Original Art Stories: Don Heck - In His Own Words

Don Heck was one of the better artists that emerged from the Golden Age of comic books.  The fact that he began in that era and worked through to the 1980s speaks volumes for both his quality and consistency.  Be it pencilling or inking, Heck was more than capable of producing the goods, on time, and in a manner that leant itself to the medium of comic books.  Heck was so good that when Jack Kirby moved from Marvel to DC he asked Heck to ink the initial presentation pieces for the characters that would eventually become the New Gods, and offered him all the work he could handle.  Indeed, Kirby’s ideal world would have seen him, Kirby, writing and editing a Fourth World line drawn by Steve Ditko, John Romita and Don Heck, and what a line it would have been – it remains one of the great ‘what ifs’ of comic books.  How good was Heck?  When Martin Goodman gave Stan Lee the go ahead to relaunch Marvel Comics in the early ‘60s he chased down a few artists.  Amongst the talent that Lee assembled were Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Stan Goldberg, Larry Lieber and Don Heck.  Don was there at the birth of what we now know as the Marvel Universe, but, sadly he doesn’t always get the respect that he both earned and deserves.

One of the reasons why Heck never got his rightful due when he was alive was due to an interview with Harlan Ellison conducted by Gary Groth for The Comic Journal.  In that interview both Groth and Ellison labelled Heck as the worst artist to ever work in comic books and insinuated that Heck didn’t care for the quality of his output and merely hacked the work out.  Ellison, to his credit, apologised in print later, but the damage had been done.  Heck was labelled ‘Don Hack’ and the reputation of him being the worst artist of all time followed him.  It was unjust, unfair and just plain wrong.  Heck refrained from making any public comment about Ellison or Groth, but people who knew him knew that in private he was extremely hurt by the accusations and could never understand why he had been singled out.  

Heck also suffered from being in the shadow of Jack Kirby.  For years the credit for the first Iron Man story had Heck pencilling from Kirby lay-outs, something which, as Heck states in the following, just wasn’t true.  Kirby perpetuated this story, stating more than once that he plotted and laid out the story for Heck to pencil, and this story was passed on by the likes of Mark Evanier, who now admits that both he and Kirby got their facts wrong.  While Kirby did pencil the cover, but there is no evidence, other than Kirby’s own statements (which have been disputed by Lieber, Heck and Stan Lee) to suggest that he had anything to do with the interior of the issue that introduced Iron man.  Drawn by Heck alone, the story was scripted by Larry Lieber, from a plot provided by Stan Lee.  Leiber has always maintained that he provided a full script for Heck to draw from.  

Heck also took over The Avengers from Kirby.  Starting with issue #7, Heck would stay with the title, with a few exceptions, for its formative years until John Buscema took over with issue #41, although Heck would later revisit the title.  During his long career with Marvel Heck would draw virtually every character that the company had to offer, from the X-Men through to Iron Man, through to Spider-Man, with the only notable exception being the Fantastic Four.  Heck was an accomplished inker as well as being a more than capable penciler, and his inking was good enough for Kirby to ask that he ink the presentation pieces that Kirby was about to take to DC Comics in the early 1970s.

Heck didn’t give too many interviews in his time, mostly because when fandom took off Heck was left behind.  Early fans were more interested in Kirby and Ditko and those who came after in the ‘70s and beyond, wanted to know about contemporary artists, and not Don Heck.  There is a genuine shame in this as Heck was, by all accounts, an interesting man indeed.  He could pencil and he could ink and had no problems doing either.  He came from an era when he’d not question the job put before him, like it or not, he’d merely put his head down and do what he did best: draw a comic book to the best of his abilities.  You could always spot a Don Heck pencilling job, if only by the teeth.  Heck might not have always been served well by the inkers assigned to him and, frankly, Heck wasn’t that easy to ink.  That must have been a cause of frustration as he was a better inker than most of the artists who finished his pencils, but he did the best he could with the material he was given.

I’ve cobbled this article together using the few interviews with Don Heck that I could source along with some quotes that he left behind.  The material is from the early 1980s, when Heck was working at DC on titles such as Wonder Woman, which will explain the DC vs Marvel references.  As you’ll see, Heck was a very diplomatic man and believed in giving credit where it was due.  Even when he didn’t like something, or someone, he was very hesitant about going too deeply into the issue in public, preferring to allow the reader to read between the lines.  Don Heck might not have been a Jack Kirby, but I’ll argue until I drop with anyone who wishes to claim that he was the worst there was, and I’m more than happy to drag out some old Dell comics to prove the point.  When Heck was switched on, and he was switched on most of the time, he was good a storyteller as anyone you wish to name and, in some cases, better.


I started work at Harvey Publications, doing paste-up, white-out, finishing off reprint work and stuff.  That was 1949. About December 1949 is when I first started. I always wanted to be a cartoonist, only because one of my favorites was Milt Caniff. Obviously.   Dick Tracy, Terry And The Pirates, that one that Alfred Andrlola did, Kerry Drake...  Harvey had had romance; they had Black Cat, done by Lee Elias. They also had Joe Palooka, Little Max and they put out Boy’s Ranch by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.  That was a beaut. I wish I’d grabbed a bunch. I was right there in the office.  But that’s life. If you could only go back. 

