Looking Back With Fred Hembeck
Fred Hembeck has been around for decades now. He's an institution. He's been providing the comic book world with his own unique insights into it's history since he began submitting his drawings and commentaries back in the 1970s. And the comic book world is a better place for it, and a better place for Fred Hembeck. Love him or hate him, and frankly if you hate him then you really need to lighten up a lot, he's still going strong and will only be getting stronger with the release of his newest book, The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus, coming your way from Image very shortly. Buy a copy, sit back and take in an afternoon of Hembeck. You'll be glad you did. Then buy a few of his pieces of art, you'll be even happier. In a perfect world an original Hembeck would sell for just about the same as an original Ditko, but the world isn't perfect so you can grab an original Hembeck at a very affordable price.
The world of comic books is a far better place with people like Fred Hembeck in it. I managed to tie Hembeck down for a couple of hours a few weeks ago, and this is the result. After speaking to him I can't help but like the guy even more and I'm sure that you'll see why once you start reading.
DANIEL BEST: Your artworks are unique little pieces of drawing. I can’t think of anyone who does anything similar.
FRED HEMBECK: I guess not, you’re probably right about that. Julie, my daughter, was telling me that she was at school the other day and while her friends know I’m a cartoonist, they asked, “Well, what does he draw?” and she said, “I don’t know what to tell them.” I said, “Yeah, I don’t know what to tell them either.” I know what to tell you obviously, but for people who aren’t into the whole comic book thing, it’s a little hard to explain. You draw yourself as a cartoon character talking to famous comic book icons. It’s a little odd.
DB: So how do you explain it?
FH: Generally I don’t. [laughter] I show them stuff like the Petey stories I did, I show them some of the more mainstream stuff that I’ve done during my career. I don’t generally say, “I did ‘Fred Hembeck Destroys The Marvel Universe’,” because they'd look at me like I’m crazy.
DB: You didn’t start out to be a funny cartoonist.
FH: No, not at all. It was all kind of like an accident because Vince Colletta told me I was awful and would never work in comics.
DB: That must have been soul destroying, having Vinnie Colletta tell you you’re no good.
FH: Yeah, of all people.
DB: What was Vinnie like when you met him?
FH: Pretty professional but a bit brusque. Move you in, move you out, take a look at your stuff, show you some stuff that happened to be lying around to explain how you could do it better and then say, “Well, you’ll never make it in comics. Good luck kid, goodbye.” Then he flashed me a crocodile smile on the way out and that was the end of it.
DB: How did you view Vinnie's work when you were reading comics?
FH: I didn’t like it. I just didn’t like it at all. I’m well known for liking everybody’s stuff but even when I was a kid it was, “Oh, Vinnie Colletta, I hate this stuff.” I didn’t even like it on the Kirby Thor books. The only time I liked it was those first three issues that Joe Orlando did on Daredevil because it just seemed so unusual to me at that point, so I thought, ‘Well this is kind of neat.’ I think the next thing I saw was the Sub-Mariner stuff he did with Gene Colan, and I didn’t care for that at all.
DB: Gene is notoriously hard to ink though.
FH: Yeah, and I so much more preferred the Iron Man stuff that was being inked at the same time by Jack Abel, who generally I’ve not been that big a fan of, but I liked the combo at the time.
DB: Going way back now, where were you born and where did you grow up?
FH: I was born in a hospital in New York City, but my parents were living on Long Island at the time, about fifty miles out in a small town called Yaphank, which was the name of an Indian tribe I believe. I grew up there. I was an only child and my parents were a lot older than I was. My dad was fifty and my mom was thirty nine when I was born. I didn’t find out until after my mom passed away that they weren’t even married when I was born, they were married shortly there after, meaning I was only a temporary bastard [laughter] as I like to tell my wife. She says, “No, I think you’re pretty much full time, but ok.” I had a pretty decent childhood.
DB: When did you discover comic books?
FH: Around 1959 my dad came home with an issue of Spooky The Tough Little Ghost and I really liked it. It turned out that someone at his job had a kid who was outgrowing comics. Can you believe that? Outgrowing comics. He wanted to know if his son, that being me, would be interested in them enough to keep from just throwing them out. I passed the test with the Spooky comic so he brought home a big box of them. The box was almost entirely made up of kid orientated comics--there was only two super hero books. There was one World’s Finest and a Jimmy Olsen that had Superman playing marbles on the cover, as ridiculous as that may seem. It also had Little Lulu, Dennis The Menace and Little Archie, which remain three of my favourite comics to this day. It had a lot of Harvey and Dell comics. That kind of hooked me. My grandmother saw I liked them so she started buying them off the stands for me, mainly Harveys and Dells. She also tried to give me some culture so she bought me some Classics Illustrateds but, of course, they had creepy artwork and people getting killed, and that kind of freaked me out when I was seven or eight years old. When I was in second grade a friend of mine kept bringing in these Superman comics, the Mort Weisinger things. I guess it was really the Bizarro characters that caught my attention, and all the weird transformations, like the one where Superman had the big head on the cover because he was from the future, or the one where Superman was suffering from old age and it showed him as a decrepit old man. The one that really pushed me over the top was when they had the story, “The Night Of March 31st” with the boo-boo contest, which just flabbergasted me. Tales Of The Bizarro World had just started up in Adventure Comics, so I went out and tried to find that issue, but I just missed it and I wound up buying the Superman issue that retold his origin instead, which was perfect timing. Maybe a month later the Secret Origins giant came out, and so suddenly, I had a much needed primer. That’s how I started buying Superman comics and all the other DC super heroes.
