On -isms: Herb Trimpe & Ageism

By | Thursday, April 16, 2015 3 comments
Fantastic Four Unlimited original art by Herb Trimpe
Herb Trimpe
With the recent death of Herb Trimpe, there have been understandably a number of remembrances and tributes. I never had the pleasure of meeting Trimpe, and I don't have anything to really add to the broader discussion about his work. And while many people are recalling his days on Hulk, there have only been (to my eyes) a few brief passing mentions of his ouster from Marvel. I think I saw two articles that expressly noted that he had written publicly about it, and neither actually pointed to or quoted from the piece.

So let me start by pointing people to Trimpe's actual article: Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World circa January 2000.

It's an uncomfortable read. It's meant to be. Trimpe was trying to show how readily he was discarded when someone in charge decided they didn't like his work any more. Others subsequently chimed in on the topic of ageism in comics, probably most notably Daniel Best (in 2007) and Jerry Ordway (in 2013). But it's not a topic that comes up frequently.

It's a hard subject to tackle because there's a great deal of fuzziness to it, I think. I mean, the primary reason a freelancer is no longer given work is because their work doesn't sell. (Or doesn't sell well enough compared to others.) Most publishers look at this from a numbers perspective. That's why comics that are written extremely well and drawn extremely well still get cancelled; they just don't sell enough. So it's easy to put that excuse out there for an older creator. It's not because they're older, it's because they don't sell.

And that could be completely legitimate in many cases. A creator in their 20s might be bursting with new ideas, and things they want to try, but as age wears on, it's easy to fall back on familiar themes and tropes. For as good as Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis are as writers, I've seen them both criticized for continuing to return to the same themes. That's not to say they're repeating themselves, but does the general buying public want to explore one theme as in depth and from as many different angles as the creator? Probably not, in most cases. Gaiman and Ellis seem to both be talented enough that their execution is consistently top-notch, and I expect that allows the public to grant them more of a pass than someone of only above average talent.

I've actually been thinking about this a bit recently. There are works out there that I found revolutionary 10-20 years ago. And in keeping up with, and eventually meeting, the researchers/writers who put that work out there, I see that their current work often comes across as more-of-the-same. Greater detail and deeper nuances than before but, frankly, I don't have the interest on that specific sub-topic to get to the level of detail that they provide. And a room full of researchers seemed to agree; they would still provide deference out of respect for the initial work, but found the newer material almost repetitious.

A few years back, I read I think on a message board where someone asked John Byrne what single panel of comic art he was most proud of recently. He responded with something to effect of it being nothing you'd be likley to remember yourself. Byrne was partial to getting a hand gesture just right, or the subtlety of an eyebrow, or the folds in a piece of cloth. Nothing so eye-catching as Superman battling Darkseid or anything like that. It was the details he was interested in exploring.

Which, artistically, is wonderful. That after decades in the business, you would still be working to hone your craft and get things just so is the sign of a master craftsman. But who in your audience is watching for that? Who in your audience has an eye trained well enough to see that ever-so-slight shift in your pen line from one issue to the next?

This is one of the reasons why older creators start becoming commercially irrelevant. If their work isn't exploring the same types of possibilities and pushing the same kinds of boundaries "these kids today" are, the work itself will look increasingly dated. In Trimpe's case, he himself noticed this which is why some of his later work looks like a bad Rob Liefeld impersonation. He saw that Liefeld's energy transcended his poor draftsmanship, and that readers were responding to that, so Trimpe elected to try a similar approach. Whether it was too little, too late or Trimpe was adopting the wrong techniques from Liefeld, I don't know. (Frankly, I never understood what the interest in Liefeld was in the first place! I have always been baffled why he's had anything even resembling a career in comics.) But Trimpe, very much to his credit, was trying to adapt his approach so that he was no longer going down a rabbit hole of detail and nuance that most of his audience would never notice or appreciate.

Regardless of a creator not getting work simply because of their age or because their style no longer sells, how Trimpe was dismissed was clearly uncalled for. Though I suspect that was more indicative of general corporate callousness than ageism.

How much of Trimpe's dismissal was ageism and how much was corporate looking the numbers and seeing his books don't sell? That's impossible to know. Though I doubt anyone involved from Marvel's side would ever admit to it being ageism. Regardless, it's an excellent lesson to ALL creators out there on what they can expect from corporate work as they grow older. And I don't know about you, but it sure makes me think webcomics and self-publishing might be a better long-term strategy!
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Britt Reid said...

"In Trimpe's case, he himself noticed this which is why some of his later work looks like a bad Rob Liefeld impersonation. He saw that Liefeld's energy transcended his poor draftsmanship, and that readers were responding to that, so Trimpe elected to try a similar approach."

IIRC, The word in the biz was that it was "suggested" to Herb that mimicking Liefeld (who was "hot" at the time) would get him more work at Marvel.
I don't think it was his choice.
A lot of Silver Age artists had fallen "out of favor" at that point, and couldn't get any steady work from the companies.
If it wasn't for conventions and commissions, some would've been really up the creek financially!

Although it's widely believed Trimpe was coerced into immitating Liefeld, that's not actually the case. Brian Cronin asked Trimpe directly a few years ago, and he responded, "No one at Marvel suggested I change the way I draw or ink. I looked at the new guys’ stuff, and thought, hey, this is great. Very exciting. You can always learn from somebody else, no matter how long you’ve been doing a thing."

There's more details here...

Good article … this is an issue which most older illustrators grapple with. Reason #1? Older is more expensive and less likely to tolerate blatant amateurism and incompetency from clients.

Also, the relentless trend towards "de-skilling" makes many older artists suspect to younger ADs and editors. We just ain't cool enough to get into print … until we're safely dead.