One of the guys who was there was in circulation or something like that and he was leaving.  About that time another friend of mine was leaving, too, and I thought I was going to get all the garbage stuff to do, so I decided I'd better go out and try to free-lance. I made some samples up, but Harvey weren’t interested in my work, which was normal, I was only a beginner. Then I decided I’d call up three different outfits in one day. I decided to go out and try to see if I could sell anything. You could just pick up your phone and take a shot. And so, the first day I walked out I got two jobs. I didn’t even go to the third guy.   Talk about luck. One job was for Quality and the other, I think was for Hillman.   It was just mystery stuff or weird stuff. No major comic or anything. 

Then I did a couple of those, and then this fellow who worked in circulation at Harvey called me up because he was going to start a publishing outfit. And so, I got by for the first two years free-lancing. I had somebody who wanted me to start working for him. I got very lucky. I did work for War Fury and Weird Terror, horror and stuff like that. Danger Comics was about these different men who did all sort of things, like working in steel mills and all sorts of things like that.  And then we finally wound up with a main character, I think his name was Johnny Danger, if I'm not mistaken, who was like a private investigator, or something like that. I did a series of those stories.  That was for Media Comics. It was a small outfit. It lasted about two years. In fact, I met Ross Andru there, when Ross was tied up with Mike Esposito, and their combination publishing name was Mike/Ross.  They did a couple of jobs. In fact, they did a western book they had put together. It could have been Death Valley. I think Ross did the cover on Death Valley.  When I worked for was Comic Media Ross Andru and Mike Esposito and I think Mike Roy worked for them.  In fact, it was around the corner from where the place was and I had gone up to drop something off or something like that.  And it's the first time I had seen Ross Andru's pencils and to me, that was great because then I looked at this stuff and said, “Holy shit.  Look how good that is.”  You go home and you don't feel bad.  You want to improve and I went home, all inspired to draw.

Everything took a nosedive back in about 1954. 1952 is when I started free-lancing, I think it was about March, and it lasted until about 1954, which is when a lot of companies went downhill and took the slide.  The Kefauver Committee were jumping all over EC, and everything else like that, and a lot of companies went under because they weren't selling. They just happened to jump on them at the perfect time, when they were going downhill anyway.  That was about June 1954. I went to work for Toby Press for a couple of jobs. I did a Captain Gallant, and a couple of westerns. I liked to do westerns, and weird, and war, and all the stuff like that.  I got a couple of jobs from Toby, and then my friend from Harvey, Pete Morisi, had gone up to Stan Lee, and was looking for some work.  Stan Lee was always pointing to other peoples' work as examples. The particular book that he gave Pete had some of my stuff in the front, and he was pointing to that all the time and saying, "This is what you should be doing." So Pete said, "Listen, if you want Don Heck, I'll have him come up here."  He called me up, and I took a run up there to see if I could get some work, and that's when I started to work for Marvel, which at the time was Magazine Management. It was September 1, 1954. 

I remember The Red Pirate was one of those that had the whale crushing into one of those whaling boats, the ones they throw the harpoons from.   And there were westerns, and that December was the first time I did a Navy Combat.  I did a character in there called Torpedo Taylor, who was, obviously, a submarine type.  For a long time I did westerns and Navy stuff. I also did some jungle stuff, about a character named Cliff Mason. I was working exclusively for Marvel straight through until May 1957. I remember going into the city, and I sent my wife up to the office at the time and said, "Just pick up another job," and she came down and said, "There is none." This was a surprise. So I got lucky again. I'm halfway out on Long Island, NY, and this fellow around the corner who I used to do some little sketches for used to say he could use my work. I went over there and said, "You're always asking me if I have some time," I said. "Now I got all the time in the world." So I did model airplane drafting for about a year over at his house for two years, almost. In 1958, I was doing a combination of both types of work. That's when Stan Lee decided to get back into the comics, so when Joe Maneely died, Stan called in a few people, and one of those he called was me. The first thing I did for him was a five-page space story. I don't know what the name of it is.  That was July 1958.  I did the first Tales Of Suspense cover, No. 1, in July, and four pages in Journey Into Mystery in August. I was doing a couple of jobs a month or something like that, because I was still working at the other job at the same time. And after I had been off the comics (even though I was still drawing) for a whole year and then getting back.  That first story, it was a rough one.  

That was a lot of stuff that Stan Lee put into magazines about the Bullpen, but the artists were all over the Island. Even today, I could go into the office two times this week, and somebody else could go in two other times...you just don't cross paths. Or I might come in late in the afternoon, and that somebody else will have been there early in the morning.  The only reason I met Jack Kirby is because a couple of times I went over to his house in about 1963. There was some paper he was using that I happened to like, and there was a place right close near to him that was selling it. So I went in there.   I met him once or twice up at the office but not that often. Very infrequently. I met him first, originally, at Harvey, when he was doing Boy's Ranch No. 1. I was working in there and as I was leaving, Jack and Joe Simon came in. They had come in just as the regular office was closing, and they were going to work and finish something there and one of them was going to use my desk. That's the first time I met Jack Kirby. I had seen his work, obviously. 

I was one who would look at everybody. There was, of course, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond. I also liked Raeburn Van Buren of Abbie And Slats; he was great for girls and stuff. And when I started to free-lance more, I spotted that guy Al Toth, who was (chuckle) fantastic for layout and design. He influenced me too. You're going to be influenced by looking at things, and I mean you can't make something out of nothing. You can't just stick somebody in a closet and expect them to suddenly develop, regardless of what anybody thinks.  Bad enough when I started free-lancing. I'd just looked at the Harvey stuff: they had Lee Elias, and a few other good ones up there. But then I go out and I see all of these Jack Davis jobs and all of that other EC stuff, and I said, "My God! These are the guys I got to go up against?" It gets a little scary. Then I figured, well, there's got to be room at the bottom somewhere. 

I'd been so used to working from scripts, but when I returned to Marvel Stan said, "I'm going to give you a synopsis."  Jack Kirby was used to something like that because he was also a writer.  Some people might not have liked the stuff he did later, but he did some terrific stuff with all of his different characters, like back when he was doing Fighting American and all the rest of his early stuff so it was easy for him. For me it was suddenly that someone says, "You're going to do it!" I said, "I'll try it, but it's your gamble, not mine. I'm going to get paid for this." Then we started to work out the system.  After a while Stan Lee used to give you the first three pages, tell you who the character was fighting, and give you the last couple of pages so you'd know how it ended. And in between you'd put about fifteen page of stuff.  And at the time, I thought, "Oh, my God! This'll never work!" But then I'd sit down and start to figure different things that these types of characters could do. Then when I went back to working from a script, years and years later, sometimes I felt like I was a little closed in. I got used to the synopsis and I'll tell you why: because you're not hindered by the amount of copy that's there, you’re not suddenly stuck with a six-panel or seven-panel page. You can suddenly throw a big panel in there or a couple of small ones across the bottom, and then catch up with the story later on, or expand it out. You don't feel, "I must put six panels on here and I've got to have so many balloons." It's a freer way of working.  I'm at DC now and they work differently. Somebody like Marv Wolfman or somebody like that would probably rather work with the synopsis.  I did a couple of stories with Gerry Conway where he sent synopsis in and I worked from them. You can see the difference. 

There is openness about some of those pages that wouldn't be in something I drew from a script. You can have big panels, and since the copy gets put down later, it's no big problem.  It can go either way. It depends on whether he's used to doing it that way, but it allows him to have something in front of him when he's suddenly starting to put balloons in. Sometimes it probably is a hindrance, when he looks at the page and says, "My God! What am I going to do with this? But when we draw it, we're also writing on the side of the page what's actually happening, so it's not as though the writer suddenly looks at four wordless panels and wonders what the hell's going on. It shouldn't be that way, anyway, as long as he remembers what he wrote. 

I'm sure Jack was doing stuff from synopsis a lot earlier than that because they were used to that. In fact, Joe Sinnott used to pencil and ink at that time and I don't think he liked the idea of the synopsis.  I wasn't exactly thrilled, myself. Somebody says, "Guess what you're doing tomorrow?" and if you've never done it, it can scare the hell out of you.  There has to be a certain part of a story where you sum up in the end, a good visual beginning, and there has to be some action in between, otherwise, if there's too much talk, it may look good on television because they can bang one panel after another or one picture after another, but it won't work in comics. There has to be some action. Nothing is, to me, worse than where the guys are inside one little room talking to one another for four pages.   Sometimes the writer will put something down, and he visualizes it in four panels, but technically you have to put it in one. There's got to be a good visual flow, and exciting stuff to draw.

I used to like Iron Man in the beginning, because of the characterization I could get into. Like when I had Happy Hogan, and Pepper Potts.   When I was doing Pepper, I was thinking of Schultzie, who was the secretary on the Bob Cummings Show.  In other words, she was the girl who never quite got the date with the boss; he's always watching all those good-looking girls. But they were characters, in a certain sense of the word. Happy Hogan was an ex-fighter. I think they were fun to do. They had personalities you couldn't miss.   I did the first Iron Man story.  They have it listed that Jack Kirby did the breakdowns, but that's not true. I did it all. They just didn't bother to call me up and find out when they wrote up the credits. It doesn't really matter. Jack Kirby created the costume, and he did the cover for the issue. In fact the second costume, the red and yellow one, was designed by Steve Ditko. I found it easier than drawing that bulky old thing. The earlier design, the robot- looking one, was more Kirbyish.  I didn't go into the office much at the time, and they were better at it, anyway, better at designing things like that. I did the character bits, the scenes with Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan, and Tony Stark, and all the other things like that. I did all that kind of stuff, and I did the origin story. But what happens with something like that is that the cover is due, like a month before, so Jack makes up a cover for Iron Man, and the character's design is right there on it. Then Stan calls me up and says, "You're doing a character called Iron Man."  That's about it. Well, Jack Kirby is the one who created most of those characters.  He's the one who was always in there, and he's the one who was developing all those characters. Stan and he would get together, and they'd start discussing it together.  I try not to brush the truth into the corner. It's what it is.   

The Avengers were all right. They were pretty good. The only problem is that when you have too many characters running around, you can only really devote one or two pages to each of them. It wasn't so bad in the beginning, because there were only a few characters and they'd work as a team. As the time went by, they suddenly started putting all these other characters in there. They're all too big as far as I'm concerned. They get too many guys in there, and then they decide to fight 85 other guys. How much can you put in?  I started with issue #9. Jack Kirby originated it and did the first eight issues. I got a call again, "Hello, Don, you're going to be doing AVENGERS." I didn't know anything about them.  I had done Thor, and I had done almost every kind of character, in fact, even today, I do get to thinking they figure, "Well, Don can always do this guy or that guy or the other one," regardless of who it is.  