DB: It’s a bit unsual that you came in via the Bizarro stuff, because most people I speak to who were reading Superman back in the day came in with the Superman Red, Superman Blue or The Death Of Superman.
FH: The Death Of Superman came along in about the third or fourth issue I bought off the stands, so that was something I saw when it first came out. That, to me, was one of the greatest comics I've ever read. So was the other one you mentioned, Superman Red, Superman Blue. So yeah, if I hadn’t already been hooked, those two would have definitely brought me into the fold and kept me there.
DB: I can’t help but think that if you saw those before the Bizarro you might have become a more mainstream artist.
FH: Possibly, very true. But that’s when I was buying everything, Flash, Green Lantern. It’s odd, I was buying everything that DC put out that was superhero except for Space Ranger in the comic Tales Of The Unexpected. For some reason I just couldn’t stomach Space Ranger and I don’t know why that was. I was very undiscriminating otherwise.
DB: What sort of art training did you get?
FH: Well, when I was in kindergarten I did some drawings and the teacher told my mom, “Hey, he’s pretty good, you should encourage him.” That’s what I was told and that planted the seed in my head. That was a couple of years before I got into the comics. I didn’t really have any art training, I just did a lot of drawing. I’ve got a notebook full of old comic book characters that I was drawing back in 1963, ’64. I just kind of kept going along. Of course, when I got out of high school, I went to college for art. I went to the State University of New York at Farmingdale where they had an Advertising Art and Design course, which I knew about because I’d seen it mentioned in an issue of Swamp Thing. Len Wein had taken that same course, so I thought, “Oh, well that’s great.” Of course Len Wein was a famous comic book writer and not an artist, but I didn’t let that stop me.
DB: How did you break into the industry?
FH: I put together a portfolio in 1977 and came home that summer from Buffalo. I was living in Buffalo at that point, five hundred miles from my Yaphank home, and had finished my last two years of college up there. I took my portflio around, but didn’t get much interest. DC, at the very least, let me bring it in and show it to people. Marvel just said, “Leave it overnight and come back tomorrow and we’ll tell you what we think,” and I did and they didn’t. They just said, “No thank you.” I never actually saw anybody for an interview there. I tried to get into mainstream comics; I wasn’t successful. Vince Colletta said, “Go home, and practice your anatomy.” I went home and was trying to do that but at the same time, I was trying to keep my spirits up by doing as much drawing as possible. I had just left a number of room mates--good friends--in Buffalo, so I'd write letters to them but I would do it in cartoon form. In those cartoons is where I came up with the character based on myself, because obviously my buddies knew what I looked like--I have the long hair, parted in the middle with the beard. So I did a lot of those letters. Even though I hadn’t used a cartoony style at all until a few months earlier, here I was also writing letters of comment to the comics, and I sent in several in cartoon form and one of them went to Bill Mantlo who was writing Iron Man at the time. He really liked what I’d written and drawn but I guess I’d done it in three or four different colour markers because he said he couldn’t print it, but asked if it could be redrawn in black and white and we’ll even pay you for it? Well, obviously, I said, “Yes, I think I can do that,”! So that was my first professional sale. $35 for the full page letter column in issue #114 of Iron Man. I discovered that I liked doing that sort of drawing so I came up with a little interview strip of Spider-Man and Cartoon Fred, and put that together and sent it off on a whim to the Comic Buyer’s Guide, which was a weekly publication. They printed it and it became pretty popular soon after. I didn’t expect it to, but it did and they asked for more, so I sent them more and I made a point of putting my address at the bottom of each strip (of course this was in the old days before email), and various fans would write to me and occasionally even people working in comics did. The first regular thing I got was when Bob Rozakis, Tony Tollin and Mike Gold contacted me to do those little strips that ran in the Daily Planet ad pages. That was that. Pretty exciting, for sure.
DB: You did a lot of work in fanzines.
FH: Yep. After I did my thing in the Buyer’s Guide and put my address in there I got a fair amount of mail, and it was kind of neat and a number of it was from fanzine publishers, some of which were fairly well established, like The Comic Reader--and others that probably had no more than one issue ever published--they'd contact me and ask me to contribute stuff. More often than not, I did. It was a real thrill to be in The Comic Reader because several years earlier I’d have been, “Wow! That’s a big fanzine!” So it was kind of neat and I’d been following fanzines since around 1967, back when I first started reading them. I kind of let them slide for a while but for a couple of years there, they were more important to me than the actual comics.
