The Interview Series: Herb Trimpe

One of the criteria that I had when it came to choosing people to interview for the now defunct Adelaide Comics and Books site was that I had to actually like their work. I wanted to speak with those were my favourite artists as a youth, in an attempt to recapture some of the magical feelings that I had back then. Some of those feelings would come back as I began to re-read some of the material, other times it was just there, seared into my brain. A lot of Herb Trimpe’s work is seared into my brain, that’s how often I read and re-read it. In his time at Marvel he drew pretty much every single character the company had.

I remember trading a Spider-Man comic, can’t remember the issue, to a pal in primary school for X-Men #100 and Incredible Hulk #103. I don’t have either of those comics anymore; this would have been in 1977. I read them until they fell apart, and rightly so. But two things remained with me – they were some of the best comics I’d seen. Having said that, at that young an age, I’d not seen much other than the usual Ginger Meggs strips, a few Superman and Batman comics and a pile of Little Golden Books. But, hey, we all start somewhere. Me? I started with those two comic books.

Which is why I started with Herb Trimpe, Gene Colan, Jim Mooney, Dick Ayers and Mike Esposito. They were all accessible on the internet, they all responded to me with warmth and kindness and all agreed to speak. And when they spoke, they really opened up. True gentlemen, each and every one of them, and dearly missed by many.

Each of them had horror stories about the industry. They could recount events that happened both to them and to others that they knew. The times that they got ripped off by the companies. Dodgy art dealers who’d go and see them, tell them that they were old and forgotten and then buy their art for ten dollars a kilo. How editors would suggest to artists that drawing in a ‘modern’ style, that to swipe and copy the likes of McFarlane and Liefeld would help them get work and then deny it when the results looked horrid. Or how the artists would simply do it anyway in an attempt to remain ‘relevant’, for the same results. Bad writers, bad editors, bad publishers and bad artists – it all came out and a lot of it has gone unpublished. All would tell me things and make me promise not tell anyone while they were still alive, but then that still happens today. Off the record…but I wanted those artists to know that they meant so much to a lot of people growing up, that they were appreciated and loved and, a lot of the time, just me posting these interviews would result in people contacting them and asking for commissions. Some of them made a nice chunk of change out of the exposure I gave them.

For me, that was all worth it.

Eventually I’ll get all of the interviews back up here, but, all in good time. But let’s look at Herb. I began our conversation by asking him where he started out when it came to art.

Herb Trimpe draws the 1st appearance of Wolverine, Hulk #180
HERB TRIMPE: I went to three years of school of visual arts Manhattan in New York City after high school, after I got out of public school and I did illustration and painting courses and stuff like that and there were some cartooning classes which I finally got into in the last year but they were on the way out at the time. They had us relegated. In fact the school had for years been a cartooning and illustrators school but then the fine arts became popular and that became less and less. By the time I got into those courses they had us relegated to the basement in the building, there were no windows and we were sort of next to the air compressor room for the airbrush for airbrush courses which people don’t do anymore, they have Photoshop and things like that.

DB: That’s a shame.
HT: Yeah  The work that the people used to do and the examples that the instructors had were incredible, it was the most incredible stuff that I’ve ever seen in my life. I haven’t seen anything like it since, computers or otherwise, it was just spectacular work. You know, huge double page ads that were probably produced twice as big as they would appear in a double page magazine, you know when you open it up into a centrefold. It was automobile ads that were just spectacularly done. Anyway, we got through the cartooning classes and then I went to work for the instructor. His name was Tom Gill at the time and I inked backgrounds and did some, maybe I did some pencilling. I think mostly I inked backgrounds for about a year and then I went to the service – the military service – because the draft was on and there was a war starting up in Vietnam and so I was over there for a year in the air force, and came back and I had a friend that was working in the production department at Marvel comics and he said you should bring your samples up. This was in 1966, so I said ok.

So I did and I got a job. Actually I got a job, some freelance inking on the western stuff, but primarily, and after that kind of petered out they offered me a job on staff operating the photo-stat machine and then picking up work if it came along and I said ok (laughs). I was kind of easy, you know. I mean it went fairly simply and so I did that for about six months or so and then the Hulk came up. I did some other things maybe, between then. I was inking, like Kid Colt and Rawhide Kid and stuff like that. Not much pencilling. I did pencil and ink a story called The Phantom Eagle which was an aviation thing.