With the Avengers, the whole purpose of having those guys together in the first place was to see what they'd do together, and if you put too many of them in there, then you'll never even get a chance to see them do anything with each other; there isn't the room . Every character gets half a panel every issue. I also did Ant-Man, and Giant-Man, which he became later. I had some fun with that.  That's easier for me. I'm not that fast, so I don't suddenly have to put in seven-teen different characters. It gets to be a little hassling for time, sometimes.  I still get associated with group books.  There was a Justice League fill-in to be done only because of the fact that Dick Dillin had passed away, and it was getting behind, so they pulled me off what I was doing and threw me on that. I wasn't exactly thrilled, but what are you going to do? That's what had to be done to get the book in on time.   Sometimes they get to be a little too much. It's sort of like when I was doing Iron Man and Happy Hogan, when I was doing him originally, he'd look banged up, and he'd look like a character, then Stan wanted him to be handsomer, and he wanted Pepper to be handsomer, and, I don't know, that takes a lot out of it, as far as I think, anyway. I'd much rather have a character and if you pretty him up too much, you're taking the initial feeling out of it.  If the girl was suddenly as pretty as Pepper was, she could get anybody anyway, so what becomes of her whole reason for being in the strip? But somebody who wasn't and suddenly gets a date with the boss or something, it becomes something terrific.  

I've got a couple of books, like Journey Into Mystery #83, and it's a book that I would normally just toss out. Then I read in Overstreet's that it's worth $80-$100! I can't believe it, you know.  It’s the first time that Thor was introduced. The magazine, as far as I'm concerned, is not that good, but it's worth $80 because it's Thor's introduction.  Jack Kirby created Thor, and he was great. Thor was always a good character. And I can't remember the other ones.  Captain America, well, Cap was always a good character. He could do almost anything, and yet I liked the fact that he could get hurt. It limits the interest as far as I'm concerned if a guy can't get hurt at all. You know nothing's going to happen to the man. That's why Iron Man in the beginning was good, because of the fact that his battery could drain down, and the guy could be in the middle of something, and have to get the hell out of there.  The Scarlet Witch was good. I enjoyed her. Pretty soon I got to be drawing pretty girls all the time. I couldn't draw girls at all in the beginning, which was my worst feature, and me a fan of Caniff's! I decided I'd better start learning. I used to love The Dragon Lady and Burma. 

I like an interesting story, really. I don't read comics myself. I just look at the characters drawn by somebody. That's all. The stuff comes in, I do it, and I send it out again.  I never liked drawing buildings or cars or everyday stuff.  I used to like the space opera stuff. "Arrogo from Outer Space" never really turned me on, because it always seemed to me they were patterned after those Japanese movies where, "Here comes the tidal wave, and it knocks out the whole city." And then you've got to draw the city crumbling and stuff like that. And then "Here comes the Army." Which is terrific, I mean, but if they'd only pay us by the number of figures that we put in, it would be better. It doesn't work that way, though. You're paid on a page rate.  I always enjoyed westerns. I enjoyed the war stuff, only because of the fact that I like to draw characters that are rougher, where you can put in all kinds of lines and everything.  I have a rougher style anyway, as most people have complained about (laughter), because I don't have it as slick. But I think that that's one of the things that was good about Marvel in the 1960s: it was like EC years ago. You looked at one of EC's books, and although there were different people working there, you could spot who did that book right away. And Marvel came along, and they were doing the same thing: you had Jack Kirby, and you had Ditko, me, and a few others like that and we all had different styles, and there was no question on who was doing it. DC at the time had, I think, too many artists who looked the same.  Jack Kirby used to say, back at Marvel in 1963, that we all were different.  It's much better to have totally different styles. Years ago, everyone at DC had so close a style that you couldn't tell who did the drawings.  That was mostly deliberate, you know. I think that comes up with the editorial end. They say, "We want you to draw like this, we want you to draw like that," and I was told at Marvel in the late 1960s, "Why don't you draw more like this?" And I said, "This is the way I draw."  This was about the time that Steranko got there. He was getting all those letters. I don't know how well his books were selling, because I didn't even know that about my own, but I know that his stuff was getting a lot of attention.

