Herb Trimpe: If It Ain’t Fun, It Ain’t Comics

Herb Trimpe at Big Apple Con 2008. (Photo Credit: Nightstorm.)

A cheerful Herb Trimpe
at Big Apple Con 2008.
(Photo Credit: Luigi Novi.)

One of Marvel Comics’ premiere artists, Herb Trimpe became renowned in the Seventies for drawing The Incredible Hulk. While Jack Kirby co-created the big green goliath, it was Trimpe who gave him his greatest, most memorable form. Through his distinct visual style, he effectively brought out both the menace and sadness in the hounded alter ego of scientist Bruce Banner.

As a result of tackling the Hulk from the late Sixties through the first half of the Seventies, Trimpe was the first artist to draw Wolverine, who later became the most popular character in the famed X-Men franchise. His considerable talents also landed him work on The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor, G.I. Joe, Marvel Team-Up and numerous other Marvel titles into the mid-Nineties. Trimpe’s name and work are legendary to life-long comics readers such as myself, and his work is inspiring younger artists as well.

I met Trimpe briefly at this year’s New York Comic Con and really wanted to have him draw my portrait. But I was on assignment and had limited time, plus there were always admirers at his table wanting a word, a portrait or simply a chance to watch a master in action. So a few months later I contacted him directly through his website. Taking a break from his busy activity, Trimpe conducted an interview with A.D.D. to fill us in on his recent activities, his thoughts on the Hulk’s evolution over the years, the Marvel movies and much, much more.

Next time you’re in NYC, Herb, I’m getting that portrait!

What was it like working with Mike Mignola on BPRD: War On Frogs last year? Did you make any conscious attempts to emulate his style at all, or did you just interpret the characters as you saw fit?
Very easy, low key. When we communicated, it was via e-mail.  Not being that familiar with the characters, I tried to keep them true to the originals.

How did the process of working on that series differ from the classic Marvel Comics you worked on?
Stan [Lee] never worked with scripts — at least not by the time I got there. The Marvel way, Stan’s way, had the artist visualize the pictures from brief plot lines. The script followed for the letterer’s benefit. On BPRD, I worked from a full script, but with leeway as to input I felt strongly about. It’s actually harder to work from a full script because you are looking at the story through the writer’s eyes, and it needs to be interpreted so it works for you, the penciler.


Trimpe penciled last year's
BPRD: War On Frogs mini-series.
(Image ©2008 Dark Horse Comics.)

What do you think of the way comic book art has become more digital in its creation?
I hadn’t noticed except for the coloring.  That’s fine, but I like hand-lettering more than lettering programs, no matter how clever they are. The one thing that’s fantastic about comics is the original art is produced the way it was 70 or 80 years ago — hand-drawn with a pencil and eraser and finished with pens, brushes, India ink and nowadays, markers.

What has been your favorite comic book and comic character to draw out of your entire career and why?
Probably the Hulk. We had a lot of fun on that one, and it was early enough on that the corporate sharks hadn’t eaten the company alive yet.

I noticed that when you worked with inker Jack Abel, such as on Iron Man, that your art took on a more Kirby-esque style. Was that conscious?
If true, it’s a coincidence. What you see is probably what Jack Abel’s contribution brought to the strip.

Are there any villains that you’d like to see in future Iron Man movies? I think Commander Kraken the pirate could be a fun one.
Not any I can think of. Iron Man was the best movie of the superhero lot, in my opinion. It was mature and intelligently presented with a nice touch of humor, appealing not just to comic fans. You have to be careful not to select a silly villain. The X-Men were good, but most of the villains that appear in movies come off as pretty silly. You’ve got to be careful who you choose.


The Hulk at the mercy of the Sandman on the cover of The Incredible Hulk #113,
March 1969.

You worked on The Incredible Hulk for several years and were its best artist. What did you like most about working on that series?
Thanks for the compliment. On the Hulk, the stories were varied and fun. Each writer involved got into the character and basically, we had a ball. In comics, fun is the operative word. If it ain’t that, it ain’t comics. There came a time when a lot of people in the business started taking themselves too seriously, both in management and on the creative end. If you’re not having a good time, what’s the point?

What do you think of the more oversized and grotesque depictions of the Hulk since the late Eighties?
Stupid.  It’s become homogenized. There was a time when there was no doubt who did the art.  You had an Everett or a Romita, or a Buscema, Ditko or Kirby — very distinct styles. I think the Japanese influence on American comics has been detrimental — manga and so forth.  Modern-day comic books are distinctly an American cultural thing, in my opinion, like rock ‘n roll or baseball.  We do it best.  The more distinct the artists’ styles are, the more fun.  Again, fun is the point.

