Cartoonist Fred Hembeck is a pioneer. I mean, who's been making fun of comic books longer than him?
Way before the dawn of the Internet and the 8 zillion funny book-ridiculing blogs that have cropped up since, he was out there, poking affectionate fun at the characters we all know and love so well.
His funny, squiggle-limbed depictions of Marvel and DC superheroes were favorites of many of us who became comic books fans in the 1970s and 80s.
I grew up reading his strips in DC and Marvel comic books, Comics Scene, Amazing Heroes and other mags he's contributed to over the years. And one of the highlights of doing this site has been getting to know him a little bit via e-mail.
If you aren't familiar with his work, it's easy enough to get that way. Just check out his great Fred Sez Web site.
But don't go there yet! Stay and read this interview first, in which Fred details his latest project--one I can't wait to see--a mammoth collection of his 'toons humorously titled "The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus," which is due out any day now from Image Comics.
Here we go:
This new book is a whopper isn't it? How many pages?
Well, there are 826 pages of my art included--add in the various text
material (each section--and there are seven in all--boast their own
introductions) and it's gotta be close to 900 pages!
I don't know the exact page count yet because I'm not sure how many pages the written
stuff will fill once the production folks shoehorn it in between all the cartoon stuff--guess we'll all find out together!!
Why did you choose such a short title for it?
Because my original title--The Kinda Sorta Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archive Omnibus Showcasing Several Previously Unpublished Masterworks seemed just a wee bit long! (I actually considered calling it A Whole Lotta Hembeck at one point, but luckily, cooler heads prevailed...)
Where should I shelve it? With my Masterworks? Archives? Essentials? I'm confused...
Do you have a family Bible? As the SECOND greatest book ever written, well--hey, I kid, I kid!
Truth is, there's no real need to shelve it at all--best to have your Hembeck Omnibus at your side and ready to dip into at all times, I'm thinking...
As I understand it, the book contains all your Dateline: @#$%! strips. What else will we see in it? Any surprises?
Oh yeah, LOTS of surprises! Pretty much every strip I've ever done for a comics oriented mag published by someone other than one of the major companies (Marvel and DC, mainly) is in there, as well as lots of other little oddities--commission illos, ads, holiday cards, a birth announcement, a few pieces of nature art, and even a caricature of yours truly done by that OTHER Hembeck, daughter Julie!
Oh, and some of the strips I did while a member of CAPA-alpha are pretty out there, like the one where Cartoon Fred gets a little, um, randy with the Golden Age Black Cat! Hey, what can I tell you--we were both a lot younger back then, y'know?...
Black Cat from Amazing Heroes Swimsuit Special
Was it a real pain in the butt to put together?
Yes and no. Organizing all those goodies was certainly one extended trip down memory lane, I'll tell you that! And all those scans! Yow--there had to be over a thousand in all (some pages have more than one piece on it, y'see), and THAT was no picnic!
But it was kind of exciting, too--even if I did have to cringe looking at some of the stuff, wondering "What the heck was I THINKING?". But publisher Erik Larsen and Al Gordon--who got this train a'rollin' in the first place--mandated that I use ALL my Dateline: @#$! strips, even the awful ones, so let me apologize in advance for what I hope is only a handful of truly dreadful pages.
So yeah, there was a lot of drudge work in pulling this thing together, but whatever the tedium amounted to, it was easily leavened by the knowledge that a big-time publisher like Image was giving me this rare opportunity to strut my stuff in one way massive package, and THAT certainly wasn't something to be taken lightly!
Comic Scene strip - click to enlarge
What made you decide to start poking fun at superhero comics? What was the first such strip you did?
The first such strip had Cartoon Fred interviewing Spider-Man about some then-recent changes regarding the folks in charge of handling his artistic chores.
I'd always intended to become your standard, garden variety super-hero artist, but after a series of interviews did not break my way, I cobbled together the aforementioned strip--not unlike a series of illustrated LOCs (letters of comments) that I'd already sent into various Marvel and DC Comics--and shipped it off blindly to Alan Light's weekly Buyer's Guide For Comics Fandom. Alan printed it, people liked it, and--boom!--we were off!
The thing is, I ALWAYS had opinions about comics back in those days, and if I was going to submit them in cartoon form, well, I figured it wouldn't hurt any to toss in a few gags along the way! Then it all just snowballed...
First Dateline: @#$%! strip, top three panels - no squiggles!
