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DF Interview: Fred Hembeck honored by publisher whose ‘Universe’ he destroyed
By Byron Brewer
In a few months, the Secret Wars event promises to destroy the existing Marvel Comics Universe as it exists, reassembling it for a time into a patchwork planet called Battleworld.
In 1989, a similar force wafted through the Marvel U., utterly obliterating what existed at the time. It was not Galactus. It was not a White Event. It was not a Cosmic Incursion.
It was Fred Hembeck.
In June, Marvel Comics honors the renowned cartoonist and satirist with his own one-shot. To learn more, we went to the Universal Destroyer himself. (Fred, we think either Odin or Drax has a copyright on that moniker, FYI.) Here is what Mr. Hembeck told us.
Dynamic Forces: First, let me say it is an honor to speak to you, Mr. Hembeck. Some of the most oddball moments in what we used to call “Not Brand Echh” strips came from your pen in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Fred Hembeck: That's very kind of you to say. I have a special set of oddball pens that I use, so apparently, they're doing their job!
DF: Congratulations on the recent announcement that Marvel, where you did some of your most iconic satirical works, is paying tribute to you in June with “House of Hem,” a 104-page one shot featuring multiple stories from over the years. Tell us what you can about this, and how does it feel?
Fred Hembeck: It feels great, to be totally honest. It's not anything I really expected. When I ran into Tom Brevoort -- who's been a long-time supporter of my work -- at the Baltimore Con last September, he said there was some talk around the offices of putting together a collection of my stuff, but I figured, I'll believe it when I see it. After all, the last thing I did for Marvel was back in 2010 -- and oddly enough (as well as happily) -- THAT made the cut for this book! It's a ten page Spider-Man story that has previously only seen the light of day on Marvel's digital site, meaning a lot of folks, myself included, have never seen it in its finished form. It features the Sinister Six (plus one), the Human Torch, Mary Jane, and JJJ, and plays more like a sitcom version of the Spider-Man feature than a parody strip, and I've always been extremely proud of it. For that reason alone I'm thrilled this collection is being published. Besides that, there's the two big ones: Fantastic Four Roast and Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe, with the book rounded out with a five page story I did for a 1999 Hulk Annual, as well as a sampling of my Marvel Age strips. I provided a written intro and a new wraparound cover -- the Marvel folks chose the material and came up with the name, which, I'm chagrined to admit, I didn't initially understand. "House of Hem", "House of M"-- oh, NOW I get it! I guess it shows you how I'm not quite on top of Marvel Universe events like I once was, and haven't been for awhile, but hey, I still love those characters, and am happy to once again be a part, however peripheral, of their current publishing line! And with all the Petey, Spider-Ham, What The?, and other miscellaneous pages available for reprinting, there's more than enough material for a second volume! So, maybe if enough fans buy THIS one …?
DF: Did you always want to be an artist? Who were some of your inspirations, inside or outside comic books?
Fred Hembeck: My kindergarten teacher told my mother that she thought I had talent, and should be encouraged. Mom pretty much immediately told me this, and the seed was planted from that very moment. Five years old and already with a life-plan -- one that actually worked out! Wow. A year later, dad brought home a cast-off copy of Spooky The Tuff Little Ghost given to him by a co-worker whose kid had outgrown comics. I loved it, so he then brought home a full box of cast-off comics, mostly of the kiddie variety. Three of my greatest influences were in there: John Stanley, mastermind of my favorite all-time comic, Little Lulu; Bob Bolling, writer-artist of Little Archie; and Al Wiseman, who drew Fred Toole's clever Dennis the Menace scripts. A few years later, in 1961, I started buying comics on my own, initially enamored by Mort Weisinger's Superman Family titles, and then, a year later, stumbled across Fantastic Four #4, and THAT sealed the deal for me for life! I fell in love with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko (my favorite single cartoonist), and most especially, Stan Lee. As early as 1965, Stan's happy go lucky patter seems a wee bit canned, but if you were there from the start like I was, at a highly impressionable age, watching as Stan gleefully promoted his ground-breaking line in an enthusiastic yet self-effacing manner, well, it's something that'll stay with you for life. It sure did with me. Stan Lee, it seemed, was one adult who was REALLY talking to ten-year old Fred -- gotta love him for that. Other inspirations would be comedians and sit-coms: Jack Benny is the top of the comedian list, and such shows as "Sgt. Bilko", "I Love Lucy", "Burns and Allen", and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" all helped to shape my approach to comedy. Which is probably why, in 90% of the actual stories I've written (as opposed to single pagers), the "wacky mix-up" is a plot device I gleefully employ!
DF: How did this unique satirical style of yours develop? I heard it had something to do with illustrations in letters to college friends?
Fred Hembeck: My career is like one big happy accident. Initially, I prepared a portfolio of standard straight adventure artwork. That was my goal, just to be a guy who'd draw a Superman story, or a Fantastic Four one. Writing? Nope -- not even a consideration. But when I showed my work around the offices of Marvel and DC back in the summer of '77, it was not received the way I'd hoped, not even close. Bummed out but not broken, I returned home and planned to cobble together a new portfolio. I even went out and bought the Andrew Loomis anatomy book that DC Art Director Vinnie Colletta advised me to pick up -- all before he ended our interview with "I'd like to tell you you have a future in comics, kid, but I'd just be jerking you off", accompanied by -- no lie -- the appropriate hand gesture! So yeah, I had to get past THAT! In an effort to keep my spirits up, as I planned this second, ultimately mythical follow-up portfolio, I drew dozens of cartoony letters to my college roommates, who I'd only recently been separated from. It was for them that I came up with my cartoony caricature. They obviously knew what I looked like, and realized that was my hair parted in the middle, NOT a cleft in my skull like some readers later assumed! And the other funny thing was, aside from one quick strip done to advertise a friend's end of the school year party, I'd never attempted a cartoony style before. But here I was, diving in with both feet, while perfunctorily copying a few pages out of the Loomis book, preparing for the second portfolio that never was. And no, I have absolutely NO regrets about not realizing my original dream. My stuff that I was trying to peddle wasn't all that great, I realize in retrospect, and maybe, with a lot of hard work, I could've achieved just enough mediocrity to garner a pencilling assignment on an issue or two of a third tier title, only to soon disappear from between the pages of comics forever. No, this worked out MUCH better -- and has been a heckuva lot of fun along the way as well!!
