Herb Trimpe began working in comics while still a student at New York City’s School for Visual Arts, inking and drawing backgrounds for various comics including “Boris Karloff Thriller,” the adaptation of the film “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” After a stint in the Air Force, Trimpe began his long association with Marvel Comics in 1966, doing production work in addition to inking and pencilling various titles.
For much of his career at Marvel, Trimpe was an incredibly successful journeyman artist, often producing more than one book per month. During his years with the publisher, Trimpe worked on “The Defenders,” “Marvel Team-Up,” “Captain America” and “Fantastic Four Unlimited.” He co-created the World War I ace Phantom Eagle, illustrated “Godzilla,” “The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones,” the first issues of “G.I. Joe” and nearly the entire run of “G.I. Joe: Special Missions,” which is currently being reprinted by IDW.
However, it’s his long run as artist on “The Incredible Hulk” that most fans remember best. He drew almost one hundred issues of the book over a decade, first finishing Marie Severin’s layouts before taking it over as penciler. During this time, he drew the first appearance of a little-known character named Wolverine.
When Marvel and Trimpe parted ways 1996, the artist went back to school and worked as a teacher, an experience he wrote about for the “New York Times” in an article titled “Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World.” He served as a chaplain at Ground Zero and wrote a book about the experience. Not looking to retire from comics entirely, Trimpe has returned to illustrate a few stories since leaving the industry as a full-time freelancer.
Trimpe’s focus has largely shifted away from comics, though he speaks with great affection for his many years in the industry and the people in it. The veteran artist shared with CBR tales of his time in the Marvel Bullpen, working at Marvel during the Ron Perlman days, his unfulfilled desire to draw a Superman story and more.
CBR News: Let’s start at the beginning: what was it that made you want to be an artist and what was it that specifically pushed you towards comics?
Herb Trimpe: Well, when I was a kid I was a big comic strip fan. I did read comics, but I didn’t buy very many. I think the only one I really bought as a young kid were Disney comics. I had a couple of cousins who, they weren’t collectors, but they did buy comic books, and had stacks and stacks of them all the time. That was generally my source, but I didn’t go out of my way to read them. One of my cousins lived near the junior high school I was in, he was couple years ahead of me in high school, and I would eat lunch at his house and we would go through all the comics he had. He always had new ones every week.
I was very heavily oriented towards DC, although Fawcett was good. I loved the original Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. I was never that interested in Batman. I did love Superman. It’s the one character I wish that I could have gotten to draw as a professional, but it would have been a difficult thing to pull off then, and practically impossible now. Primarily, I was very interested in comic strips. To me, that was the ultimate goal. I never really considered drawing comics, but I did like the idea of being a comic strip artist. In those days they had an awful lot of clout and recognition even among fine artists and illustrators, whereas comic books were kind of hidden inside other books so nobody would know you were reading one. My early stabs at continuity-type art was coming up with comic strip ideas, which I thought was the most exciting way to go.
You went on to attend the School for Visual Arts in New York in the early sixties where you studied under Tom Gill, correct?
Yes — that was before it was an accredited college. It was more like a trade school. You got a certificate of completion, which I never got because I split my course curriculum. After two years of painting and illustration, the last year I took cartooning and illustration. When I applied, the name of the school was the Cartooning and Illustrators School — C&I, they called it. The first year I entered, they changed the name and planned to turn it into more fine arts and high level illustration. Some of what they considered lesser forms of art were relegated to the windowless basement of the building. My last year in that school, all the cartoon and comics and strip classes were taught by one guy, Tom Gill, in one room on 23rd and First Avenue in Manhattan, which was a firetrap of a building to begin with. The only thing lower than us was the boiler room. [Laughs] A deep, dark, dank place that I don’t believe even had a stairway going down into it. It had an iron rung ladder going down into it. It was a very strange thing.
That’s where Tom Gill taught strip art, comic art, gag cartooning and political cartooning. We had little bits and pieces of just about everything in that class. The summer before, I did a ton of comicbook-style artwork. Two or three ten or twelve page stories, hand lettered and all on the old size comic book form, which was 14″ by 18″ or 20.” In other words, I did my homework in advance to some degree. I was pretty enthusiastic. [Laughs] But the whole thing was really bizarre considering the place they stuck us.
