What you probably don't know is that during 1977 to 1981, Hembeck was also writing/drawing a feature for The Comic Buyer's Guide called Dateline:@#$% which was basically a place for Hembeck to wave his 'FanBoy Flag' and discuss/comment/criticize on whatever was happening in comics at the time. In essence, Fred Hembeck - with his unique combination of illustrations and words - was the first 'blogger' on comic fandom. This is pretty significant since, prior to the internet, there wasn't much of a way to find out what was going on in comicdom unless you read it in on the letters page of whatever comic you were reading, your local comic book shop employee was giving you the 'inside scoop' or you picked up one of the few hard-to-find 'comic book news' magazines that were being printed (it would still be another decade before Wizard Magazine would begin publication). Mr Hembeck was cool enough to answer some of our questions we had about his time at DC comics (and then some) during the 1980s...
DCinthe80s: Before you became a cartoonist/humorist for The Comic Buyer's Guide, you tried to break into the biz as a 'real comic book artist'. You compared your style to Neal Adams. Through my searches, I've only seen one of these images: a wash and line drawing of Abbott and Costello with the Andrew Sisters (circa 1976). I'm really curious if you have any more of these kickin' around (especially of DC characters). I'm somewhat curious to see what the art of the "Fred Hembeck the world never knew" looked like. Also, why Neal Adams? Were you highly influenced by his books or was he the current 'artist du jour' that all of the kids were trying to imitate?
Fred Hembeck: In one of my early Fantaco books (reprinted in the Omnibus, I did a feature reproducing several of the pages I unsuccessfully shopped around before transitioning to my cartoony style. And many years later, as a lark, I was invited to illustrate, in a straight style, an 8 page Brother Voodoo story written by Scott Lobdell in Marvel Super-Heroes #1 - Spring Special (1990). Unfortunately, they assigned a Filipino inker to finish it, and as is the case with many of artists from that part of the world, the inks totally overwhelmed my pencils, which in some cases were totally redrawn. Not that they weren't made better for the effort, but it sorta defeated the purpose of taking a shot at seeing what serious Hembeck art would look like. While I'm mildly disappointed that experiment failed, I'm perfectly happy with the way things have turned out overall. Had I stayed on my original track, I may've worked my way up to being a totally forgettable mediocre penciller, and that would've been that. As it is, while I'm still well aware there are plenty of folks who do the cartoony thing way better than I do, somehow my style--coupled with my writing (I never planned to be a writer)--managed to strike some sort of chord. And as for Neal Adams, I still have full sketchbooks of my copies of his classic late sixties work, mostly rendered in brush! I primarily picked up how to draw gritted teeth from him--my actual storytelling sense is more Kirby and Ditko. But when you're in high school circa 1970, Neal was the man to aspire to! I finally met him at a con about three years ago, and told him about my full sketchbooks copying his work done while I was in high school, and he quickly changed the subject--I guess being told how devoted to his work I was in my teen years while standing before him sporting a white Gabby Hayes beard unnerved him a bit!...
DCinthe80s: Based on all of the research I've done, you lived in New York while you were illustrating the Daily Planet comic strips for DC Comics from 1979 to 1981. Were you actually working in the office as a full-time staffer or were you just dropping off your strips and leaving? How involved were you with the 'DC comics office culture' of that time? I'm kind of wondering if anything happened at DC that made you want to disassociate with them, since after leaving DC - other than Fantaco publishing your work - you pretty much became exclusive to Marvel Comics from then on (Marvel Age, FF roast, etc)? I also know that you did a Zoot Sputnik backup feature in 'Mazing Man in 1986, but I'm thinking that may have had more to do with the fact that your pal Bob Rozakis was manning the project.
Hembeck: I've NEVER worked in a comics office environment--even back then, slipping art into the mail did the trick. I WAS offered a chance to be an assistant editor at DC over the phone once, round abouts 1980, but my wife had just started a good job at IBM, and it made no sense for us to move 90 miles down to NYC instead. Plus, I'm just not boss material, and I knew it. There was no particular reason for my leaving DC, save for the fact that the Daily Planet page went from appearing all across the line to only in their limited number of Dollar Comics--and then, when they were gone, so was I. Marvel recruited me for Marvel Age, and I soon became so identified with them, DC (someone once told me--don't recall who) was reluctant to use me. But no big conspiracy, as best I can tell.
DCinthe80s: Your work is very familiar to me. Your comedic strips always served as a juxtaposition to whatever serious plot line was happening in whatever comic book I was reading at the moment. Your style of drawing is iconic in a sense that someone can immediately recognize it as 'hey, that's a Hembeck' and can be immediately associated with 'ha, comics can be fun and shouldn't always be taken so seriously'. That being said, has there ever been any favorite titles/characters you were super-serious about and felt very protective over (ex:"Nobody better mess with my X-Men")?
Hembeck: There was a time when I'd get my panties into a knot over some radical change to characters I'd grown up reading, but eventually, I realized that everyone is entitled to "their" version of these icons--if I don't like what they're doing with 'em currently, well, no matter; I still have all my old comics where everybody's acting the way they should, don't I? I mean, I never swallowed the notion that Mary Jane (and later, Aunt May) knew Peter was Spider-Man pretty much from day one. It's a good thing I gave up reading the title before the Clone Saga commenced! Pretty much the last "truth" I cling to is that Bucky is dead, though from all reports, the Winter Soldier storyline is a top-notch one.
