A recent forum-post reminded me of the momentous 1980 Harlan Ellison interview in COMICS JOURNAL #53. I hadn't read it for a while, and my memory was that the first time Ellison slagged the work of artist Don Heck, he was doing so in the mistaken impression that Heck had done the art to the 1970s comic NOVA.
Instead, as I reread the interview, it turned out that the NOVA reference came second. In the course of the interview Ellison was ranging all over the place, holding forth on his personal gospel of artistic excellence vs. journeyman mediocrity. On page 76, Ellison has just finished exulting in his own escape from the hell of network TV: "...they get you to write this shit and they corrupt you and writers are turned into mere hacks. I won't do it any more but there are plenty who will..."
Slightly later he makes the caveat that in some cases the willing hacks don't even have talent to start with, which brings him to an excoriation of the total worthlessness of all mainstream comics then current. Ellison asks interviewer Gary Groth to name the "worst artist in the field," and Groth names Don Heck. When Groth also mentions that a particular publisher once praised Heck, Groth assumes that the praise was for Heck's ability to turn the work in on time. For Ellison this is tantamount to compromising the integrity of the work for a paycheck. Somehow it never occurs to Ellison that this contradicts his earlier point: if Heck had no talent to begin with, then, one may reason, how can he compromise the work? But then Ellison is off again, touting Neal Adams as a conscientious professional who respects the work over the demands of the industry. After opining that "five thousand Don Hecks are not worth one Neal Adams," THEN he remembers how much he disliked the art of NOVA. He wonders if Heck was the artist on that work; Groth agrees that it was terrible art (as do I, incidentally) but neither remembers that Sal Buscema committed the crime against great art.
Four JOURNAL issues later, the magazine's lettercol carried several responses to Ellison's tirade, one of which came from Steve Gerber. Gerber praised some of Heck's work, not coincidentally work on which Heck and Gerber had collaborated. Then Gerber asserted parenthetically that Heck had suffered some personal tragedy in his life. In his response Ellison did not retract his opinion on Heck's work, but he did admit that in some situations "one should watch one's mouth."
Strangely, I recall reading an interview with Heck-- who passed away in 1995-- in which he denied that he had experienced any personal tragedy that had interfered with the quality of his work. In fact, I recall that Heck claimed in said interview that the story had taken on "urban legend" status in his field, where dozens of fellow workers believed it but no one knew precisely what had supposedly happened to the artist. But since I cannot at present remember where I read this, readers are advised to take my recollections with a grain of salt.
Next up: examining the roots of an elitism from over thirty years ago.