You know what DC were afraid of? That all of a sudden you would be going, someone was going to steal you. All they ever had to do was to pick up their phone, offer you more money, and you were gone! Let's face it; it happens everywhere, in all professions. What are you going to stay there for? A gold star? A pat on the back?  These days, it's actually better to work for Marvel, because of a thing that DC first instituted, and that's the royalty basis. Now Marvel is selling so much better that all these guys are getting royalties—a percentage of the sales. Not many at DC are getting it, though. Teen Titans Is, for example. You have to be selling over 100,000 issues. Then they start making money like it was going out of style!  When I moved over, that was a time when people were going under different names. People who were working for DC were also working for Marvel under pseudonyms. I never changed my name! I stayed with Marvel all that time. Sometimes inkers would work under different names for each company, but it was baloney, everybody knew they were doing it anyway!
I usually rough-pencil a page and put it on a light-box. Sometimes I just make thumbnail sketches, and sometimes I just draw it straight out.  It varies depending on how I feel, really, is what it amounts to. Sometimes I found myself drawing too much on the underneath board, and not enough on the top one, whereas I get that nice juicy looseness underneath, and then I start stiffening up on the outside and I don't go for it. So then I say, "Well, now I'll just draw it out straight." And I use a blue pencil. I think it's the Venus Color-Erase. I use it because it's easily erasable—it has no grease to it. In fact, they have two of them, a light blue and a dark blue, and sometimes I use them both. I rough in very lightly with the light blue and then I put the dark blue over it. Then I pencil over that.  That you have an idea exactly where' everything in the panel is going to go, and what it'll look like printed. You could visualize through the thumbnail, and it could be just a bunch of lines to somebody else, but to you it's a pattern of blacks and shapes.  You're not just looking at words, which can be crazy, especially in one of the FLASH stories where The Flash is changing into his costume in the middle of Times Square as horses are reeling in the background, and a guy is piping a flute, sitting on a statue. That's one panel. If you don't put all that somewhere first, so you start to separate what's going on there—and how you can take what the writer has put down, and sort of simplify it so it's drawable, you'll go crazy. So that's what I do that for. A lot of people do that, they do it even in illustration.  And as far as technique goes, it also depends. I might run a stint of six months of doing roughs underneath, and then decide, "Well, I got to get a change away from that and do something different."  I've got a lot of strips and stuff. I don't have much on Terry, I wish to heck I had. I could kick myself for that. I have Steve Canyon. Luckily, I got into the habit early on of clipping out the stuff I liked.   I used to get some stuff back when Marvel was doing things; I think it was later in the 1960s.  When I get it back, I can look at it, and if I see something I don't like, I can just change it.  In other words, I won't have put that much in at certain points. Certain things I will tighten up and other things I will leave looser--especially backgrounds. If I'm drawing trees, for instance, I'll just sketch in the shapes. Most of the detail is added in the inking. I ink mostly with a pen in fact. I use a brush for the juicy blacks that are put on, like the wrinkles and stuff like that. That's all brush. I use different types of pen points. I don't necessarily always use any certain one. I have an Estabrook one that I picked up years ago--in fact, I probably wouldn't be able to replace it--but I got a couple of gross at the time. And it's one (with which) you can put down a real fine line, and you can also dig into it at the same time. It's a fairly big point. It was called a Professional A-1, and I wish I had bought about four or five more boxes, because they were selling it at Sam Flack's in the city for two dollars a gross (laughter). This was about seven, eight years ego.   I wish I had bought about five to ten more boxes. I didn't need pens then, I wasn't inking. I was just buying something and speculatively at that. 

Sometimes you're successful and sometimes you're not. It depends on what you're doing.  I think I had more fun in those days, and that's one of the reasons. Well, the artwork is different, obviously. In a lot of cases the newer fellows throw a lot more panels in. Somebody like...back in the 1950s there was a fellow named Krigstein who worked for EC, and he would panel it bangbangbang, but they would be a sequence job. These days there  seem to be a lot of tricky shots--and I guess they're great...if they're selling, I guess that's what the readers want—but I'm more the older style, I guess. Like today they put "multiple-image shot this," "multiple-image shot that." I would rather see multiple panel shots—one after another—where you're getting a real sequence happening, so that you would be able, as you're looking at it, to see that action happening, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5--each in a separate panel. In fact, I got a book here, it's got a job by Kubert in it, doing exactly the same as what I was talking about, five shots in a row—and very small copy in there--and it's a sequence shot, but without trying to throw it all into the one panel and then having a lot of copy. But all artists want the least amount of copy possible.  If there's too much copy, you have no room for drawing the picture--and it's a visual medium as far as I'm concerned.  I think that if it's a good script, and I think that if the guy gives you enough room to draw the pictures, and you're interested in it, so it seems like it's going to be fun to do--you draw better. There are certain things you can do if it's a dull page or something like that. You can try to take one panel or something, and pop it up. Sometimes it works, and other times it doesn't, but if the script has something to it where you can get into it--a little meat to it--then it works better. And that would be normal, I would imagine.  I'm sure that it can't be half as disappointing nowadays for the guys that are doing that as it was for us. We never got a percentage of the sales. I wish they'd done this royalty thing years ago, so I did get a percentage. But years ago DC was selling twice the number that Marvel was. Now it's turned around.  If the book wasn't selling as well, I never knew if mine were considered that good at the time--but that may be because of monetary reasons. In other words, they didn't want to tell you that your books were selling, because you'd be liable to ask for more money.   All I was interested in is getting jobs I could turn out really well.  You just figure--after having gone through 1957 where everything took a nosedive--you were happy that you were working regular. That's about what it amounted to. I mean, I wasn't sure that the next time I walked in somebody wasn't going to say, "By the way, we just closed up shop."  Especially being that you were now dealing with three or four outfits, rather than twenty. It can get you a little more nervous. Like today, you've got DC and you've got Marvel. You may have a few others on the stands, but they're not that big anymore.  

