Don Heck: A Work Of Art by John Coates (book review).

I’ve always tended to regard comicbook artist Don Heck as one of the unsung heroes of the comics world. Getting any lengthy interview from him was a problem for writer John Coates, who had to pull from many sources after his death in 1995. Heck was very much a private quiet man who got on with his work without any fuss and rarely interviewed, despite attending many US comicbook conventions. From the various bits and pieces from those who knew him and the odd interview, it was obvious he knew the industry and also had a sense of humour and enjoyed his work. He just wasn’t pushy enough and was invariably moved from comic to.


When you watch the ‘Iron Man’ films and pay attention to the credits, you’ll see creators are ‘Stan Lee and Don Heck’. He might not have designed the first armour, but everything else started off from his drawing table with Shellhead’s first appearance in ‘Taes To Astonish’. I’d have loved to have seen his reaction to the films had he lived that long. He also designed Hawkeye, the Black Widow and the Mandarin amongst others. His contemporaries at early Marvel, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, might have had bigger accolades but Don Heck was there at the start and was one of the artists Stan Lee admired and hired after the comicbook slump of the mid-1950s. Uniquely, he preferred to ink his own pencils than have others do it, citing that he only thought he’d finished when they were done. When you see the various comments made by those who inked him, invariably stating all the information was there to ink showed how tight his pencils were. Heck himself admitted that when he inked himself, he kept his pencils a little looser, confident that he would tighten at the inking stage. He also got the brown end of the stick with poor inking as well but unlike Gene Colan, tolerated Vince Colletta getting his paws on and removing backgrounds. An interesting point that it is the artist who takes the flak for poor story or inking is rather telling and further into the book, Neal Adams points out that had he been given poor inkers like Don Heck had, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

When I read Heck’s illustrated comics when young, which spread across not only Iron Man but also Thor,the Avengers and the X-Men, it was easy to spot his artwork. Although occasionally I thought his work a little sparse, it’s only the reveal that a lot of the time he was asked in because he could draw and presumably complete with inks fast when needed to cover someone else’s deadline. Heck says he normally only drew two pages a day and Marvel only paid $20/$22 a page for pencils and inks, you had to be productive to make ends meet or achieve deadlines.

Reading how Heck had to learn quickly to adapt to the synopsis Marvel approach when Stan Lee had to supply artists quickly so they had work to get on with, his comments that he could expand panels away from the standard format struck home from Uncanny X-Men # 37 where he had the mutants in civies jump out of aeroplane. In that respect, he even predated Neal Adams on the title, doing such a fall. Also, with Uncanny X-Men # 64, when he stepped in because Adams was late a few years later and Tom Palmer inked him, I thought it would have been incredible had he had such an inker all the time. Reading behind the lines of how others inked him, he did think it possible for inkers to swamp his work but I think that could happen to any penciller. Speaking of inking, I never realised that Jack Kirby had actually inked Heck on occasion or his pinch-hitting for John Romita, Sr. when he had an artist’s block. John Buscema also brought him in as a lecturer when he had his own art school for his second year. This book brings up a remarkable picture (sic) of Don Heck’s productive life.

Seeing Heck’s work, I think the most surprising thing was seeing his pencils where he didn’t actually put the panel borders around them. I suspect that was probably a bit more liberating and probably explains why he didn’t bleed the art into the panel edges.

John Coates has done an incredible job with ‘Don Heck: A Work Of Art’. It is obvious from all the material here that Heck was appreciated by his peers, more so than later readers. Even Heck thought he improved with age and there is a fair selection from across his career. He never regarded super-heroes as his forte but had little opportunity to do much with romance, westerns and war material from the 60s on, but as Heck also said, he just got on with whatever he was asked to do and made his deadlines. As his peer group reports in this book, you couldn’t mistake Don Heck for anyone else and shouldn’t that be the mark of any artist. Be surprised.

GF Willmetts
September 2014
(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 191 page illustrated large hardback. Price: $39.95 (US), £29.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-60549-058-8)
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One thought on “Don Heck: A Work Of Art by John Coates (book review).

  • interesting about the bad inkers and explains why Don’s work looked so good at times and not so good at others. I thought he was a great inker of early Kirby, especially the Lava Man story in Thor, way back when. The star artists (Kirby, Ditko, Adams) get a lot of attention but guys like Don Heck,Werner Roth, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown, Irv Novick and so forth did good work too. Well done TwoMorrows for giving him his due!


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