Are you not a fan of any manga?
It was somewhat attractive at first, but I got bored with it.

What do you think of the two theatrical Hulk films? Why do you think they failed to catch on in the way that the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises have?
They weren’t good. The Hulk is nothing without Banner. You’ve got to play the Hulk as a victimized Bruce Banner — that he’s a beast, but he’s also human. This is basically the human condition. It’s the pathos of playing the two manifestations against each other. The story of the Hulk is a sad story first, not a violent one. His violence is the result of his condition, like Frankenstein’s monster. I think these are the elements that made the character successful in the comics.

Metal on metal: Iron Man and Kraken the pirate battle it out in Iron Man #94.

Metal on metal: Iron Man and Commander Kraken
battle it out in Iron Man #94, January 1977.

One can buy the entire run of The Incredible Hulk and other classic series on CD-ROM. How do you feel about people looking at comics on their computer?
Pretty good. I am working on a computer comic with a couple of other people as we speak.

Comic book movies and television shows are huge, but that does not seem to be affecting the sale of comic books. Why do you think that is, and do you think we’ll see an upswing in sales in the future?
Whatever comic sales are now, they were a whole lot better thirty years ago in terms of individual titles, even though the characters were generally less known — Batman and Superman being the exception. I think the movies and TV shows have had a very positive effect on overall comic sales. Hulk had a TV show and that probably helped sales back then. Nowadays, sales are split between so many titles that individual titles don’t sell as well as they used to. If anything, the movies have brought the characters to more people, probably creating a greater, broad-based interest.  The hope is this will continue to build the print readership.

How did the Marvel Comics bankruptcy in the mid-1990s affect you?
I got fired. Actually, “terminated” was the word. There wasn’t any more work to be had, at least for me. We all saw it coming, those of us who were let go, and for me, it was basically a salaried position that I was let go from. In all fairness, I was totally free to seek work on a freelance basis, but call it what you like, if there ain’t no work, there ain’t no work. That said, I was affected in a very positive way. I was forced to move on. I hadn’t been having a whole lot of fun drawing comics, and had realized for several months, if not years previously, it was time to go. I just needed a shove.

With the help of Reed Richards, Bruce Banner not only gains control over his transformation into the Hulk, but he can also retain control of his mind in his bulked up state.

With the help of Fantastic Four leader Reed Richards, Bruce Banner not only gains control over his transformation into the Hulk, but he can also retain control of his mind in his bulked up state. The Incredible Hulk #123, January 1970.

Have you stayed in touch with Stan Lee?
No.  I hear he’s still an energetic whirlwind of activity.  God bless him.

After your departure from Marvel, how did teaching aspiring artists for two years change your life? What is the best advice you can give to students?
Practice. Something I had no patience for. It kept me from being the complete comic book artist — but I was/am a very good storyteller and that came naturally. I don’t like to do things I have to work at. Teaching was a tough job.  Much tougher than comics. All teachers should get the civilian version of the Medal of Honor. Outsiders don’t have a clue as to what really goes on, and teachers tend to keep that kind of thing inside the loop.

A colorful Trimpe cover.

A dramatic and colorful Trimpe cover featuring Killraven. Amazing Adventures #20, September 1973.

When did you become an ordained deacon, and why did you choose to write The Power of Angels?
I was ordained a deacon by the Episcopal Diocese in New York in 1991.  The book was a compilation of material that was journaled during the 9/11 recovery process at Ground Zero in New York in order to process the events that took place while I was volunteering there.  It helped to put things in order.  The distilled version of the journal became the book, and the book was mainly published for friends and family so they could get an idea of what went on there.  If there was any money to be made, which there wasn’t, it was to go to a charity to be designated by me.

Which comic story are you most proud of having written?
I didn’t write many, but the ones I wrote were good.  My favorites were the ones for the [G.I.] Joe books.

What projects are you working on and do you have coming up?
Mostly commissions.  Redrawing the same old stuff.  Not creative, but it supplements Social Security nicely.  Plus, a comic story for a West Coast rock band [Orphaned To Hatred] as a promotional piece.  And, as I mentioned before, the online comic.  Very top secret, but violence and blood are notched-up several levels.  And the story, not mine, is excellent.

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