DB: You were one of the few, who got your name above the title at Marvel, which I thought, at the time, was unusual.
FH: That’s true and it’s very odd. One thing I clearly remember happened shortly after I first started doing this stuff. I went to a convention in New York and I was walking around, meeting some people and I ran into Jim Shooter. He had just taken over the editor-in-chief job at Marvel. We stopped to talk in an aisle and he was pleased to meet me because one of my earliest strips was in praise of his Avengers run and all the while, a number of fans were gathering around as he was telling us his plans for Marvel and how he was going to make things better for the creators. At one point he said, “You know, if we wanted to a Fred Hembeck comic, we could do it. Fred would keep the copyright and we’d all share in the profits,” and I’m smiling and thinking, “Yeah, sure, like that’s ever going to happen. Thanks anyway,Jim--that’s still a very nice thing to say.” After that, I kept bumping into him at one convention after another-- it seemed like we were always going to the same conventions for a while there. Then about a year or so later he called me up and said that he had an idea to do a roast of the Fantastic Four and that he had another writer in mind for it but that writer didn’t really feel comfortable with the whole format, so he thought maybe I’d like to take a shot at it. Again, I said, “Ok,” and that’s how that one came about!
DB: You had almost everybody who was anyone at Marvel, artistically wise, on that book, Michael Golden, John Byrne, Bob Hall, Alan Weiss...
FH: Yeah, Frank Miller.
DB: John Buscema, Walt Simonson, Mike Zeck, it’s a great cast of artists.
FH: I know. That was a really amazing thing to do. Oddly enough, that was done in piecemeal fashion. I just sent the various artists rough layouts that didn’t have any dialogue in them, I just generally indicated what was going to be happening. So I'd get the pages back and I'd put in the dialogue after I saw the artwork, and assembled the book in not necessarily the same order in which those pages appear in the book. The fact that it reads reasonably smoothly is one of my greatest achievements I think. I always liked that book more than the destruction of the Marvel Universe one, which kind of makes me crazy because people always seem to remember the Destroys The Marvel Universe more, so what can I say?
DB: Was it your idea to get all the artists involved?
FH: No. Jim Shooter was the editor of the thing and he told me which characters we were going to use, to devote a page apiece to each. It was mainly all the characters who had their own books at the time, and he assigned the pages to the proper people. In a lot of cases I didn’t even know who was going to be doing the art at the time. I remember I was kind of surprised that the X-Men page wasn’t by Dave Cockrum. In fact, I didn’t know who did it, and it was only years later I found out it was Denys Cowan. Cockrum is in there, though-- I believe he’s in that double page spread where there's that montage of most of the characters, so he’s in there at least a little bit. I only realised recently that Herb Trimpe isn’t in that book. I don’t know how we missed him, but that was during the days when Sal Buscema was doing the Hulk and Herb was doing licensed stuff like Godzilla and Shogun Warriors, who weren't invited to the party for obvious reasons.
DB: It’s a great line-up. I remember reading it and really enjoying the fact that it had Byrne doing the Fantastic Four pages, Zeck doing Captain America, Simonson Thor and the Miller Daredevil. It’s a great concept. Do you think something like that could happen now?
FH: I suppose so. I wouldn’t be the one writing it, but I’m sure somebody could do something new along those lines. Not with those same people but with the current guys, sure.
DB: It must have been a challenge to get that cast of artists together and still get the book out on time.
FH: Yeah. It was supposed to come out in time for the Fantastic Four’s 20th anniversary but I believe it was issued in 1982, so we might have missed the target date just a little bit.
DB: Who was the latest on it?
FH: Ah, you know, I don’t know. Maybe the Sub-Mariner page by Alan Weiss? I hate to say that because I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I've since met Alan, who's a great guy besides being a great artist I really can’t say for sure. It wasn’t me though.
DB: How many of the artists who worked on it had you met previously?
FH: I’d seen John Byrne at quite a few conventions at that point and Frank Miller, too. In fact, those were the two guys who actually gave me their pages. I have the Frank Miller page framed and on the wall. John gave me about four pages; he did a bunch of them. I knew Terry Austin, the inker, who I now know much better. I’d met a lot of those guys actually. Brent Anderson, I knew him. Marshall Rogers I'd met. I didn’t meet Keith Pollard until much later; he did the Thor page. I knew quite a few of the people involved in the field at that point. Marv and Len were always coming to parties at Joe Staton’s house and stuff. I've met a fair amount of the ‘Names Of The ’80s’ shall we say.
DB: Terry Austin and you appear to be very close these days.
FH: Yeah, I’ve known Terry for a long time now. That FF Roast book was done before he moved into my area, but about four or five years later, he moved into the next town over. Of course, I’ve since moved away from there, but we’re still pretty close. We talk on the phone and get together every so often and probably, out of all the people I know in comics, I know him best.
DB: I’ve been trying to interview Terry for years now. He speaks to me but I’ve all but given up interviewing him properly.
