War, Westerns, and the Birth Of The Marvel Universe: Celebrating Dick Ayers!
The huge, sprawling tapestry that is the Marvel Universe has been built by hundreds upon hundreds of talented creators over the years, so it's sometimes hard to remember that the entire affair was begun by just a small handful of people trying to turn out a line of comics under tight restrictions from the Comics Code and even tighter deadlines. And in those formative days, the vast majority of the fledgeling company's visuals were provided by a core four consisting of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.
Dick Ayers was born in Ossining, New York on April 28, 1924. His interest in art was encouraged by his parents from an early age. He began contributing comic strips to military newspapers while serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and upon leaving the service, studied with Burne Hogarth at New York's Cartoonists And Illustrators School, and launched his professional career working for Superman co-creator Joe Shuster in the late 1940s. He found employment at a number of publishers over the next decade, working at Magazine Enterprises (for whom he co-created the supernatural western hero Ghost Rider), Charlton, Prize, and Atlas (soon to be renamed Marvel).
In 1959, Atlas editor Stan Lee first assigned Ayers to ink Jack Kirby’s pencils, and it proved to be a fruitful pairing — Ayers went on to ink many hundreds of Kirby pages and covers, starting with stories in the company's various monster titles, and continuing through the first wave of Marvel superhero books. The Kirby/Ayers team produced key early issues of Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk, launched the Rawhide Kid and Two-Gun Kid titles, and also worked on the initial Ant-Man stories in Tales To Astonish and a number of Thor's earliest adventures in Journey Into Mystery.
But neither superheroes or monsters would prove to be Ayers’ most lasting contribution to the Marvel Universe. In 1963, Lee and Kirby revitalized the moribund war genre and launched a new title about a ragtag squad of G.I.s battling Nazis in World War II. This book bore the unlikely (and unwieldy) name Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos, and introduced Nick Fury, a no-nonsense rough-and-tumble cigar-chewing enlisted officer (who would later be introduced into modern-day continuity and become one of the fledgling Marvel Universe’s central characters). And while Ayers did his usual bang-up job inking Jack Kirby on the first seven issues of the book, his moment truly came when Kirby moved on after issue #7.
Beginning with Sgt. Fury #8, Dick Ayers became the series' defining artist, pencilling all but a handful of issues over the next ten years. His straightforward approach was perfectly suited to delineating ground-level combat, and he channeled his own military experiences to imbue the series with a distinctive air of authenticity (no mean feat for a book that featured its fair share of mad scientists, superhero guest appearances, and megalomaniacal Nazis wielding laser guns).
And while he honored all Commando commitments, he also filled plenty of other gaps at Marvel --- contributing some Captain America stories to Tales Of Suspense, reviving his Ghost Rider character for a short-lived series, pencilling nearly the full run of Sgt. Fury spinoff Capt. Savage And His Leatherneck Raiders, handling covers for Kid Colt Outlaw, working on the Human Torch solo series in Strange Tales and the Iron Man stories in Tales Of Suspense, embellishing lengthy runs of Don Heck’s Avengers and Werner Roth’s X-Men, inking Sub-Mariner stories in Tales To Astonish and some scattered Daredevil issues over Gene Colan, and generally jumping in whenever and wherever he was needed.
Ayers continued to work at Marvel through the mid-’70s, before jumping to DC to illustrate various war and western titles, and pencilling a few issues of Kamandi after Jack Kirby left the title. He taught classes at the Kubert School, and continued to work for various publishers in the ’80s and ’90s, including Marvel, DC, Archie, AC, and Topps.
In 2005, Ayers produced a three-volume graphic novel called The Dick Ayers Story: An Illustrated Autobiography, which provides some wonderful insight into the formative days of the comic industry. He also became a fixture at comic conventions in the New York area, making regular appearances, sketching his characters, signing books, telling stories, and exhibiting a humble happiness at the fact that fans recognized his name and remembered his work so fondly. In 2014, he passed away at his home in White Plains, NY, mere days after his 90th birthday.
So today, on the anniversary of his birth, we honor the life and career of Dick Ayers: a man who produced quality work for dozens of companies over a career that spanned eight decades, enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the industry, and played a major role in laying the foundation for what's now known throughout the cosmos as The Marvel Universe.