Meanwhile, upstairs there was a lot of fine arts and live models. They had an advertising department, too. I took some courses in lettering for advertising, which is just nonexistent now because of computers, and one practical class in production, where cut and paste really was cut and paste. I actually enjoyed that. My first work at Marvel was in the production department where we put ad pages and letter pages together, cut and pasted with rubber cement. [Laughs] I actually enjoyed that a lot better than the drawing, frankly! [Laughs] It was more meditative. It’s just the opposite of thinking all the time, ’cause when you’re drawing a book, you’re thinking. All you do is think. Does this line go here or does it go there? It’s one decision after another. So I have a fond recollection of doing production work.
Back in the day, when you were working on books in the “Marvel style” of illustrating the entire issue from plots rather than a full script, I’m sure it required even more thought.
It was more fun. Not in terms of having a good time, but it’s much easier, I found. Much easier to work from a very loose plot, or even a story conference. I was one of the last ones to do conferences with Stan. He did most of the talking. I would jot down notes as to how the story was going to go. I never had any serious problems as far as his corrections or adjustments went. I think it’s the way that comics really need to be done. Stan was a writer, primarily, but he realized that comic books were basically a visual medium and it was important that the artist tell the story. This was truly his genius, in my opinion. Never mind the creation of the characters with Jack Kirby; his approach to the artist being the director and an editor, where you could run with the ball and come up with your own ideas, I think, was his genius. That’s really when Marvel took off, when they threw the notion of long and complicated scripts out the window. There’s always been a little bit of a battle between the writer and artist as to who’s in the spotlight. Stan placed the artist squarely in the spotlight in terms of the storytelling.
Aside from you taking notes while Stan spoke, what did the story conferences between the two of you entail, and how did they compare to conferences with other writers?
Pretty much the only difference between having one with Stan and having one with Roy Thomas was with Stan you went into his office, with Roy he came over to your desk. [Laughs] The whole thing was over in twenty minutes or less. It had a lot to do with, well, what happened last issue? Who was the villain? Okay, let’s see, where is the Hulk? He’s out in the Western desert. Okay, let’s see, who haven’t we used in a while? We’d pick somebody and then go from there. The ideas would come out and I’d be jotting down notes, because Stan did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. And that would be it. Pretty soon you would have the story, a beginning, middle and end, usually ending in huge battle with somebody trying to do something to somebody else in a nasty and mean way. My favorite stories with the Hulk had to do with the Microcosm, the Jarella universe. I thought they were pretty cool.
When you started out in the industry, you worked on a lot of Westerns and war comics.
I inked for a while. The inking work ran out on the westerns because I think they were making more money from reprints than they were from the originals. Then I got a call from Sol Brosdky who asked, “Do you want to come in and work on staff? We’re buying a big photocopy machine and we need somebody to run it. You could work in the production department and do some freelance art on the side.” And I said, OK. It was $135 bucks a week. This was 1966 and I was fresh out of the Air Force, having spent the last year in Vietnam, and I jumped at it. I commuted from Peekskill, NY, which is about an hour or so away. It was great. It was a whole lot of fun. The office was just fun. The bullpen consisted of me, Marie Severin, Johnny Romita and Tony Mortellaro who did some inking but also mostly production. Artists would come in to finish something off or pick up work or drop work off. It was very close quarters. I’d say there was no more than a dozen people in the entire place, including Stan and Roy and Flo Steinberg. It was a nice place to work. We had a lot of fun. Maybe too much fun.
Stan always seemed to single me out as the one always talking too much. [Laughs] They’d be raising hell in there and Stan would say, “Trimpe, can you keep it quiet?” [Laughs] I’d say, what about these guys? Marie’s doing the funny pictures, I’m just laughing! [Laughs] One thing about Stan, what you see is what you get. He’s not the kind of guy that holds a grudge. He doesn’t really get mad at people. He gets annoyed, but he doesn’t like hold onto it. He’s too busy with his comics and his image and talking to people and just having a hell of a good time while he’s doing it. He was jealous of my hair, too. At that time, he was having hair transplants and he was young, only in his mid-forties or so, and he was a good looking guy. So he’s having these hair transplants and I had this really dark full head of hair. He said one day, “Trimpe, I hate you.” [Laughs] And he took his hand and just rubbed it on the top of my head. [Laughs] I was only, like, 28 at the time or something like that. We had a really good time. You couldn’t have a job that was better than what that was.
Marie Severin was the Hulk artist before you came on board for your impressive run. When you came on the title, was it a big deal?
