Choosing the Heroes of the Comics

Heroes Cover (updated)My latest book, which comes out in August from Fantagraphics, is titled Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books. In advance of the book’s release, I’d like to briefly explain how I decided who I felt is qualified to be included in this collection of 85 portraits.

The series kicked off with the great comics artist Will Elder and evolved from there. Shortly after Will died, his son-in-law Gary contacted me and asked if I would create a portrait of Will as a gift for Will’s daughter, Gary’s wife Nancy. They were very pleased with the result, (which is included in the book), so I decided to create a companion piece, a portrait of Will’s long time collaborator, the brilliant creator of MAD, Harvey Kurtzman, who had been my instructor at the School of Visual Arts. I was happy with the portrait and a limited edition print was made, which quickly sold out. I felt I might be on to something and decided to paint portraits of all the original MAD comic book artists including Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and John Severin, and also planned to release them as prints. I then added all of the EC artists (I’m a lifelong EC fan), and I realized I had the possible makings of a book, The Legends of EC Comics. It soon became apparent that depicting only EC artists would be too limited, so I expanded the idea to portraits of Legendary Comic Book Artists, centering on the early pioneers of comic books, those who entered the field during the first twenty years of its existence (mid-1930s to mid-1950s), and were virtually responsible for inventing the medium.

From there I started creating portraits of some of the great “Golden Age” artists who I’d long admired as a young comic book reader and had learned more about by absorbing Jules Fieffer’s essential book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. I then drew Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, and writer/editor/publisher Stan Lee. Soon, I was discussing the project with several knowledgeable friends, among them Paul Levitz, Gary Groth, and Eric Reynolds, and asked them who they would choose as their “top pics”—including any females and people of all ethnicities—who qualified as the true Legends of Comic Books (the working title).

Will Elder

Will Elder

Being fully aware that the early comic book business, like most publishing businesses at the time, was almost 100% white male-dominated, I felt I couldn’t include any creators based simply on their gender or ethnicity, but on the scope of their contribution to the comics industry. Sifting through the responses I received and weighing them against my own choices, I was able to narrow the list down to an essential 75, later expanded to a final 85, all of whom had made the most profound and lasting effect on the dawn of comic books. As Al Jaffee writes in his foreword, these were “the writers, artists, editors and publishers who helped make comic books the worldwide phenomenon that it has become.”

I understand comics fans are passionate and some may be disappointed that their favorite creators are not included in my book. Going into this project I knew it would be impossible to please everyone. This book was by no means meant to be a complete “who’s who” of every man or woman who worked in comics, of which there are probably thousands. I chose those who I felt were the most essential and iconic among the early creators. A few of my final choices might seem controversial to some. There are two Heroes included who might qualify more as Villains of the Comics: Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, who was instrumental in the downfall of EC; and the “Walter Keane of comics,” Bob Kane, who masqueraded for half a century as the sole creator of Batman. For better or worse, each played an important role in the course of comics history.

Bob Kane

Bob Kane

Another consideration was the quality and quantity of photo reference I was able to obtain, which in some instances was none. My friend Paul Karasik suggested I include a portrait of early comics artist Fletcher Hanks, but aside from one small self-portrait in one of his comics, there are no known photos of him that exist. In other cases, due to the lack of photos, and not wishing to intrude on the deceased’s relatives with my project, I reluctantly decided to omit several creators I had considered, including artist H. G. Peter, writer Otto Binder, editor/artist Vin Sullivan, editor Dorothy Woolfolk, and All-Negro Comics publisher Orrin C. Evans. In the end, I feel the final choices I made qualify as the Comic Book Cream of the Crop; all of them, for one reason or another are true legends, Heroes of the Comics.

Siegel & Shuster

Siegel & Shuster

15 Responses to Choosing the Heroes of the Comics

  1. Pingback: Choosing the Heroes of the Comics | Geek Life Radio

  2. Tony says:

    I don’t know if “the deceased’s relatives” would necessarily consider such requests an “intrusion”, they could likely have reacted cordially and accomodatingly… but ok.