FH: Terry’s a real treat to talk to off the record, but I don’t think he likes going on the record. He knows far more crazy stuff than I do. In my limited capacity in the field, I either flat out don’t know or don’t know from first hand experience, so in instances like this, I don’t have to worry about spilling any beans that shouldn't be spilled. Personally, I have no horrible stories that I have to keep concealed. [laughter] I certainly know of some, but they’re not mine, so I can’t tell you.
DB: There’s a challenge.
FH: Well yeah. [laughter] I’m exaggerating, of course I’m exaggerating. [laughter]
DB: Did DC ever approach you to do something similar?
FH: You know, they never did. That would have been kind of cool but it never quite happened. I did do some stuff for DC. I did a back-up feature in “Mazing Man comics called Zoot Sputnik that ran for several issues. I did some odd things here and there. I had a two page strip in Flash #300 which was originally going to be in the Amazing World Of DC Comics magazine but got cancelled before it made it into there. I did a cover for the DC Sampler, as well as some interior pages in another issue. Just the other day, I was trying to think what the most recent thing I did for DC was, and I couldn't remember. I have done a couple of things for Marvel recently and I might do a couple more in the future.
DB: You also did a full issue of Spectacular Spider-Man back in the ‘80s, but it was done Hembeck style.
FH: Yeah. Almost full--there was a framing story by Al Milgrom as the editor. Essentially, it was a full issue. It was the whole ‘Assistant Editors Month’ thing.
DB: How did it feel doing that?
FH: Well, that’s kind of an odd story. Bill Mantlo was the guy who sort of got me rolling on this whole comics thing by printing that letter in Iron Man. He and I would talk on the phone quite a bit in the early days when I was first getting involved in all of this stuff. I never actually met him face to face. For some reason, although he was living in New York City, he never went to comic conventions. So we worked together, kind of, on that Iron Man letter, and we worked together on a ten page story that we were going to submit to what became Epic but I think was called Odyssey at the time, but it got the thumbs down. It was a story that Bill wrote and had no dialogue; it was all told in pantomime. He eventually told me I could just have it and print it in one of my FantaCo books, which I did--that was very nice of him. So he was the regular writer of the Spectacular Spider-Man book and I guess he probably said, “Why don’t we do something outrageous for the Assistant Editors Month, like have Fred Hembeck do the artwork?” I don’t remember who approached me, it was either Bill or the editor, it wasn’t really the assistant editor, that was all a big goof because I never really spoke to an assistant editor, just the real editor, Al Milgrom. I knew Al and Al was very nice, I’d met him a number of times. He was in the Fantastic Four Roast book too. So Bill gave me a plot but it was one of those three paragraphs, half a page plots I guess he was used to giving to Sal Buscema and people of that ilk who were really tried and true professionals, and here I was, just some guy who’d done a handful of gag strips. It went along pretty well as long as I just had to deal with Spider-Man and J Jonah Jameson, and Spider-Man talking to the Black Cat, but then there was a long sequence where Spider-Man is fighting the Human Fly in the printing press room down underneath the Daily Bugle and I believe Bill’s direction was, ‘And then they fight!’ I was like, ‘OK, what’s going on here?” so I tried my best and turned it in but they rejected the fighting sequence because I simply didn’t know what the heck I was doing with this big battle sequence! So they made Bill go back and rewrite the thing to the point where it was far more detailed and more specific to what they wanted and they sent it to me and I got a chance to draw it again. I remember Bill calling me up on the phone and he sounded kind of annoyed at me kind for letting him down by making him redo all this work. I pointed out, “Well, you know, I’m kind of new at this, I don’t have any real experience doing fight scenes.” We didn’t exactly argue, but we were both clearly annoyed at each other for our own reasons, and that was the last time I ever spoke to the guy. We all know that years later he had that horrible accident, so I always felt bad because as much as anyone, he got me into the whole comics thing, and our relationship all kind of went south because of that Assistant Editors Month issue.
DB: It’s a sad story.
FH: Yeah, it’s too bad.
DB: Along the way you were doing your Dateline: Hembeck material. How were they received?
FH: Right. The early ones were very well received in the Buyer’s Guide. They got a lot of mail, I got a lot of exposure from them. Eclipse came out with the first collection because they needed something to print and Richard Bruning, who’s now a bigwig at DC comics, was friends with the publisher, Dean Mullaney. They'd just published their first book, Sabre I think it was, and they wanted another publication but didn’t have anything ready. But Richard said, “Fred could probably gather together a collection of his stuff and throw a new cover on it you’d have yourself an instant book.” And that’s pretty much what we did. But after that, they kept stalling on the second one, which was all ready to go. I had moved up to Albany in the meantime and began going to a comic store that wanted to get involved with publishing called FantaCo. Well, eventually more or less with Eclipse’s blessing, we took the series to FantaCo and there were seven collections of the Dateline strips, though some were made up of completely new material. That lasted for a couple of years but towards the late ‘80s, I just lost steam doing the Datelines. When this new collection comes out which has everything from the ‘80s in it you’ll see that pretty clearly. Both Alan Gordon and Erik Larsen said, “In this book, we want all the Datelines, even the really horrible bad ones.” So you’ll get to see some of the really horrible bad ones. I kind of shifted over to Marvel Age at that point and began working with editor Jim Salicrup, and for many years after that, that was my main outlet. I had a run of over 100 issues I believe.
