Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Death in the Family

Update 1 a.m. Monday: added CBA interview, Neil Gaiman links

Unless you've been travelling all day and have just logged in (pretty much like me), you've probably heard the sad news today that Dave Cockrum passed away Sunday morning.

My first Legion issue was #212, a year or so after Dave's last issue. My first Legion artist was Mike Grell, and he remains one of my favorite artists to this day. I didn't discover Cockrum's issues until a couple years later when I started looking for back issues. I didn't really know about his history with the Legion until much later, when I was able to piece things together and look at the run from the end of Adventure through Action Comics and into Superboy that I saw what an impact he had.

He was basically the first Bronze Age artist on the Legion, if you consider their Silver Age to have ended with the Action run, which was the end of Mort Weisinger's tenure as editor. He updated the look and feel of the 30th century, from the clubhouse to the costumes, dragging them all kicking and screaming into the 1970s. His stamp on the book was indelible and inspired the next artist, Mike Grell.

The two of them only did a single, otherwise unremarkable story together, the Devil-Fish story from Superboy 202. Cockrum pencilled it, Grell inked it. The Cockrum era was over, the Grell era began.

It's fairly common knowledge why Cockrum left the book and went over to Marvel (where he co-created the All-New, All-Different X-Men, including some characters adapted from some Legion designs) because DC refused to return the original artwork for the 2-page spread from Superboy #200, the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel (in DC's defense, at the time that was their policy). So who knows what might have been had Nightcrawler stayed in the 30th century, among many other things.
See the extended quote below for an interview with Dave where he recounts this.

Lots of tributes today from around the web. Here are some comments and reminiscings from others.

Mark Evanier:

When Murphy [Anderson] was asked to draw a Legion of Super-Heroes back-up story one day, he begged off — "too many characters" — and recommended Dave. Cockrum not only got that job but became the feature's steady artist and creative heart, helping to redesign the Legion and create new characters. Among his many strengths, he was a superb inventor of new costumes. Later, he did the same thing — only with greater success — when he and Len Wein revamped the old, cancelled X-Men strip into the new, highly-successful X-Men franchise at Marvel.

Johnny Bacardi:
I quickly fell in love with the amazing costume designs of these characters- some of the established Legionnaires even had groovy-looking new togs, and it was like a breath of fresh air to the previously Swan-stodgy Legion. So I set out to get as many Cary Bates/Cockrum SatLSH back issues that I could, through mail order or just being lucky enough to get them off some other magazine stand (no internet in 1974, remember, and no comics shops in those prehistoric days). Anyway, I eagerly picked up #202, and then came #203, featuring the "Wrath of the Devil Fish" story, which in my less-than-authoritative opinion is among the best things he ever did, art-wise. Then...#204, and Mike Grell. No more Cockrum. Whahoppen?

Mike Flynn, one of the founders of Legion fandom:
Of course, this is a sad and tragic loss for all of us as Legion fans, as comic fans, and, of course, as human beings. Dave was a fan just like the rest of us... he drew for FANTASTIC FANZINE, for Warren, worked as Murphy Anderson's assistant, all before telling Murray Boltinoff that "goddamn bet your ass" he was ready to be the regular artist for the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES strip in the back of SUPERBOY. Some of us might like to think that we had something to do with the strip's eventual rebirth, but it took an energy and a talent like Dave's to help others see what we saw.

Neil Gaiman reprints an essay he wrote a couple years ago for the Dave Cockrum Tribute Book:
The important stuff, the way I saw it was that super powers would allow you to survive school more easily. ...

I think that was why I loved the Legion of Super Heroes, back in my own personal golden age. There were lots of them. They lived in the future. And their powers seemed made for surviving school with. (There were school meals put in front of me that only Matter Eater Lad could comfortably have disposed of.) They had a clubhouse. They didn’t fight bank robbers, either. (Mostly they seemed to fight each other, even if they had been brainwashed by intergalactic evildoers. This also made sense to me. I had lived twelve years, and had come to the conclusion that bank robbers turned up more infrequently than they did in the comics.) And, most of all, for just a little while – oddly enough, while I was twelve – they had Dave Cockrum.

I ought to Google and find out what the first Legion story Dave drew was; on the other hand, I still know the first of his stories I read. It was called “Curse of the Blood Crystals”, and it was inked by Murphy Anderson. (I have always been a sucker for Murphy Anderson’s inking.)