    Btw, if the book is a (deserved) success, I’d suggest an internationally focused sequel with portraits of, say, Hergé, Tezuka, Uderzo, Frank Bellamy, Sergio Bonelli, Franquin, Hugo Pratt, Oesterheld, Alberto Breccia, Moebius, etc etc…

  3. Jeffrey Goodman says:

    Hey Drew,

    Can’t wait for this collection of portraits and/or anything else you put out! In fact a self portrait wouldn’t be too out of place in the book excepting for the years covered…but an exception in this case would be more than warranted. I’m hoping that your next book will be an expanded version of your portraits of Comic Book Store Owners! Perhaps my favorite nugget of your amazing output! Congrats and I hope if you do a book tour you’ll be coming to my town!!!

  4. R. Fiore says:

    What I’d love to see is Bruce Jay, Josh Alan, Drew and whatever other relevant Friedmans there might be collaborating on a book about growing up/raising a family in the Manhattan publishing and show biz world of the 60s.

  5. Tony says:

    Change book for comic (or “graphic novel”) drawn by Drew and I’m so there.

    And if anybody thinks that’s a far-fetched idea, remember even Bill Griffith is working on an autobio graphic novel for Fantagraphics.

  6. Rob Clough says:

    You’ve all read Kipp Friedman’s memoir, Barracuda In The Attic, right? He covers a lot of this ground. Drew did the cover, Bruce Jay did the intro, and Josh Alan did the afterword.

  7. Drew Friedman says:

    My father’s recent memoir “Lucky Bruce” also covers that era as well.

  8. Dave Knott says:

    Drew, I have a question which is somewhat tangential to the selection process.

    All of the promotional images that I have so far seen from the book feature the artists at an advanced age. I guess for the vast majority of us, that’s the image we have of them, as they were no longer young when we began to know them as actual men rather than the semi-anonymous hands behind our favourite comics. But at the same time, it’s not the way that they appeared when they were doing what was for most of them their finest work.
    So I guess I’m wondering… how did you come to the decision to do portraits of them as older men, rather than in the prime of their careers?

  9. Mike Hunter says:

    Dave Knott says:

    So I guess I’m wondering… how did [Drew] come to the decision to do portraits of them as older men, rather than in the prime of their careers?

    More wrinkles!

    (Seriously! If you’re “Mr. Texture,” then…)

  10. Dave Knott says:

    Well, yeah, Friedman does seem to have a proclivity towards drawing older folks (eg. the Jewish Comedians book).
    And of course years add character to a face, which would naturally appeal to a caricaturist, I’m guessing.

  11. Mike Hunter says:

    Favoring texture as opposed to smoothness not only adds character, but has an aesthetic and emotional dimension of its own. Can’t help but be reminded of the great Ivan Albright, who wrote:

    “Make [the head] great; eye sockets that tell the years, folds that bespeak flesh, eyes that bring pity … that have seen better.”
    – from Ivan Albright’s notes on his painting “The Vermonter.”

    And painted:



    Not to weigh Mr. Friedman’s superb artwork with overmuch sombreness, but his fondness for depicting people physically past their prime adds, with his undeniable affection, more than a touch of melancholy. A quality that was there early on:

    [Drew] Friedman …first attracted public attention in the 1980s producing morbid alternative comics stories, sometimes working solo but often with his brother Josh Alan Friedman writing the scripts. These stories portrayed celebrities and character actors of yesteryear in seedy, absurd, tragi-comic situations. One memorable story followed Bud Abbott and Lou Costello wandering the urban jungle at night, encountering whores, junkies and other lowlifes. Friedman created strips featuring actor/wrestler Tor Johnson in his iconic hulking moron persona from Ed Wood, Jr. films…

  12. Drew Friedman says:

    Hey Dave,

    When you see the book, you’ll see creators at various ages, younger, middle aged and older. Most of the images I’ve previewed happen to be older ones. I do prefer to draw older faces, far more interesting for me. Lines and creases, You see the person’s life etched into their faces. Younger faces are just too new, too bland (in my opinion).

  13. patrick ford says:

    Drew, I can see your next book title now: “Old Hollywood Bombshells”

  14. Dave Knott says:

    Thanks, Drew!
    I’m looking forward to seeing this book.

  15. Cayo Hern says:

    My idea is that we submit photos of the missing creators for consideration in Volume 2! I’m sure that there are photos out there…especially of Otto Binder, Al Plastino, and Mort Weisinger! Maybe we need to do a poll for who else is missing…….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *