By Chris Reilly
Fred Hembeck was someone I once knew nothing about as a person. All I knew was that I loved his work so much as a kid/young adult that when I would buy a Marvel comic back in the day (and I bought ’em all), I would typically read his strip first. Back before widespread internet and Google images, a friend of mine once told me that he had it on good authority that Hembeck was actually the alias of a comics creator who liked to do gag strips as well as draw superhero comics. I half believed this guy. One day in the side column of Facebook, it was suggested that I “might know Fred Hembeck.” So I sent him a friend request, we chatted a few times, and I conducted an interview with him.
Since prior to this interview I knew so little about “Fred Hembeck” the man, I decided not to begin this “Shakes Hands” segment with what I learned in said interview. I mean, why start it with spoilers? I could have gone to Wikipedia for introduction material, but I do not trust Wikipedia for any facts beyond “Earth is round” and “Abraham Lincoln wasassassinated.” (I just changed that to “emaciated.” Let’s see how long it takes someone to catch that “fact.”) So instead, I went to the once-viable-but-still-mostly-accurate Lambiek for a Hembeck bio (and an oddly written one at that):
Fred Hembeck (b. 30/1/1953, USA)Fred Hembeck is an American comics artist, as well as a writer about comics. Since the 1970s, he has created countless of parodies on DC and Marvel superhero comics. His Marvel parodies were collected in ‘Fantastic Four Roast’ and ‘Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe’, his DC gags ran in the Daily Planet.“Among his most notable parodies are his classic cover redos and ‘Petey, The Adventures of Peter Parker Before He Became Spiderman’, that appeared in Marvel Tales. Throughout the years, he has created a variety of characters, such as, ‘The Dog’ (in Smilin’ Ed in 1980), ‘Mr. Mumbo Jumbo’ (in Topps Comics Satan’s Six in 1993), the autobiographical ‘Little Freddy’. He has also drawn for the underground publications of FantaCo Enterprises.
CHRIS P. REILLY: Fred, I am about to completely demystify my youth by asking you these questions. You have had one of the most unique careers in the history of comics, in that your style is not what anyone could ever have mistaken for Marvel or DC “house” style. But you seem to have worked for just about every major publisher, starting in 1979 with your Daily Planet strip. Is there a great story of how this came to be, or was it a happy accident?
FRED HEMBECK: You might call it an unhappy accident that somehow all worked out for the best. Y’see, I fully intended to break into the comics biz in the standard manner, and had the portfolio to prove it. Only, when I shopped it around during the summer of 1977, it proved to be a flop—particularly with DC Art Director, Vinnie Colletta, who after perusing it, said something along the lines of “If I told you you had a future in this business, I’d just be jerking you off, kid.”—accompanied, no lie, with the appropriate hand gesture!! So, head hung low, I went home, and in an attempt to keep alive my flickering lifelong dream—and to keep myself drawing—I sent out letters in cartoon form to several of the college roommates I’d just left, using a style I’d only recently developed, as well as a self-caricature I figured they’d all recognize. One day, on a whim—who plans these things?—I put together a strip of Cartoon Fred interviewing Spider-Man and sent it off to Alan Light at what was then The Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom cuz I knew they were always looking for editorial material to enable the weekly tabloid to qualify for specific mailing privileges. Alan printed it. Alan liked it, and asked for more. Others liked it as well, including folks at DC putting together their Daily Planet promo page—Bob Rozakis, Tony Tollin, and Mike Gold—and they invited me to contribute a regular gag strip to the proceedings. Things just snowballed from there—and the next time I encountered Mr. C., he was inking my pages!! Somehow, though, I didn’t feel like I came out a winner in that particular instance. But everything else? Pretty sweet.
CPR: You obviously really love superheroes, but (as mentioned above) you don’t draw in any sort of traditional style. I have waited 30 years to ask you this: Who were your artistic influences?
FRED HEMBECK: Well, inasmuch as I fully intended to become a traditional comics artist, a lot of my influences are traditional superhero artists. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby top the list—I may not draw like ’em, but I’d hope my storytelling reflects on what I’ve learned from them. I’d also cite Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Johnny Craig, Carmine Infantino, and Wally Wood. I still have an entire oversized notebook downstairs from my senior year of high school (1971) made up entirely of Neal Adams swipes!! Guess I thought that was the best way to learn (I can still do a fair imitation of Neal’s gritted teeth side view)! As far as actual humor artwork, Al Wiseman’s work on Dennis The Menace comics, John Stanley and Irving Tripp on Little Lulu, and Bob Bolling on Little Archie remain big favorites. Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey and Silver Age Archie artists Harry Lucey, Samm Schwartz, and Dan Decarlo influenced me as well. Likely the very first artist that ever inspired me to become a cartoonist—hey, I bet I could do that!—was Henry Boltinoff, whose filler gag strips were among the earliest things I ever saw in comics (though I always found the actual jokes wanting somewhat despite the guy’s wonderfully fluid art style).