But the Hulk thing came up. Marie Severin, who’d been doing it, was going off to do something else and he (the Hulk) was also getting a book of his own and I think I started inking some of her work in Tales To Astonish in 1967 I guess it was. I can’t, I’m trying to remember (laughter). So I did that for a little while and then pretty much got offered to pencil the whole book and then it became a complete book. And I did that basically, pretty much for eight years.

DB: You defined the Hulk.
HT: Well some people think that. It’s kind of you to say so. I never thought of it in those terms until people started to…actually in recent years probably in the last five years or so I’ve heard that. I’ve just heard it again. I was at a small convention in Boston. It just so happened that I was in the same town as the weekend when the convention took place, so when the guy called me I said yeah. Because normally I just, I mean the last time I was at a convention was in San Diego last year which is the big one here in the states. And normally I don’t make day trips or anything like that to go to conventions but I was there and you know, I talked to more people and a couple of them pretty much think the same thing. It’s almost a little embarrassing to be called the definitive Hulk artist. Would have been nice if I’d invented the character (laughs).

DB: It’s funny, because although you didn’t create it you took it further. You did more with it than what the creators did.
HT: Frankly I think my Hulk, I mean I like Kirby’s Hulk but he wasn’t on it all that long. But I like my Hulk now in retrospect I like it the best. I mean, considering what some of the others have done on it. All that distorted stuff and the pin head with the huge thighs and all that exaggerated…what they don’t get is that the Hulk as the Hulk is not necessarily, I mean they’ve changed it all, but when we did it the Hulk was not by nature, even in his transformed state a violent individual. I mean he wasn’t in a state of rage, he really just wanted to be left alone primarily. And it’s only when somebody got him pissed off that he went off the deep end, he really couldn’t control those kind of things. But if you were to invite him over to dinner and, you know, hand him a cigar (laughs), or you know, go to a show, the Hulk as himself would have been just fine…until the military or the police came after him, and you know, that’s what got him kind of bent out of shape.

DB: That sounds very much like the old Frankenstein movies of the 30’s.
HT: Yeah, there was a very heavy emphasis on that aspect. I think on the original Hulk the Frankenstein monster image was pretty much in play there, along with some other things. You know, having to do with transformations and dual personalities and regardless of how nice a person might be there’s always that bad side that you can tap into under the right circumstances, that kind of thing was there too, the psychology of it.
So I did it for eight years and then I voluntarily got off it because I was getting tired of it and did some other odd things for a while.

DB: When people think of your time at Marvel they think of the Hulk but you did a beautiful run on the Defenders.
HT: Defenders, yes!

DB: And in that time you got a chance to draw virtually the entire Marvel Universe.
HT: I liked it! It’s not bad! I was doing that book, Godzilla and Shogun Warriors all at the same time. I was doing like three full books for a period of one or two years and actually Godzilla and Shogun from that period I like more than I did when I was doing it in retrospect. Because sometimes, and I don’t read the comics, I hardly ever did, but when I do the story telling is pretty poor in some cases. I think the Marvel stuff is getting a bit better now, at least that’s what my son tells me (laughter). But I’m pretty much outside the loop as to what’s going on right now and I don’t mind keeping it that way. Like I say, I do some commission stuff and some drawings for people but it’s not a whole lot of fun, I do it just to break up the monotony basically.