DB: How did it come about that Image approached you to do this current collection?
FH: That was Al Gordon’s idea. Al, of course, is an inker and has been for many, many years. I first met him because I guess I said something nice about his inking on Carmine Infantino’s Spider-Woman way back in the first year I was doing the strip and he contacted me. It’s weird how some of this stuff comes back at you. He’s from California and I’ve only met him once face-to-face when he came out here to visit Terry years ago. We talk every so often on the phone and one day he called me up and said he had this idea and wouldn’t it be kind of cool if you collected all your Dateline strips. I said, “yeah, that would be kind of cool , but who’s gonna buy it?” He said, “No, no, I think it’s a good idea,” and I said, “Yeah, well, maybe it is.” Again this is about three years ago and it kind of meandered along for a while until he said, “You know, Erik Larsen is kind of interested in publishing this.” I go, “Really? You’re not making this up? Really? Honest to God?” “Oh, yeah, yeah, Erik is,” because Erik is close friends with Al and apparently they live close by each other and Erik was of course the publisher of Image at that point. Still is. So I dropped Erik an email. I’d met him once before (also in the presence of Terry at a different time), and he said, “Yeah, we would like to do that but why don’t we extend it beyond just the Datelines and make it into a real massive collection?” I guess when Al first mentioned the idea to me, the format of these big, thick telephone directoriy style type reprints wasn’t as popuar a trend as they now are. It seems like now everyone is putting out these Omnibus or Essentials type things. So that’s how it came about, and I've spent a fair amount of the last year putting it all together.
DB: It’s a brave move from Image.
FH: Yeah, I know. We’ll see. I’ve gotten a bunch of positive responses about it after it was announced and, well, I don’t know how well it’s going to go over with people who are not familiar with my work, but we shall see.
DB: What else is in the book other than the Datelines?
FH: Well, we have a number of strips featuring characters I’ve done over the years that I’ve created, like The Dog and Mr. Mumbo Jumbo. There was a nine page strip that I submitted to Epic just as they were going to be cancelled. The early strip that I mentioned was called Erosion, written by Bill Mantlo, and that was rejected before the book hit the stands, and then I sent this one in and Archie Goodwin called me up and said, “Well, you know Fred, we're just about to announce the cancellation of the magazine so I’m afraid we’re all full up for the remaining issues.” So I kind of got rejected at both the beginning and the end and I never did have a story published in Epic. They're both in this book, though, and the later one is called A Date With History. I’ve always kind of liked it and I'm happy to get it into print. I was in CAPA-alpha for a while and I chose about sixty pages of oddball strips that I did for them in the early ‘80s to include in the book. And you know, Christmas cards, commissioned drawings, sketchbook strips, just a lot of odd stuff.
DB: How do you go about publishing Marvel and DC characters in an Image book?
FH: That’s the question I don’t want anyone to ask until the book is out and we’re home free. [laughter] I don’t know. That’s obviously something I wonder about because back in 1981, 1982, things were vastly different. We were able to publish those things with FantaCo and we never really seemed to have any problem. This book was announced months ago now and so far there’s been no lawyers at the door from Marvel, which is a good thing. I’ve got Stan Lee in there doing the Foreword, which probably helps to some extent. I tried to make a point on the cover by not overly exploiting anybody else's properties. You’ve probably seen the covers of my old FantaCo books which had the likes of Superman and Batman on them--well, here I tried not to put any really copyrighted characters out front except for my own little Fred head. Maybe a few of those are a little bit sneaky in the way they sneak in the images of Marvel and DC characters via the Fred head, but nothing nearly as blatant as what I'd done in the past. I just hope it’s not stopped at the last second. [laughter]
DB: Do you think this might open the doors for future Hembeck work?
FH: It actually appears to have gotten my name out there already. I’ve been approached to do a number of interesting things over the last few weeks. Including one that I can’t really discuss because it’s not really set in stone yet, but if and when it comes about, it won't be from Marvel or DC, but it'll be done with a writer who’s done a lot of work for both of those big companies. It’ll be a five issue series, and it might even go further than that. That’s kind of neat. Then there's an autobiographical graphic novel I'm trying to put together as well.
DB: When it comes to commission work your cover recreations are becoming somewhat legendary.
FH: Ok, right--that’s a good one, ok.
DB: No, no, no, each time I post one of yours into a gallery people make good comments.
FH: I enjoy doing them, they’re kind of fun.
DB: it’s a different way of looking at classic covers. I don’t think I ever realised just how many Silver Age comic book covers were so unintentionally funny.
