POVonline


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 3/24/95

One of the comic industry's most prolific and well-liked artists, Don Heck, has died of lung cancer.

Heck was born January 2, 1929 in Jamaica, New York.  At an early age, he demonstrated an affinity for drawing and his father tried, to no success, to steer him into a career in architectural drawing.  Instead, he headed for the world of cartooning via several correspondence courses and training at Woodrow Wilson Vocational High School in Jamaica and Community College in Brooklyn.

Heck's professional career began in 1949 when a college friend recommended him for a position in the production department of Harvey Comics.  His main job was repasting newspaper comic strip photostats (many of them by his idol, Milton Caniff) into comic book format.  In later years, he regarded his time there as a great education, especially the opportunity to work on and study the original work of the artists who worked for Harvey, including Jack Kirby and Lee Elias.

After a year with Harvey, Heck learned that his fellow production artist, Pete Morisi, was departing to begin his own career as a freelance comic book artist.  Moreover, the editors expected Heck to begin doing Morisi's workload, as well as his own.  "I figured that was my cue to perfect my samples and get some work of my own," Heck recounted in a 1993 interview.  "The Harvey editors weren't interested in my work...they wanted me back in the production department...so I picked a couple of comic book companies out of the phone book, visited them one day and went home a professional comic artist."  Editors at Quality and Hillman both recognized the quality of Heck's work and assigned him short mystery stories.  Before long, he was working regularly for them, as well as Toby Press and a firm named Comic Media that made him the star artist in their ghost comic, Horrific, and gave him his first regular character in Johnny Gallant.

In 1954, Heck's old friend from the Harvey offices, Pete Morisi, was drawing comics for editor Stan Lee at Timely Comics, later known as Atlas.  Trying to explain to Morisi what he wanted to see in the artwork, Lee flipped open a competitor's comic and pointed to a story.  "Can't you draw more like this guy?" Lee reportedly asked.  Morisi answered, "That's Don Heck.  If you want him, I can have him come up here."  Lee did...and, on September 1, 1954, Heck began a long and happy association with Stan Lee and the company that would eventually come to be known as Marvel Comics.

He instantly became a mainstay of their war, western, love and mystery comics; his style was ideally suited to all four and his work became much-admired throughout the industry.

In 1957, fallout from the "horror comics scare" caused a recession throughout the industry.  Marvel cancelled two-thirds of its line and Heck found himself without work.  He found employment designing model airplanes for eighteen months before a call finally came from Stan Lee.  Stan had pared his roster of freelancers down to the small number that could handle his remaining titles.  One of his star artists, Joe Maneely, had just been killed in a train accident, leaving an opening for one more artist.  Heck was Lee's first choice to fill the slot and Don was delighted to return to his first love, comic illustration.  He resumed his work on books like Strange Tales and Tales of Suspense, remaining in place as these books helped usher in the Marvel age of super-hero comics.

Heck's first super-hero assignment was the first Iron Man story, which appeared in Tales of Suspense #38.  "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."  (Ann B. Davis later played the maid on the TV series, The Brady Bunch.)

"Don was my first choice to draw Iron Man," Stan Lee recalled.  "I knew that his combination of realistic story-telling and sophistication were just what a strip about a handsome playboy/adventurer needed.  Our sales later proved that he indeed had been the perfect choice."

Heck pencilled and/or inked most of the early Iron Man stories and also did work on early stories of Thor and Giant Man.  But it is his long, first run on The Avengers for which he is perhaps best remembered.

"Stan called up one day 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."  Many fans consider Heck's run on the book to be the high-point for the title and one of the best "team" books ever done.

His collaborator of many of those issues, Roy Thomas, recalled, "Don was unlucky enough, I think, to be a non-super-hero artist who, starting in the sixties, had to find his niche in a world dominated by super-heroes.  Fortunately, as he proved first with Iron Man and then with The Avengers, Don could rise to the occasion because he had real talent and a good grounding in the fundamentals.  He amalgamated into his own style, certain aspects of Jack Kirby's style and carved out a place for himself as one of a handful of artists who were of real importance during the very early days of Marvel.

"Don and I had a great relationship," Thomas remembered.  "He added lots of plot incidents and little artistic touches to whatever I gave him."

