G-Man Interviews Fred Hembeck!
Fred Hembeck is a talented guy. He worked at both DC Comics and Marvel comics in the 1970s and 1980s. Fred was so nice enough to give me some of his time and agreed to answer some of my kooky questions. So on with the show...
G-Man: You're widely known for your humor and "funny" pictures. You've worked at both DC and Marvel. How did you "get in" and what was your official position?
Fred Hembeck: Well, I never did have any sort of "official position", but I guess you could call me the fan-boy court jester if you like!
As to HOW I got in, man, that's a convoluted story! Basically, I really wanted to be your traditional super-hero type artist, and dreamt of one day illustrating the likes of Captain America and the Fantastic Four! But when I took my samples up to the big companies back in the summer of 1977, well, they just didn't measure up. I was bummed, no doubt about it. But I kept drawing to keep my spirits up, and besides practicing my anatomy as I was advised to, I spent a fair amount of time cobbling together cartoon letters to both my girl friend (now wife)Lynn, as well as my college roommates, all of whom I'd just left after spending the previous four years with. Since they all knew what I looked like--beard, and my hair parted in the middle--I came up with my now quasi-well known self-caricature. But I also sent off a few letters to Marvel using the same approach, and Iron Man scribe Bill Mantlo was impressed enough by the one I sent him that he asked me to redraw it for publication (I'd used various colored pens for the original one I'd sent in), and he wound up using it in the letter column of Iron Man 112! That sparked me to go a little further with this newfound cartoony style of mine, so I threw together a nine panel strip of Fred interviewing Spider-Man and sent it off to the weekly trade paper, The Buyer's Guide For Comics Fandom (known today as The Comic's Buyers Guide). What can I say? I was as surprised as anybody that my goofy little strips--part geeky reminiscences, part vaudeville comedy--became as popular as they did! And soon enough, Marvel and DC were contacting me to crank out some of my silliness for them! I never did get back to those anatomy books...
G-Man: As a life long fan of comics, do you remember what your first comic book was? Character?
Fred: The short answer is Spooky, the Tuff Little Ghost, but c'mon--my answers are NEVER short!
Here's how it happened: a co-worker of my dad had a kid who was outgrowing comics, so he wondered if I might want them. This is 1959--I'm six at the time. Rather than take on the whole magilla, dad brings home a sample issue, the aforementioned Casper spin-off. Needless to say, I go for it in a big way, and soon after, dad brings home a large cardboard box full of goodies! Save for one Jimmy Olsen and one World's Finest, they're all kiddie type comics--Dells, Harveys, and the like. But they were enough to get me going, and enough to pester my sweet old grandmother to buy me fresh new issues for the next several years, until a kid at school peaked my interest enough in the Superman Family via the Bizarros (who'd just gotten their very own series) and "The Night of March 31st", aka the Great Boo-Boo Contest, to motivate me to seek out the not-so-funny titles. By the summer of 1961, I was buying EVERY DC comic that featured a costume character (except for Space Ranger in Tales of the Unexpected--him I never could warm up to for some reason...), as well as The Fly and The Jaguar from Archie (AND I was following all the teen-age antics of the Riverdale gang as well). Marvel--or Atlas as they were known back then--THEM I stayed away from! I thought those Fin Fang Foom-type books were just too creepy for a kid like me, and it wasn't until I was too sick to go into the store where I usually bought my comics the following February that I accidentally became a convert. Y'see, coming home from a doctor's visit (I had a mild case of scarlet fever), my mom went into the store while I waited out in the car, parked right in front of the window by the magazine rack. She held up various books for me to give either thumbs up or down to, and one unfamiliar book particularly intrigued me (I think it was the circus-style like lettering of the logo that sealed the deal for me). That's how I got myself a copy of Fantastic Four #4--AND that's how my life pretty much changed for all time! Cuz, THEN I was hooked for all time!
G-Man: Who were some of your inspirations as you started out?
Fred: The best stuff found in that box o' kiddie comics--Dennis the Menace written by Fred Toole and drawn by Al Wiseman, Little Lulu by John Stanley (layouts and words) and Irving Tripp (finished art), and Little Archie by Bob Bolling--still remain an inspiration to me. And Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, as well as The Fantastic Four by Stan and Jack Kirby, provided me with the desire to make comics of my own. Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Carmine Infantino, Wally Wood, and later in my teen years, Neal Adams and Jim Steranko, all played a part in spurring me on. But Stan Lee has probably been my single greatest inspiration!