FH: Yeah, too true. It all kind of started back when I was doing the Datelines because I wanted to describe how whacky these old Jimmy Olsen covers were and I guess one day I decided, “Well, why not just copy it over in my own style, and then write some comments all around it, and that'll be the strip,” and that’s kind of how it all started. I remember the first one I did was Jimmy doing the Kryptonian Crawl on the cover, which was a dance. The main difference was that I just did an outlined version, I didn’t fill in the blacks or anything, but it still gave you the layout and the dialogue and stuff. But yeah, the whole point was to make fun of the Superman covers.
DB: You’ve started a cottage industry there.
FH: Yeah, now everyone goofs on Superman. “I was the first!” I declare. I was the first guy to say Mort Weisinger was crazy, but in a good way. Or in a bad way, depending on how you want to look at it.
DB: Did you ever meet Mort?
FH: No. I can remember when he died, but I don’t know if he was alive when I was first doing this stuff. If he was, then he must have died only a few years later. I just read about him in the Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow book. It did mention when he died, but I forget exactly when that was. Nah, I never met him. I’d've been scared to meet him. He would have bit my head off! He would have said, “Hey, kid, you know how many comics I’ve sold? Don’t mock me.” [laughter] Of course if he were alive today, he’d have to say that to half the people on the internet with comics blogs.
DB: It wasn’t just Mort. One of my favourite covers is a romance cover with one girl saying to her friend that a certain girl will do anything to hold onto Dick (Dick being a name).
FH: Yeah, [laughter] the most obvious thing. People didn’t understand. They must have known what they were saying but they got it by the Comics Code anyway.
DB: I’ve always thought that some of it must have been intentional.
FH: Oh yeah. You can’t be that crude accidentally, no.
DB: Then there’s that Superman cover where he’s verbally attacking Lana and Lois about them being too stupid to recognise that he’s Clark Kent.
FH: The way he treated those women in his comics was just insane.
DB: But they let him do it.
FH: I know. And you know, I go back and I reread those issues now and find that they’re a lot more entertaining than most of the other stuff that was coming out from DC at the time because there’s a lot of emotion in them. They’re twisted emotions, no denying it, but still, the emotional content really helps you enjoy the stories, as opposed to the deadly dry stories found in most every other DC book of the early sixties.
DB: How do you see comics now, as opposed to comics then?
FH: I really don’t read them too much anymore. I try. Or more correctly, I tried. Up until about 2000, I kept trying. I kept piling up issues of my favourite titles, saying to myself, “I’m gonna get to those someday,” and finally I realised, “No, I don’t think I am.” So I just gave up on new stuff and now instead, like the Spider-Man Omnibus I reread recently, after not having read those books for over thirty years, rediscovered what a wonderful thing some of those old books truly were. I do keep up on the Internet by checking reviews to see what’s going on in the latest Crisis and who’s getting killed, who they're turning into a bad guy and stuff. Sometimes I’m just aghast at what they’re doing, but then I think, well, every generation gets to mess with these icons. Even though there’s supposed to be a continuity from 1961 right on up to now for the Fantastic Four, somewhere along the line, it kind of got fudged and let's face it, they're not really the same characters anymore. So let people do what they want. The thing is, I can’t imagine how you can buy very many comics in order to follow a whole line with the prices what they are now. When I was a kid, they were going for ten or twelve cents. You could buy eight for a dollar. I don’t know what you can buy for a dollar now when they’re all at least three ninety-nine. That math just doesn’t work for me.
DB: You’re a huge fan of Steve Ditko.
FH: Oh, man, I love Ditko. Man, do I ever love Ditko.
DB: When did you discover his stuff? When did you cross over from DC to Marvel as a reader?
FH: It was 1962. I had a little bit of scarlet fever, nothing too bad, but I couldn’t really go out of the house except to go to the doctors for a couple of weeks. On the way home from one of my doctor visits, I was really missing my comics books so my mom pulled up in front of the store where I usually bought my comics and luckily the big book shelf was right in front of the window. She went in, and because she didn’t know what to buy me, she held up several comics and I would either shake my head yes or no. I remember shaking my head yes to a Blackhawk and then she held up this book, it was the Fantastic Four number four and it had such an oddball looking logo to it that I paused for a second and then said, ok, sure, why not? So she bought that and I was just really, really taken with it. I’d never seen anything like it, even though I had actually avoided the pre-Marvel monsters books. The kid who used to bring in the Superman comics at school also had a lot of those giant monster books. I thought they were creepy so I stayed away from them, but here I was with the Fantastic Four. The first issue I bought was number four, I missed number five, bought number six and I think the very next comic I bought from Marvel was Strange Tales #101, which featured the Human Torch’s solo series debut. But, of course, in the back was this story, “What Is X-35 ?”, I believe it was. And it was a Ditko/Stan Lee story and I’d never seen anything quite so stunning. There was this really strange looking guy, who was the protagonist of the story. He was a crook who was on the run who’d found this card that said “X-35” and he didn’t know what to make of it. He was on the run during the whole story and on the last page he ran in front of a car, gets killed and you see that the license plate of the car was “X-35”! That was my first exposure to Ditko. Soon after, I'd see him in the back pages of Journey Into Mystery and Tales To Astonish and eventually Spider-Man. That was it.
