In Meta-Messages, I explore the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book creator comments on/references the work of another comic book/comic book creator (or sometimes even themselves) in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.” This time around, based on a suggestion from reader Rob H., we take a look at how Don Heck handled being made fun of by Harlan Ellison in a Comics Journal interview.
Earlier this year, classic comic book writer Michael Fleisher passed away. Outside of his comic book work, Fleisher was perhaps best known for the fact that he sued Harlan Ellison and the Comics Journal after Ellison made a number of comments about Fleisher in his sprawling interview with Gary Groth in the Comics Journal #53 in 1980…
Ellison’s comments were clearly intended to be complimentary (in his mind) but to Fleisher, he found Ellison repeatedly calling him “insane” to be damaging to his reputation. Fleisher eventually lost his lawsuit.
Anyhow, less well-remembered about that lawsuit are comments that Ellison made about veteran comic book artist Don Heck…
Harlan Ellison: There are guys who’ve got very minimal talents and it doesn’t matter whether they corrupt it or not. I could name them and would happily name them, but why bother? There’s no sense kicking cripples. I mean, all you have to do is open up comic books from Marvel and DC and take a look at them. You see these guys have a very minor-league talent and, to say, “Well, these people are wasting their talent” is ridiculous. I mean, they’re never going to be any better. What’s the name of the guy who used to do… over at Marvel… he use to do… [Pause]… the worst artist in the field.
Gary Groth: Don Heck?
HE: Don Heck. [Laughter]
GG: This is going to look good.
HE: Well, of course. You say, “Who’s the worst artist in comics?” “Don Heck!” Of course. Absolutely.
GG: I’ll tell you a true story: A very high-positioned editor at DC told me three weeks ago that he respected Don Heck very much.
HE: Because he turned in the work on time? Of course. That does not deserve respect. I mean, a dray mule can do that. You know, for whatever other flaws and faults Neal Adams has, and God knows he has many — he’s driven almost everybody bugf**k at one time or another — Neal is an artist, and Neal is conscientious and Neal cares, and when they rush him Neal turns out dreck and he hates it and he hates himself for it because he has the soul of an artist and he’s been a seminal influence and he’s a man capable of good work. Jeff Jones was driven away. Bernie Wrightson was driven away. Barry Smith was driven away. [Michael] Kaluta was driven away. All the really good guys, they vanished. They couldn’t take it any more. And of course, the industry says, “Well, man, they were irresponsible.” Irresponsible is what the f**kin’ river merchants call artists who will not kowtow to artificial f**kin’ deadlines. That’s what they call them — irresponsible, crazy, hard to deal with, impossible. Five thousand Don Hecks are not worth one Neal Adams. And I don’t know Don Heck. I’m not even sure I’ve ever met Don Heck, and I mean him no harm when I say this. I’m talking about his work, talking about what I see on the page.
As it turned out, Ellison was really talking about artist Sal Buscema, which made the whole thing especially kind of silly.
Heck was a longtime comic book artist for Marvel Comics, from back in their Atlas Comics days through the Silver Age. Heck is perhaps best known as being the guy who had to follow Jack Kirby on a number of series, like on Avengers…
Heck was plainly a good artist, but, alas, he was not Jack Kirby.
Later on, he ended up not getting much work from Marvel, as his style was not “current” enough. He went to DC Comics. Here is a sample of his artwork from around the time of the interview, from the pages of Flash #286 (inks by Frank Chiaramonte)…
He’s an odd sort to spotlight for derision.
Anyhow, after the interview, Heck eventually responded with a little in-joke/Easter Egg hidden in a comic book.
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