And, almost immediately it seemed, Superboy’s comic had become The Legion’s, and Dave Cockrum was the Legion artist (Cary Bates was writing), and suddenly it was cool...

Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter has a good article about Dave. He even made a MetaFilter discussion.

In Dave's own words, here's the "secret origin" of his working on the Legion (from Comic Book Artist #6, from TwoMorrows):
CBA: You went over to DC from Warren?

Dave: Yeah. I started doing background inking, first for Tony DeZuniga (who was doing a lot of House of Mystery and stuff like that). They weren't running a stable yet, at that point. He was okay to work for, but his wife, Mary, was something else. She looked at my stuff and said, "Ehhh! Ten years, maybe, you might make it." I stayed long enough to work on five or six issues, but Murphy Anderson needed a background inker for the work he was doing on Curt Swan's Superman and Bob Brown's Superboy. He also got the "John Carter of Mars" strip, which I desperately wanted to help out with (being a John Carter fan all of my life) but Murphy wouldn't let me touch that. He'd say, "This is mine! Go away!" I worked for Murphy for about a year in a downtown Manhattan studio. It was great and I learned a lot, but the only trouble was that we did more bullsh*tting than working! So it turned out to be not that profitable and he finally closed down the studio.

While I was working for Murphy, the "Legion of Super-Heroes" strip became available. Murray Boltinoff, the editor, got Murphy to agree to ink it. Murray figured that Murphy would be responsible for the quality of the book and fix anything that I did wrong. Because Murphy was an old-time professional and I was the newcomer, Murray listed Murphy's name first on the credits, so everybody thinks that Murphy penciled those first three or four strips, when actually I did. It was the other way around: I penciled and he inked. But Murray thought that Murphy would be offended to be listed second, though he wouldn't have.

By the fourth "Legion" strip I did, Murphy was embroiled in "John Carter" and Superman, and he just couldn't help anymore. So he said, "You're on your own!" There was a lot of snowpaque on that art from correcting mistakes, but I got through it. It looked pretty slick and people said that it wasn't bad, so after that it was my book. Fan reaction was pretty good, because I was young and enthusiastic—and obviously the first one in a long time who much cared what was being done with The Legion—I even badgered Murray into allowing me to introduce new costumes, but he was timid about that. That was my best early work.

CBA: Around the same time were you doing some inking for Marvel? The Avengers come to mind....

Dave: I didn't start working for Marvel full-time until I had my little go-around with Murray and Carmine Infantino. DC wasn't returning artwork at that point, and Marvel was, but I asked for the double-page spread of the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel to be returned. I just wanted it for a souvenir, and Murray had said, "I don't see why not," and he apparently had it set aside to give to me. But Carmine came in the day I came by to pick it up and he said, "What's this?" Murray told him, and Carmine said, "You can't give this back to him. We don't do that." It was the only artwork that I had asked for back and I said, "Gee, guys, can't you bend the rules? It's all I'm asking for." He said, "Nope, can't do it." I said, "All right. See ya." (Just prior to this incident, I had gotten the Captain Marvel Jr. job from Julie Schwartz.) I then went over to Marvel and got some work, and asked Julie and Roy Thomas, "Do you guys mind if I keep doing Captain Marvel Jr.? Because I really tried hard to get that." Both of them said fine, but Carmine said, "No, he can't." So I made a clean cut with DC.

1 comment:

RAB said...

I haven't had a chance to get caught up on what bloggers are saying about this -- much less write anything myself -- so thanks for the roundup!

One of the great missed opportunities of comics history came about (or rather, didn't) because of Carmine's ridiculous inflexibility over that double-page spread. Just a few years later, when Jim Shooter had been coaxed out of retirement and was writing the Legion again, he was sharing his apartment with Dave Cockrum. If Cockrum hadn't been treated so shabbily by DC -- come to that, if Shooter hadn't also been treated poorly -- there could actually have been a Shooter/Cockrum Legion story. They both would have loved to do it, but no way would Cockrum consider working for DC again.

The whole idea is rife with historical ironies, of course. Shooter went from being an incredibly gifted and proficient writer to an editor who alienated the top talents in comics with his arrogance and heavy-handed managerial style...while the DC that Cockrum fled due to its lack of consideration for its talent later became more progressive and benevolent in its policies than Marvel, in direct response to the outrageous way Marvel treated Jack Kirby and others while Shooter was at the helm.

But damn...for anyone who knows what those two were each capable of at their creative peak, the idea that we never had a collaboration between them on the LSH is heartbreaking.