CPR: Who gave you your first break in the industry? How did you approach them, or did they approach you?
FRED HEMBECK: Besides sending off illustrated letters to my aforementioned erstwhile roommates, I mailed off several cartoony letters of comment to various comics writers, including one to Iron Man scripter Bill Mantlo. I’d sent Bill plenty of standard LOCs in years past, more than a few he’d printed, so I guess he was primed to dig my stuff. He wanted to print my hand-drawn commentary, but since I’d submitted it in multi-color form (showoff!), he couldn’t. So he asked me to redo it in black and white for publication, and eventually, my redone version (I have no idea what happened to the original, which he must’ve returned for me to copy) wound up in Iron Man #112 (July 1978). They even paid me for it—35 whole dollars!! Enthusiastically, but cautiously, I photocopied the check, just in case I never received another one from Marvel. Happily, that wasn’t the case.
CPR: Aside from the Punisher (we won’t count editors), you are the only other person who got to destroy the Marvel Universe. Was that something you pitched, or did an editor ask you to do it?
FRED HEMBECK: That’s an incredibly long and convoluted story, and because this interview is taking place in the nether regions known as the Internet, I’d like to provide a link that’ll spell it all out for readers, as well as showcasing the nearly two dozen never-published pages of Hembeck/Colletta framing story art (two versions thereof, both starring Jim Shooter, his three fictitious assistants—Bruce, Clark, and Diana—and Cartoon Fred). Here’s the link: http://www.hembeck.com/Destruction.htm. The short of it is, after the success of The Fantastic Four Roast (which I was contacted by Jim Shooter to do after another writer, still unknown to me, bowed out), Marvel’s EIC thought a spoof on the then mini-scandal regarding Shooter’s planned destruction of several of the companies icons would make for a funny follow-up. For various personal reasons (like my mom passing away unexpectedly right in the midst of me attempting to write a comedic take on death), the thing took longer to put together than planned. And by the time it was done, Jim was in his final days on the job, and certain plot points suddenly became controversial. And when he was fired? Seemed like the end. But, trimmed down from 48 pages to 32—with a third, non-Shooter starring framing sequence tacked on—the book finally was published!! I’m delighted that, at this late date, so many people have fond memories of the thing, but the truth is, I don’t. I always thought the original framing story was best thing about it, and much prefer The Fantastic Four Roast overall, but hey, with my name up there in the title—how you gonna buy publicity like THAT?? Famously infamous, I guess….
CPR: Speaking of Marvel, you were at DC for three years and then you went over to Marvel for, well, a long time. What prompted the move?
FRED HEMBECK: I don’t recall the specifics. The Daily Planet page eventually ran its course, starting out weekly and winding up once a month in what were then DC’s jumbo-sized Dollar Comics. They just didn’t have much of anything for me to do after that (save for some covers and strips for a pair of DC Samplers and the art for a ’Mazing Man back-up strip, Zoot Sputnik). After The Fantastic Four Roast, I found myself more in demand from Marvel, and when their promo mag, Marvel Age was launched not long afterwards, I guess it seemed like a natural for editor Jim Salicrup to squeeze me into the book. I had a very nice run there.
CPR: The following has obviously been disproven with easy access to information via the internet. You may or may not know this, but there was a bit of speculation in the early to mid 80s that you may not actually exist and that you were another artist using an alias. Did you ever hear that, and do you have any idea why that rumor was floating around?
FRED HEMBECK: This is honestly the first I’ve heard of it! The good news is I remain alive and well, the one and only Fred Hembeck in the known universe! One’s more than enough, I’m thinking….
CPR: One of my favorite recurring gags of yours was having some loser like Nova come walking out just to renew his ©. Was there any truth to that, or was it just a very believable good gag?
FRED HEMBECK: I was specifically asked on more than one occasion to utilize a limbo-bound Marvel character in one of my strips as a means for the company to maintain their copyright! A Ms. Marvel strip—with that black, Dave Cockrum designed costume—comes immediately to mind as an example; I’m a little fuzzy on the others.
CPR: For a while John Byrne was making a lot of money selling redrawn pages of his own work on eBay. You are doing something similar; commissioned Hembeck versions of comic book covers of which people would rather own your version than the original. Is this something that is generating an income, and how did this come to be?
[Note from Chris: The first time I had any communication with Fred was when I found one of these covers online and wrote and told him how much better his version was than the original. Somehow, that lead to us talking about how much we both liked the film The Hangover.]