G-Man: When and how did you get the idea to add the culiques to your characters' knees?
Fred: Dunno. It just happened one day. Taking a look at some of very earliest cartooning work recently, I noticed that the squiggles weren't there. But they did turn up soon after. Best I can figure, I stole the idea from one of three (or maybe all) cartoonists: Mort Walker, Don Martin, and/or Al Wiseman. Who knew they'd become such a distinct signature? Not me, that's for sure...
G-Man: Do you still read comics today? Are there any titles that stick out as a favorite of yours?
Fred: No, actually, I don't. I tried keeping up for the longest time, honest--and have piles of unread books to prove it--but after a certain point, eventually came to realize I'd read all the new super-hero comics I'll ever need to. These days, I pick up the occasional indie-style title, but I've found that all those previously unread Masterworks and Archives on the book shelf downstairs make for fine reading! Wallowing in the genius of Stan, Jack and Steve found in the recent FF and Spidey Omnibus volumes, rereading those stories for the first time in literally decades, was about as much fun as a person my age is allowed to have!
G-Man: Being known for your humor and satire, what do you think about the current darkness in today's comics? It seems the current trend is to beat up and tear down the characters to make them "better" (i.e. Spider-man, Captain America, etc).
Fred: Not to be an old crank, but that's clearly part of the thing that turned me away from today's comics. One of the last new things I did read was the complete run of Vertigo's Preacher. Now that's a pretty extreme series, but ultimately, one of the most satisfying that I've ever read. All too often nowadays, though, it seems that the procedure is to take a story like that and meld it onto an ill-advised revival of Ultra the Multi-Alien, Devil Dinosaur, or the like, and hats off to Garth Ennis for messing with his own characters and not dumping all over an already established one. Although I read a fair amount of books up through the mid-nineties--and even a few right up to the millennium--in my mind, most of my childhood faves ended for me in the mid-eighties. And I'm okay with that, honest. Just don't try and make me believe Captain America is dead, cuz to me, he never will be.
G-Man: You've always used Brother Voodoo as the butt of your jokes since he was such an easy target. Did you catch Bendis' portrayal of him in New Avengers? Has he finally redeemed himself or is he still a joke?
Fred: This is the first of I've heard of this development! Now you've got me curious--at least a little, anyway...
[I filled him in.]
G-Man: When drawing a full page, what is your average rate of completion? How many pages can you crank out?
Fred: The amount of time spent on a page varies wildly, all according to how much detail--and how many words--I chose to include. I could do a couple of simple pages, start to finish, in a single day if pushed, but the thing is, I rarely do any simple pages!
G-Man: Do you have any rituals or habits when preparing to draw? Certain music on, certain meal before, etc?
Fred: Nah. Just drink a lot of Lipton tea and either have the stereo cranking or a Mets game on the tube.
G-Man: Have you ever experienced any "injuries" from drawing? Do you do any "exercises" to keep your drawing arm in shape?
Fred: Nope! I'm in pretty decent shape.
(Okay, so some of my answers ARE short!...)
G-Man: Do you regularly attend conventions? Do people recognize you? Do they come up to you or are they intimidated?
Fred: I used to attend a whole lot back when I first started getting published, but I cut back on my con-going severely in the past several decades. For one thing, I hate to fly--it, um, scares me. But over the last few years, I've been getting out more, making it down to conventions within comfortable driving distance (including a few in NYC). Happily, some people do recognize me (or at least the big sign that says "Fred Hembeck" propped up on the table next to me), and enough of them do come up to me so that if there are any that actually are intimidated by me (ha! The very idea!...), I really have no clue about it! Cons are always fun, though--people are generally very nice to me!
G-Man: Who is your favorite character to draw?
Fred: Of the established characters, Spider-Man. The Hulk can be fun as well.
G-Man: Who is the biggest pain to draw?
Fred: Goofballs with overly detailed outfits such as Jack of Hearts and Judge Dredd are two that come immediately to mind.
G-Man: What is the strangest art request you've had that you can remember?
Fred: I was commissioned--against my better judgment--to redo a pair of Betty and Veronica Double Digests covers, only substituting for Ms.Cooper a caricature of my customer's 13 year old daughter--and this was her Christmas present! The poor kid. I told him I wasn't very good at doing caricatures, but in the end, I let him talk me into it. I was weak--I took the money. I never heard from him again after I sent off the art, and I can only imagine the horror when the poor girl realized what really GOOD gifts dad coulda bought her with the money he wasted on me...
