This interview took place by phone on Sunday, January 20 at about 9 pm, EST. (Now that Kiefer Sutherland of “24” is out of jail, imagine that it is he who read the preceding line.)
I’m talking to Fred G. Hembeck. What would you say is what it is that you do as a cartoonist? Is it a commentary, a parody, what?
Why do you start with the tough questions?
I want to loosen you up. To delve into your clever mind. And I figured you’d been asked it before, so you’d have a good, pat answer for it.
No, I don’t have a pat answer for this, honest to gosh. I wasn’t sarcastic when I said why do you start with the tough one.
It’s hard to explain what I do. What I do is turn myself into a cartoon character, intermingle with the comic icons I grew up with, and either banter with or mock them. And along the way, I try to throw in some information so that people reading the cartoons I draw are also amused by some of the jokes I put in there.
I’ve been amused by you for years. I hear you have a new book coming out, and we’ll be talking about that soon. But before that: I first noticed you in the pages of the old Comics Buyers Guide, run by Don and Maggie Thompson. How did you get that gig?
I must correct you, sir, because it was the Buyers’ Guide for Comic Fandom. It was run by Alan Light before the Krause people bought it from Alan in the early 1980s.
How did I get that gig? It all goes back to 1977. I was trying to get into the world of comics by putting together a portfolio of various characters such as Green Lantern and NOVA and other superheroes, dragging it to New York City and showing it around. It did not get a positive response, so I went home to prepare some other material to get ready for another round of this.
But in the meantime, I was trying to draw as much as possible. And I had just moved home from living in Buffalo for several years with a number of roommates. And to keep busy, to keep drawing, I would send them letters done in cartoon form. Of course, they all knew what I looked like, so I did a caricature of myself in there.
At the same period of time, I was also writing letters to the various comic book companies’ letter pages, and I sent in several letters in cartoon form using the little Fred character. One of which was Bill Mantlo, who was writing Iron Man at the time, and it caught his eye, and he asked me if they could use it, but he asked if I could redraw it, because I had used color ink. I said sure, and I redrew it in black and white, in standard 10″ by 15″ size. And they even paid me for it – $35 – and it appeared in Iron Man #114.
I think that actually inspired me to do another strip, and this was cartoon Fred interviewing Spider-Man., and I sent it into the Buyers’ Guide, because it’s weekly and they used a certain amount of editorial content because I guess there was some mailing regulations…
Yes, they had to have a certain percentage.
Right. And about a year and a half earlier, I had actually had a cover on the Buyers’ Guide. It was a montage illustration of the old Superman TV show, not done in the cartoon form. So I had actually had something published there. But, of course, a year and a half had gone by. So Alan Light liked it. He printed it. He said send some more. I sent some more. It kind of snowballed from there. I put my little name and address on the bottom of each page and that’s how other people contacted me, and that’s how we got going there.
At first, I wasn’t getting paid for this. You send it in, then they’ll printed. Eventually I got paid, very, very little. Still and all, it led to Marvel and DC knowing where I was, so it was all worthwhile.
Where did the title Dateline:@!!?# come from, and is there a particular obscene word you had in mind?
No, none whatsoever. The very first one said Dateline: Spider-Man, the very second one said Dateline: Flash. Then, there was, I think, Dateline: Howard the Duck. But then we came to Dateline: Miscellaneous. Then I realized that I needed to find some sort of overall title. So we kept the Dateline portion of it, but what we did, what I did, was to use the symbol for what Sarge says when Beetle Bailey screws up somehow.
So when I reprinted those pages, I took all the logos off the top. I generally forget that myself. It wasn’t until I got to this book that I found Dateline: Miscellaneous, which had never been reprinted before, and I said, “Oh, yeah, now I know why I changed the title.”
I got to look over some of your work for this interview for the first time in quite a while. I was in Manhattan, probably in 1979, at a comic book store on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village when I saw this garish orange-colored cover on the racks with a familiar art style. That was The Best of Dateline:@!!?#, published by Eclipse. How did they get into the act?
The Eclipse book came about because I had become friends with Richard Bruning, who was doing, at that time, a little cartoon feature called Marvelous Fruits and Veggies, in which he would draw the Marvel characters as fruits and veggies. We wrote back and forth to each other, and he was friends with Dean Mullaney, who was publisher of Eclipse with his brother Jan Mullaney. They had come out with one book, I believe it was called Sabre, by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy. This was one of the first independent mainstream publishers, and they didn’t have anything else to go for a second book. They had some other projects they were working on, but everyone was going along rather slowly. So Richard said to Dean, you know if you contacted Fred, you could probably gather together a bunch of his strips, a few other pages, and boom! You’d have an instant book. That’s pretty much what we did. By that time, I had already had those cartoon strips in The Daily Planet promo page in DC Comics which they labeled as “Hembeck”. I was going to call the book The Best of Dateline, but Dean said, “Why don’t we go with that as a subtitle and put the Hembeck out there, because people would know that from stuff they had seen in the DC Comics.” Modest as I am, I said, “All right, why not?”
