Comic book artist Mike Zeck says it was his great fortune to be born in 1949.
“I feel very lucky to have experienced my march through fandom and comics when I did,” Zeck said in a recent interview from his home in Atlanta. “I was reading at just the absolute perfect age when Marvel Comics hit in the 1960s. You know, we got Fantastic Four No. 1, followed by the Hulk, Spider-Man and the rest of the gang. It really locked me in as a Marvel fan.”
Zeck was drawing those heroes for Marvel two decades later. It was during this period that Marvel and its chief rival, DC, began to offer royalties to writers and artists, paying them extra for every issue that sold more than 100,000 copies and paying even more if their comics were reprinted later or if any of the characters they created appeared in movies or television shows.
“DC started the royalties, and Marvel knew immediately that it had better match it or there would be a flow of talent going over to DC,” he said. “The thing is, everything at Marvel at that point sold more than 100,000 copies. So that was the beginning of actually getting paid decent money in comics.”
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“Prior to that, you got your low page rate and that was the end of it. The ’80s was the best money-making decade for everybody in comics. After that, in the ’90s, you had an implosion, and sales have never really recovered.”
To this day I never go to a convention without people pointing to the cover of Secret Wars No. 1 or No. 8 and saying, ‘This was my first comic. My dad bought me this. This is what got me into comics.’
Zeck, whose clean, detailed style is instantly recognizable to fans of 1980s comics, is one of the guests scheduled to appear this weekend at the Lexington Comics & Toy Convention.
Despite his childhood love of comic books, it took him a while to break into the industry. Zeck studied illustration at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., followed by several years of teaching art — and bus driving and other odd jobs — at a school for the children of migrant farm workers near Miami.
Finally, in 1975, he won his first professional work, drawing horror titles for Charlton Comics, a famously low-budget publisher that had offices inside a Connecticut bowling alley.
“I was lucky to get my foot in the door at Charlton. You had total freedom there. They would send you the script for an eight-page story with basically no other guidance, and you were expected to return artwork that was penciled, inked and lettered. Frankly, I needed that experience. If you go back and look at my Charlton work, you can see that it was an education for me.”
Zeck arrived a few years later at Marvel, the industry’s top publisher. His art attracted enough fans to earn him lengthy runs on the Master of Kung Fu and Captain America series as well as a still-celebrated Spider-Man story line called “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” With a friend, writer Steven Grant, he popularized the heavily armed vigilante known as The Punisher, who is getting his own Netflix series this year.
“Steven had this great plot for a Punisher mini-series that he floated around Marvel for a while, but they wouldn’t publish it. They had to be talked into it. They didn’t think The Punisher could support his own comic,” Zeck said.
“Of course, this was the same time you had Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger running around in the movies with these enormous guns, shooting everyone. But Marvel thought The Punisher wouldn’t sell comics. Go figure!”
The sad part of the popularity of these superheroes is that relatively few people read comic books anymore.
Nothing Zeck drew had a greater impact than a 1984 mini-series with the clunky title Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Written by Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, Jim Shooter, Secret Wars tossed most of Marvel’s heroes and villains together into an epic battle for survival against a cosmic entity known as the Beyonder. It crossed over into nearly every monthly series Marvel published.
Originally planned as a one-time gimmick to promote a new line of Marvel action figures, Secret Wars sold so many comics — and continues to as a paperback collection — that Marvel and DC continue to publish sprawling crossover events on a more or less annual basis.
Zeck had an uneasy feeling about Secret Wars as he worked on it. It was difficult to draw dozens of characters, he said, and deadlines were rushed, in part because Shooter was so busy editing the rest of Marvel’s line that his scripts kept coming in late.
“It made me worry that we weren’t able to give it 100 percent,” Zeck said.
“But I shouldn’t have worried. It was the concept of putting together all of those characters that sold the book. The existing readers loved it, and the real success was that it brought in so many new readers. To this day I never go to a convention without people pointing to the cover of Secret Wars No. 1 or No. 8 and saying, ‘This was my first comic. My dad bought me this. This is what got me into comics.’”
Once an avid fan, Zeck seldom draws or reads comic books anymore. About 2003, he began a new career, licensing and merchandising artwork for Fisher Price, Mattel, Disney and other companies. He might have picked a good time to leave: It’s not uncommon today for Marvel comics to sell only 40,000 copies, a tiny fraction of their former reach, through specialty shops.
“The sad part of the popularity of these superheroes is that relatively few people read comic books anymore,” he said. “The characters make billions and billions of dollars. You can’t go anywhere without seeing Spider-Man or Iron Man. Kids have the superhero lunchboxes and play the video games and see the movies. But when you look at the sales numbers, hardly anyone is reading the original print material.”
If you go
Lexington Comic & Toy Convention
What: Sixth annual media extravaganza featuring exhibits, events, vendors, photo ops and celebrity guests, including Robin Lord Taylor (“Gotham”), Kevin Smith (“Clerks,” “Comic Book Men”), Lee Majors (“Six Million-Dollar Man”), Michael Rooker (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), Jewel Staite (“Firefly”), Ric Flair (pro wrestler), Seth Gilliam (“Walking Dead”), Gates McFadden (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”), Bruce Boxleitner (“Tron,” “Babylon 5”) and many more actors, creatives and artists.
When: 4 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Times are for general admission open floor times. Check online for VIP admission times and special events.
Where: Lexington Center, 430 W. Vine St.
Tickets: $40 Fri. only, $45 Sat., $30 Sun., $60 Sat. and Sun., $80 VIP weekend.