In his time at Marvel, he also contributed to the art on Spider-Man, X-Men, Dracula, Sub-Mariner, Daredevil, Black Widow, The Champions, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and many more.  "Don had the reputation in the sixties of drawing the prettiest females in any of the Marvel comics," Thomas added.  "I couldn't count all the letters we got about his renditions of characters like the Wasp and the Black Widow.  He also contributed some fine inking jobs over Jack Kirby and many other pencillers, including himself."

In 1971, Kirby -- who also considered Heck the best renderer of attractive women in comics -- suggested him to DC as an artist for Batgirl.  Heck did the strip for several years and his work also appeared in other DC titles including The Flash, Justice League of America, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Steel, Dial H for Hero.  He also worked for Western Publishing on the Man from U.N.C.L.E. comic book and assisted Sy Barry and Joe Giella on the Phantom newspaper strip.

In the mid-seventies, Heck suffered a series of personal setbacks that included the death of his wife and several severe illnesses.  During this time, he never missed a deadline or failed to complete a job but, by his own later admission, the quality of his work suffered.  Oddly enough, there were several instances during what he termed his "down" period when a supposedly "better" artist became available for a strip, was brought in to replace Heck...and sales plummeted.

Industry colleagues rallied behind him in support; at one point, a top artist who announced he might be opening a school received a call from Heck about it.  "I don't need any more teachers," the other artist told Don.  "No," Don replied.  "I want to be a student."  Counsel from other professionals, along with extra study and his own determination brought Don back to his old standard, especially when allowed to ink his own work, as editor Len Wein requested on The Flash.

Heck did not favor the division of pencilling and inking jobs on most comics.  "I don't really believe in one guy pencilling a job and another guy inking it," he said in a late interview.  "Maybe there are a few like Kirby and Sinnott or Andru and Esposito where that works but, most of the time, you know best how you should be inked.  Besides, who's going to ink Joe Kubert as well as Joe Kubert?  Who can ink a Jack Davis drawing, besides Jack Davis, and have it remain a Jack Davis drawing?"  Heck's work was inked by many of the greats in the business (and he inked others at times) but he always preferred to finish his pencil art himself.

In the last few years, Heck found a great many fans-turned-editors seeking him out to recreate the style of his sixties' super-hero work.  He reunited with writer Roy Thomas on a Jack Kirby creation, Night Glider, for Topps Comics and redrew an early Iron Man story for Marvel when they wished to reprint it and found their file copies missing.  Several of his last works have yet to be published and there is no doubt that much of his past work will be reprinted in the future so that future comic readers will know and enjoy the fine work of Don Heck.

Industry reaction to the passing of Don Heck was swift and saddened.  From Marvel founder/publisher Stan Lee:

Don Heck was more than a splendid artist.  He was a gentleman and a friend -- and a joy to work with.

Is Don remembered?  Only the other day, a fan stopped me at a Comic Con and asked, "Hey, aren't you the guy who used to write Don Heck's Iron Man?"  Yesterday, I dropped Don a line about that quote and telling him that there's one great thing about the past -- they can never take it away from us.

If only I had mailed it a few days earlier.

Roy Thomas worked as a Writer/Editor with Don on many Marvel books of the sixties:

I was truly sorry to hear yesterday that Don Heck had passed away.  I hadn't had any personal contact with him in several years but I did plot the Night Glider comic that he drew for Topps a year or so back.  As I wrote at the time, working with him, Dick Ayers and Steve Ditko on the creations of Jack Kirby was a kick.

He was a nice guy -- always polite and hard-working, willing to do whatever it took to get the job done, with few complaints -- and with a dependability with regard to deadlines that is hard even to imagine in this day when twenty-year-old neo-stars become instant and often undependable prima donnas.

The comics field needs more like him.

From Marv Wolfman, who worked with Heck on issues of Teen Titans and Wonder Woman, among many others:

Don was a gentleman...a good, good artist...and someone I very much enjoyed working with.  He was a pleasure to talk to and we'll all miss him very much.

Writer Jack C. Harris:

Back when I was a fan, Don Heck -- with Wally Wood's inking -- was the reason I began buying The Avengers from Marvel.  No matter how many characters crowded a scene, Don's masterful layouts depicted power and excitement every time.  Years later, working on the various DC mystery books, I had the honor of working with Don.  The power of his work was not lessened by time.  He will be missed.