DB: Now when you say that you’re not fond of the comics anymore , you have no interest, without wanting to touch on a bad thing, did part of that come out of the way Marvel treated you towards the end?
HT: Not really. I was kind of sick of it about ten years before I left. Like the first ten years were like dying and going to heaven, the next ten years was when the corporate people moved in and that took hold and it became this very competitive entity between the creative people. So everybody was trying to one-up man ship the other. And then in the last sector, the third of it, I think the egos were just…it just was no fun. I mean it just wasn’t fun talking to the people. I didn’t really care about the kinds of work that I was doing or the projects that I was working on. It was a different breed of individuals. They’re all basically ok people but the attitude in terms of the value of…I mean to my own personal detriment probably and maybe some of the other guys that worked in the business first, and I have a really good story about John Buscema, there was a lot of that generation when I first started working there and they were all, I was coming in in the middle, the deadlines were tight, you did the work, you got paid, it went out and that was the end of it. There was no, I mean when Neal Adams came along he was very good in that respect, we had a comic book guild called the academy of comic book arts for a number of years, and he negotiated with the publishers and basically got the comic book creator returned artwork. Not royalties so much because they didn’t wanna, that would acknowledge the artist had something, a part in the creation of the material, but we did get inventive money based on sales which made the publishers kind of take notice and made them aware that there were creators out there that was interested in the artwork and what happened to it. 

I was re-educated in that sense because my sense was the work was being done, you got paid for it and who cared if you ever saw it again. And I was pretty much that way during my entire career in comics. But people like yourself and people I meet at conventions actually make me appreciate the work more. They make me go back and look at it and think that hey, maybe some of this stuff wasn’t so bad after all.

DB: It was all good.
HT: I’m glad to hear that because it may, people have thanked me for doing the work and I was just really doing it to the get the cheque but on the other hand I have to thank them in return because their appreciation kind of rubbed off on me and I actually learned to respect the work a bit more. I didn’t really have a whole lot of respect for it and neither did a lot of people. One story, I was talking to John Romita not too long ago and he was saying that he had a whole stack of Buscema stuff on his file cabinet. I dunno, it just, he just wound up with it, maybe he inked some of it, I don’t know, and they were using it for a joint project, for reference, I don’t know what. But he called John Buscema and he said “John, I’ve got all this work. I got a six inch stack of your pages on my cabinet and I’ve had them for years. I think you oughta have them.” And he said “Nahhhhh I don’t wanna bothered, you can have ‘em, I don’t have the room. I don’t have the room so keep ‘em, keep ‘em.”. 

You know, that’s basically the attitude I kind of grew up with in the business. A lot of the guys that worked in the business were, they were originally commercial artists. They weren’t comic fans, they didn’t grow up as comic fans, they were commercial artists that were doing comics as an income source, because a lot of times it was very competitive in New York for magazine illustration and so on and a lot of people used to go and take comic work. It didn’t pay as well but it was steady. So those are the kinds of guys I became connected with in the beginning and I kind of learned that. 

I always thought that as a professional attitude because the accent was on deadlines and proficiency and skill and turning the work out. I know when I was working for Marvel in the early days there was only one reason…somebody got fired once and the reason was because they missed a shipping date or they missed maybe more than one shipping date. And when you missed a shipping date, the printers were unionised as opposed to us and they expected to get paid no matter what and it would cost the company a lot of money if a book was late and went to the printer late. Now there’s just no regard, you know books are late. When I left in the mid to late 90’s a lot of the editors were in chaos, there was stuff late all the time, no-body had any regard for getting work in on time. I don’t say nobody, but a lot of people did. In other words the attitudes had changed quite a bit. It had become this kind of star mentality. You know like everybody thought they were in show business because comics were getting a lot of PR. But I could never quite fully deal with that. I thought it got in the way of getting the work done. 

DB: It’s odd really. I see the interviews that a lot of the artists of that time did, and one of the people that followed you on the Hulk (and we won’t name names) that went on to ‘create’ his own book would put out one issue per year. I look at some of them and think “You’re not the start of the book – the star of the book is the character – it was there before you came along and it’ll be there long after you’re gone.”
HT: Exactly right. I mean the Hulk was one of the top five sellers when I was doing it. And it would have remained one of the top five sellers weather I was doing it or not. And if we’d had the kind of return, the incentive or royalty money that we were getting in the latter days during the eight years that I was doing the Hulk I probably wouldn’t be talking to you on the phone, I’d probably be down at the Bahamas somewhere in a beach house (laughter) all year round, I don’t know. Because the sales on the Hulk ran like 200,000 up to 250,000 a month. And Spider-Man was in excess of 500,000. And this was back in the 60’s and early 70’s. During the time I did it 200,000 was not unusual for a top selling book, whereas the Fantastic Four Unlimited, when I finished off on that, when I picked that up actually it was running about 30,000 and that’s what it remained during the time I was doing it and it was breaking even. 

