Original Art Stories: Don Heck's Avengers

Don Heck was one of those artists who never really got his proper due in my eyes. I think some of the first Avengers stories I read were drawn by Don Heck, if not inked by him over Jack Kirby pencils and certainly some of my fondest Iron Man stories were drawn by Heck, with Johnny Craig a close second. No disrespect to artists like Gil Kane, Gene Colan or the mighty Kirby, but, in my eyes only, nobody came close to capturing the true essence of ole Shell Head like Heck did. And no wonder, after all Heck did draw the first ever Iron Man story and must have had a hand in the creation of the character. “Stan called me one day and said you're going to be doing a new character called Iron Man. I had no idea what it was, what I was going to do. Kirby had designed a costume and contributed some ideas. Stan and I expanded on those ideas and then Larry Lieber wound up writing the final story. I liked doing that strip, especially the character bits with Tony Stark, Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts. Pepper, I modelled on Ann B. Davis, who appeared on Bob Cummings' TV show." That’s right, the character that would later be immortalised by Gwyneth Paltrow was originally modelled on the Brady Bunch’s housekeeper, Alice. Sorry – I don’t buy into that ‘Kirby created the Marvel Universe alone’ theory. There was assistance lent.

Heck went right back to the Golden Age and worked all the way through to the late 1980s, where, sadly, he ended his career drawing very uninspired Batman and Justice League stories that he’d have eaten up back in the day. Part of Heck’s sadness came from being labelled the worst comic book artist ever by Harlan Ellison, although to give Ellison his due, he did apologise later and he was baited somewhat by Gary Groth. Heck was also plagued by ill health and personal issues towards the end, which led to a loss of confidence. A sad way to end a long and distinguished career indeed.

Heck was good, very, very good.  His art was unique and highly stylised - you knew when you had a Don Heck book just by looking at the art.  You could spot George Tuska by the teeth he gave his characters, but Heck, well the line was there and with the right inker, and Heck's best inker was Don Heck himself, he shone.  He was just as distinctive, if not as dynamic, as Kirby himself.

People, you could do worse than to seek out some of those Don Heck Avengers. “Stan called up one day,” said Heck in one of the all too few interviews he gave towards the end of his life, “and said, 'You're doing The Avengers.'" And I said, 'Great...who are the Avengers?' It was another book Kirby had started and I guess he got too busy so they gave it to me. Stan decided to focus a little more on the characters and less on the fight scenes and that made it really a challenge and one I enjoyed." Heck enjoyed drawing it and a lot of people, all over the world, enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately Heck probably didn’t know the global impact that his art had upon people. It’s one of the things that I truly rejoice in, being able to tell the likes of Dick Ayers, Jim Mooney, Alex Toth, Mike Esposito, Dave Hunt, Alan Weiss, Alan Kupperberg, Trevor Von Eeden, Rich Buckler, Jim Steranko, Dave Gibbons and a host of other artists, and writers, what the books that they wrote and drew meant to a young guy who struggled for friends and took comfort in the escape that comic books, and indeed books on a whole, gave me.

Don was clearly not a total recluse and was free with praise and help, as this letter of advice to a young artist shows.

So thank you Don Heck for some bloody good childhood, and adulthood, memories. You may be gone but you are not forgotten. And why Stan Lee rejected that Avengers cover in favour of the Gil Kane one is beyond me. Any artists out there wants to hazard a guess?


Gerry said…
absolutely love Don Heck's work, like Frank Robbins another master, he gets an unfair reputation.
George said…
I love Don Heck's work. I was fortunate enough several years ago to pick up a Kirby original art page that was inked by Don Heck. Two for one if you ask me. I got two of my favorite artists of all time on one page. That doesn't happen very often.

Praise and Respect to Don Heck's work.
diceciper said…
I think Don Heck is criminally underrated by most folks. I think he did just plain people better than super-heroes. I never saw his Avengers work till the reprinted it in Marvel Triple Action and enjoyed the heck out of it.
Ben Herman said…
That's a funny coincidence. Within the last month I've been re-reading my Essential Avengers volumes. This time around, even though it's only been a few years since I last looked at them, I really had a much more tremendous appreciation for Heck's work on the series. I enjoyed Dick Ayers' inking of Heck's pencils, and thought they made a great team on those early Avengers issues. I actually sent Dick an e-mail regarding this. He replied that he enjoyed inking Heck's penciling very much, and commented that it was "very neat and clean."
Anonymous said…
Thanks for fighting the good fight, Mr. Best. Don Heck was indeed a master.
Jean-Daniel Breque
i also picked up an old twice up avengers page with kirby "layouts" and heck "finishes" and enjoyed the mix of the two.

Heck's work was terribly underrated in its day, and as time when by, it dated by not being as flashy as whatever was popular at the time. Now, looking back, it is solid, professional and clean and should have been given more praise than it was. His later work, unfortunately, defined much of how people remember him as an artist.
Rip Jagger said…
Love the work of Don Heck!

His work on Avengers King-Size Special #1 was in many ways my introduction to the team and to Marvel. Alas it was that Special which took him away from the regular series that got John Buscema his nod and when the fans got a glimpse they demanded Big John stay.

That was the beginning of the diminishment of Heck unfortunately and he was shuttled around from one series to another for years after.

His line is so lively, his work is crisp and his storytelling evocative.

As for that Avengers cover, I'm guessing it might be because none of the heroes are facing the reader. It's a neat scene, but maybe not a cover that's going to pop out across a crowded drug store screaming to be bought.

It's a shame that Jack Kirby couldn't make use of Don Heck on his Fourth World stuff as he originally planned, as I truly think that might've changed the way fans today think about Marvel's most underrated artist.

Rip Off
Alan Kupperberg said…
Terrific Don Heck post.

I'll tell you EXACTLY why Stan rejected that Avengers cover. You can hardly see the heroes and ONLY THEIR BACKS at that.

Stan'd always reject covers when the heroes backs were to the audience.

Face Front!

Joe Jusko said…
What Alan and Rip said concerning the cover. Nice piece but you can't see the faces. Great article!

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