1. The first controversy I remember in comics was when Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison talked in The Comics Journal about how Heck was generally recognized as the worst artist in comics. Heck was condemned as a hack. Even in my early teens, that idea baffled me. By the mid-to-late ’70s, Heck (inspired as he was by Milton Caniff, although I didn’t know it at the time or appreciate Caniff’s art like I do now) looked old-fashioned to my eyes, and certainly he wasn’t a favourite of mine, but there were many, many artists working in superhero comics who had far less appealing and individualistic styles, and whose storytelling chops were far, far worse. Don Heck: A Work of Art, by John Coates (published by TwoMorrows) puts Heck into context and his career into perspective in a way that is long overdue.
2. The book serves as kind of a complement to another well-done TwoMorrows book, The Thin Black Line: Reflections on Vince Colletta. Unlike Heck, Colletta earned his reputation as the worst inker in comics not only with his anemic, lifeless inking, but by erasing backgrounds and even entire characters from the pages and panels he inked, supposedly to save time, but (SPOILER WARNING) I think it was just because he was a lazy artist and didn’t give much of a shit most of the time. In both the Colletta book and this new one on Don Heck, we gain insight and understanding of their careers and talents. In Colletta’s case I didn’t gain any sympathy for his destructive inking technique, but in Heck’s case, I found a new appreciation for the style and consistency Heck delivered throughout his career in comics.
3. I had heard years ago that Heck had suffered some unknown tragedy that affected his artwork. I think most comics readers of a certain age had heard that rumour. This book tackles it. Read it and find out the story.
4. TwoMorrows books and magazines demonstrate great care in reproducing the artwork that is featured in them, and Don Heck: A Work of Art makes it clear that their commitment to quality reproduction has not wavered. Many of the pages reproduced are scans of the original art, and they look lush and lifelike on the page. I am mentally contrasting that with the new book featuring 75 years of Marvel Comics covers, many of which are jagged and do not appear to have been scanned at a high enough resolution for a book of such importance (and $50.00 price tag). My eyes aren’t what they used to be, but they’re still good enough (especially with my reading glasses) that I can see the care taken in the visual elements of the Heck book, a kind of care that is increasingly rare in the comics world, which is ironic given that we should be at the apex of quality reproduction given the tools at our disposal.
5. Related: There’s a pencil scan of an Iron Man sketch on page 7 that is so well-drawn and well-reproduced on the page that I want to cut it out and have it framed and hung on my wall. It’s entirely possible a fan of Heck, Marvel Comics in general or Iron Man in particular might feel they got their money’s worth with that sketch alone.
6. Page 83 has a quote from Barry Windsor-Smith about the phenomenon of artists trying to draw like Jack Kirby at Marvel in the ’60s. He shared the very same insight with me privately many years ago, and I am glad to see it in print. It puts a lot into perspective, and in the case of Heck, really sheds a light on how Heck’s talents were used (and to an extent, abused) by Marvel.
7. In the past, some TwoMorrows books have been printed on super-glossy paper that seemed not to be simpatico with the subject matter and didn’t take well to the binding process. This book is on an extraordinary matte-finish paper that is a delight to behold, and that really shows off the artwork superbly. They should stick with this paper stock, it’s a winner.
8. I am definitely a process junkie; whether it’s music, movies, novels or comics, I love to peek behind the curtain and see how it all came together. There’s a wonderful section toward the end of the book where we see page after page after page of Heck in combination with a huge variety of inkers. If you’re at all curious about how the art of comic book inking is done and how very much visual variety can stem from just one penciler, this section is a goldmine.
9. Many of the most important creators in comics who are still with us today weigh in on Heck, both as an artist and as a person. Not just BWS as I mentioned above, but Tony Isabella, John Romita Sr., Stan Lee, Joe Sinnott and many more contribute comments. There’s also a note from Steve Ditko, but that has to be seen to be believed.
10. TwoMorrows is a great resource for those interested in the history of superhero comics (I find that history more interesting than the actual superhero comics being produced today, for what it’s worth). Buy this one, and hopefully they’ll keep making more books like it.
— Alan David Doane
The publisher provided a copy for the purpose of review.