DC didn’t sue you for using your own name?
They did not. They didn’t sue me for that. Nobody’s suing me any time soon.
Glad to hear it. So where are you living at this point in the narrative. Are you living in Troy (NY)?
No, I believe I was in Kingston when that first happened. Yeah, I was in Kingston because Richard and Dean and Dean’s girlfriend all came to our wedding and we were in Kingston at the time.
And around that time, you went to the first FantaCon, with John Caldwell, Dan Green (no relation to me), Jeff Jones, and Raoul Vezina, of course. Do you remember anything about that first show in ’79?
Not specifically, no.
At the end of that first FantaCon, you experienced a personal tragedy. The death of Vivian Vance, of course.
Ah, yes, that’s right. You know how it is: it’s the end of the convention, everybody’s going away, the tables are folding up. The fun is going away and you look wistfully around. It’s all going to stop, all the fun. And someone came up and put the capper on me, on the downer mood that I was already in, and told me Ethel Mertz has passed away. And I said, omigosh. And that was the last time anybody said, “Fre-ed!” That is until Lynn said it the other day.
There you go. Then you did Hembeck 1980 for FantaCo.
That is correct, sir.
Now I never noticed until recently, but the subtitle was The Son of The Best of Dateline:@!!?#. Was it all reprinted? The first page, with all of those characters, with you saying Welcome certainly was done for the issue.
Was it all reprints? No, it was not. Obviously, the covers and the centerfold were always new. But there were several other pages I did specifically for that book. I think it was maybe a third.
Does your upcoming book have any text in it? Specifically, do you address the issue about how FantaCo did NOT steal you from Eclipse?
Yes, I do discuss how I went from Eclipse to FantaCo.
There was a 10th anniversary Eclipse publication that came out around 1988, and even though your Dateline was the second publication, after Sabre, as you said, there was no mention of you or it. Were you surprised, hurt?
It was like Stalin erasing history. I was surprised, but not extremely surprised.
You won’t remember this but I first met you in February 1980 at a store signing of Hembeck 1980. I was looking back in my journals and referred to you as “Mr. Hembeck”. This was about three months before I actually started working there.
Then I started working there and doing mail order, and there was a bonus feature that came with every retail order of Hembeck 1980 that used to drive me crazy. Remember that X-Men sheet that was 8 ½” X 11”.
The book was half an inch shorter in each dimension. So I couldn’t just slip the page in without fearing that it’d get all raggedy. And I didn’t want to fold it, lest the collectors fear that it was ruined.
We corrected that the next time it was printed.
Thank goodness. You’ve noted that Hembeck 1980 is a terrible title, because anything with the year in it sounds new and fresh with the current year in the title, but eventually sound dated. I’m thinking of that Aretha Franklin song: Think is timeless, while Think (1989) is of its time. And I’ve read that you felt the same way; that Hembeck 1980 was a really cool title when you came up with it, but…
I was inspired by Frankenstein 1970. Do you remember that movie?
It was made in 1959 and it starred Boris Karloff. But he was not the monster; he was the mad doctor. And I was always fascinated as a kid, in 1961, ’62, seeing in the TV Guide a movie called Frankenstein 1970. It seemed so futuristic to me. Because of the zero at the end. Wow.
So to think that Hembeck 1980 would seem futuristic in the waning months of 1979 – that was kinda dumb on my part.
Hembeck 1980’s success prompted Tom Skulan to promote a comic book featuring Raoul’s character Smilin’ Ed in a story. Tell me what you remember about Raoul and how your character The Dog became part of that first issue?
I do recall that Tom wanted to do a book with Raoul. But Raoul was very busy at the store, so he was having a hard time getting his material finished. And they asked me to help out, you know, contribute some pages. I wasn’t working at the store so I had some extra time. And I put together The Dog; that’s what happened with that.
The other thing I remember about Raoul, unlike you guys, that being yourself and Mitch Cohn and Rocco Nigro, who knew Raoul much better because you worked in the store with him… I specifically remember one night, when I was in his in apartment with him, when we were doing the color separations for the Hembeck 1980 book, we stayed there all night. We were up until four in the morning, red plastic, you know the way they used to do it.