The other thing they didn’t do is, when I first started, is as far as I could observe they didn’t allow books to continue if they weren’t selling. In other words they didn’t float a book on the basis of profits gotten on the other books. If a book didn’t sell, if it went through one period of low sales you might get away with it, if it came to the second period the book was immediately dropped. And that was one great thing about the creative process. It was a trial and error thing. If a title didn’t work there would be a creative process continually going on to fill the gaps of the books that were dropped out where the ideas that didn’t work so well, or titles that they cut back on. There was always a chance to create new stuff. I think that was good for the creative people, I think it was good for the readers too.

DB: I don’t know, sometimes some of my favourite books got cancelled (laughs)
HT: Yes, yes that’s true and that’s the reason. That’s exactly the reason because they just didn’t float. But I thought there was a tendency in the latter days to float books that really weren’t doing well based on sales because the other books were doing well so they kind of supported them with those sales.

DB: Did you think some of the artists now are so late because they get a check on one book and decide that they don’t have to work anymore for a year, so where’s my incentive to draw?
HT: I think that you’re probably, I don’t know if that might be a particular reason, but I think that definitely reflects the attitudes on a lot of the books. People getting pissed off and people stalking out, it’s just a totally different…maybe now after the bankruptcy and…I don’t know. I’ll tell you truth I think that DC never quite had those problems. They kind of weathered the comic book storm and continue to do so and I think they’ve always had maybe not as interesting or as an exciting a history, but I always had the feeling that they were more business oriented. They were more professionally oriented in terms of the work that they produced.

DB: But they also had that stability in management, it seems that back in the 70’s every second there was someone new as EIC at Marvel, whereas at DC you pretty much had the same people in charge all along the way.
HT: Yeah, that’s right. Maybe that might be one of the reasons that they succeeded. I know that most of the people at Marvel, there were many people at Marvel, even at the beginning in the times that I was there, that came over from DC because they were just totally pissed off or annoyed by the working environment over there and some of the people they had to deal with. I don’t know, I never had that experience. I knew some people over there and I knew people that worked there regularly. But some people really couldn’t deal with it.

DB: Were you ever approached to work at DC? Would you ever have done it?
HT: Actually I went there before I went to Marvel and Julie Schwartz or somebody looked at my work and said it just really wasn’t the DC style. He liked the inking, a nice hard inking line, and he put me on call or something, if something came up with the inking. 

I had a very cartoony style. I drew a lot like Jack Davis, he was my favourite artist and Stan knocked that the hell out of you right away. That was, forget about it, you know. So I tried to draw in the dynamic style that Jack Kirby did – not that Stan would say ‘draw like Jack Kirby’ but as far as his storytelling that was the kind of work that was thrust under your nose to keep in mind while you were working on a story was that whole dynamic style which really defined the Marvel look in many ways. But any style that I might have actually developed probably never happened (laughs) even to this day, because of the influences that we were either covertly or overtly asked to, or were suggested that we follow.

DB: This might be the fan coming out, and you might say no you’re wrong, but I can’t think of anything better than it would have been to have walked into the Marvel Bullpen of the 1960’s, just to see the likes of you, Kirby, Ditko, Buscema, Colan, Romita and co just sitting around and working.
HT: Well the way it worked was this. First of all you’re right. When I first started to work at Marvel and went into the office it was like dying and going to Heaven. I couldn’t wait to get there every day. It was probably the best job that anybody could ever have, it was super. Now as far as those other artists go that you mentioned, they worked at home and we would see them on occasion, but not very often. Especially Jack. I think Jack, in the whole time that, well I was in the office for about two years and I think I saw him twice the whole time. Maybe three times. 

One time he had to come in and redraw a cover, I think it was a Thor cover because Stan had some changes. So he said “Oh, I’ll do them right here.” And he sat down at one of the desks and worked stopped and everybody kind of gathered around and watched him while he smoked his cigar and then finished this cover in about an hour. And then when he left Marvel and went to DC Marie Severin saved one of his cigars butts and made a little plaque that she put up on the wall with the cigar stuck to it – Jack Kirby’s Cigar Butt. 