DB: So, Ditko or Kirby?
FH: Oh, I love Ditko. Kirby’s the best in a lot of ways, certainly he’s superior in a few crucial ways, but Ditko is the one who won my heart.
DB: Have you ever met him?
FH: No, but I did have an odd near-miss brush with him once. It was the only time I ever got anywhere near him. I was visiting the DC offices with Joe Staton (who also lived near by me upstate), and once in a while, I’d go down to the city with him, maybe two or three times. We went up to DC, walked into the offices, met some of the editors, talked to them. This has got to be the mid to late ‘80s, and Joe was talking to Jack C Harris, who was his editor at the time, and Jack said, “We have to discuss some business, Fred. So if you don’t mind, could you wait out in the waiting area for a few minutes?” I said, “Sure,” and went out to the waiting area, sat there, and as I was sitting there just staring off into space two different people came in and two different people left. I wasn’t paying very close attention to them, so when Joe and Jack came back out, they said, “Did you see him? Did you see him?”, and I'm like, “Who? What do you mean?” “Ditko was here! He came in, delivered some pages and he left again.” I said, “You mean those guys that walked past me, one of them was Ditko?” “Yep.” “Oh my God!” But I wasn’t really paying close attention. That was my closest brush with Steve Ditko.
DB: You can always just go and knock on his door.
FH: Apparently you can. [laughter] I guess I need to go down to the city and visit him with a camera crew too. [laughter]
DB: What attracted you the most with the Ditko stuff?
FH: I like the Dr Strange stuff, but for me it was always the Spider-Man stuff that really resonated. It was so down to earth while at the same time being so totally unique in its look. Nothing else looked like it. As I said, I've just finished reading the Omnibus and I’m amazed. It’s really the story of Peter Parker as opposed to Spider-Man, much more than in a Superman book where he turned into Clark Kent simply as a plot device. I liked the way Ditko (and Stan Lee, let's not forget) told what seemed like a more life-like story than any I had ever seen in comics up to that point concerning a guy who’d become a superhero reluctantly. Kirby could have done it I suppose, but it might not have been as effective because his characters are just so powerful, even skinny old Dr Blake. I just liked everything Ditko did back in the sixties. On the other hand, I can’t read any of the stuff he does these days. I can’t read that crazy Mr A/ Avenging World stuff. It makes my head spin. You just have to have your Ditko and your Lee together for me to be completely happy.
DB: And yet some people prefer that stuff as they see it as being more pure.
FH: Yeah, I can see that. Just like in the case of Kirby, he just doesn’t have the ear for dialogue. It’s better when guys like that work with someone else. I don’t rule out anything he did outside of Marvel because the stuff Ditko did for Warren was phenomenal. The Creepy and Eerie stories, even a lot of stuff he did for Charlton, which was collected not long ago in paperback, well, Joe Gill might not have been the greatest writer, but somehow Steve did a really good job illustrating his stories. It’s just when the stories got so preachy that I was turned off. I remember the first couple of Mr A stories were actually very impressive because I’d never seen anything like them before. But after a while it got a little awkward when the message clearly became more important than the drama. His drawing is still really good though.
What do you think of Ditko?
DB: I like his Spider-Man stuff. I’m not a big fan of the preaching Ditko.
FH: Preaching Ditko. That’s a good way of saying it. [laughter]
DB: I like his Blue Beetle and his Charlton horror stuff a lot.
FH: Yeah, that stuff is good.
DB: Captain Atom.
FH: Captain Atom, a lot of good work there.
DB: I’ve picked up a few of the Ditko Readers that he’s done with Robin Snyder and I just can’t get into it, it’s too dense.
FH: Exactly. Too dense describes it perfectly.
DB: With the writing and the artwork. It’s sad because I remember picking up one and thinking, as horrible as it sounds, too much Ditko can be a bad thing.
FH: Yeah, if it’s that particular kind of Ditko, sure.
DB: I do like his work, especially his early stuff and the Charlton horror stuff. We got that reprinted here in the ‘70s and ‘80s in black and white and its mind blowing. The horror and science fiction stuff is great. I love his Dr Strange and think his Dr Strange is probably the best there was.
FH: Oh yeah, that was beautifully drawn. I didn’t mean to downplay that. I was just never as engaged by the storyline as I was by the story in Spider-Man, but art wise, yeah, that’s phenomenal.
DB: Did you keep reading Spider-Man when he left?
FH: Oh yeah, sure. I remember back when my favourite DC character was The Flash primarily because Carmine Infantino was the artist. But that was a case of when he left the book I just couldn’t go for the Ross Andru Flash. The stories weren’t really riveting enough for me to keep reading it, whereas with Spider-Man, I knew that even if I didn’t have Ditko, I was still going to have Stan Lee and the stories were still going to be really good, so yeah, I kept reading it. I liked it but, y'know, to this day--no offence, I really shouldn't have--but I always kind of held it against John Romita. It’s not his fault that he wasn’t Ditko. I’ve never given those books a fair shake. It's just that I lived and breathed those Ditko Spider-Man issues when they were coming out, and then one day, I had them torn away from me for seemingly no reason! Oh my God! What can I tell you, I still get emotional remembering learning that Steve was leaving.
