plagued his early books began to disappear and most importantly, the Hulk began to finally take on a consistent, defined look, Trimpe’s look.

The eleven issues of “Incredible Hulk” that Trimpe penciled and inked (Sal Buscema did finishing chores on #125) were a turning point for both character and artist. Trimpe brought out the potential in the character, while the workload and control brought out the potential in Trimpe. Unfortunately, it would not last. Due to deadline pressure, Trimpe would be assigned inkers on “Hulk” over the next four years, with widely varying results.

Herb Trimpe's pencils were not well served by John Severin's inks

John Severin, who had inked some early issues of “Hulk,” came back on board with issue #131. Excluding the six issues inked by Sal Buscema and Sam Grainger, Severin would ink Trimpe for over two years, fifteen issues in all -- more then anyone else. Severin was an industry vet who broke in with EC Comics in the 1950s, specializing in Westerns and war comics, and was an accomplished penciler in his own right. He was without question very talented, but completely wrong for Trimpe, stylistically.

Trimpe was trying to do his take on Jack Kirby: big, bold art that needed big, bold inks. Severin brought a scratchy, illustrative ink line that lacked both boldness and depth. What worked in Westerns and war simply had no business in a superhero book, and the pages suffered as a result. While certainly consistent, Severin’s issues over Trimpe were uniformly dull and drab. There’s no line variation, limited use of blacks and a general flatness to each panel that kills much of Trimpe’s cinematic approach. Severin seemed incapable of rendering any other texture besides rough. Everything: water, metal, figures; all were all handled identically, making it appear as if everything had been carved from the same material, a strange cross between wood and dirt. All the punch, all the Kirby was gone from Trimpe’s pages. They came across less as superhero stories and more like Westerns without horses and with big guys punching each other.

The Severin/Trimpe mismatch becomes quite apparent when you compare “Hulk” #133 (Severin inks) to “Hulk” # 134 (Sal Buscema inks). Buscema is the complete antithesis of Severin. He is strong and graphic where Severin is fine and textured; clean and slick instead of loose and sketchy; complementary, rather than overwhelming. This last point cannot be stressed enough. Certainly, inkers should do more than just trace the pencils. They should bring a certain amount of their own style to the pencils, improving them without obliterating them. Severin did not seem to think this way. He just overwhelmed Trimpe’s pencils, so that in the end, a Trimpe/Severin “Hulk” book was indistinguishable from a John Severin “Hulk” book. Buscema, on the other hand, clearly got Trimpe’s work and set out to meld with it rather than destroy it.

Sal Trapani's inks were inconsistent and often ugly

Severin’s replacement was not much better. Sal Trapani was assigned inking duties with “Hulk” #156, and while Trapani, another industry vet with a penciling background, remained truer to Trimpe’s look, he lacked the one thing Severin supplied: consistency. Trapani’s run is one of little coherence and marginal craft. The result was the most muddled period since Trimpe’s early days. For eleven issues, the art veers from adequate to good to ugly, sometimes from panel to panel. The work is all over the map, with some issues showing promise and skill (#163 & #166) while others seeming rushed and devoid of effort (#160 & #161). Severin may have lacked tact when approaching Trimpe’s pencils, but Trapani lacked attention.

The only saving grace is Trimpe himself. Older and more adept, his work was able to bear more of the brunt of Trapani’s lackluster embellishments then they would have at the early part of the Severin run. But as I look at those pages today, it’s hard not to wonder what they would have looked like in the hands of a more thoughtful and creative inker.

Blaming the inker is an easy way out when arguing the merits of a particular comic book artist. After all, unless a book is penciled and inked by the same artist, or copies of the penciled art have been preserved, it’s something of a guessing game deciphering the pluses and minuses of any penciler/inker combination. In lieu of direct pencils-to-inks comparison, one can only look over the entire body of work for clues towards the real competency of the penciler and the inkers he was assigned.

Had Trimpe’s run on “Hulk” ended here, with issue #166, there would have been very little to go on to make such an assessment. Trimpe was still learning during his early self-inking period, and the three issues inked by Sal Buscema, promising as they were, could hardly form the basis of a defense. Luckily, the clues for such a defense would come over the next sixteen issues. “Hulk” #167-186 is a defining period in Trimpe’s career. At the top of his game, Trimpe finally got an inker who would bring quality and consistency to his work.

Inker Jack Abel: Trimpe never looked better

Jack Abel took over inking chores with “Hulk” #167, and the change was immediate and stunning. The art is clear and clean with line weights and textures defined and varied. Metal looks like metal, rocks look like rocks and the figures are rendered uniquely from the settings they inhabit. Abel was to Trimpe what Joe Sinnott was to Jack Kirby. He was both bold and subtle in equal turns, bringing a distinct style to Trimpe’s work, but never devouring it. There is depth to each panel, power in each action, and Trimpe’s women never looked better. The synergy is impossible to miss, pencils and inks working together in harmony, both men elevating the work of the other; it is embellishment in every sense of the word.

