‘Don Heck: A Work Of Art’ Retrospective Shines New Light On The Silver Age Great
Don Heck is something of an odd man out when it comes to comics history. He was one of the architects of the Marvel Universe, co-creating Iron Man, Hawkeye, and other famous characters; he was held in high esteem by his peers – yet he's rarely mentioned in the same breath as Romita, Ditko, Kirby, Buscema, Ayers, and other Silver Age greats. He was, for many years, the Avengers artist, but often goes unnoticed when fans make their lists of the definitive super-team pencillers. He defined the down-to-earth qualities of Marvel while his contemporaries were pushing toward the cosmos, rooting his characters in reality as others pushed the boundaries of possibility. And while that precise mix of magnificent and mundane was what truly defined Marvel, his contributions were nevertheless destined to be overshadowed by the flashier offerings that the rest of the bullpen provided.
After working with many of Marvel and DC's best-known characters in his four-decade career, Heck died of lung cancer in 1995, just before the launch of Comic Book Artist magazine (and the revival of Roy Thomas' Alter Ego) kickstarted a new era of appreciation for the medium's Silver and Bronze age creators – a bit of timing that reinforced his position as one of his generation's great unheralded creators.
The appreciation of Heck's work continues with TwoMorrows' publication of Don Heck: A Work Of Art, is a handsome full-color hardcover recounting the artist's life story. The layout is clean and clear, the printing is up to TwoMorrows' usual high standards, and the selection of art is nothing short of superb – from published pages and panels, to roughs and sketches, to pieces shot directly from Heck's original art, it's all here, and all reproduced beautifully.
Author/editor John Coates has done an admirable job weaving scarce source material into a cohesive whole. The text is largely assembled from two long-form interviews conducted in 1982 and 1990, and supplemented with reflections and pertinent quotes from nearly every one of Heck's collaborators and co-workers. And while there are some unavoidable problems that come from this collage approach (a couple of the same stories appear in different places with only minor variations), Coates manages to keep such issues to a minimum.
I was particularly fascinated by the sections discussing Heck's conflicts with editors and struggles to work within different companies' house styles over the course of his career. His days at Marvel were filled with a constant urging to "draw more like Kirby"; his tenure at DC was marked by assignments to low-selling titles and pairings with incompatible collaborators; and his later years returning to Marvel and working for various indie companies were marked by a dearth of assignments and a lack of appreciation for his technique.
But through it all, Heck produced impeccable work. His grasp of basics never slipped, his line never wavered, his skills never waned. The pieces on display in these pages are uniformly stylish, well-composed, and beautifully delineated. And though I've long considered myself a Don Heck fan (his Avengers #24 was one of the first two Silver-Age Marvel books I ever owned), this book gives me new appreciation for his work, and also points out plenty of things I'll need to look for, next time I'm surfing through back issue bins.
Heck left no immediate family behind after his death, making A Work Of Art as close as we'll ever come to a definitive look at his life and work. It isn't an incisive tell-all biography, and doesn't try to be – it's simply a first-rate profile of a man who spent his life drawing comic books.