DB: If it helps even Ross Andru didn’t like his Flash work.
FH: Ah, ok. I later came to really enjoy Ross Andru's work when he eventually did Spider-Man, to tell you the truth.
DB: It’s funny because I’ve discovered that a lot of people didn’t, but a lot of artists did.
FH: That is odd. When that book was coming out I was just becoming a professional, so maybe that’s why. I remember going to conventions and hearing Len Wein and Marv Wolfman up on panels sayng, “You know Ross is a really good artist if you look at things closely.” And I thought, “Oh, then maybe I should look at it closely,” and that kind of turned me on to it. Maybe it was just my time to realise that.
DB: The critique that I often hear is that his faces were all the same, yet the detail he put into panels, the backgrounds and the like, was just insane.
DB: At the same time you can see people who did no backgrounds, and there was Ross Andru who was killing himself with the background detail. But in regards to his Flash, he always claimed that he got it wrong by trying to make the Flash look like a Marvel character and it didn’t work, it was too bulky.
FH: Yeah, that didn’t look right.
DB: You mentioned Carmine Infantino. What did you think of his work?
FH: Oh, he was my favourite DC artist. I just loved the Flash, I loved the way it looked, the design, it was just one of those perfect matches of subject matter and artist. Adam Strange was always well drawn too. It’s kind of like Spider-Man and Ditko, I always liked the down to earth stories of Spider-Man and the Flash, and while I admired the Adam Strange and Dr Strange material, I wasn’t quite as engaged with those as they took place in whole other worlds. But no one’s ever done a mystical landscape like Ditko and I don’t think anyone’s ever done a science fiction setting quite like the Adam Strange. That was kind of like the top of the line for me.
DB: As a casual reader, how did you see Carmine’s art when he went over to Marvel?
FH: I was excited. I just wanted to see whatever he drew. I remember when he got the job being the big boss at DC, all of a sudden his drawing output dropped to nothing. I later learnt that he did the layouts for all of the covers, but at the time I had no idea, so I was just happy to see the Human Target story that he managed to turn out once. And then of course he gets bumped from DC. The first place he turned up was in the Warren books and they came out with issue after issue full of Carmine Infantino stories that were inked by the likes of Bernie Wrightson and all these other young, hot-shot inkers. Great stuff! Then he goes over to Marvel and does one of my favourite characters at the time, Nova, and I also liked his Spider-Woman. I know some people don’t like that stuff, but to me it was Carmine Infantino, and that was enough! I really dug him! I really dug it when he went back to do The Flash too. I’m just a sucker for the guy. And he never got too preachy either, which was a plus! [laughter] So I could easily still enjoy looking at his superheroes.
DB: Did you ever meet Carmine?
FH: Only briefly. Last year he was at a convention so I went over to his table, introduced myself and got his autograph. I don’t think he was aware that I was a cartoonist who did what I did, but that’s ok, I told him how much I enjoyed his work and got him to sign my little book. I’m always a little bit in awe of these older guys. I never know what to say to them because they were so important to me as a kid, so beyond saying I like their stuff, I’m usually at a complete loss for words.
DB: Yet you interviewed Will Eisner.
FH: Yeah, but not in person. [laughter] It’s a lot easier when you just draw it up and get to control both ends of the conversation. It was a little bit presumptuous of me; I don’t know what I was thinking. I see some of those old Datelines; I’ve got one with Dick Giordano in there and a couple of other ones where I’m doing all their dialogue and now I have to wonder, what did they think when they saw those? I made a point of not making them say anything nasty, but what was I thinking? But, you know, what are you gonna do? What's done is done.
DB: Being that you are a fan as well as an artist and writer, how does that make you feel, or act, when people approach you as fans?
FH: I try to be nice to them. Of course, why not, right? These days, after kind of not being in contact with them for any number of years, having gone on the Internet and also on the MySpace, it’s an interesting situation when I hear from people who say to me, “Yeah, I remember your Fantastic Four Roast, or your Hembeck Destroys The Marvel Universe, when I was a teenager and I thought that was the best thing I'd ever seen in my life.” I’d think, “Wow!” Then they say, “And I’m 40 now,” or whatever and I’ll be thinking, “Oh my God! What happened here?” [laughter] It’s just odd when people say to me the sort of stuff I was saying to Jim Steranko back when I ran into him at a convention when I was 17. But it’s cool. I like it. I’m not knocking it. It’s better than them saying, “Oh, Hembeck? I hated that stuff.”
DB: People buy your artwork as well.
FH: Yes, they do, and I love every single one of them. [laughter] I'm pretty darn fond of anybody who forks over their hard-earned cash for The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus too!
LINKS FOR FURTHER READING: Fred Hembecks official web-site
Omnibus Information Page