Saturday, November 26, 2011

One Writer’s Inspiration: Artist Dave Cockrum (1943-2006)

A gathering of the 30th century's finest heroes, from Superboy # 197.
All characters and art © DC Comics.
Dave Cockrum passed away five years ago today.

"Who was Dave Cockrum?" you may ask. He was a comic book artist who worked on various Marvels and DCs from the early 1970s.  He is best known for his role in relaunching Marvel's X-Men in the mid ‘70s, building the foundation for the extremely popular franchise of today.

Cockrum's name, unfortunately, is not as widely known as some of his creations: Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Wolverine's feral appearance.

But I’m honoring Cockrum for a different reason. Before his X-Men stint, he worked on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes with writer Cary Bates.  The Bates/Cockrum era spanned just twelve issues over a two-year period (1972-74), but it played an enormous role in my developing interest in comics and super-heroes. Simply put, without Cockrum and Bates, there would be no Power Club.

(If you’ve never heard of the Legion of Super-Heroes, it's because they, too, are not as widely known as certain other comics heroes, despite having been around for over 50 years. The Legion, or LSH, is a team of young heroes who live and operate a thousand years in the future. While the Legion has been rebooted several times, in most versions they befriend Superboy (Superman as a teen), who, through time travel, joins them and participates in their futuristic adventures. For more information on all things Legion, visit the Legion World fan site.)

Element Lad and Brainiac 5 ambushed  by one of the Fatal Five (issue # 198).
By 1972, the Legion had been relegated to an occasional backup feature in Superboy. Cockrum, an up-and-coming young artist, turned the series on its head. No one was paying much attention to the Legion in those days, so he was free to redesign the Legionnaires’ costumes, most of which had been unchanged since the early ‘60s. His Legionnaires were sexy and elegant, not overly developed as later became the norm in comics. His science fiction settings borrowed liberally from the original Star Trek series (then growing in popularity due to reruns). Acknowledging this inspiration, Cockrum even drew Mr. Spock into a panel of one issue.

Not to be overlooked, writer Cary Bates (who is better known for his 17-year stint on The Flash, from 1968-85) specialized in inventive plots with surprise endings. In one memorable story (Superboy # 195, June 1973), the Legion rejects an applicant, ERG-1, who does not appear to have an original super-power. Refusing to take no for an answer, ERG-1 vaporizes a monstrous machine the Legionnaires cannot defeat – but apparently gives his life in the process.

(Not to worry: ERG-1 survived and became Wildfire, one of the most popular Legionnaires.)

The triumphant return of ERG-1
(Wildfire) in # 201.
The Bates/Cockrum run proved so popular with fans that, two issues later, the Legion “took over” the series and were given cover billing: Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes. Although Superboy remained the central character, nearly every story afterwards took place not in his home town of 20th century Smallville, but in the Legion’s 30th century. No longer a solo hero, Superboy shared his title with the likes of Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl, Timber Wolf, Dream Girl, and Star Boy.

Alas, Cockrum left just a few issues later, following a dispute with DC. His last issue was # 202 (June 1974).

The Legion prospered without Cockrum, but many fans feel that, had he stayed, the Legion could have become as popular as the X-Men eventually became. (Some of the characters Cockrum intended for the Legion turned up in the X-Men, most notably Nightcrawler.) 

Despite its brevity, Cockrum’s run had an enormous impact on Legion fans, particularly this one, whose writing to this day remains influenced by those issues. The Bates/Cockrum Legion was full of optimism, fellowship, confidence, and even humor. Other creators have developed those aspects of the Legion to varying degrees, but there was something special about that era: It was cool, sexy, and fun, as well as heroic. Cockrum's art conveyed a sense of urgency and semi-realism. His Legionnaires had distinct personalities in their faces and body language. His 30th century seemed both dangerous and inviting.
Future newlyweds Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel at play (# 200).

In a previous post, I mentioned that no story springs whole cloth out of nothing. Every story has antecedents it refers back to, deliberately or not.  I’m proud to acknowledge the LSH—and particularly Dave Cockrum’s version—as one of my antecedents for The Power Club

There are, of course, significant differences. Damon’s world exists in the present, not the future, and the team he joins will be much smaller and does not use code names such as Lightning Lad and Phantom Girl. Figuring out what to do with their powers will be a lot harder for Damon and company than it often seemed for the Legion. 

But every story begins with an idea or model that sparks the flame of its own individual growth. Dave Cockrum ignited such a spark for me.

Thanks, Dave.
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Anonymous said...

Got that ERG-1 page, which captures the dynamism of Mr. Cockrum's story-telling skills. Thanks for taking note of his passing.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Thanks for stopping by, Anonymous. Cockrum's storytelling skills were unparalleled, as I think every one of these panels shows.

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