Herb Trimpe: The Man Behind the Monster

HerbTrimpeArtist Herb Trimpe joined the Marvel bullpen back in 1967. He was hired as an in-house production guy and did all the thankless grunt work Stan Lee asked him to do. But on April 1, 1968, Trimpe took an assignment that would change his life forever. On that day he started drawing a comic book called The Incredible Hulk (issue #106). And that was the day he lost his anonymity.

“He was the premier artist on The Incredible Hulk for nearly eight years,” say the authors of this career retrospective. “He literally defined the iconic character for a generation, helping to make the green goliath a household name.”

Before Trimpe came along, Marvel didn’t quite know what to do with the Hulk. The character’s first series (1962) only lasted six issues. Jack Kirby drew the Hulk as an enraged monster with a hair-trigger temper. Steve Ditko, on the other hand, saw him as a sinister and angry master-planner. Neither interpretation connected with readers at the time.

Says Tom DeFalco: “Trimpe somehow conveyed the power of Kirby with the stylization of Ditko, but added a humanity that was all his own.” Trimpe’s Hulk was desperate and haunted – a monster who had been misused and abused, yet struggled to control his explosive tantrums.

His struggle, explains Trimpe, is “I’m in it, but I’d rather not be. So don’t mess with me in the meantime.” These days there’s not much humanity in the Hulk. He’s always enraged – crazy enraged. “In the early days he wasn’t like that,” says the artist. “The Incredible Hulk can go very deep in terms of the human condition. I liked the stories we did that were filled with pathos, remorse, and all the other things that make life sad sometimes.”

We agree with Trimpe. He definitely understood the Hulk better than most creators. But we have a confession: As a kid, we never read Trimpe’s comics because we didn’t like the way he drew. Certainly he was doing his best to channel a Marvel house style. Which, at the time, was a mish-mash of Jack Kirby, Marie Severin, John Romita, Sr., and John Buscema. But Trimpe’s drawing never captured the nuance or effortlessness of those artists. To us, his artwork seemed awkward and facile.

Trimpe even acknowledges this at one point. “In the beginning,” he says, “I was trying to follow Marie Severin’s version of the Hulk.” Later he often caught himself oscillating between mimicking both Severin and Jack Kirby. “I was flip-flopping back and forth,” he confesses.

Over the years we’ve come to reevaluate Trimpe’s oeuvre. We now appreciate his unique talent and his solid storytelling skills. Looking back, he was perfectly in sync with Stan Lee’s comic book philosophy and he did more than most to lay a foundation at Marvel that still resonates with readers today. “I certainly fit in at a critical time in comic book history,” he says in retrospect.

“Herb was a storyteller, a born storyteller, and there was never a dull moment in anything he did,” says John Romita, Sr., who worked with Trimpe in the bullpen for many years. “His artwork was dynamic and it always advanced the storyline and the characters’ development. His comics always included a great theatrical sense and an active sense. There are plenty of good artists in the comics industry, but there are not many good storytellers. Herb’s one of the guys that could bring a character to life.”

Trimpe collaborated with writer Doug Moench on a number of projects, most notably Godzilla, King of the Monsters and Shogun Warriors. Says Moench in conclusion: I never did get to work with Jack Kirby, but to me, Herb was the same kind of storyteller. He was very solid, but not flashy, not gimmicky. It was conventional storytelling. It was sort of like John Ford or Howard Hawks as opposed to Orson Welles. Very solid storytelling without calling attention to itself. You always knew exactly what was going on, but you were unaware of any storytelling, per se. Herb was a great guy. Not just a great artist, a great guy.”

[The Incredible Herb Trimpe / First Printing: July 2015 / By Dewey Cassell and Aaron Sultan / ISBN: 9781605490625]

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