DC Editor-Writer Dennis O'Neil:

Don Heck was one of the first real pros I worked with -- a quiet, modest man who loved the craft of visual storytelling.  I mourn his passing.

Writer Steve Gerber:

I didn't really know Don Heck personally -- we only met once or twice -- but in the early 70's, it was my pleasure to work with him on any number of strips for Marvel.  Coming as he did out of romance comics and, later, the pre-Marvel monster books, Don was always at his best drawing realistic settings and realistic women -- and better yet when he was allowed to ink his own pencils.  He had a very distinctive style, reminiscent of fashion illustration, a very fine, almost delicate line with just enough scratchiness to give it an interesting edge.

Not everything Don and I did together was a roaring success. Our Sub-Mariner and Daredevil efforts, both the writing and the art, are probably best forgotten. But we did one Giant-Size Defenders -- a story centered around the villain Egghead and his niece, and which, incidentally, brought back Hank Pym's Yellowjacket identity -- that people remember with a chill to this day.  Don's storytelling was superb, and the scenes of a car bombing and its aftermath in the hospital were genuinely moving and scary.  Anyone who's skeptical of Don's talent should check out that issue, along with his early Avengers and the first Mandarin stories in Iron Man..

Don's passing will come as very sad news to anyone who had the chance to work with him and, of course, to innumerable fans of the 1960's and 1970's Marvel Comics.

From artist Jerry Ordway:

Several years back, around December of '88, I met Don at the DC Comics Christmas party.  Al Vey and I spent most of the party talking with Mr. Heck, who was a truly nice guy.  He was filled with anecdotes about early Marvel, and also aware of what was going on currently in the field, which impressed me.  I had the pleasure of inking Don's work, when an unpublished Steel the Indestructible Man issue was integrated into a couple of issues of All-Star Squadron back in the early eighties.  Needless to say, it was a great learning experience for me, as well as a thrill, as he was a favorite of mine for his work on Iron Man and The Avengers.

Don Heck was a truly underappreciated artist.  His Atlas work (Pre-Marvel) was terrific, with a clean sharp style, and an ink line that wouldn't quit.  He will be missed, but his work lives on.

Writer Tony Isabella wrote, on the CompuServe electronic bulletin board:

I worked with Don Heck on dozens of comics and it was always a pleasure.  If there were a Marvel Universe version of Mount Rushmore, he would be up there with Stan, Jack, Steve, and Dick.  Yeah, I know, that's five heads, but comics have always been larger than life.

And from Len Wein:

I've worked with Don Heck a lot over the years, as an editor on The Flash and Justice League of America, as writer of Blue Beetle.  They don't come much better.  At the moment, I'm writing an episode of the new (thankfully improved) Iron Man animated series and, in checking some old back issues of the Iron Man comic for reference, I was reminded of Don's Tony Stark.  It's the one I grew up on and, to me, it's still the definitive version, a perfect rendition of a classy gentleman.  Which, come to think of it, pretty much describes Don as well.  Thanks for the inspiration, old friend.

And yours truly, Writer Mark Evanier adds:

The spine of the comic book business -- its very existence -- comes from men like Don Heck.  Until very recently, the idea of making more than a decent living doing comic books was laughable.  Don, like so many on his contemporaries, drew comics out of a love for the medium and the satisfaction of creating work of which one could be proud; at times, there literally was no other conceivable reason to be in the business.

Early on, I knew nothing more about this guy Heck than that he drew a lot of comics -- like The Avengers -- that I enjoyed reading.  His stories were always loaded with characterization and human insight...testimony to the fact that Don, like any great comic artist, could say more with one subtle facial expression on a character than a writer could establish with fifty word balloons.  The testimony here from so many writers proves that: When you do what we do, you treasure a guy who can say so much with every drawing.

I met him on way too few occasions.  One came when Topps flew him out to a Los Angeles convention to promote a new book and to be reunited after twenty-some years with his friend Jack Kirby.  Heck drew as large a crowd as any artist guest ever without a "speculator" interest behind his work...and a hefty chunk of those present were professional artists, some of whom -- like Paul Smith -- drove hours just to shake the hand that drew Iron Man.  I got to spend a wonderful hour with Don -- a delightful man, full of life and love -- and I will never forget the sheer joy unleashed when Kirby arrived and two old pals hugged and cried...and each told the crowd that the other was an artistic genius.  Me...I think they were both right.

 

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