Especially for that back cover, which is like a fake EC cover And I had a really good time talking to Raoul all night. He was a nice guy, and I wish I knew him better than I did. And I said, “Hey, he’ll be around forever.” But that didn’t happen, unfortunately.
No, he died in November of 1983.
Next for you was your third title, Abbott & Costello Meet the Bride of Hembeck in June 1980. I’ve met your wife a number of times. Now, you’ve immortalized yourself in your books, but did SHE feel getting the Hembeck treatment?
Ah, at the time, she didn’t seem to object. [Laughs] Yeah, we don’t use Lynn in the comic much anymore. But at the time, it seemed like a decent idea.
Hmm. Abbott and Costello had 10 pages of reprints. #4, Bah, Hembeck! Was that all new?
Bah, Hembeck! was all new.
And if memory serves, both #4 and the reprinted version of #1 premiered at the second FantaCon, which was in 1980.
We were crankin’ them out.
Yeah. But it wasn’t called FantaCon 1980 because the previous one [in 1979] was called FantaCon 1980.
This is the one with Berni Wrightson, Richard and Wendy Pini, Joe Staton, Caldell, Jeff Jones, Raoul, and you. You participated in an artist jam. Remember that?
I have photos to prove it.
I brought that up because you got some recent scalding over something that allegedly took place in Detroit some years ago.
Oh, yeah, well these things happen. A minor occurrence that apparently happened many years ago.
I’ve always found you to be a generous guy. You charged me only ten bucks for that package you sent me at Christmastime.
Well, that’s the way I am.
I know. Anyway, Hembeck 5 is the The Hembeck File, that came out in February 1981. An international spy thriller. I was noticing that there’s a lengthy story in there written by Bill Mantlo called Erosion.
That you drew without your purple prose.
Without anybody’s purple prose. A wordless story.
You’ve contributed a drawing of ROM, of all characters, to benefit Bill Mantlo.
Well, as I mentioned earlier, and I’ll pause briefly to say, Hello, [daughter] Julie, I’m talking to my friend Roger. He’s interviewing me. I’ll see you later.
Funny you should mention Bill Mantlo just as Julie comes in, because of the fact, as I mentioned earlier, he helped me out quite a bit by starting me out in that Iron Man letter page. And we also worked together on the Spectacular Spider-Man during Assistant Editors’ Month, which, yesterday, Julie brought home from visiting her boyfriend Alec, and it turns out he had bought a copy from eBay specifically so I would autograph it for him.
It was kind of an interesting thing to do. I would have given him a copy!
[Laugh] Probably. Because you’re a generous guy.
Well, yeah. That one, I don’t have too many of those, but I gave him copies of a couple of my other books. So Julie took them over there today and he now has some autographed copies. I signed one of them, “Julie’s dad, Fred Hembeck” on the cover of one of them. So that was a thrill for him, I’m sure.
Yeah, Bill Mantlo was integral in the beginning of my career. But unfortunately, the thing was we had a little bit of a falling out. After we worked together on that Spectacular Spider-Man/Peter Parker book. Because Bill gave me one of those small, short plots, two or three paragraphs, perhaps, as opposed to a very detailed situation. And I was pretty new at that point. I had only done gag strips. And I had no problems in the scenes where Spider-Man was interacting with J. Jonah Jameson and the Black Cat. But there was a sequence where Spider-Man is fighting the Human Fly. And Bill’s instructions were: “And then they fight.”
I turned in this material, and it wasn’t really very well done. It didn’t surprise me. They asked me to redo it, they had Bill rewrite it and give me more concise, specific instructions, which he did. But I recall him calling me up, because we had spoken on the phone any number of times, but I had never met him in person. And he called me up, and he was a little bit annoyed at me, because I made him – it’s like I let him down somehow by making him do this extra work. And I was a little bit annoyed, because I felt like I wasn’t really in my element and could have used a little bit of help.
So we both kind of were annoyed with each other without really arguing or screaming or anything. But we never really spoke or had any contact after that.
And he had that really unfortunate accident a number of years ago, where he was hit by a car while rollerblading, and he’s been pretty much hospitalized ever since. So when the opportunity came around to contribute to the benefit for him, how could I turn these folks down when they asked? Because he was very much responsible for me getting into comics in a lot of ways.
Let’s see. Hembeck 6 is subtitled Jimmy Olson’s pal, Fred Hembeck.
That’s the one with all the characters with that scary eyewear.
That’s the one that premiered at the FantaCon that took place in 1981. I think that was all new stuff.
That was all new stuff.
Finally, there’s Dial H for Hembeck, the one issue I can’t immediately put my hands on. What was in that one?