I left Marvel in 1977 for a change of pace.  I kept getting all the new inkers. Everyone who walked In, I got them. A bad inker can kill artwork. I once got some pages back from inking, and I just tore them up, that's how bad they were.  When I came over to DC, the first comic I did was Wonder Woman. I got pulled off it because they didn't like what I was doing! Someone else was inking it - Vince Colletta. He was art director at that time, so what could I say to him? But I didn't like it. He was very fast, could just bang it out, and he had someone doing backgrounds. He did a good job over Kirby, but I guess it depends who they're inking over. 
I’ve always wanted to ink.  I'm forever asking to ink.  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 draw better if you do the whole drawing.  Recently I did a job, "Dial 'H' for Hero," and they had a new inker on me, but there were a couple pages that I wanted to ink so bad that I was sorry to see them shipped off to an inker. But then when I saw what he did with it, I was not unhappy at all. He did a real good job!  Back in the 1950s, there were ‘pencillers’ and ‘inkers’, but it was predominantly that there were artists. There were a lot of people back in the 1950s about whom you could say, "Who could they have gotten to ink this guy?" and you can't think of anybody. You could sit back, for instance, and say, "Who would you get to ink Jack Davis?" Well, you wouldn't get anybody but Jack Davis to ink Jack Davis. Or Joe Kubert for Joe Kubert. Who else are you going to get to ink Joe Kubert?  Isn't that a change we've seen in the industry, breaking it down into more of a production line? Of course, back in the 1950s, you were doing smaller stories, five pages, and the like.  Those days, up at Marvel, Stan used to say that if he could get two or three pencilled books out of you instead of one, pencilled and inked, he'd rather do that because he could always get an inker to ink your pencils. You have to understand, I'm sure their point of view is if the job doesn't quite turn out exactly as high as they want it, as long as it's sort of in between and it sells, then they're happy.   

By the same token as I say, at that point, then you start to get to the point where they all look alike--and that's no good either, I don't think because who cares which book you pick up? They all look like they came out of the same flowerpot.  It had to happen, because an inker is going to do whatever amount of pages he can do, and he's going to start inking over three or four pencillers, and it's going to start looking very much the same. Because the inker has a certain style, and he's going to take your stuff, and make it look more like his. And then, instead of your having, like, say, myself doing a complete job, and then this inker pencilling and inking another job, and having two different styles, we have one style, and two people doing it. 

That's why I say I'd be more inclined to have war stuff or things like that. I think it suits my inking more.  It's scratchier than, say, some of the new, slicker, styles. Because, like I say, I like Caniff. I was also a big fan of Charles Dana Gibson who used a pen type line. And I just loved that kind of stuff.  Unfortunately I'm in the wrong era, I guess. When I say scratchy, I only mean sometimes. It depends. I like to use a lot of bold blacks if I can.  I was told by an editor, "Kubert has the same problem," and I said, "Well, if you put me in with Kubert, I've got no complaint. Thanks for the kind words. If you don't like his stuff, then I'm not too worried about the fact that you don't think highly of mine."  He's a fantastic artist. He's got such a solid drawing style.  It's three-dimensional, but on the other hand, there's very little stiffness in it. And he can draw anything, especially those characters from back in One Million B.C., the mammals and dinosaurs. Fantastic. 

I remember I did a couple of jobs for John Romita one time, when he was doing those romance books for DC at a time when I was at Marvel-- there was no conflict of interest at the time--and I did some roughs, and he tightened them up and inked them. He must have been behind or something. Anyway, you couldn't tell that that work wasn't all his.   I thought I was sub-merged. John Romita submerges everybody, because he has that complete kind of a style. That's okay. As long as the guy inking over you is a really good artist himself, there's no complaint from me. When I was doing The Avengers, I had several really good people inking my work. I had Romita, I had Wally Wood. Then around issue 30 or something, I got Frank Giacoia, who is a fantastic inker. He knows anatomy so well, that if you don't have yours up to par, he just slaps it in automatically. That's why some people say, “He’s slower, but he's putting more into it”. You can't just whip this stuff out all the time. If you're going to make it look good, you've got to put some time into it.


Faff said…
fantastic article. I followed Heck through Iron Man and Avengers right up to Wonder Woman. He was always one of my favourite artists, along with Bob Lubbers and Frank Springer and I enjoyed any book he worked on. Didn't know about the Groth/Ellison thing but it proves beyond a doubt that Heck was a true gentleman. I can imagine Ellison or Groth's response to being called a hack.
Don Heck was tremendously underrated. A few years ago i bought an "essential IRON MAN" collection with Don's work where he inked his own pencils...there was some really beautiful pen work in there...
Anonymous said…
The Ellison interview pointed out in an editors note that the artist Ellison was trying to recall was not Heck, but rather Sal Buscema.
Heck was a great talent, and a very intelligent man.

Don Heck: "At Marvel I used to draw characters with their mouths closed. That was the way it was always done in comics. Stan used to complain, "Hey, this guy is talking, and you've got his mouth closed." That was Stan, he probably couldn't find anything bigger to complain about. I mean an editor has to do something. Stan wasn't really a perfectionist, but there was this, 'There's got to be some reason for me being here!' "
Anonymous said…
BTW, Nice quote from Heck in your article.
Don Heck: "Jack Kirby is the one who created most of those characters. He's the one who was always in there, and he's the one who was developing all those characters. Stan and he would get together, and they'd start discussing it together. I try not to brush the truth into the corner. It's what it is."
Edo Bosnar said…
I've read the parts of that Ellison interview in question; the fact that he actually meant Sal Buscema does not actually make it any better - I'm really fond of Sal's work and I think Ellison's (and Groth's) panning was way off base.
Postino said…
I found Harlan Ellison to be an intimidating person. In the early '80s I worked for a bookstore where he was doing a signing. I thought he'd be interested in a book of photos of Japanese toys but even though he'd never before met me he blew me out of the water with, "Why the hell are you showing me that? What would I do with that?"

