Dave Cockrum: A Personal Reminiscence

© 2006 Glen Cadigan
Originally written on November 27, 2006
Published in Interlac # 184

The original cover rough to The Legion Companion. Note the Alter Ego mask in the corner: Cockrum mistakenly believed when he drew it that it would be for an upcoming issue of Roy Thomas' magazine

When I was a kid, I used to read my brother's comic books. I also used to read (and buy) my own, but we more or less had a system: if he bought it, I didn't. That freed up my money to purchase titles which he wouldn't look at, comics like Dazzler and Power Man and Iron Fist and G.I. Joe. On the surface, the system made sense, except when you factored in that he was developing some pretty awesome collections of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men while I was building my own, "lesser" collection out of the remaining titles that Marvel and DC published. Years later I would remedy the situation with some well placed money and a back issue sale at a local comic book store, but back then our collections were pretty lopsided, and even though I still like the books that I bought back in those days (yes, even Dazzler), at the time it seemed as if one of us was making out like a bandit, and that person wasn't me.

The first time I started buying the X-Men month-in and month-out was with Dave Cockrum's second run on the series. I can still vividly recall the cover with Dr. Doom standing triumphant over the defeated X-Men, Storm on his arm, a goblet in his other hand. My X-Men purchasing habits were hit-and-miss before then (as was the X-Men's newsstand distribution where we lived), and, as I said earlier, my brother was buying it, so I didn't have to, but somewhere along the way I made the decision to start buying it anyway, and I didn't miss an issue after that point. When I think back to when I first started reading the X-Men on my own, that's the run that I remember reading first hand, not as back issues. I don't know why it made that impression on me, but I can only conclude years later and from a standpoint of pure logic that the timing, coming as it did with the change in regular artists, couldn't have been a coincidence. I'm not sure that I knew the difference back then, but from the standpoint of today, it must have been the deciding factor.

All hail Doom! Inks by Joe Rubinstein.

In 2002, I began work on The Legion Companion, my first publication from TwoMorrows Publishing. Dave Cockrum was the second person who I interviewed for that volume (Jim Mooney, whom I ran into months earlier on eBay, was the first), and I remember the interview well. Over the summer of that year he had popped up on the X-Fan message boards in his own sub-board, entitled "Classically Cockrum," and I just about fell down when I discovered that I could correspond with the man who had revitalized both the Legion of Super-Heroes and the X-Men three decades earlier. I had wondered previously how I would find him in order to interview him for my book, and here he had found us. I participated in that message board as "Disco Dan" (just a random name - no meaning attached), and enjoyed responding to his posts and seeing him respond to mine. Over time he migrated to the DC "Legion" message board, as well as to "Cockrum's Corner," located at NightScrawlers.com, and the posts started to die off at X-Fan, not due to Dave's lack of participation, but to that of the other posters there. You see, other X-Men creators, both past and present, had their own sub-boards there, too, and apparently Dave's wasn't "cool" enough for the kids who were buying the then-current X-Men titles. I just wanted to reach into my computer screen, grab them by their scrawny necks and scream, "What is wrong with you people?" but in any event, Dave had fans elsewhere and he even still poked his head in at X- Fan from time to time, lest some question directed to him go unanswered.

The pencils to The Legion Companion cover, before the final characters would be added. Remarked Dave, "I also must point out that this is being done while I'm suffering from a 'palsy of the fourth nerve' in my left eye, and I have to draw with one eye closed. If there are any little oddnesses, that's why."

People who congregated at the "Legion" board in those days should remember the period well. Most of the posters there were in their thirties, and thus were weaned on the Legion of the Seventies. The very idea of mingling with Dave Cockrum was enough to make certain heads explode. He chose the handle, "Dark Bamf," revealing more about his personality than a well-written post would. And his posts were well-written; Dave could string sentences together just as well as any quote unquote "writer". In fact, it was his writing ability which led me to conclude that perhaps an interview conducted by instant messaging would be best, not just because his answers read so well, but also because the thought of speaking to Dave Cockrum on the phone intimidated the hell out of me. So we set a time and tried our best, but he couldn't get the furlushinger software to work. We scrapped that idea and agreed to try something else, and I felt foolish for wasting his time. He was Dave Cockrum, after all.

Some time later, I looked up his phone number online (he was in the white pages, no unlisted number for Dave) and called him up. I had emailed him about a date for our interview, but he hadn't responded in a while, and since people do have lives offline, I figured that I had better take the initiative and just call him. He was in the midst of a power outage (which explained the lack of email), and what he said next caught me completely off guard.

"How about now?" he asked.

How about now?