When did you develop the knee and elbow squiggle?
You won't find 'em in my very first strips, but they appear pretty early
on. I copped 'em from Mort Walker and Hank Ketcham (and Dennis the Menace ghost--and one of my very favorite cartoonists--Al Wiseman). I was likely just looking for something to dress up my otherwise rather spare drawings--who could've ever known it'd turn out to be such a signature for me? (Um, the proper answer to that one is, "I sure didn't...").
Second Dateline Dateline: @#$%! strip, top three panels - with squiggles!
Did you ever run afoul of DC or Marvel management with any of the strips you did for them?
Well, aside from that whole nasty business where the Fred Hembeck Destroys The Marvel Universe book was held back for several years--and when it did appear, it came out as a 32 page book, not the 48 pager as originally done (due mostly to events I had no control over, such as featured character Jim Shooter being ousted from the company) (folks can read the whole quasi-sordid story over at my web-site, including the dozens of never published but finished pages, as this is material that, unfortunately won't be found in the Omnibus.)
I never had much trouble. The only instance I can recall of upsetting folks--and it's a very, very mild example--was when Bob Rozakis--who was in charge of those little Daily Planet gags I did way back when (also--sorry folks--not in the Omnibus) discovered that a J'onn J'onnz strip I'd submitted to him was very similar to a gag I'd done for one of my Fantaco books. I figured since the Human Torch wasn't involved this time around, it was different enough, but Bob didn't quite concur. But like I said, hardly a major problem.
Stan Lee wrote the foreword to your new book. How'd you score that coup?
I dedicated my very first collection of strips to Stan, and somehow managed to get a copy out to him, after which, he sent off a very flattering note. But I was never more flattered than I was back in 1990 when Stan called me up, totally out of the blue, and asked me to work with him creating a cartoon series for a potential prime time slot on network TV (the is was in the wake of the initial success of The Simpsons)!
The concept was very much like what would eventually become "The Incredibles." Well, the thing didn't sell, but we've stayed in touch pretty much ever since (I even worked for the doomed Stan Lee Web site for awhile, stockpiling nearly a dozen weekly strips that also never saw the light of day, due to the site's untimely demise), and he's always said to me, "Hemby, if there's anything I can do for YOU, just ask!" So, this seemed as good a time as any to play that card, and, boy oh boy, did he ever come through for me!
Some day, I've gotta tell this story in much more detail, but trust me, the afternoon I spent on the phone, brainstorming the five main characters for our cartoon show with Stan, was just absolute magic! There's no denying I've had one peculiar career, and maybe the icing on THAT cake is that the very pinnacle of it was working on something that nobody's ever seen! Stan takes far more flak than he deserves--to me, he'll always be the greatest guy in the world!
If I was a musician, and suddenly a call came in from Paul McCartney asking me to write a song with him, THAT'D be the only thing analogous to my working with Stan! (And y'know, with my luck, that Hembeck/McCartney ditty would undoubtedly be cut from the final track listing...)
I should also mention Jim Salicrup, my long-time editor, friend, and relentless booster, who contributed a nifty Introduction to the book, immediately following Stan's Foreword. Y'know, Stan and Jim have worked together for years, and I'm delighted to be included in their little circle upon occasion--too bad I wasn't needed when they teamed up with Ringo Starr for an animated adventure recently! But, well, I DO get by with a little help from my friends, and when they're friends like Jim and Stan, yup, it sure DOES come easy!
Stan Lee birthday strip 1997 - click to enlarge
What do you think about comics fandom today? It seems you came up during a much gentler time when people who loved comics loved comics, whether they were about superheroes or from other genres, such as horror or crime or Western or newspaper strips. Today things seem so factionalized. You've got the arts comic crowd, manga, the Silver Age nostalgics, Wizard magazine readers, DC or Marvel loyalists...
Comics fandom used to be these crude but charming little hand stapled pamphlets that appeared irregularly in my mailbox. Now comics fandom is anybody with an interest in the form with a page to call their own on the Internet! Very democratic. Also, very overwhelming. But it's just like a couple of other forms of pop culture that I'm rather fond of--music and television.
There's so very many choices, it's virtually impossible for the audience not to splintered! In 1965, you could read all the comics on the stands, know all the tunes in the top 40, and, if not actually watch, at least be familiar with every show on the tube. Not today. So you just seek out what interests you. I do it. All those voices are a good thing, I suppose, but I do miss the days when everyone was pretty much on the same page...
