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Past Masters: Dave Cockrum

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Here’s a true story: A decade ago, I was fired from Wizard for referring to Barry Windsor-Smith sans the Windsor. I was flabbergasted when I got the boot. Ossified is more like it. Went straight to the autograph book I’d carried as a kid, and there was the moniker: “Best Regards, Barry Smith.” But my editor didn’t want to see my autograph book. Smith’s gopher Alex Biali had called the front office and regaled him with Smith’s hissy fit. So I was out. Then the next day, when Harlan Ellison called Wizard owner Gareb Shamus and said, “Don’t bag this kid—he’s terrific,” I was invited back in. But I’d lost interest.

Now, after more than a decade away from the form, the only clydesdale strong enough to drag me back to comics journalism was a chance to write undisturbed about the giants of science; the elders of the realm. The Past Masters. Not just guys I grew up reading—though they’re more likely to get long shrift from me than any of the Stepford Liefelds—but new giants, too; Tritons among the minnows you may have missed on your way to Atlantis, comics distribution being the one-channel pipeline that it is.

My love of comics has led to a lifelong correspondence with some of the most potent innovators of the industry. Good for me, you say. Well, you’re right—good for me. But it’s good for you, too, if you pay heed and check out some of the artists and writers I’ll be recommending. And I’ll even make it worth your while with an offer you can’t refuse: If I proffer something here, and you go out and buy it and don’t agree that it’s the best thing since disposable condoms, mail it to me and I’ll reimburse you. No kidding. I’m that confident. And I make a lot of money.

That said, I’m sure all of you have heard about Dave Cockrum’s plight by now. Cockrum’s been sick. Awful sick. But more on that—and what you can do to help—in a moment. First, let’s begin by agreeing that Cockrum was one of the most innovative character designers of the 1970s. Those of us old enough to remember when Adam West was the only Batman, and when Stan Lee wrote almost everything Marvel was publishing, still recall reading Cockrum’s missives on the letters pages of Marvel and DC titles of the mid-1960s.

Cockrum’s first published work appeared in Fantastic Fanzine in 1968. He was stationed in Guam at the time, serving his country as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, and unable to gauge fan reaction to his debut, but some of the editors at DC stood up and took note. This became evident when Cockrum finally mustered up the nerve to show his face at DC and ask for work. Julie Schwartz, the beloved editor-in-chief at DC, looked at Cockrum’s samples that day and told Cockrum he wasn’t yet ready for the big time. Nevertheless, he walked Cockrum around the offices and introduced him to the guy who was, at that moment, the single biggest star in the industry: Neal Adams. Adams took one look at Cockrum and said, “Oh! It’s the famous artist from Fantastic Fanzine.” As Cockrum tells the story, “I knew he was being sarcastic as hell, but it was nice to hear that he knew who I was.”

Upon discovering that there was no work at Marvel or DC, Adams sent Cockrum to Warren Publishing with a note saying, “Give this boy work.” Now in those days, publisher Jim Warren was so enamored of Adams that he’d do anything he said. And that’s how, in 1971, at the tender age of 27, Cockrum received his first plot for Warren’s Vampirella (which he began penciling for $25 a page). “Neal let me bring him my pages before I gave them to Warren,” Cockrum told me. “He showed me what to fix.”

Later that year, Julie Schwartz notified Cockrum that Superman artist Murphy Anderson was seeking a background inker. Impressed with what he saw, Anderson hired Cockrum, who inked at the veteran’s New York City studio each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cockrum’s improvement under Anderson’s tutelage led to another milestone: a shot at Superboy’s “Legion of Super-Heroes” feature. The Legion had suffered a spotty history to that point, but the team of Cockrum and writer Cary Bates proved to be magic. Soon enough, the title was renamed Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Less than two years later, Cockrum ended up at Marvel, first as an inker on The Avengers, and then, in 1974, as the penciller on the historic Giant-Size X-Men #1 with writer Len Wein. That’s right—Cockrum’s the guy who created (as in thunk up and designed) Colossus, Storm, and Thunderbird (and later on both Phoenix and Mystique). I neglect to mention Nightcrawler here—the character Cockrum’s best known for—because he’d actually designed that one years earlier, and even offered it to DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. Let’s see Marvel call that one “work for hire” if it ever comes to court (oops! did someone say lawsuit?).

Cockrum’s sick, now. Awful sick. As of this writing, he’s been hospitalized for nearly a month with complications from diabetes, and a case of double-pneumonia, and infections in both his lungs and blood. He finally came off the respirator last week, but it’ll be another month before he leaves the V.A. Hospital (thank Heaven he served his time for Uncle Sam; did you think Marvel (“Uncle Stan”) was paying any of those hospital bills?)

So we all know Marvel’s going to do the right thing now. We all believe the powers that be at the publicly traded Marvel Enterprises Inc.—the folks who brought you not one but two X-Men films, and raked in millions in the process—are going to do more for Dave Cockrum than a bouquet of flowers as he lies in bed.

I have faith, true believers. Don’t you?

Neal Adams has faith. That’s why, along with Harlan Ellison and other creators, Adams just approached Joe Quesada and Marvel regarding Cockrum’s non-existent royalties. Everyone in the industry—creators, retailers, fans, and press—will be watching this one very closely.

Everyone, that is, except Dave Cockrum.

He’s too sick to watch.

Clifford Meth

P.S.—Want to help Cockrum? Buy THE UNCANNY DAVE COCKRUM TRIBUTE. It’s a wonderful portfolio of characters that Cockrum created, as rendered especially for this collection by his friends. Friends like Neal Adams. And Murphy Anderson.

Go to Aardwolf Publishing to order: