Herb Trimpe is disgusted. Not with life – with comics. He says he isn’t; denies it when we speak, but it’s in his email and his letters. It defines the undercurrent when we visit the ocean of Marvel Comics that was once his world.
Hell, you’d be disgusted, too, if you’d given three decades of your life to the company; if you’d built a cache of fans and defined a seminal book like The Incredible Hulk; if you’d introduced a multi-million-dollar property like Wolverine to the world and were then informed that you were no longer relevant.
Some years back, The New York Times allowed Herb to share his late-mid-life crisis with the rest of us. He writes, “In 1996, after 29 years as an artist for Marvel Comics, I got fired. 56 years old, two children still in college, and no job.”
Herb’s first-hand recollection of those days is nothing short of spellbinding. The New York Times piece excerpts four years of diary entrees into a significant time capsule that succinctly nails down the plight of Marvel’s veteran creators. He notes that things first got shaky in 1994 as the industry suffered from changing tastes in the youth market and Marvel failed to lure older readers. “Never mind that in Japan comic books sell in the millions to all ages,” writes Herb. “It also didn’t help that Ronald Perelman’s acquisition binge overextended the company, or that Marvel flooded the market with spinoffs and endless No. 1 issues, devaluing the collections of the faithful.”
Within a year, a new wave of artists and writers had supplanted older pros, and Herb was getting less and less work. I spoke with him several times back then, when they’d just switched him to Fantastic Four Unlimited. I looked at the book and couldn’t believe my eyes. “Why the hell are you drawing like Liefeld?” I asked.
“That’s what they want now,” said Herb. I could hear it in his voice. He could smell it coming a mile away.
Trimpe joined Marvel in 1967, after a year in Vietnam and three more as a student at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. Stan Lee hired him as a production assistant. But he was a solid storyteller – one who knew how to use tone and set mood, so he was soon penciling books. His technique would disappear without the right inker, but some SilverAgers got Herb right: Frank Giacoia, Sam Grainger, the Severins, and Sal Buscema?a good brush would bring out Trimpe’s surreal moodiness and retro-Fifties gloom, and we fans soaked it up. The SF/horror elements of his style?swiped from early EC, one suspects?made him the perfect choice for the brooding Hulk. He could draw faces. He could draw moods. His villains were outstanding.
Then came the new villains.
“April 1, 1995: I’m beginning to hate drawing comics. It becomes harder and harder to compete with the new creative ‘stars.’ Experience doesn’t seem to matter.”
It was true. The writing was on the wall. Perelman had swooped in out of nowhere and raped the company, and casualties were everywhere. His effort to flood the market and turn quick profits had thoroughly devalued the franchises. At its peak, F.F. Unlimited sold 30,000 copies. Just about break-even.
“Nov. 20, 1995: F.F. Unlimited was canceled this week. No warning. Went down to New York yesterday. All the editors either in meetings or out to lunch. Talked to human resources at Marvel today. The lady seemed embarrassed. Said maybe I should consider retiring. I told her I wasn’t going to hold the gun to my own head. They’d have to shoot me themselves. With a family, I need the health care benefits and income.
“Dec. 15, 1995: No matter what I say or who I call or write at Marvel, I can’t get assigned to another book. I’ve tried reason, outrage, guilt trips and begging. Nada. I haven’t been able to scrounge together enough work to meet my monthly quota. The place is a shambles. When I press, they admit sales are down and so is morale. The scuttlebutt is that more layoffs are coming.
“Jan. 26, 1996: Rumors, rumors and more rumors. Marie [Severin] says she’s having the same trouble I am?getting just the odd coloring job, no substantial work at all. The checks keep coming, but this is getting weirder and weirder. It helps to talk to someone in the same boat.
“Feb. 3, 1996: I feel like I’m turning into somebody else.”
Herb did turn into someone else. At 60, he became a teacher. Probably a damn good one, but I’m just guessing.
It’s just a shame we don’t see his comics anymore.
– Clifford Meth
[Editor’s Note: You can still see the art of Herb Trimpe?his first new comics work in nearly a decade, in The Uncanny Dave Cockrum Tribute. He also illustrates a story in Clifford Meth’s new book god’s 15 minutes.]
© 2004, Clifford Meth