Well, it was in “Tales to Astonish,” and I came in after the time it split and got its own title. I think I inked a couple of jobs that [Severin] penciled, and then Stan wanted her to do something else. He stuck his head in our working area one day and he asked me if I was interested in drawing the Hulk and I said okay. [Laughs] I would be on a quota system — which was quite good, actually. Let’s say I was getting paid $135 a week and I was getting thirty dollars a page. That would come out to a little over four pages a week to justify the salary. Then, anything over that I could voucher for and get a freelance check as well. There came a point where you could double or triple your on-staff income just by handling an extra book. It was very, very good.
Of course, I was intimidated from the time I got in there. I mean, Kirby was the king then and he’s the king now, in my opinion. I’m surrounded by guys, every one of them could draw way better than I could. But I was an excellent storyteller and that’s what Stan was hiring. Storytellers. I mean, he said to me more than once, “Trimpe, when are you going to learn to draw?” [Laughs] I always hear from him in funny ways. I did an article for the “New York Times” a while back around 2000.
When you wrote your piece about ageism in the comics industry and discussed your career change and beginning to teach.
Yeah. I got a Spider-Man greeting card from Stan in California. He said, “Trimpe, if I had known you could write that well, I would have given you stuff to write.” [Laughs] I’m like, get out of here. You’re so full of shit. [Laughs] But he’s a great guy.
At any rate, when I first started working there, I felt like I had a long way to go to catch up with some of the people that were there. After the first few ink jobs I did for Marie, I had a full plot and I did about four pages. [Stan] took a look, and it was the only time he ever had a complaint about anything I did. He said, “No, no, no — I’m going to get Frank Giacoia to lay this story out and just take a look at what he does.” I was a little nervous on the next story, but he was pleased. I caught on. [Laughs] And from then on there were no problems at all. He never had a problem with the way I paced the story or laid the story out. The only problem he ever had was a Sub-Mariner/Hulk issue. There was a submarine in the story, and on the side of the submarine, I lettered “Mattel.” He called me in his office and said, “You can’t do this. You’re giving them thousands of dollars worth of free advertising. Don’t do that anymore!” I said, “OK, Stan, I’m sorry.” [Laughs]
You’re on record as saying you liked EC Comics. Would you have liked the chance to do work in that vein?
What I liked about EC was not necessarily their subject matter, but their style. I mean, I loved the idea of 5, 7, 8 page stories just put together in a book. That’s the way I saw a comic. I saw a comic as a series of short stories, really. I didn’t see them as any kind of epic thing, where one strung out into the other and on and on and on it went. The problem is that, unless you have a serious overall plan, that becomes very confining, because now you have to adhere to something inside of a box, inside the line, that will naturally lead you into a sequel story. I mean, the whole Marvel Universe became a nightmare. [Laughs] You had to check the computer to see who was doing what to who before you made a move on a story, otherwise you’re overlapping somewhere. I mean, God help you, you came up with a villain and it was being used in another book that month. Or involved in a series of sequels over a period of time. It was just not a good thing.
So even though the Hulk, for instance, in those times usually picked up from where the last issue left off, it nevertheless launched into a different story. For instance, if [an issue of] the Hulk ended in the desert, the next issue would probably begin in the desert. But it would be an entirely different story from that point on. And that’s fine, because it’s a little bit of a challenge, it’s diverse and leaves for a lot of room to work with, whereas confining yourself to a serial is a tough thing to do. It’s not that much fun either.
You were at Marvel for almost thirty years, and I’m sure by the end it was a very different place from the bullpen you just described for us.
It was horrible. It was just an entirely different thing. When I started out, it was like a mom and pop store. It was run by Stan’s uncle and comics were only a division of the pulp magazines they produced. They weren’t the company. Magazine Management was the company. They produced detective magazines and true romance and adventure magazines and stories about true crime stories, where they would use the people in the office in their photos as victims or serial murderers or the policemen that arrested the suspect. [Laughs] All the stories were completely phony and completely made up. So when Magazine Management was sold, I’m not sure how, exactly, but Marvel became its own entity and it was bought by Cadence Corporation. That was really the beginning of the end, although we did benefit quite a bit. Cadence had a pension plan, they covered medical and dental and psychiatric. It was a super, super health plan if you were raising a family. But that was probably the beginning of the end, when the bean counters and the suits started to control what was going on.