With the exception of “Hulk” #173 (Trimpe inks), Abel loaned his skills to “Hulk” for a little over a year, during which time the art never looked better. The shining interiors are graced with strong scripts and some of Trimpe’s best covers, making “Incredible Hulk,” for the first time, a complete package. The #167-186 block of issues are, besides the best looking and most underrated issues of Trimpe’s “Hulk” era, the clear proof that Severin and Trapini were doing something of a disservice to Trimpe. They are a measuring stick, showing the suppressed potential of what came before.

The Severin/Trapani issues encompass just slightly less then half of Trimpe’s entire run on “Incredible Hulk.” So for three-plus years, fans never saw the best Trimpe had, his work either buried under Severin or hacked over by Trapani. Jack Kirby may have suffered Vince Colletta on “Thor,” but at least he had Joe Sinnott to showcase his greatness each month in the pages of “Fantastic Four.” Trimpe, working on only one book, had no such luck. This long stretch of over-inked and poorly inked books falling in the middle of Trimpe’s prime drawing years were a lasting blow to his legacy. It was a matter of duration and timing. Abel’s work, as good as it was, was just a case of too little, too late.

STEALING ONE FROM THE KING

Selection of "The Incredible Hulk" covers

I mentioned before that during his early days on “Hulk,” more specifically “Hulk” #118 to “Hulk” #130, Herb Trimpe began to forge a more distinct and lasting look for the character. This was no small feat. The Hulk had been in and out of the hands of many talented artists before him, none of whom took the character to the fully formed state that Trimpe would. In his earliest form, under creator Jack Kirby, the Hulk was a brutish thug. A coarse monstrosity inside and out, he was as hard to like as he was to look at. While it is clear from interviews that Kirby took great pride in all his creations, the Hulk always seemed a bit like Jack’s black sheep.

Under Trimpe, the Hulk grew and evolved, under Kirby… eh, not so much. If you look at Kirby’s versions of the Hulk from issue #1 through “Tales to Astonish,” there are only miniscule changes and those can be attributed more to Jack’s improving drawing skills rather than a calculated effort to improve upon his design. At best, Kirby dabbled in “Hulk.” For years, he worked on the character, but burdened with the task of creating an entire universe, Kirby could never invest the time or the effort needed to take the character beyond his muscle-bound Frankenstein roots.

Jack was not the only one. Steve Ditko, Gil Kane and Marie Severin, among others, all took stabs at making the Hulk something more than a monster. But Ditko’s Hulk was anything but — too small and bland — while Kane’s was just plain bizarre. Marie Severin’s Hulk was the one most on track and was to become something of a starting point for Trimpe’s. But her depiction, with his handsome, youthful face, lacked any ferocity — a vital ingredient to the character’s appeal. It is amazing with such a talent list that the Hulk languished for as long as he did. Much like the character’s transformations through history, the Hulk morphed from artist to artist, never staying one thing long enough for fans to warm up to him or for his book to truly catch on. No one seemed willing or able to take the reins and make the book their own. That is, until Herb Trimpe came along and “stole” Jack’s Hulk.

Evolution of the Incredible Hulk

Comic book characters are constantly in flux. It is part of their appeal and gives them longevity. Every so often, an artist comes along with such fresh perspective or a unique style that they in a sense, “steal” a character away from all previous artists involved. Frank Miller on “Daredevil” is the prime example of such thievery. In the forty-eight years since the birth of the Marvel Age, this has rarely happened to Jack Kirby. There was something about the way Jack drew and designed that made almost any character he created his and his alone. The longevity of his hold is truly astounding. The casts of “Captain America,” “The Fantastic Four” and “Thor” remain to this day Kirby characters. Many talented artists left lasting marks on Jack’s creations. John Buscema’s gorgeous rendition of the Silver Surfer, and Walt Simonson’s more mythological take on “Thor” to name two, but neither of these men were able to wrench said characters from their creator’s grasp. Yet Jack’s grip, however all-powerful, did not extend to every character he touched — certainly not the Hulk.

Don’t get me wrong, the Hulk is and always will be a Jack Kirby creation. Kirby without question fathered the Hulk, but it was Herb Trimpe who was to become the Hulk’s father, investing time in his development and nourishing him with the attention he needed. Without Kirby, there would have been no Hulk, but without Trimpe, the Hulk would never have become a star.

A classic scene from Trimpe's run

The Hulk that Trimpe built became the version of the character, more so than Jack’s ever was. This becomes obvious when one looks at how other artists handled Hulk appearances in their own books during Trimpe’s tenure. When the Hulk shows up in “Spider-Man” #119 for example, it is Trimpe’s Hulk we see John Romita emulating, not Kirby’s. Even more striking is Gil Kane’s version in the very next issue. The Hulk that Kane rendered in “Tales to Astonish” just a few years earlier resembled a caricature of Jack’s; sporting a Moe Howard haircut and eyes so far apart they needed a second head. But later, Kane’s Hulk was more natural and refined and clearly based on the newer Trimpe model. It was like this all over the Marvel landscape in the 1970s. Jack’s Hulk had been usurped and in his place, a new and improved Trimpe Hulk was making the rounds.

