My introduction to Don Heck’s art occured in the mid-1960s, when he was associated primarily with Marvel Comics super-heroes including Iron-Man, Ant-Man, the Avengers, X-Men and Captain Marvel. Through reprints in Fantasy Masterpieces I discovered that Heck produced interesting work in the pre-hero fantasy stories. Still, it was his art on the early issues of Tales of Suspense (which, for a time, was dramatically sub-titled “the Power of Iron-Man”) that impressed me the most, although his later run on Avengers was a close second artistically.
Don Heck’s earliest work appeared in 1952 at Comic Media, in titles such as Weird Terror, Horrific and Danger. Heck had a strong, clean line inspired by Milton Caniff. Focusing on crime and horror, Heck created simple, striking covers for the company. A memorable early Heck job was on Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, adapted from a then current TV series starring Buster Crabbe.
Heck's dynamic cover to Danger # 11, Aug 1954
A nicely composed early page from Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, circa 1955
By 1954 Heck began a long association with Marvel (then known as Atlas). Stan Lee put him to work on westerns, war, horror, crime, romance, jungle tales – you name it – and Heck did all of them with style. Heck even had a continuing feature in Navy Action (Torpedo Taylor). Heck’s war stories were particularly strong; his visual dynamics came through in these tales of heroic adventure.
Beautifully composed page from "Torpedo" Taylor, "Get that Sub!" page 2, from Navy Combat # 10, Dec 1956
Although he wasn’t associated with any main character, his five page western features, appeared in such titles as Gunsmoke Western, Kid Colt, Wyatt Earp and Two Gun Western, While not as detailed or authentic as John Severin, his westerns were dramatic and appealing. One book that Heck excelled on was the one shot Police Badge # 479 (Sept 1955). Heck drew two stories featuring a rookie cop, and he produced an exciting strip that featured dynamic layouts, attractive pencils and atmospheric inks.
atmospheric splash to "Night Rain", Police Badge # 479, Sept 1955
Heck could switch gears easily, showing an eye for fashion, design and attractive woman in books such as Love Romances. Heck was also excellent in fantasy and space opera, as witnessed in Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. Heck designed interesting space effects in stories such as “Rocket Ship X” (Strange Tales # 69, June 1959). The splash page emphasizes a sharp eye for spotting blacks and the story is nicely composed throughout.
Rocket Ship X-200, Strange Tales # 69, June 1959
Two pages that highlight Heck's cinematic eye, character types and expressive mood. "Something Lurks in the Fog!", pages 3 & 4, from Tales of Suspense # 24, Dec 1961
While still working on fantasy stories, Lee required Heck to get involved in the growing super-hero line. Kirby couldn’t physically draw every book, and although he had worked on the initial design of Iron-Man, it was Heck who drew his initial appearance and reportedly designed the character of Tony Stark (visually patterned after actor Errol Flynn). Heck’s Iron-Man stories had a strong sense of design and a strong eye for placement of black areas. Heck drew interesting looking characters, and excelled at portraying attractive females (John Romita, no slouch in that department, rates Heck highly). Heck brought the characters of not only Tony Stark, but the supporting characters of Happy Hogan (a stoic chap whose appearance may have been influenced by comedian Buster Keaton) and Pepper Potts (her early incarnation inspired by actress Ann B. Davis) to life.
Heck’s art shone in the early days of the strip. Particular favorites include “The Mad Pharaoh” (Tales of Suspense # 44) where his line showed a distinct Alex Toth influence; a classy two part Mandarin story (Suspense #’s 54 & 55) featuring a striking splash page of Iron-Man hovering above the streets. The conclusion included a special feature: “All about Iron-Man” which Heck went to town with employing crisp, striking inks; and the introduction of the Unicorn, an attractively designed villain. All of Heck's penciled and inked Iron-Man stories are worth seeking out - they include some of his very best work in the super hero genre.