My thought at the time was that Ellison was not a people person.

Seeing him and listening to him talk at conventions a couple of times reaffirmed to me how mouthy he is. He's got talent but lacks tact, so I'm never surprised when I read how he's dissed someone.
Jerry Fuentes said…
Daniel, Thanks for this wonderful article. So little of Don's thoughts on his career ever made it to print. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for keeping the flame. It seems the bulk of this interview comes from Dave Kraft's COMIC INTERVIEW, a 1980s fanzine. In the intro, Kraft mentioned that Don Heck kept a work diary during his whole career, so that the dates he mentions are quite accurate.
The last Iron Man page seems to be the work of Tuska & Coletta, though...
Jean-Daniel Brèque
Daniel Best said…
Jean-Daniel - actually none of this came from David Kraft's Comics Interview magazine - I've not got that issue. I'll dig out the fanzines that I used for reference over the weekend.

I'm well aware of Don Heck's notebooks as they were recently introduced as evidence during the Jack Kirby/Marvel trial.
Anonymous said…
I owe you an apology. The parts that looked familiar to me (the Pete Morisi anecdote--"You want Don Heck?"--the allusions to Joe Kubert, etc) come from an interview by Richard Howell that was apparently published in COMICS FEATURE in 1982. I say "apparently", because I only have xeroxed pages of the text, and the name of the magazine doesn't appear. Still, said interviewed is quoted extensively in the COMICS JOURNAL obituary (# 175, March 1995), so it must be the one.
BTW, TwoMorrows is going to publish a book about Don Heck, less-than-grandiosely titled THE UTILITY MAN OF COMICS...
Jean-Daniel Brèque
The Seditionist said…
The great tragedy of Heck's career was that super-heroes -- and maybe the "Marvel method" moreso -- was where he was weakest. All his other genre stuff and, as noted, stuff he inked himself were all far better. He got slammed by the death of the other genres. Yes, he was quite good -- just didn't get the opportunity....
Henry R. Kujawa said…
"For years the credit for the first Iron Man story had Heck pencilling from Kirby lay-outs, something which, as Heck states in the following, just wasn’t true. Kirby perpetuated this story, stating more than once that he plotted and laid out the story for Heck to pencil"

I've never seen the story credited that way, nor have I seen Jack Kirby claiming he did it. However, it shold be noted, Jack Kirby did FULL PENCILS opn 3 of the first 5 IRON MAN episodes, so it's possible that led to some confusion. Further, from multiple readings and intense study, I cannot shake the strong feeling that the first 3 episodes were NOT published in the order that they were created. The 3rd episode-- by Kirby & Ayers (often, the "go-to guys" to START a new series at the time) has so much information about the background of Tony Stark, and Iron Man, and features a character who (if you ignore the fact that he NEVER appeared again) appears to be intended as the series' recurring ARCH-ENEMY. Sounds like a "pilot" episode, doesn't it? (I also have the strongest feeling "Dr. Strange" was a re-working of THE YELLOW CLAW, who Kirby worked on in the late 50's. He had a daughter who kept trying to make him give up his dreams of conquest, too.)

There's been reports that IRON MAN was delayed quite a few months before it debuted, as if they were trying to work out the kinks and figure out how they wanted it to go. My belief is that Jack may have pencilled all 3 of his episodes back-to-back, but THEN, Don Heck got brought in to do the ORIGIN, which was published first. If this does happen to be the case (and again, I have no proof one way or the other), then Jack AND Don would both be correct about who did the "1st" story.

"While Kirby did pencil the cover, but there is no evidence, other than Kirby’s own statements (which have been disputed by Lieber, Heck and Stan Lee) to suggest that he had anything to do with the interior of the issue that introduced Iron Man."

Hell, all you have to do is LOOK at it to tell, it's DON HECK's storytelling, NOT Kirby's. Even if jack provided stick-figures (as I suspect he did when he later worked with Bill Everett), the panel brekadowns and the pacing would be Jack's. The ORIGIN story ISN'T-- it's Don's.

"Drawn by Heck alone, the story was scripted by Larry Lieber, from a plot provided by Stan Lee."

There's a topic for lenghty heated dispute if I ever saw one. What exactly constitutes a Stan lee "PLOT"? 2 sentences spoken verbally? The name of that issue's villain? Or Stan passing on something JACK KIRBY said to him during a conversation??? It has been suggested that a LOT of stories where the "plot" was credited to Stan were actually JACK's ideas, and this very much includes the ones Jack had nothing to do with drawing. The same has been said about John Romita's run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, that John Romita, NOT Stan Lee, was plotting the book virtually solo for the entire length of his run, EVEN on those issues when he had nothing to do with the art (John Buscema, Gil Kane, etc.).

"Leiber has always maintained that he provided a full script for Heck to draw from."

