Inside the Mind and Pencil of Comic Book Legend Dan Spiegle

[3 October 2013]

By J.C. Macek III

As a kid just getting into comics (more moons ago than I care to tell you) I had an affinity for the more cartoonish-style of comic book art, as opposed to the finely detailed and densely colorful artwork that more “grownup” comics seemed to have. For example, a nice issue of Western Publishing’s Four Color anthology featuring Scooby Doo or Mickey Mouse floated my proverbial boat a lot more than, say, Korak, Son of Tarzan or Space Family Robinson did.

Of course as I got older, tastes changed significantly and the opposite became true. Thus, I rediscovered the more intricate styles of these widely different artists and embraced their beauty.

What I didn’t realize at the time or even for a great long time was that these examples actually weren’t the works of wildly different artists, but the work of the same man, Dan Spiegle. To be fair, not every older comic book had full (or sometimes even partial) credits listed and many of the kids of the day would be highly unlikely to read into these credits, anyway. For adult fans, however, such revelations are amazing, hence the target market for a book like Dan Spiegle: A Life in Comic Art.

In many ways this book is a behind-the-scenes comic fan’s dream come true or, at least, a Dan Spiegle fan’s dream come true. While it’s hardly an objective look at Spiegle, his career or his artwork, the focus on and praised heaped upon the artist makes for a great history and tribute to the man he is.

This tribute begins with the foreword by the well-known (and respected) comic book writer and historian Mark Evanier. Evanier’s relationship with Spiegle stretches back to his youth, reading Four Color and never knowing who the artist was until they met. Eventually the duo worked on great projects together such as the diverse likes of DC’s Blackhawk, Eclipse’s DNAgents and Western’s Scooby Doo Mystery Comics. Evanier’s introduction to this trade paperback is the perfect setup for the tribute to follow, as he straddles the line between comic book industry professional and unbridled, gushing fan.

Evanier’s praise is echoed in the afterword written by another of Evanier’s artist collaborators. Sergio Arangones is the creator of Groo the Wanderer, but may be most recognizable to readers as the artist who draws the tiny margin doodles in the pages of MAD Magazine. Arangones also holds back little of his praise when extolling the virtues of this book’s subject. What’s the big deal? That’s the reason the book was written.

The majority of Dan Spiegle’ 140 pages is taken up by John Coates’ in depth interview with the artist, which stretches across five chapters from Spiegle’s early years to his present day work and simpler life. The Spiegle interview is more than just a remembrance of the artist, but a commentary on the way comic books were made throughout his long tenure at the drawing board. His take on the controversy surrounding TV’s Lost in Space vs. Western’s Space Family Robinson (which he worked on) is more than worth the time to read, for interested fans of either (or both).

Here Spiegle offers an insider’s look at Comics and the differing ways varied publishers created their products. Spiegle is candid about the best ways to handle the most symbiotic of gridded page relationships, that between the artist and the writer. The surprise here is that many of the writers that Spiegle worked so closely with were people he never met in person, yet their collaborations often lasted years.

Nor does Spiegle sugar coat his work relationships. While generally coming off as an affable prince of a guy, the artist has no qualms about talking about the collaborations that worked great and the collaborators that he doesn’t like as people or writers.

One collaborator Spiegle has nothing but praise for is William Boyd, who hand-picked Spiegle for his big break, drawing Boyd’s likeness in the Hopalong Cassidy comic strip. As a West Coast comics professional who often adapted Disney and other Hollywood properties for Four Color (and other publications), Spiegle was charged with drawing comic book versions of film and television projects while still in production. Some of the more interesting parts of this book involve his stories relating to meeting rising stars and visiting sets of famous movies to inform his pencil before a single episode aired or a single film premiere could take place.

Spiegle's Green Hornet and Kato

Spiegle’s Green Hornet and Kato

Naturally the main attraction here is, and should be, Spiegle’s art, and Coates spends copious amounts of time on Spiegle’s technique and his diverse amount of styles. Again, this is the man who worked so much that he was one of the best examples of the photorealistic style (for the time) as well as the cartoonish funny papers of his day.

Complementing the art (in the artist’s own words) is a great deal of the art itself, spanning multiple decades and companies. The diversity here is stunning. From a decidedly simple image of Jonny Quest to a racing scene of Herbie the Love Bug to deep film-noir darkness surrounding The Shadow, Spiegle seems to be a multi-generational master of each.

So many styles are present here from his work at Marvel, DC Western and even non-comic books, in so many differing styles that the reader would be hard pressed to believe this is all the work of one man. Hence the gift that this book is, especially when the eight glossy pages of painted art are taken into consideration. There is not a single page in the tome without artwork of some kind displayed.

As something of a trade paperback equivalent of “Bonus Features”, Dan Spiegle: A Life in Comic Art also contains informative remembrances from Spiegle’s four children, a write-up by Dan about his wife Marie, and a write up by Marie about her husband Dan, an index of all the comic art in the book (for the true collector) and an archival interview with Spiegle from 1972 from Graphic Story World. Not only does this second interview give a then-current look at the industry, but also shows that for all the changes in the industry in the past four decades, Spiegle’s story hasn’t changed.

Then again Spiegle’s story is specialized, to say the least, and it most likely would take an art or graphic novel fan to truly fall in love with this book. Nor is this book for the casual comics fan. Spiegle generally disliked the superhero genre and rarely drew those famous flying men in tights. For those fascinated by art, technique, comics history and even cool and coherent stories of the past told by a smiling older guy, you could do a lot worse than Dan Spiegle: A Life in Comic Art.

Spiegle’s Hopalong Cassidy

Spiegle’s Hopalong Cassidy

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