Monday, March 28, 2011

Do you ever think about Fred Hembeck?

I do. Actually, I have off and on over the years. To me, Fred Hembeck has always been something of a mystery. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Why does he draw knees as circles with spirals within them? I'd see a Fred Hembeck cartoon in some comic book-related publication, have a little chuckle, ask myself these questions...

Then forget to find the answers.

Well, no more. Just the other day I was reading my ragged, torn copy of Comic Book Artist #11 ("Celebrating the Art & Life of Alex Toth!") and I encountered none other than... HEMBECK! Yes, that Hembeck. Hembeck caricatures himself interviewing Dr. Bruce Gordon, otherwise known as Eclipso. We in the biz like to call it the "ol' interview shtick." Hembeck perfected it. In a typical Hembeck strip, he has the subject answer questions in character, yet very much aware of his or her existence as a fictional construct. In this case, Dr. Gordon complains about how Alex Toth drew him in contrast to how his original artist Lee Elias did.

It's very meta. I believe it's an approach that somehow melted into my consciousness over the years due to these infrequent exposures to Hembeck. Only I've taken it a few steps further, or made it even more dada. My versions of various comic book heroes are self-aware in a Hembeckian way but sport personalities almost diametrically opposite of their in-story characterizations. One major difference between the two of us is Hembeck has such a deep knowledge of comic book lore-- characters, alter-egos, continuity changes, storylines, creators-- the Watcher probably uses him as a fact checker, while I usually get things wrong no matter how many times I consult back issues or artists' websites.

And yet only recently did I bother to research Fred Hembeck on the web. From his website, I learned Hembeck started his Dateline:@#$% stip in 1977. Which means I've been aware of Hembeck since I was about 9 years old. And he doesn't always do the "ol' interview shtick," as evidenced by this strip narrated by Peter "The Amazing Spider-Man" Parker all about Betty Brant. And even when he does, there's no mistaking Hembeck's affectionate yet absurdist take on superheroic history.

Which brings me to my final point. Or only point. What I enjoy about Fred Hembeck is he has what I consider the perfect attitude towards comics-- they're to have fun with. Yeah, there are all those graphic novels that tell serious and deep stories in all kinds of artistic ways. I love those. But the superhero, romance, crime and horror comics that many of us started off with were colorful, cool and frequently silly. Even in our favorite stories of cosmic grandeur, there's an enjoyable element of the ridiculous. Stakes are high, emotions are operatic, costumes are garish and impractical. Sometimes you can almost see the creators winking at us, as if to say, "Kid, even I can't believe the wacky stuff we're pulling here!"

Hembeck often points out the more ludicrous elements or uses the same finger to poke into plot holes, but he does so with love. He makes me enjoy these old comics all the more for his pulling off of masks to reveal the goofy, somewhat dazed characters beneath, characters who sometimes get as irked at how they're drawn or written as we fans do. Characters who grit their teeth and weather poorly constructed storylines and stumble through botched plot points with the same awareness of just how shabby things can be that we have as readers. That they're trapped within the stories makes it all the funnier when they complain to Hembeck.

So yes, I think of Fred Hembeck. I'm happy I finally-- after almost 30 years of thinking about Hembeck-- learned a little bit about his career.


Richard Bensam said...

Yeah! As a matter of fact, I think about Fred Hembeck once every few days...i.e., whenever I check to see if there's a new post up at his blog. (I wish it had an RSS feed and allowed comments, but sometimes you can't have everything.) Also, I'm especially fond of his "Petey" strips, which wear their Bob Bolling influence proudly on their Silver Age sleeve.

Joel Bryan said...

Cool. Thanks for the links! One of these days when I'm not feeling so lazy, I'm going to add Hembeck's site and blog to my sidebar. The other day I read a funny and insightful piece where he wrote about recreating some old EC covers and-- despite his love for the titles and the artists involved-- running smack into the overwhelming misogyny apparent in the imagery and all the problems that caused. It's not a necessity, but it is a positive when creators I respect happen to share my opinions or outlook on various things!