DF: What was the step that really got your art known throughout the comics world, would you say?
Fred Hembeck: First, there were the letters. Besides sending off cartoony communiques to personal pals, I sent off illustrated letters of comment to various comics. Previously, I'd sent off plenty of standard LOCs to various series, and had maybe a couple of dozen printed, so they sorta knew me. Bill Mantlo was so impressed with one I sent into Iron Man, he asked me to redraw it for publication (I used color markers on the original), and even offered to pay me for it! What a tremendous thrill! I even made a photocopy of that first check -- $35 -- just in case I never saw another one! Oh, ye of little faith, huh? Another letter I wrote -- one I TOTALLY forgot about until it turned up on Jim Shooter's blog a year or so back -- enthusiastically praised the then-new writer on the Avengers comic. When I reread it online, it suddenly occurred to me that THIS letter was what put me in so good with Shooter -- and when he became editor-in-chief, that's why he thought of me for the likes of FF Roast! I was, without truly realizing it, setting myself up for future work at Marvel by mailing in that letter! Another happy accident. But what REALLY got the attention of the pros was my Dateline:@#$! strip that I was doing for the weekly Buyer's Guide For Comic Fandom. Again, it was launched on a whim: why not draw up something a little more refined than the LOCs I'd been sending off, this time for potential publication, mixing in my extensive knowledge of comics with my penchant for cornball patter, all hosted by my cartoony doppelganger? So, "I" interviewed Spider-Man, sent the page off to publisher Alan Light, he ran it, asked for more, and it was an immediate hit. I scrawled my address at the bottom of the page, and soon, mail from all sort of folks wound up in my post box -- including from DC and Marvel staffers! When Tony Tollin, Mike Gold, and Bob Rozakis asked me to provide gag strips for DC's Daily Planet page, christening it -- for the lack of better title -- "Hembeck", THAT'S when (Iron Man #112 aside) my work finally made it to the nation's newsstands on a regular basis! And this all happened in slightly less than a year after Mr. C sent me on my way, predicting I'd never (figuratively) darken their doors again! (And of course, in a bit of irony that I'm certain escaped him, Vinnie would eventually wind up inking my pencils of the Destruction book -- and not because I WANTED him to, either, but the whole sordid back-story behind that publication is too long to go into here; interested readers are advised to go to Hembeck.com and find the lengthy piece I wrote regarding that project, as well as the never printed framing story that was meant to accompany what was ultimately published.)
DF: You have got to tell us the development of your ongoing love/hate relationship with Brother Voodoo! (And family!)
Fred Hembeck: I was at convention in Toronto a couple years before attempting to break into the biz. The first Superman/Spider-Man team-up book had just been announced, and trust me, it was a big, BIG deal! Marv Wolfman and Len Wein were there on a panel together, and when it was time for questions from the audience, a rather serious but totally clueless fellow stepped up to the mic and asked, "But why Superman and Spider-Man?" I don't recall if it was Len or if it was Marv, but one of them shot back, "Well, it was either that or the Brother Voodoo and Brother Power the Geek team-up" to big laughs from the crowd! THAT cemented in my mind an association of Brother Voodoo -- actually, a fairly decent character who had the unfortunate timing to come along just as the seventies Marvel monster explosion was coming to an abrupt halt, vastly truncating his comic book career -- with one of DC's most misguided attempts at sixties era relevance. The truth is, Brother Voodoo is really a pretty cool character, but when I started my feature in Marvel Age -- which ran over 100 issues, I believe -- there'd be occasions when I'd need a patsy, and well, Bro V was it. Sorry, Jericho -- nothing personal, honest.
DF: Aside from Brother Voodoo (obviously), who or what has been your favorite object of satire?
Fred Hembeck: I suppose the Weisinger era Superman Family titles, with their twisted tales of jealousy, betrayal, and astonishingly complex plot machinations that would ultimately lead to something as simple as making sure that the photos taken of Superman for a postage stamp wouldn't be head on so that if Lois Lane got a letter post-marked from Rangoon, the two "o"s wouldn't mimic Clark Kent's glasses and give away his secret identity! Really! That was a story! How could I not want to satirize stuff like THAT?
DF: So Mr. Hembeck, anything new coming down the pike from you?
Fred Hembeck: In July, 10 Marvel comics will sport variant covers by moi (as of this writing, I still have nine to do), so that should be fun. I've been providing covers for the six special and seasonal issues of "Comic Shop News", continue my Dateline:@#$! strip in each issue of TwoMorrows "Comic Book Creator", and can always be found on eBay, peddling my sketch cards and other art, as well as taking on commissions from hither and yon. I'm VERY busy these days, and thrilled to be so. Hopefully, once all my current obligations are taken care of, I'll have a chance to do some more actual stories, something I haven't had much time for recently. But when I DO get the chance, I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun. I've got this great idea for a story -- there's this wacky mix-up, y'see ....
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Fred Hembeck for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions and congratulate him on this great honor from Marvel Comics. Well deserved! The House of Hem one shot hits stories in June!
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