Herb Trimpe didn’t care much for superheroes, but he worked for one of the genre’s most enduring titles and brought to life one of its most popular characters.
The Incredible Herb TrimpePublisher: TwoMorrows
Length: 160 pages
Author: Dewey Cassell and Andrew Sultan
Publication date: 2015-07
When it comes to the history of Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby gets most of the attention, and rightly so. Along with Stan Lee, the King created or co-created nearly the entire Marvel Universe, the same characters -- or, if you’re a suit at Disney, intellectual properties -- currently ruling the box office. Kirby was Marvel’s go-to guy because he was an amazing talent, but he was also lightning fast, finishing pages at a blistering pace and leaving his contemporaries eating his eraser dust. Still, despite his speed and royal title, he was just one man, and comics are, those same Disney suits will remind us, a business.
Enter Herb Trimpe. There were others -- Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Larry Leiber, John Romita, Gene Colan, John and Sal Buscema, Bill Everett -- all of whom longtime Marvel fans will know. Unlike Lee and Kirby, however, you likely won’t see their names on any Marvel movies. They weren’t responsible for Marvel’s Big Bang, but artists like Trimpe helped sustain its impact, creating wave after wave of fans and influencing countless creators with their renditions of the House of Ideas iconic characters.
TwoMorrows’ The Incredible Herb Trimpe is an oral history told in large part through interviews with the Trimpe himself, supplemented throughout with interviews with his contemporaries and collaborators. In their introduction to the book, co-authors Dewey Cassell and Aaron Sultan write, “There are those people who work largely in the background, who don’t seek fame or notoriety, but who get the job done time and again, making a big impact without making a sound.” This is the Trimpe we get to know in these pages.
After serving in Vietnam as an Air Force weather observer, he began inking westerns at Marvel in the mid-'60s, then he moved to the production department where he operated the company’s first photostat machine. He was a man who didn’t care much for superheroes, but he worked for eight years on one of the genre’s most enduring titles (The Incredible Hulk) and his pencil brought to life one of the genre’s most popular characters (Wolverine).
Though he remained humble about his contributions to comics, he prided himself on his storytelling abilities, as well as his preference for the so-called “Marvel Method” of creating comics. Back when Lee was writing nearly every book Marvel released, he would bat around story ideas with artists like Trimpe. They’d iron out the story beats for a given issue, then the artist would go off and draw the issue based on their own interpretation of the plot. After the art was done, Lee would add dialogue and text.
Trimpe preferred working this way because it allowed him flex his storytelling muscles, something working from a full script only stifled. This remains a pretty bold approach to storytelling, one that seems to have fallen out of favor with today’s creators. It’s amazing that it created such enduring work, and it's a testament to the abilities of the writers and artists who used this method.
This book is an excellent addition to other TwoMorrows publications focusing on creators, their process, and the history of comics not just as a medium but as an industry. There are wonderful reproductions of original Trimpe artwork and sketches, unused covers, house ads, and more, albeit just a fraction of the countless illustrations Trimpe did throughout his career. These are details not seen on the hype pages and letter columns of old, and it’s important work because many industry veterans, Trimpe included, have passed away. Sure, the 91-year-old Lee is a treasure trove of anecdotes, but his role as a pitchman calcified into a Disneyized version of comics history long before the Mouse acquired Marvel.
Throughout the '70s and '80s Trimpe worked on a number of licensed comics for Marvel, including Transformers and G.I. Joe, but by the '90s work began to dry up. Fans gravitated toward artists like Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, whose bombastic styles Trimpe tried to employ in comics like the quarterly series Fantastic Four Unlimited. When Marvel went bankrupt in the mid-'90s Trimpe was via mail after 29 years with the company, a large package of legal documents for him to sign arriving on his doorstep unannounced.
After comics, Trimpe became a public school teacher, focusing on art and remedial math, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, he served as a chaplain at Ground Zero in New York City. Over the course of eight months he prayed over the remains of victims and prayed with rescue workers and others trying to cope with the tragedy. He may not have cared much for superheroes, but he clearly knew a thing or two about real life heroes.
Trimpe died in the spring of 2015 at 75. This book is both a great introduction to a great artist, but also a loving tribute to a person who cared deeply for his craft.