An Alex Toth influence clearly shines through in this page from the Iron-Man story "The Mad Pharoah!" Tales of Suspense # 44, Aug 1963
Iron-Man floats above the crowds, splash page from Tales of Suspense # 54, June 1964
When Stan Lee needed more production from Heck, others would be called on to ink his pencils, with varied results. With few exceptions (such as Frank Giacoia), Heck looked best inking Heck. While Heck did not have the intensity of a Jack Kirby (few did) he had an appealing style, and his solo work on the Avengers is noteworthy. Since most of his issues focused on a core group of Captain
, Hawkeye, Goliath, the Wasp and occasional appearances by Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Heck was able to concentrate on the characters and not be overwhelmed by cramming too many heroes onto the pages (as often happened in team books). Concurrent with his Marvel work Heck also had assignments at Gold Key (The Man from Uncle; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Twilight Zone; Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery) . America
Heck inks George Tuska pencils, an artist who would follow Heck and Gene Colan for a long run on Iron-Man beginning in 1968. Heck was a stylish inker and would have served Tuska well embellishing Iron-Man, or visa-versa. "Captives of the Mirage", The Twilight Zone # 6, Feb 1964. Tuska and Heck also get to draw host Rod Serling!
After the Avengers, Heck would rarely be given the opportunity to ink his own pencils, and his work suffered accordingly. As the years wore on, he became Marvel’s resident utility artist; laying out stories for others such as Werner Roth on X-Men or finishing layouts over Romita’s Spider-Man. While serviceable, it detracted from his individual qualities. Occasionally, Heck would be given an interesting assignment, such as Captain Marvel, Captain Savage, or anthology stories in
and Chamber of Darkness. He was even graced with compatable inkers, such as Tower of Shadows , Vince Colletta and, on one occasion, John Severin. Syd Shores
Heck went to work for DC in the early 1970s and was better serviced, inking his own pencils at times, or teamed with exceptional inkers like Dick Giordano (Giordano loved inking Heck, and did many romance covers).
Heck's eye for contemporary fashions and attractive women is evident on this cover, inked by Dick Giordano, from Girls' Romances # 156, Apr 1971
Heck also drew many attractive Bat-Girl back-ups. In the mid-1970s, back at Marvel, he rendered a few superior jobs on Giant Size Dracula and a Giant Size Defenders that Steve Gerber wrote and highly praised, As the 1970s wore on, though, both his assignments and inkers were less than acceptable, and his work fell out of favor. Heck often inked others work, usually in a scratchy, loose style that lacked the solid blacks that enhanced his earlier work. As Heck moved into the 1980s his inking improved, and he was occasionally given the opportunity to ink his pencils, notably on a run of the Flash.
An example of Heck's late era work that has a distinct charm and proves how good an artist he was. Illustration from "The Virginian", Adventure Illustrated # 1, Winter 1981
Western and Superhero genres meet in this nicely composed page featuring Green Lantern and Jonah Hex, from Justice League of America # 199, Feb 1982. Attractive inking by Brett Breeding.
In DC Challenge # 9, July 1986, Don Heck gets to pencil and ink some classic characters. On this page we see Jimmy Olson, Adam Strange, Deadman, Blackhawk and Woozy Winks! The story also featured Chalengers of the Unknown, Metron, Enemy Ace, Dr. Fate, Plastic Man and cameos of Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robertson, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper and Harpo Marx! I kid you not!
Don Heck did some exceptional work in his 30 plus year career (Heck passed away on February 23, 1995). Although influenced by Caniff, his style eventually became recognizable and individual. Unjustly and often cruelly denounced by the fan press in his later years, Heck was deeply wounded by these assaults. In retrospect Heck deserves recognition as a distinctive artist who performed his greatest work in genres other than superheroes. While these genres were often overlooked in the past, they are now preserved in hardcover editions such as Marvel Masterworks. His Atlas era art is a joy to behold, and many are finally experiencing the quality of an artist who received little respect working in the shadow of Jack Kirby. Removed from that shadow, a talented craftsman is finally revealed.
This is a revision of an article that originally appeared in Alter Ego # 42.