I was sad to learn of the death of Herb Trimpe today. Fans of Bronze-age comics probably know Trimpe from his work on a lot of classic Marvel properties; he handled layout and pencil duties for The Incredible Hulk #181, which saw the debut of the Wolverine. Being less a general comics nerd and more a specific nerd for G.I. Joe comics, G.I. Joe is how I myself know Trimpe. His art played a huge part in my childhood.
He was the penciller for most of the comic’s first year of issues, back when the series tended to play out as standalone military adventures rather than the grand serialized saga that began in earnest with that car chase through San Francisco in issue #12. Around the time G.I. Joe went serial, Trimpe was replaced by Mike Vosburg, then Frank Springer, then Rod Whigham. A few years later, however, he returned to the franchise for very nearly the entire 29-issue run of spinoff Special Missions (which tended to involve, once again, standalone military adventures).
In one of those slightly strange coincidences, I read through the entirety of Special Missions just about a week ago for the first time in decades, revisiting the series with an adult eye. Two things really jumped out at me in this trip through the series: One, it involved a lot of tales set in political hotspots that remain volatile today. As a kid, I didn’t fully appreciate the history behind concepts like the hidden enclave of Tibetan rebels hiding out in a secret mountain pass and launching raids against the Chinese army, or the “Southeast Asian” intellectuals driven into hiding as rice paddy farmers by the Communist party’s intellectual purges of the mid-20th century. But these days, I’m surprised by how politically charged these stories about plastic toys actually were. Special Missions holds up surprisingly well – many of the specifics have become dated due to their grounding in the ’80s, yes, but they remain interesting and at times relevant to the current situation. And it’s always so fascinating to read G.I. Joe teaming up with the Taliban…
The second thing I noticed in my recent readthrough is that Trimpe’s art was excellent. I didn’t really appreciate his work as a kid, because it lacked the flash and detail that I saw in later Joe artists like Ron Wagner and cover illustrator Mike Zeck. But Trimpe was clearly cut from the Joe Kubert cloth of naturalistic comic art — an illustrator who focused less on impressive splash pages and more on fluid anatomy and well-framed panels that above all served to support the script. A talented visual storyteller — a translator, of sorts, interpreting the writer’s words into a visual experience for the reader. And, as with the best translators, his work was so effective yet unobtrusive you didn’t really notice it. The sample above, from G.I. Joe Special Missions, is a great example — there’s an excellent sense of movement and flow from panel to panel, with enough motion to keep it lively yet sufficient consistency from panel to panel so that it reads clearly.
A few years later, in the early ’90s, I remember seeing some of Trimpe’s pencils in mainstream superhero comics. This was a year or two after Image Comics had debuted, and I remember thinking how sad and awful it was that an old-school illustrator like Trimpe was trying so hard to work in the style of the Image folks. His artwork around that time was not good… but later, I realized that the quality issues weren’t his fault. Some idiot inker saw Trimpe’s loose, limber Bronze Age style and decided to go hog wild with stiff, sloppy, proto-McFarlane crosshatching. In hindsight, I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for someone like Trimpe to watch unseasoned kids degrade his work with their poor finishes in an effort to chase trends.
I’d been thinking about writing some sort of small tribute to Trimpe on the strength of my Special Missions readthrough, so it’s kind of pathetic that it took his passing for me to translate intent into action. He deserved better, having laid down the groundwork for a fictional universe that I still enjoy today — reading Special Missions again prompted me to pick up IDW’s current G.I. Joe series. And I can still see Trimpe’s fingerprints all over the books, all these years later. S.L. Gallant’s style reads like a mix of Trimpe and Whigham, the two most influential illustrators from the early years of G.I. Joe, and Trimpe even contributed cover illustrations to the series up until very recently. It must be weird to have your career so closely tied to a comic book based on a childrens’ toy… but then, the care that folks like Trimpe put into those books made them something more than a mere promotional tie-in. While scribe Larry Hama tends to get the lion’s share of the credit for making G.I. Joe into something that outlived the toys it was ostensibly meant to sell, Trimpe had a lot to do with that, too.
Marvel recently killed off Wolverine, though that’s not likely to be a permanent state of affairs. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of his co-creator, and I suppose that’s why so many people turn to escapism for entertainment — and in that sense, I suppose Trimpe’s work keeps a part of him alive for as long as people read and enjoy his creations.