It was two years later, surprisingly.
Yeah, it was in 1983.
There was a two-year gap because, in between, I did the Fantastic Four Roast for Marvel.
What was in that one? That one had a framing story, a new framing story, but the bulk of the insides were old Dateline stories. I’d say it was about 1/3 new material.
That was your last issue for FantaCo. What happened?
Well, for one thing, I was getting kind of tired of doing that kind of stuff, just in general, the Dateline stuff. And there seemed to be some mild disagreements between me and Tom – to this day, I can’t remember what they are, or were – but it’s one of those things where the little things build up and you go, What I am doing here? But, if you put a gun to my head and ask what were my gripes, I can’t remember. Nothing major.
I hear you’re going to have a new anthology out. What’s it called again?
What is it called? It’s called…
THE NEARLY COMPLETE ESSENTIAL HEMBECK ARCHIVES OMNIBUS. That’s O-M…
Don’t worry, I’ll check that.
I’d only recently re-read Blind Date in the back of Smilin’ Ed #4. I think it’s a very funny concept that fits in with your obsession with television. Is that in the book?
That’s in the book.
You did some pieces that appeared in the FantaCo Chronicles Series. Will they be in the book?
Pretty much everything. There’s a couple of spot illos I managed to let slip by. Any of the strips are all in the book.
We’ve gone over about 1/3 of the 900-page tome. What else will we find in there?
You’re going to find in there? The Dog, Mr. Mumbo Jumbo, a strip I did for Topps Comics several years ago, which I actually had the copyright for, so I’m able to use that one. Several strips that were never published. A Date with History; it’s kind of a time-travel farce I had put together to – I had submitted the story to Epic magazine.
And oddly enough, just as I had submitted it, Archie Goodwin called me up and said, “Well, we just announced the cancellation of Epic magazine, and we’re full up for the last several issues.”
You caused the cancellation of Epic magazine?
No, no. They canceled it so as not to have to publish my story.
Which is what I said.
So, as you’re saying that, you’re probably right.
How does it feel to have a book with the bulk of your output out there? Like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars?
Yeah, it is kind of weird. Especially since, at one point, both Al Gordon, whose idea it really was to start this book up, and Erik Larsen, who’s the publisher of Image currently, one of the things they both agreed on is that I put in EVERY SINGLE Dateline strip I ever did. And…there were some really bad ones!
There are! When I was starting to lose interest in the mid-’80s, and at one point I decided, I don’t have to use my regular rapidograph. I can just use a Flair pen. “That’ll look spontaneous.” No, it’ll look like crap! They’re in there. Hopefully, they are only about a dozen or so really awful pages out of about 900. It’s the law of averages. And there’s the mediocre pages – just a couple.
Now, there was some confusion about the nature of the book. Some people seemed to think there would be no Marvel or DC characters in the anthology. Let’s dissuade people about THAT.
They’ll be PLENTY of DC and Marvel characters in there because those are the characters I used in almost all my early fanzine material that I did in the Buyers’ Guide. It’s just that the material that was published BY Marvel and DC that I did, THAT won’t be in there.
There will be no Daily Planet stuff, no Marvel Age or you roasting the Fantastic Four or destroying the Marvel universe.
No, none of that. To tell you the truth, there is a half page from Marvel Age in there. And that’s only because I thought it was from another magazine when I put it together. But it’s from Marvel Age. It’s a strip called Little Freddy, which not the one I wound up doing years later, but it’s just my character, so I think I can get away with that.
I’d think so. So, when is it coming out?
They tell me it’s coming out in the middle of February . I have not heard anything that makes me feel that is not the case. In a month.
OK, 900 pages for $25. What a deal!
And we have commission drawings in there, we have Datelines from the 1990s, material I did for the CAPA-alpha, an APA – that’s in there. There’s even some material I submitted to Marvel, but they never actually used. I threw that in there because they didn’t actually use it. It snuck by. And we have all kinds of crazy stuff in there. And there’s text material explaining everything, not page by page, but in general.
The news of it sparked a great deal of blog posts expressing affection for your work, even before the book’s come out. How did that make you feel?
Oh, man, like a million bucks. Or like two million bucks. The reception has been really, really good,. I’ve actually been told by the people at Image that, I’ll quote them, they’re “very, very pleased” by the orders. You know, the pre-orders; that’s good. There was some fears that they were going to call me up and say, “We didn’t get enough orders.”
Yeah, right. But that did not happen. And we just await – I have no idea what it’s going to look like. I have no idea what the paper stock is going to be.
At which point, the tape recorder stopped. So the interview does as well. Thanks,