It seems like comic books today need more making fun of than ever. Would it be easier or harder for you to do a Dateline:@#$! type of strip today?
It would be way, way harder simply because of all the reading I'd have to do--and since I don't follow 99.9 per cent of current comics, that'd be an awful lot of reading!
You've remarked on your site that you seldom, if ever, read current comics. Why did you drift away, or did the comics drift away from you?
I've been drifting ever since our daughter was born back in 1990, but I wasn't willing to admit it to myself until just a few years back. When I first started my Web site, I tried writing a few comics reviews, but realized almost immediately that I no longer had much passion for following the umpteenth updating of one of my childhood favorites--especially since a lot of the time, those updates were invariably tawdry.
Look, the Vertigo series Preacher was probably one of the last extended things I've read, and I very much enjoyed it--but I enjoyed it because all the unseemly situations that our star found himself in happened to a brand new creation, not stuff belatedly appended onto the likes of The Flash, Spider-Man, or Hawkman.
But y'know, I'm not really complaining about what's been done to those great old heroes--if this is how the companies feel they have to keep up with the times, fine. Every generation deserves their own versions, right? Well, I've had mine, and I'm happy merely to reread their exploits in the various Essentials, Archives, Masterworks, and Omnibuses flooding the market, and just sit back and smile as folks on the Web froth at the mouth over the latest desecration to a past icon!! Nothing to see here--just move along, move along...
Capa-Alpha strip - click to enlarge
You do great recreations of classic comic book covers. The covers on many of today's superhero titles seem dull to me. There's little or no copy, they don't really tease the story inside. Do you think creating a great cover is a bit of a lost art?
Well, it's all in the era. I LOVED the DC covers of the early sixties, hated the mid-sixties Go-Go Checks phase with the imitation Marvel blurbs, LOVED the sixties Marvel covers, hated the seventies era Marvel covers with all the superfluous detail, LOVED the eighties Marvel covers with their more poster-like look--just depends.
Nowadays, things appear to have shifted maybe a little TOO far in the poster direction. Everything is so well drawn, no denying it, but unfortunately, more often than not, things look awfully generic. But hey, they're not selling any of 'em to me anyway, so good luck I say! At least there aren't any Go-Go Checks!...
You have a great site and it seems quite popular. I know I get lots of traffic anytime you've linked to me (hint, hint). Do you get a lot of e-mail feedback? You seem to have a lot of fun being online.
I DO have a lot of fun with the Web site! Hard to believe I've been it for five whole years now! Of course, it's not quite as grandiose as I originally envisioned things, with all the different departments I instituted that I planned to continue expanding.
Mostly I just feed the Fred Sez blog these days, but that's still enough to maintain a nice connection with the rest of the world. I get my share of email (although, as I may've mentioned in the past, my male appendage actually gets more!), though I suppose if I had a system for leaving comments on the site, I'd hear from more folks.
No complaints, however--an awful lot of nice people have taken the opportunity to drop me a line saying swell things about my past efforts in the years since I established my site, and I gotta tell ya, that's tremendously gratifying! And I've also made cyber-friends with a whole bunch of site-wielding folks such as yourself, John, and that's just the virtual cherry on the virtual top, y'know?
What's up next?
While I continue to take on commissions and hawk my drawings on eBay I'm also in discussions regarding not one but two major projects! Details haven't been set yet, so I can't say much more, save that one would be a brand-new limited series done in tandem with a writer who's resume would be immediately familiar to folks who've read mainstream comics over the past couple of decades, and the other an autobiographical graphic novel zeroing in on my very favorite year, 1964!
There's bound to be some other fun stuff coming up too, all because, well, one of the obvious benefits of the Omnibus seems to be it's reminding people, hey, that Hembeck guy is still around--maybe we should figure out ways to make use of his quirky talents? Well, so far, so good--I'm loving this semi-revival of interest, and am having as much fun at the drawing board these days I did way back in the beginning (and way more so than at several junctures in between, truth be told...). All I can say is, stay tuned to for further developments as they occur! And--oh yeah--please buy my book!
Bonus! My Hembeck original!
Here's an original piece Fred kindly and amazingly did for a couple years back depicting a merger of two of my key obsessions: Batman and the Beatles!
All art in this post copyright Fred Hembeck