FRED HEMBECK: I originally redrew certain comics covers in the context of various strips—back then, you couldn’t simply scan in ridiculous old Jimmy Olsen covers, post ’em on your blog, and blithely mock ’em, you had to work hard to get all cheeky with Mort Weisinger! Or, conversely, to salute Stan and Jack. About 1994, I was asked by a friend of a friend (oddly enough, I never met the guy or even spoke with him on the phone) to eventually redo about two dozen covers for actual cash, and soon after, word got out, and other collectors began commissioning work as well. eBay and the internet just made the whole process all that much easier, and to date, I’ve likely done over 400 redos (with several key issues getting multiple goings over, natch). That nasty recession that stumbled along about two years back put a bit of a crimp in business for awhile, but things appear to slowly be recovering, thankfully.
CPR: If someone wants to commission a Fred Hembeck cover, how should they contact you? And is there an online gallery of said covers?
FRED HEMBECK: I have a website (hey, who doesn’t?): <http://www.hembeck.com/index2.htm>. Folks can see some of the covers there, as well as find out how to commission various types of artwork from me. Just a few months back, I jumped feet first into the exciting world of Sketch Card art—interested individuals can find my latest offerings easily enough on eBay!
CPR: Whose work do you enjoy currently?
FRED HEMBECK: I must shamefacedly admit that I no longer keep up very closely with current offerings—when I do read comics these days, it’s usually fancy archival editions of classic material, some of which I first encountered in my younger days (like the 60s Marvel stuff), and some I’m enjoying for the first time (collections of early Mary Perkins: On Stagestories, my all-time favorite newspaper strip). I do enjoy anything from Alex Robinson, Chris Giarrusso, and Peter Bagge—otherwise I’m either at the drawing board or watching as many pre-Code flicks on Turner Classic Movies as humanly possible!
CPR: What is it like being the first person to have been killed by Lobo (Omega Men #3)?
FRED HEMBECK: Like being a corn on a true footnote in comics history!
CPR: I thought it posed a legitimately good question. “Humbeck’s” thoughts reveal him to be an underground cartoonist exiled from his home planet. It made me wonder if Keith Giffen may have known you or thought it was really odd that a “bigfoot” cartoonist like yourself had found such success in mainstream comics. Your style still would have been unique in indie comics, but you would have been in the company of other cartoony cartoonists (for a complete lack of a better description). Is there anything revealing about that appearance, or am I reading way too much into the “Death of Humbuck”?
FRED HEMBECK: You’re reading way too much into it!! I did not know Keith at the time and still haven’t met him face to face. He once (later, I believe) hired me to contribute—script and art—a single page in an issue of one of those “Ambush Bug” limited series back in the day, as well penciling a pair of pages in Epic Comics’ Video Jack series. I was supposed to offer a mock origin for the Bug, and Keith was supposed to give me belated credit for the work in a later issue, which, alas, never occurred.
[Note from Chris: I figured there was a 99.9% chance I was reading WAY too much into that, but I was willing to gamble with a 1% chance at what would have been a pretty freaky explanation]
CPR: What’s coming up and where can we get us some more Fred Hembeck?
FRED HEMBECK: I’ve recently done some new work for Marvel: three 8-10-page “Petey: The Adventures of Peter Parker LOOONG Before He Became Spider-Man!” episodes, as well as a 10 page Spider-Man and a Human Torch versus The Sinister Six story (words, pencils, inks, letters), which was a true joy to do!! Most of these seem to turn up on Marvel’s digital service, eventually to be reprinted in actual paper comics. Otherwise, I chug along, taking on the odd publishing assignment (and some are pretty odd indeed, though almost always fun! Publishers, I am available! Contact me—we living legends gotta live after all!…), commissions, sketch cards, and for anyone who doesn’t own a copy, we still have a fair number of copies of the 900-plus page collection The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus for sale directly from yours truly!! Check out the ol’ website for all the particulars, friends!!
CPR: If people want to know your every waking thought, how can they directly link to you on Twitter and stalk you on Facebook?
FRED HEMBECK: I haven’t posted on Twitter in nearly a year—I found the format too confining for a verbose fella like me! I do dig me the Facebook, though—unfortunately, I’ve reached my limit in friends, but I guess that means we’ll have to put more emphasis on the fan page we have up there. Please come, look, and leave a comment!!
CPR: If Marvel comics ever asked you to create it, what would be the Diamond Comics blurb for your Brother Voodoo graphic novel?
FRED HEMBECK: “Brother Voodoo as you’ve never seen him before and as he was always meant to be: totally ridiculous and with knee squiggles!! And hey, howsabout the way Sister Voodoo fills out that outfit? Prepare to Drumm up big sales with ‘Loa and Order: The Story of The Brothers Who Do The Voodoo!’”
CPR: Thanks, Fred.