But the guys that worked in the office in the Bullpen, I was there, Tony Morellero was there on production, John Romita, we were pretty much in the same room along with Marie Severin. There was about four of us in one area. On the other side of the hall behind a divider there was Maury Koromoto who was in production, there was an extra desk in there that people came in and worked at. We had a receptionist, we had a Photostat operator, which is what I did when I first actually started working there in the office, plus production work. And then Big John was in the front office, Big John Verpoorten and Flo Stienberg and Roy Thomas was in there and Stan had his own desk. There was like a dozen people maybe in the office at the time. It was a very small office, very small number of people but it was fun. We had a really good time, but at that point I was commuting, I didn’t live in the city, I was commuting from upstate away, an hour, hour and fifteen minutes commute by train. So, yes, sometimes it was hard to go home, it was really quite good. And then these guys would come in. 

I think I saw Steve Ditko, I mean Steve Ditko didn’t come in much at all. I met him once. Jack was in a couple of times. (Gene) Colan was in quite a bit. Frank Giacoia was in quite a bit, he would actually come in and work in the office. Who else? Oh, Bill Everett, one of my favourite guys of all time. He would come in. He was a wonderful dude, a lot of fun, good attitude. All these guys, Syd Shores would come in and you know, just a whole bunch of people. And then for a while there while I was working in the office Jerry Siegel – does that name ring a bell?

DB: The co-creator of Superman.
HT: Jerry Siegel, who couldn’t afford a pot to piss in basically because he was getting nothing from the Superman creation, he was hired on at Marvel as a proof reader for a while! He sat in a little desk in an office and was a proof reader at Marvel during the time I was there. 

So don’t think, I mean one of the things, and in all fairness to Marvel’s downsizing and people being let go like myself, it’s never really been otherwise. There’s been people getting shit on, going back to the so called Silver Age, or the Golden Age. I mean you can find stories, terrible stories. I heard Ditko couldn’t get work. Somebody told me that after I was working freelance, this was in the early 90’s or late to middle 80’s, that Ditko would come in looking for work and they said like his shoes were falling apart. So you know what, a lot of people want to look at artwork, look at Marvel or comic artwork, as something really like art. It’s like an art form. I think it is, it’s a cultural art form, but there’s a difference between that and a classic art form and one of the difference is that this business, except for the people that read the comics, but the business itself, for a long time, does not hold its tradition in any kind of respect whatsoever. There’s no respect for the founders. Everything is embodied in a guy like Jack Kirby. Everybody knows he’s the king, everybody knows he’s great. But there’s all these other stories. People who were professional who produced the work who are just not regarded as having any value whatsoever. If you look at some of the other art traditions and you look back over the years, say in painting for instance, these people, the Van Goghs and the Rembrandts and Michelangelo, these people are venerated individuals that are held very powerfully in the history of that medium. 

DB: Hopefully it won’t take 200 years and after everyone is gone before they start looking at some of you guys. (laughter)
HT: Well yeah! Anything would be good. But if it weren’t for the people that run the conventions there would be no recognition whatsoever for some of these people that have worked in the business. 

DB: Even Kirby, he copped his bad run with the artwork return for instance.
HT: Yeah. There’s never been a good time really in that sense. Some people think that some people were treated better, there’s a kind of willingness to want to believe that people were treated better in the 1960’s but it’s really not true. (laughter)

DB: It’s strange, I spoke to Gene Colan the other month and I commented to him about the amount of silver age artwork that he has, and his answer was that all he had to do was go into the office and ask for it.
HT: Yeah! You wanna know what? They used to pile it up in the office and if your stuff was in there you could probably take it. It used to be just piled in stacks because when the pile got too high it would go to the warehouse. So when they officially started to return the artwork they were basically doing it from the warehouse. That’s how come they still had it. Recently, in the last couple of years I’ve gotten work back, something they’ll find somewhere, a page or something that was inked or pencilled or something like that, and I’ll get it back. In fact last year I did ten pages of layouts for an X-Factor story which they never printed and somebody dug them up from somewhere and I got a release form to get the artwork back.

