Our critic digs deep into the 900-page doorstopper, chronicling three decades of work from pioneering independent artist Fred Hembeck
The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archive Omnibus

Fred Hembeck
(Paperback; on sale now)

Fred Hembeck might be the ultimate fanboy-turned-professional cartoonist, channeling his savant-like knowledge of the medium into various gag strips teeming with inside jokes for fellow enthusiasts. If you’ve been a comic-book reader during the past 30 years, then you’re probably familiar with the work of the pioneering independent artist, known by many simply as ”the guy who draws the swirly knees and beady eyes.” Endlessly enthusiastic, if often logorrheic, his dispatches to the rest of fandom have been like proto-blogs, minus the vituperation.

Now, Image Comics has collected more than 900 pages of his art in The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus. The generally comprehensive book goes all the way back to his Dateline:@#$% strips from the 1970s (though it lacks any examples of his inconsistent efforts for DC and Marvel). We’ve combed through the monstrous paperback volume (with no page numbers, sadly!) to find the 10 segments most worth a look.

1. Hembeck spends 16 panels and hundreds of words praising the Spider-Man TV special that preceded the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man TV series of the 1970s. In truth, the special was horrendous. But Hembeck’s discussion builds into a plea for Marvel to give Spidey cocreator Steve Ditko a credit on the show — an early endorsement for the recognition of individual creators. (From 1977)

2. ”Bah, Hembeck!” This guided tour through the Silver Age of DC Comics includes shout-outs to Mort Weisinger and Julie Schwartz, as well as a beautiful two-page tribute to the dynamism of Flash artist Carmine Infantino, and a full page comparing the styles of different Fantastic Four inkers. Really, who else pays attention to styles of comics inkers? (1980)

3. ”D.D.’s Facts & Fancies.” In two pages you’ll learn: that Marvel nearly folded future hits Daredevil and Iron Man into one comic ”to make room for new ideas and new concepts” in 1971; that Daredevil went to the Rolling Stone offices to meet magazine-founder Jann Wenner in Daredevil No. 100; and that briefly popular psychic Uri Geller teamed up with Daredevil to fight bank robbers in No. 133. (1982)

4. ”The Party”: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Stan Lee are enjoying drinks and listening to music. The doorbell rings. It’s Jack Kirby and his wife, Roz. The lights go off, the music stops. The Kirbys walk back to their car…
Jack: ”I told you this was a bad idea, Roz.”
Roz: ”But Jack, they owe it to you!”
Jack: ”I know that, and you know that…but I don’t think they know that.”
As their car pulls away, we see the lights go back on, and the party starts again.
(From 1986, when Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and refusing to return Kirby’s original artwork.)

5. Dateline @#$%: Fred transfers his fandom from superheroes to alt-comics guys Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth, before coaching them on how to sell more books: fight scenes! (1996)

6. ”Misters T&A”: Ditko famously authored several Objectivist screeds, including one with Mr. A, a vigilante who served as an inspiration for The Watchmen‘s Rorschach. So, naturally, Hembeck teams this deadly serious character with one B.A. Baracus. (Mister A: ”Morality is a simple matter of black and white: I’m white, he’s black, problem solved!”) (2001)

7. Hembeck meets…Herbie Popnecker! (2001)

8. Hembeck Switcheroos: Two iconic covers (say, The Amazing Spider-Man No. 50 and Superman No. 149) are rendered in full Hembeckian style — and then the characters are switched. (2002)

9. Our hero finds himself in a dream and comes upon — as most comics obsessives do — a spinner rack filled with old, pristine comics. But upon touching them, an apparition warns him: ”This is where your interest in literature comes to a screeching halt! You’ll never experience Shakespeare, never know the exquisite thrill of Melville — why…sob…you won’t even be able to slog through a Judith Krantz potboiler!” He awakens in sweat, horrified — as most comics obsessives are, at one time or another — by this possibility. His consoling wife hands him his Melville to help him try and get back to sleep. With horror, he looks upon his copy of… Classics Illustrated: Moby Dick! (1981)

10. ”Professor Hembeck Grades Today’s Comics.” Simply an amazing time capsule and useful guide to this day, with raves for books you know and love (Saga of the Swamp Thing; American Flagg; Love and Rockets) — and for ones you never got around to reading (Thriller; Bob Bolland’s Wally the Wizard; Camelot 3000). (1984)

With or without page numbers, the Hembeck Archives Omnibus is one you should get around to reading. A