G-Man: (Glad it wasn't mine.) What is the most common request?
Fred: It used to be Wolverine, but nowadays it's Spidey. As for covers redos, FF 49--the one with the big Galactus head and the Silver Surfer's first cover appearance--has been requested a half dozen times, as has the first issue of Spider-Man.
G-Man: Have you ever posted anonymously on message boards to "stir" things up?
Fred: No. I've barely ever posted on message boards, period.
G-Man: What does your wife think of comics? Does she like them? (Mine doesn't but my 4 year old daughter does so far). Can she appreciate them since it's been your source of income?
Fred: Lynn had only a passing acquaintance with them growing up, like most people, but for a while there in the early eighties, she was reading a bunch of stuff, including the first hundred or so issues of Spider-Man. But then, round abouts the time of the Crisis, she just lost interest, and that was pretty much that. My daughter professes to actually be unable to read comics! And they'd both appreciate them a whole lot more if my income was heftier, lemme tell you!
G-Man: Any plans to "destroy" Marvel (or another Universe) any time soon? Any plans for a full length comic? (if Franklin, Son of a Genius can get published, "Petey, The Adventures of Peter Parker Before He Became Spider-Man" is a shoe in).
Fred: I would like nothing better than to do a full-length Petey comic, but there are no current plans to do so. Damn...
G-Man: (Okay everyone, start e-mailing Marvel demanding Lil' Pete.)
G-Man: Will we ever see a Fred Hembeck Omnibus reprinting all your Marvel Age strips?
Fred: Back in 1990, Fred Hembeck $ell$ The Marvel Universe was a 32 page compilation of the best of my Marvel Age strips, which is likely as close as we'll ever get to seeing those particular strips preserved anywhere outside of their original home.
G-Man: Marvel Civil War. Who was right, Cap or Iron Man?
Fred: Again, though I do at times check reviews on blogs in an attempt to keep up, I never did quite understand this whole Civil War thing, so I'm gonna have to go with the safe answer and say Lincoln.
G-Man: Ice cream: Chocolate or vanilla? (or other)?
Fred: Strawberry--and I'm not just saying that to be a wise guy.
G-Man: Favorite Beatles song? (mine is Across the Universe).
Fred: For years it was Hey Jude, but nowadays I'm partial to Eight Days A Week, Day Tripper, I've Just Seen A Face, and All My Loving--but that's more than one, isn't it? Sorry to be so difficult...
G-Man: Last good movie you saw?
Fred: The best movie I saw this summer was Little Miss Sunshine, but I also dug The Simpsons Movie, Mr. Bean's Holiday, Knocked Up, and Spidey 3 (again with the multiples--oops). And I haven't seen the new FF one yet, but I will--despite its obvious flaws, I liked the first one quite a bit.
G-Man: On our site we have "battles" section in the forums with the characters. One of the craziest we had (long running) was Spider-Man vs Wonder Woman. Staying true to the characters, you do you think would win?
Fred: Wonder Woman, cuz Spidey's too much the gentleman to do what's necessary to take the Amazon out!
G-Man: Do you have anything you're working on (that you'd like to plug)?
Fred: Well, I would--I really. REALLY would--but since it hasn't been officially announced yet, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to keep my lips zipped for now. When it is announced, I'll be sure and let you know--it's gonna be a fairly substantial project, one I hope a lotta folks are gonna look forward to!
In the meantime, there's always my website, Hembeck.com--always love to get a plug in for that!
G-Man: I can't wait. Last question, since you've drawn yourself into Marvel published comics, does that mean that Marvel "own" the "Fred Hembeck" character, meaning they own you?
Fred: Nope! Take a peak at the small print on the first page of The Fantastic Four Roast--and any of the other book-length one-shots I've done for Marvel--and you'll clearly see that it says "Fred Hembeck copyright Fred Hembeck". My Marvel Age strips have the same notice printed underneath them. After not appearing in a Marvel Comic in over a decade, Cartoon Fred returned in this past year's Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man--but not without a call from one of their lawyers and a letter assuring both parties that though Fred belongs to me, they can print those two particular pages whenever they want! Fine by me, but just proof that things aren't quite as loose as they used to be.
G-Man: Thank you so much for the interview.
Fred: You're welcome just as much!
Check out Fred's webpage for more of his work plus your chance to own some original artwork.