His latest project brings Friedman back to comics, his first obsession. In Heroes of the Comics, he drew 83 plates' worth of caricatures of the men and women who were the pioneers of the comic book industry. Each is accompanied by a short autobiographical essay. Reading the book, a few themes emerge. Friedman isn't shy about addressing those artists who were exploited by the work-for-hire contracts that dictated they receive no share of future earnings in other media. Nor does he shy away from openly discussing controversies about credits for comics, and who deserves to be known for what. Too many of the biographies end with a sentence that reads like "and then he gave up comics in the early sixties to pursue a more lucrative career in advertising". I would have liked to have seen a little more detail for some of the bios; I thought the John Stanley bio glossed over him leaving comics in burned-bridges style, for example.
That said, the real commentary in the book is found in the illustrations, not the text. The project started as a commission for Will Elder's family. Then he decided to do another caricature of his long-time collaborator, Harvey Kurtzman. That led him to doing portraits of all the EC artists, of whom Friedman was a life-long fan. When he finished those, he realized that he had a book on his hands. The rest of his choices were either obvious choices like Jack Kirby or Siegel & Schuster or else far more obscure choices like Dick Briefer. (The Dan Nadel-edited Art Out Of Time was a frequently name-checked resource for Friedman.) He also went out of his way to include three women and two African-Americans; he was almost apologetic about the parade of white men in the book but did note that there wasn't a tremendous amount of diversity in the early comic book industry.
What's remarkable about so many of the portraits is that Friedman manages to capture something essential about each artist or writer--especially those who met grim fates. For example, consider the Bill Everett portrait. The crooked smile, the cigarette in hand, his slightly wild-eyed expression and the body language all fit in with his status as a cartooning lifer who faced a lot of inner demons and alcohol issues. Will Eisner's portrait is that of a man quite comfortable with his fame and status, even as he's aged way beyond his prime (those liver spots are a tell-tale sign for Friedman). Bob Kane's status as a man who unfairly took credit for the work that Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and many others did over the years is encapsulated by the Joker-like smirk on his face, complete with a purple handkerchief! The sleazier characters in the book are made to look sleazy. Stan Lee looks every bit the carny huckster he's projected as his persona for decades.
So many of the artists portrayed here look haunted or simply beaten down. The Wally Wood portrait, where we see him looking down, shakily lighting a cigarette, is enough to move one to tears. Even the space background representing his work doesn't mitigate that sense of weariness he obviously wore. Kurtzman's tired expression is one of an artist who never quite got what he deserved when he fought for his rights. For Jack Kirby, we see him staring off into space, contemplating the worlds he has in his imagination.
Friedman often works in details from the artist's work into the portraits. John Stanley can be found sketching Little Lulu into the sand (how's that for a metaphor regarding the impermanence of credit for a comic book artist!). Otto Mesmer's spectacles and slightly bugged-out eyes resemble those of his creation, Felix the Cat. Matt Baker was known to be an artist who drew glamorous women, but he was also a glamorous looking fellow and Friedman emphasizes that handsomeness. The same can be said for Frank Frazetta, who looks ruggedly handsome in the same manner as the barbarians he became known for drawing. A number of the caricatures are drawn in an affectionate manner, like emphasizing Marie Severin's smile and dimples or John Severin's crazy cowboy hat and cigar. My favorite portrait in the book is that of Alex Toth. It's the only one that's in black and white, and it puts Toth in a defiant, aggressive pose. The notoriously independent-minded and sometimes fractious Toth gets a portrait that fits his personality, and the black & white nature of the drawing reflects the best of his work.
It's not just the faces that Friedman nails in all their craggy, wrinkled glory. I've rarely seen an artist who is able to draw clothing with such an astounding sense of accurate detail but also cartoony exaggeration. That goes double for his mostly restrained use of color, which emphasizes but never overwhelms his powerful line. The way he draws the slick-back haired of these (mostly) men is also remarkable; the slickness is so visceral that one can almost smell the hair tonic. The final plate of the book, which depicts an elderly Dr Frederic Wertham, is one of the most interesting. This "villain" of the comics is shown here in repose on a chair, a blanket pulled up over his chest as he seems to be about to take a nap. In his own mind, he was a hero trying to protect the nation's youth, a stance he perhaps backed away from later when he wrote a book about fanzines. Like so many others depicted in this book, he was a professional who worked hard at what he did, but he certainly put glory ahead of everything else. This made him human and flawed, like Kane and Lee, even if his flaws had real collateral damage. It's a sympathetic portrait in many ways, showing him as fragile and even broken as so many of the older artists depicted in the book, though far less defiant and with a lot less ink on his fingers. Friedman wanted as many portraits as possible done in the artists' studios, because he admired their absolute dedication to their craft when the practiced it above everything else. It's Friedman's grateful but clear-eyed salute to their work, craft that has allowed him to be a lifer like so many in the book.