The question arises, was it an editorial decision to follow Trimpe’s Hulk or did it just happen? It is no secret that when comics companies have a hot artist, it can become editorial policy to try and push other artists in a similar direction. But I don’t think this was the case with Trimpe’s Hulk, since Trimpe was never considered a “hot” artist, certainly not the type that would dictate such a policy. More likely, editors and artists simply recognized something in Trimpe’s design that worked better than previous designs and decided to stick with it. And it was a wise choice too, because Trimpe’s version was the first one that lasted. It stuck with readers and effected many of the character’s interpretations since.

Sal Buscema took over penciling “Incredible Hulk” after Trimpe, and while surpassing Trimpe’s tenure by nearly three years, his work was plagued by mediocrity and in the end failed to resonate with comics fans. By comparison, Trimpe’s Hulk became a template that was universally adopted by Marvel artists and hung around in various incarnations for almost two decades, until 1987, when Todd McFarlane brought Hulk back to his Kirby beginnings.

HULK AND HERB

"The Incredible Hulk" played to Trimpe's strengths as an artist

Trimpe’s Hulk was a delicate balance. He was in most ways still the brute that Jack Kirby had initially set on the page, and yet he was something decidedly different. He was still a monster, but no longer ugly to the point of frightening. His enormous forehead and the Quasimodo-like brow gave way to a much less deformed face, and his body became less thick and puffy and more muscular and lean. He was still big and powerful, but easier on the eyes.

This had two important effects on the character. First, it made him easier to identify with. Secondly, as the Hulk shifted more towards hero further from horror, he became more believable in the book’s softer, quieter scenes.

A good example of this appears in “Hulk” #170. In it, the Hulk and Betty Ross are trapped on a deserted island. Betty is hurt and unconscious with only the Hulk to look after her. He sets out from their cave to find food and comes across a lone deer. He picks up a rock intending to kill it, but, in a show of empathy, cannot, even for his beloved Betty. Cut back to the cave and we see him entering, his arms filled with various island fruits. After tending to her wounds, the scene ends on a close-up of the Hulk nervously waiting for her to recover.

Trimpe’s run is populated with such moments. In “Hulk” #178, the Hulk’s friend Adam Warlock is sentenced to death and transformed back into a cocoon-like state he had once inhabited. The Hulk steals his “body” and escapes to the forest. Like a child, Hulk doesn’t understand his friend is truly dead and talks to him through the cocoon; shaking it, trying to wake him up, and eventually coming to the realization he is not coming back.

My point is that these are the scenes that made the character great, making the Hulk more than just a monosyllabic wrecking machine. They pushed him beyond his trademark “HULK SMASH!”, lending him sympathy, giving him life and becoming the basis for how he was handled later in the CBS television series.

The writers get most of the credit, but Trimpe deserves some as well. Trimpe was the one constant during this evolution, and such scenes would have been impossible with all prior Hulks. Simply stated, they would have seemed forced and ridiculous, out of character and sappy. Trimpe’s less monstrous Hulk, with his broader emotional range, made them possible. So, in “Hulk” #172, we see the Hulk step in front of a murderous Juggernaut to defend a family, he is well suited for such action and we believe it. It works not in spite of Trimpe, but because of Trimpe.

"The Incredible Hulk" art by Herb Trimpe

I mentioned at the beginning that although a fan of Trimpe, it is no blind allegiance. While the Hulk owes a debt to Trimpe, Trimpe owes a bigger one to the Hulk. I really feel that Trimpe’s comic book career began and ended at the intersection of artist and character. As he progressed on the “Hulk,” Trimpe developed a kind of blocky, utilitarian drawing style that was low on frills and high on energy; a style perfect for one particular book. He had a knack for aircraft and military equipment; he drew men better than women and specialized in big, powerful action, as opposed to the subtler, nuanced type. “The Incredible Hulk” played to his strengths and hid his weaknesses, supplying him with a stage that was the ideal definition of showcase.

Whenever Trimpe stepped out of the Hulk’s world, or when less Trimpe-friendly characters such as Hawkeye or Captain America made guest appearances in “Hulk,” Trimpe’s reliance became even clearer. The Hulk was not about grace, but force. Trimpe could do force, but not grace. This limitation, his lack of versatility more than anything else, is why Trimpe’s work is met with a shrug more than a smile. People view him as a one-trick pony, but Trimpe brought a second-rate, struggling character to the forefront of American pop-culture, defining him in the minds of society for years to come. He took Jack Kirby’s bastard son, garnered him some respect and found him a place in comic history.

If that contribution was his one trick, than I say, damn, what a trick!

A big hearty thanks to veteran comics artist Tom McWeeney for writing this edition of POP! Like Tom, I’m a firm believer that the definitive “Hulk” artist was, is, and always will be “Happy” Herb Trimpe. - George Khoury

TAGS:  hulk, tom mcweeney, herb trimpe, marvel comics, jack kirby

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