DB: Would you go back?
HT: No, no. For no amount of money.

DB: What if, say I was the publisher at say DC and I offered you Superman for one issue – would you do it?
HT: Well that’s funny you should say that because that’s the one strip I always wanted to do.  I would probably do one Superman. But don’t tell me that it’d have to look copied, but I’d probably have to bend over backwards to do Superman. That was probably the only strip that I ever really cared about as a kid. Well actually there was three I liked, Superman, Plastic Man and Captain Marvel. The old Captain Marvel – I used to read that shit all the time (laughter). Plus Disney – I was nuts about Disney because they did some great adventure stories, about Uncle Scrooge in some distant far away islands and storms in the ocean and all (laughter). Remember that stuff?

DB: Yeah, I used to read it all the time when I was a kid.
HT: Yeah, yeah, that was all very good. You were probably reading reprints when you were a kid (laughter).

But at the end I saw the handwriting on the wall and I just went back to school and I got my bachelor’s degree and a masters and a teaching certificate and taught school for two years or so. And this past year I’ve been adjunct teaching in a local community college, so I like to do that, it’s good.

Trimpe returned to Marvel, briefly, shortly
before he passed away.
DB: One last question…when I saw the journal that you wrote about your last days at Marvel and the WTC material I was stunned by the depth of your writing. Did you ever, at any stage, give thought to a career in professional writing?
HT: It’s funny you should say that. I’ve got a stack of short stories about six inches high, short stories. I’ve got two young adult books I’ve written and one of them is being reviewed by two agents right now. The other one is on the shelf in case this other one is a bit too bizarre to be sold because it is a little bit strange (laughter). But it is aimed at the young adult market which is hard to crack and I’m also in the process of writing another mystery novel right now. And one of the things that I teach at the community college is not art, but I teach writing. I teach composition and creative writing, we have a creative writing class which is a whole lot of fun. So I do like the writing a lot better than I do the art.

But you’re right, that journal that appeared in the paper is only the tip of the iceberg. They took out all the four letter words (laughter) and all the other comments that might have been a little bit too insulting to certain people who would read it. Because when I wrote the stuff I was writing a journal, I journaled that whole period and I have also journaled other periods. After I taught two years of school I was also a volunteer down at the World Trade Centre in Manhattan after the attacks as a chaplain in the on-site morgue and we involved with the recovery of the remains. And I was down there for an eight month period, going down once or twice a week. We had a 24 hour, 7 day a week cycle down there. And it was basically the beginning, the recovery was the beginning of the burial process, the recovery of the remains and getting these things, whatever was found back to the families, it’s kind of a closure – I hate that word – for want of a better word, because nothing like that closes. And I journaled that whole period also, just as a way to sort things out and put the ducks in a row. So this Times thing, yeah I’ve got tons of the stuff. The whole period there leading into the Times and afterwards I journaled it. I don’t know where any of it is, it’s all stuck in a drawer now somewhere. Most of that stuff that appeared, I got a lot of compliments; I got a lot of letter from people actually around the planet. I got a letter from a guy in Germany, Canada, Mexico; I got letters from people all across the US…

POSTSCRIPT: Years later Alan Kupperberg and I were deep in conversation about Herb. Alan had made the film, Herb Trimpe, We Love You (which you can now find on YouTube) as a fan. “You wanna know why Herb was able to draw the Hulk so well,” Alan asked me. As usual he answered his own question, “Because he LOOKED LIKE THE HULK!” He then sent me a photo of Herb and, there you have it, there were similarities. And before you say anything, Alan adored Herb.

Alan always made me laugh. But then he was kind of on the right track.

I kept in touch with Herb, trading a didgeridoo for a sketch which I treasure. Naturally the didge was green, it had to be. Each time I emailed him he replied, and he’d email me out of the blue and we’d talk about life and the frailties of it all, pretty much anything but comic books. He as great value and a far better artist than a lot of people give him credit for being. I was happy to see him make some kind of peace with Marvel and he began to draw for them again, in his own style.

Herb passed away April 13, 2015, aged 75 years.

I miss Herb.


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