Very possible. I'd bet Don Heck WOULD illustrate a full script handed him by Larry Lieber. As opposed to Jack Kirby, would would make paper airplanes out of it, then do what HE wanted instead.
Frank Lovece said…
I'm in complete agreement with you, Dan, about how great an artist Don Heck was during his prime. The draftsmanship of his early Iron Man stories alone are as breathtakingly precise and nuanced as that of Milton Caniff. Heck's early Avengers stories are equally beautiful. If there's a book coming out to give Heck his due, then hopefully he'll be reevaluated, as he well deserve to be.
Frank Lovece said…
(fixed a typo in my comment) I'm in complete agreement with you, Dan, about how great an artist Don Heck was during his prime. The draftsmanship of his early Iron Man stories alone is as breathtakingly precise and nuanced as that of Milton Caniff. Heck's early Avengers stories are equally beautiful. If there's a book coming out to give Heck his due, then hopefully he'll be reevaluated, as he well deserve to be.
John Coates said…
All - I'm working on a book about the career of Don Heck for Twomorrows Publications ( http://www.twomorrows.com/ ) The positive response from fans for original art and professionals for insight and quotes has been overwhelming.

One of the things I’m also doing is pulling quotes from creators that have passed, which leads me to my question:

Do any of you have any obscure fanzines or obscure quotes about Don from fellow creators that you could forward to me? if so, you can email me direct or call.

I’d need the title of the web-site or periodical it appeared, as well as the publisher and month/date it was published. Of course, I'd list you in the "appreciations" as a contributor. I've reviewed most issues of COMICS INTERVIEW, AMAZING HEROES, HEROES ILLUSTRATED, WIZARD, COMICS INTERNATIONAL, COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE, ALTER-EGO, BACK-ISSUE!, and others. BUT, I could have missed something (Probably did. There is no database I can search so I looked through each issue.)

Regarding the book, it will be a retrospective off Don’s career, including portions of past published interviews, an up-to-now unpublished interview, antidotes from fellow creators, tributes from comic industry professionals, art critiques, as well as hundreds of examples of his artwork from the original art.

Finally, as the author my portions of the profits from this book are committed to be donated to the Hero Initiative (http://www.heroinitiative.org/ ), a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization established back 2001 by creators and publishers to financially assist comic creators and provide a safety-net for creators in need.

Thank you for your consideration.

John Coates / 1150 Hidden Ridge Lane / Dunwoody, GA 30338 USA / jdcoates@bellsouth.net / 404-922-1896
keythd23 said…
I'm sorry. I don't mean to rain on everyone's parade but the retconning of Don Heck into a good artist and inker (he was a terrible inker who ruined everyone he touched. Check out Dave Cockrum on Batman.)is more than I can stomach. Quite frankly, Don Heck was a horrible artist. His "Don Hack" title is well deserved. There seems to be a tendency after someone dies to make them more than they were in life; to not speak ill of the dead. But I used to cringe every time he took over a title, especially after following such talents as Kirby and Tuska/Craig. His Batgirl backups in Detective were abysmal, even when inked by Dick Giordano. Just because Kirby wanted him to ink his presentation pieces or that he was at the beginning of the Marvel Age doesn't mean he was talented. There was a dearth of available talent at the beginning of the Marvel Age, Lee,Kirby and Ditko being the exceptions. If I seem over-emotional it's because I am a serious lover of the art of comic books. And I resent all the comics Don Heck ruined for me with his hacked out rush jobs.
Unknown said…
So Don Heck was a hack in your opinion. Try educating yourself on his long and varied career. There is a soon to be released book, Don Heck: A Work of Art. Or a simple search of the internet should bring up examples of his forty years of comics work - adventure, romance, westerns, war, science fiction, fantasy, humour, and superheroes. Don Heck did it all. Come back and comment when you have an informed opinion. That way you won’t sound like some disappointed fanboy who knows nothing about art, but knows what he dislikes. (And this might be over thirty years late, but f**k that asshole Gary Groth)
John Coates said…
Neville, thanks for the kind words about the upcoming book on Don Heck. In fact, though it will ship late Sept I received copies last week and could not be happier!

As mentioned in the books introduction, the goal of this book is first and foremost to celebrate Don’s legacy, as well as introduce (& Reintroduce) his work to a new generation of fans.

I think existing fans will be overjoyed, and others pleasantly surprised.

Finally, portions of any profits are donated to the Heroes Initiative, a great cause worthy of attention, regardless. www.heroinitiative.org

The Hero Initiative as a publicly supported not-for-profit corporation under section 501 (c) (3). Since its inception, The Hero Initiative (Formerly known as A.C.T.O.R., A Commitment To Our Roots) has had the good fortune to grant over $500,000 to over 50 comic book veterans who have paved the way for those in the industry today.

The Hero Initiative is the first-ever federally chartered not-for-profit corporation dedicated strictly to helping comic book creators in need. Hero creates a financial safety net for yesterdays' creators who may need emergency medical aid, financial support for essentials of life, and an avenue back into paying work. It's a chance for all of us to give back something to the people who have given us so much enjoyment.

The book is now available for pre-order at www.twomorrows.com through Diamond Distributers and your local comic shop, and will ship in September 2014.

Thanks! John Coates
B9000 said…
I'm not going to say Don Heck was a "great," but some of his stuff is endearing. And enduring. I came into reading comics with those Avengers reprints in Marvel Triple Action in the early 70's. Cap's kooky quartet (and sextet, once Goliath and the Wasp returned) will always be my favorite Avengers roster, and Don Heck brought them to life.
I always thought there was some Toth influence. Heck's art had a certain flatness to it, like Nick Cardy's, for instance. It's a little typical of a certain strain of commercial art of the period.
I mean, everybody touts Kirby, but Don Heck could certainly drape a suit on a man or a dress on a woman with more elan than Kirby could. Perhaps that seems like faint praise, but I appreciate a lot of his technique to this day.

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