DCinthe80s: In your interview with Pronto Comics, you mentioned Don Martin (among many many others) as one of your indirect influences for your cartooning style. One of your blog entries has you gushing rhetorically about your love of MAD Magazine and it's 'copycat' mags (Sick, Cracked, etc) and you even go so far as to review Mark Evanier's 'MAD art' book. All that being said, how did you NOT end up being a writer/artist for MAD magazine - was there no interest there? I know that you wrote a story for Marvel's WHAT THE--?! lampooning Nick Fury...
Hembeck: When I was growing up--and right into the first couple of decades of my career--MAD magazine seemed to have the exact same list of contributors every single issue. It seemed to be an extremely closed shop, so I just never even gave attempting wrangling my way inside a thought. Plus, I feel my writing isn't quite on the same wavelength as their usual approach. (I also wrote and drew Daredevil and Dr. Strange parodies in two other early issues of WHAT THE? as well.)
DCinthe80s: I've read your story about you having dinner with Dave Sims and Chris Claremont in the mid-80s. You revealed that you couldn't really participate in the Sims/Claremont convo because you'd only read the first dozen issues or so of Cerebus. Were you a big fan of any other titles from the 80s? (DC/Marvel/Eclipse/Pacific/etc)
Hembeck: My daughter was born in 1990--I didn't realize it then, but that's when my comics reading began to decline (though it'd be a little over a full decade later before I totally gave up the ghost). In the eighties I was a big fan of anything by Frank Miller, John Byrne, Roger Stern, Alan Moore; also Nexus, American Flagg--I read EVERYTHING in the eighties, and enjoyed a lot of it. Even--yup--US 1!
DCinthe80s: The first appearance of Lobo (in 1983's Omega Men v1 #3) has him killing a character named 'Humbeck' who seems to be a parody of you. Is there a story there? Did you know the late Roger Slifer and/or the current Keith Giffen?
Hembeck: No story there. Done with no prior knowledge on my part. Just a little tribute--at least, that's how I took it! (I believe I'd met Roger in passing previously; I never have met Keith face to face, but we did speak on the phone a few times concerning me contributing story and art to an origin page in an Ambush Bug issue, and, later, 2 pages of art only in his Epic series, Video Jack).
DCinthe80s: I know that you slowed down for a while in the mid-80s. I've got a quote from the Tom Spurgeon interview: "It was just a matter of feeling like I was kind of getting redundant that point. Plus I was doing more work for Marvel and DC, and I was hoping to branch out a bit more with the big companies at that point." My question to you - which direction were you hoping to go? Did you have plans for a more 'serious' series? I read that you enjoyed working on children's titles and that KIDZ was a project you were eager to launch - were you talking about branching out from single strips and one-pagers into an entire ongoing series?
Hembeck: Yeah, well, the best laid plans and all that. A big ol' definitive NO on "serious" series, but I DID spend way too much time on that big ol white whale of mine, KIDZ. I've got just over 300 pages of the story done in finished layouts, with the story's end nowhere in sight! Sigh. Well, live and learn.
DCinthe80s: I'm really thankful for the internet age. I think it's fantastic that someone can basically e-mail you, request a commission, pay you online and have that commission delivered to their door. It takes the sting out of missing you at a convention because I couldn't miss my niece's birthday on that particular day or etc. I read that you do a lot of silver age classic cover redos as well as single character commissions. Which DC character is your most frequently requested commission?
Hembeck: I'd say Batman is the most requested DC character that comes my way, which should come as no big surprise. In an addendum to my answer to the last question, it's much more practical for me to work on commissions and/or eBay offerings than to devote time to strips done on spec, which is why I've been doing so much of that over the last several years. But I really would like to get back to doing strips, and hope to carve out some time for that in the year upcoming.
So that concludes our interview with Fred Hembeck. I just wanted to mention that Hembeck is a pretty cool cat, really likes the Beatles, has his own website with a very entertaining blog, and is super-approachable and modest. Thank you for answering our questions, Mr Hembeck. Once again, in case it was missed the first time, all of Hembeck's Dateline:@#$% strips as well as his early 80s Fantaco books are reprinted in the 912 page THE NEARLY COMPLETE ESSENTIAL HEMBECK ARCHIVES OMNIBUS.
A lot of the basic questions (ex: "How did you get into comics?") weren't asked because they've been covered so many times by other interviewers. If you liked this interview with Fred Hembeck, here are a few other interviews we recommend (not to mention the ones we linked to in our interview):
- GutterGeek interviews Fred Hembeck
- 13th Dimension's Mighty Q&A with Fred Hembeck
- Pop Culture Safari! interviews Fred Hembeck
- 20th Century Danny Boy: Looking Back with Fred Hembeck
- Panel Bound: Interview with Fred Hembeck by Darrick Patrick
[Special thanks to Rob Perry for helping me prep the interview questions. - J]