Dick Ayers passed away this past Sunday, less than a week after his 90th birthday. He had a long and distinguished career in the comics industry, producing quality work for dozens of companies in a career that spanned eight decades -- most notably as one of the major artists who created what is now known worldwide as The Marvel Universe.

He contributed his first comic strips to a military newspaper while serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, then began his professional career studying under legendary Tarzan illustrator Burne Hogarth and working for Superman co-creator Joe Shuster in the late 1940s. He went on to spend the '50s drawing comics for 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, starting with stories in various monster series, and carrying through to the first wave of Marvel superhero books. The Kirby/Ayers team worked on key issues of The Fantastic Four and Hulk, the launches of Rawhide Kid and Two-Gun Kid, the initial Ant-Man stories in Tales To Astonish, and a number of early Thor stories in Journey Into Mystery.



But it was another title that truly cemented Ayers' place in comics history. As their initial superhero books began to win Marvel a greater degree of attention and market share, the company launched a new title about a ragtag squad of G.I.s battling Nazis in World War II, with the unlikely (and unwieldy) name Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos.



That title introduced Nick Fury, a no-nonsense rough-and-tumble cigar-chewing enlisted officer who would shortly thereafter be introduced into modern-day continuity, given a super-spy makeover, 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.



From that point, Dick Ayers became the Sgt. Fury 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 honoring his Commando commitments, he filled plenty of other gaps at Marvel – drawing Captain America in 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, contributing covers to 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.



He continued to work at Marvel through the mid-'70s, before jumping to DC to contribute to various war and western titles, and pencilling a few issues of Kamandi after Jack Kirby left the title. In the '80s and '90s, he continued to pencil for various publishers, including Marvel, DC, Archie, AC, and Topps. And he produced a three-volume graphic novel called The Dick Ayers Story: An Illustrated Autobiography, which was published in 2005.



I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Ayers on a few occasions at New York Comic Con, and though we never spoke for more than a few minutes, I found him to be kind and charming, taking pride in his work without a hint of conceit or condescension -- he was proud of the work he did, truly honored at the attention and still exhibiting a slight hint of surprise each and every time somebody recognized him and stopped at his table.



That's a trait common to many old school creators I've met, the artists and writers of the Golden and Silver ages who worked in what was assumed to be a disposable medium -- they never dreamed that the books they worked on would be remembered for longer than the month they sat on newsstands. They were craftsmen, doing their best work under tight deadlines, unleashing their imaginations to support their families every month... And because they put their heart and soul into it, the stories they told stood the test of time, and continue to find new audiences, generation after generation.



And Dick Ayers' work undoubtedly still matters. He was one of the creators who defined the look and feel of "The Marvel Age Of Comics", and set the standards for everyone who's come after. He may not have gained the widespread recognition that some of his pencilling peers have, but he was no less essential. His characters didn't push out into dark dimensions like Steve Ditko's, or explode out into the cosmos like Jack Kirby's, but his work was every bit as important. He provided the rock-solid foundation, and was an integral part of building the Marvel Universe from the ground up.

Thanks, Mr. Ayers. Godspeed.