Fond Farewell to a Friend
On Tuesday, I found out Herb Trimpe had died the way we find out everything these days, via Twitter. The news of his death was reported based on a Facebook post from Herb's cousin. Not exactly an ironclad source of information, so I held out slim hope that it was in error, or a hoax. No such luck.
I knew Herb Trimpe for about half my life. He was among the first comic pros I ever met. I can't say we were close friends, that would be overstating it. But we were friends, and I'll miss him. I'm still in a bit of shock, honestly. Anytime I saw Herb, he was vital and full of life. I never would've pegged his age at 75; maybe 65, tops. To think that he's suddenly gone is... well, unthinkable. I can't quite wrap my mind around it yet.
Herb was never a superstar in comics. He was a dependable workhorse, churning out regular pages on deadline, always doing superior work. I'm not sure it's true anymore, but for a long time, those artists were the backbone of the comics industry, the ones who were there every month.
I've been gratified this week to read how much Herb's work meant to fans, how many people were pulled into reading comics because they encountered an issue Herb drew. For so many, it was Herb's defining run on "Incredible Hulk." For others, it was "Godzilla" or "G.I. Joe" or even "Shogun Warriors." His work helped people fall in love with comics, and there's no greater epitaph than that for a creator.
I broke into the comics industry thanks to Jim Starlin, and by extension, Bernie Wrightson. New York State's Hudson Valley was a hotbed for comics creators in the 1990s, not unlike what Portland is now. In addition to Jim and Bernie, the community included people like Terry Austin, Fred Hembeck, Joe Staton, Dan Green, Charles Vess, Barry Windsor-Smith, Joe Sinnott, Jack Morelli, Christie Scheele, Janice Chiang and Herb Trimpe.
I'm not sure where I first met Herb, but my best guess would be at one of the First Friday parties that were a moveable feast on, logically, the first Friday evening of every month. First Fridays were gatherings of all kinds of artists, writers and musicians, everybody showing off what they were working on. Those parties were the first time I saw Jim Gurney's paintings for what would become "Dinotopia," and the work blew away all the other artists at the party. After that first time, Jim always had to display his work last. No one else wanted to show off their work after Jim went.
Once or twice, the parties were at Herb's house, in Kerhonkson. Not too far from his house, there was an airstrip where Herb kept an old biplane, a canvas-covered beast. He invited me up a few times, but I always declined. I'd gotten word from Starlin and Wrightson that the plane was a pretty rattletrap affair, and you were never quite sure if the thing was going to fall apart underneath you. Herb loved to fly, you can see it in the biplane stories he drew for Marvel's black-and-white "Savage Tales" magazine. That stuff is Herb's best work, as far as I'm concerned.
I also played softball with Herb. Well, against Herb, and then with Herb. When I still worked at the Daily Freeman newspaper in my hometown of Kingston, NY, we had a pretty good softball team. We played against another team in the city league, one that Herb played for. The pitcher for that team was a short, unassuming guy I could never hit. He gave me fits at the plate, and I popped up everything for an easy out. Eventually, the newspaper team went away (and I left the newspaper when my comics career bore fruit). So I ended up joining Herb's team, seeing him every week for games.
This was in the mid-'90s. My career was pretty well established by that point, but I knew work was becoming spotty for Herb. Marvel had been his home forever, since the late '60s, after he returned from serving in Vietnam. But assignments were coming in dribs and drabs. In an effort to make himself more of a commodity, Herb changed his art style from his Kirby-inspired look to something that was, frankly, more '90s. It was, essentially, a Rob Liefeld-inspired style, something pretty far afield from Herb's classic look. It was something he could pull off pretty easily, and I know it was fast for him. The editors handing out assignments responded to it, and encouraged him.
One night after we'd finished playing a softball game, I asked Herb if he liked drawing in that style. He said yes, that he liked the energy of it. I'm still not sure if he meant it or not. I do know Herb was happy to have the work, whatever style was required. But I think in his heart of hearts, Herb must have found it a tough pill to swallow, essentially being told, "We don't want what you do, we want what that other guy does."
Eventually, even that dried up. When it happened, I know at least one editor told Herb that nobody wanted the style he was using, that fans didn't like it anymore. And that was that. Herb Trimpe, Happy Herbie of the Marvel Bullpen, was out of work.
It was a lesson for me. Here was the guy who was responsible for the Hulk that everybody grew up with, and he was unemployed. Unwanted. If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone, including me. It was a cautionary tale, and Herb himself chronicled it in a journal published in the New York Times. It's a required reading for pros and fans alike, and I strongly urge you to take the time to do so.
It's a brutally honest account of a proud man having the job he loved taken away from him, swallowing his pride to sign up for unemployment, eventually becoming a teacher. If you're a freelancer, and Herb's earnest account doesn't give you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, you're either a precious genius or a deluded idiot.
In more recent years, Herb had been a fixture on the convention circuit. I can't speak to the reasons. When we saw each other at shows, which was not infrequent, that's not one of the things we really discussed. Many older creators, especially artists, appear at a lot of cons, making ends meet with sketches and art sales. It's one of the side benefits from the boom in the convention business -- more venues for creators to earn a few dollars.
I can remember seeing Green Lantern creator Mart Nodell and his wife, Carrie, at so many shows, selling prints and sketch covers, waiting for convention staff to deliver a sandwich for lunch. Seeing them made me sad, somehow. They aged in time lapse, health failing a little more each time I saw them, until they were gone.
Comics as an industry is not very good at taking care of those who have come before. In fact, our industry does a pretty lousy job of it. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, but we inevitably cast them aside.
We have Hero Initiative now, in part because of the help Mark Alessi (and CrossGen) gave Jim McLauchlin in getting it started. If anybody ever asks what good came out of CrossGen, that's at the top of the list. Herb's family requested donations in his name go to Hero Initiative and to the Kerhonkson Accord First Aid Squad.
Hero Initiative works wonders, has kept creators in their living situations, has literally kept creators alive. But Herb's passing made me again consider how the comics industry treats its elders.
The day I heard about Herb's death, I had to pick up my son from school. On the drive there, I was listening to sports talk radio. The segment was about Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, including a story about Billy Martin making an unexpected appearance and the crowd going wild, upstaging even Joe DiMaggio. Like most long-suffering Mets fans, I grew up a Yankee hater. But I've always been impressed at how well the Yankees honor their history, and all those who came before.
It made me think that comics needs something of that kind, an annual event when we honor those who paved the way. My suggestion, or maybe my plea: a convention that has a focus, at least in part, on veteran creators. A weekend where we give them the honor they deserve, and introduce them to a new generation of fans. Even better, create some component that's a fundraiser for Hero Initiative. The convention business has boomed, especially celebrity-centric shows. But none of it would exist without the foundation of comics, a foundation laid by men and women who are too often ignored now.
I have no idea if any existing convention is willing to bring this aspect to its show (obviously, not the conclusion of everything else a convention entails). But I hope someone steps up and makes it happen. And if they do, I hope comics fans will support the venture. It's very literally the least we owe people like Herb Trimpe.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Witchblade" and the graphic novel series "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics, his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.