The way I broke it down was, the first ten years were like dying and going to heaven. The middle ten were not comfortable. The last ten years were absolutely miserable. If I’d had the nerve I would’ve quit before it went belly-up, but you had the checks coming and you’ve got kids in college and it’s a very difficult thing to do. When it finally went, I was in the second group of a hundred or so that were told there was no more work. I was actually glad because I was sick of doing this stuff and I wanted to do something else. It was an opportunity for me to go back to school and get all the stuff I needed to teach, which I was very interested in at the time. I had done a lot of volunteer work in the school systems around the area. As the corporate thinking became more and more and more ingrained in the basic business of producing a comic book, it just became less and less and less fun. If it wasn’t for Tom DeFalco, those last five or ten years when he was Editor in Chief, I probably wouldn’t have had any work at all. He was giving me one job to do after another just to keep me going until I picked up “Fantastic Four Unlimited” at the end. That kept me going as far as the finances went.
I’ve heard in the past that Tom DeFalco was a big supporter of a lot of artists and veterans of the industry who were still working for the company when he was E-i-C.
His attitude was, it’s a comic book. We’re not building supersonic aircraft here. [Laughs] When I started working there, we were doing seventeen or eighteen titles and several of those titles were black and white reprints. When I left, when they went bankrupt, they had eighty, maybe ninety. A lot of it was aimed at the collector. Multiple variant covers and all this other stuff. Spinoffs and spinoffs of spinoffs. Ron Perlman ran the company into the ground. Tom was a real supporter and an advocate for the artist. Everybody that was working, he tried to keep working.
You don’t sell comics like soap or cereal. The soap always stays the same and the cereal always stays the same, it’s just the package that changes to get people to look at it and buy it. Comics are different. It’s a creative process. Every single issue, from one month to the next, under every single title, is a process and it needs to have a life to it. If the life is snuffed out of it, if that process is not allowed to happen, due to certain modern marketing philosophies, then you’re going to produce a shit product and people aren’t going to buy it by the hundreds of thousands anymore. In the first ten years or so when I worked there, if a book went through one or two sales periods and lost money, they dropped the book and then they’d try something else. That’s a creative process. It pumps life into it, because you’re always coming up with new ideas.
Recently, you’ve done some shorter stories. An “Incredible Hulk” story, a “B.P.R.D.” tale for Dark Horse.
Yeah, I think they like to throw the old guy a crumb once in a while just to see what he does. I don’t know. The attitude of the editorial staff when I talk to people is so much more deferential than it was when I left. In those days, towards the end before the bankruptcy, [Marvel] was like Hitler’s bunker. You couldn’t get ahold of anybody on the phone. It was horrible. Well in advance of being terminated, I was already working on doing something else. I said, I’m done with this shit, I’m out of here. As it turned out, it didn’t quite work out that way, due to commissions and conventions and things like that, which occupy quite a bit of time right now.
Did you enjoy working on the new stories? You mentioned earlier that you’re not particularly fond of working with full scripts.
It was hard. I did a story for “B.P.R.D.,” and I started to ink it. I just couldn’t plow through it. I’d broken the script down into pages, and that took several days right there. I penciled it, not as tight as I would have if somebody else were going to ink it. I inked the first two pages and I just couldn’t do it anymore. The deadline was running close and so I said, can you get somebody else to ink this? Which they did. The pencils were okay, but they weren’t as tight as they should have been for another inker. The inker had to do a little bit of catchup to finish those pages, I’m sure. It was not a pleasant experience at all.
I’ll tell you something, I’m sick of doing other people’s ideas. [Laughs] I have lots of ideas. I acquired a literary agent because of a book I wrote. They told me, anything that you have, we’d love to look at it. So right now I’m working on another story. I’ve written a pile of short stories over the years, as well as this thing I’m working on right now. I like it better than drawing, and it’s something that’s mine.
So in the next few years we can hopefully look forward to a novel or short story collection by Herb Trimpe.
That’s what I’m hoping. It’s just crazy right now. I have a domestic situation that keeps me very, very busy. My mom lives with us — she’s 92 — and that requires some attention, although she gets around pretty well. My wife works teaching. One of my daughter lives close by with two grandchildren. So things keep hopping. I’d like to say I’m retired, but I can’t afford it. [Laughs]
It’s good to know things are going fairly well for you.
I have no complaints. There’s nothing I can complain about at all. Really nothing. I’ve had an awful lot of opportunities to do an awful lot of things.
Many thanks to Jeff Jaworski at comicbook-art.com who helped arrange this interview.