Ever since Dave Cockrum asked me that question, I have always, always been prepared to conduct an interview right on the spot. When I approach someone to do an interview, I have all of my research completed right then and there in case they ask me, "How about now?" This approach came in handy at least once later on (with Al Plastino, in case you're wondering), and at worst, I'm over prepared if the interview is to occur at a later date. Note that this paragraph begins with the words "Ever since." At that moment in time, I wasn't prepared like I would be today. I did the only thing that I could.

The Cockrum-inked version of the cover. Note the placement of Shrinking Violet at the bottom, having been replaced by the White Witch at the top, and the additions of Blok, Invisible Kid, and Polar Boy, the latter two at the editor's request.

"How about tomorrow?" I replied.

Dave laughed, said okay, and the very next night I called him up for our interview. As it turned out, he was still without power due to a New York snowstorm, so he and Paty were warming themselves by the fireplace. It's a good thing phones still work when the power's off.

That interview appeared in The Legion Companion more-or-less intact. Some parts had to be edited out for space, but they didn't pertain to the Legion (or X-Men, or Futurians, or anything comic book related, really), so it's an accurate representation of the conversation which occurred that night. Dave later read over the transcript and gave it his okay, so if he was happy with it, you should be, too. He also put together some photocopies of rare Legion art which he had made before he sold the originals, and Kevin McConnell knows this because Kevin picked them up at Dave's house during a visit which he made with longtime Cockrum friends and fellow Legion fans Ken Gale and Mercy Van Vlack.

(Funny story: Kevin arrived separately, and later than Ken and Mercy. When the two of them arrived first, Dave made a comment about someone picking up artwork and they looked at him blankly. Kevin later arrived and the mystery was solved).

I don't remember exactly how I asked Dave to draw the book's cover, but I know that it occurred via email and I know that it took a long time for him to do it. Even then, he had health problems, and weeks at a time would be spent in the hospital. He eventually faxed me a cover rough, and I approved it (like I would do anything else!), and after that, it was several more months before he could do the cover itself. Dave later revealed to me that he had to pencil the cover with one eye shut due to a vision problem, and it was because of that that the cover had to be reinked by Joe Rubinstein. When Dave saw Joe's version, he said that he didn't see the difference, so if he didn't care, no one else should, either.

The finished version of the cover, as inked by Joe Rubinstein.

I also asked Dave during the course of the interview some questions about the X-Men in relation to his then-current situation, and received some very honest answers from him. This was before his health scare, before he almost died, before people got on the "Save Dave" bandwagon that alerted everyone to his dire predicament. He expressed his displeasure at how Marvel was making money based upon his creations while he received nothing, and one of the disadvantages of reading the interview in print is that you can't hear the pain in his voice when he describes his frustration at Marvel's handling of "his" characters. He knew that, legally, they were Marvel's, but in his heart, they were still his. "I'd fire the whole lot of 'em," he said, in reference to the people that controlled his creations. What strikes me now in looking back at that period is how little the people at Marvel cared about what Dave Cockrum thought, if they even thought of him at all.

Thirteen months after the interview, Dave almost died. All of his various maladies combined to place him in the hospital, where he fought for his life. He pulled out of it, but while he was in there Marvel Comics was largely shamed by all of the public attention and realized that if they didn't make the sins of their past go away, they might suffer financially in the present. A deal was reached whereby the Cockrums would receive a stipend for Dave's contributions to the X-Men (fueled largely by the fact that Nightcrawler was created solely by Dave before he left DC to go to work for Marvel, thereby proving that "work for hire" didn't apply in his case), and victory was declared by both sides. The Cockrums moved from New York state to South Carolina, where the weather was warmer, and, presumably, Dave's health improved with the move. Dialysis three times a week and other lingering medical problems prevented him from working, but Dave did make a personal appearance at Heroes Con in 2006, as well as later that same year at a small convention in Greenville, SC (his last). He continued to be his usual, good-natured self, and appeared to enjoy talking with fans. What is undeniable is that those self-same fans enjoyed talking with him.

Temporary version of the cover used for the bookstore market catalogue (deadlines, deadlines!) before the published cover was finished. Artwork was used as the splash page of The Best Of The Legion Outpost one year later. Logo designed by John Morrow.

One year after The Legion Companion went on sale, it was followed up by The Best of the Legion Outpost, which also sported a cover by Dave Cockrum. This time the cover came from an old issue of the Outpost, but Dave okayed its use, and it was a pleasure to deal with him again. I hope that he enjoyed those books. I don't know if he did or not, but I like to think that the fan in him responded to them. I know that the fan in all of us responded to his work in them, both on the covers and in their interiors. I even got a kick out of reprinting a letter that he wrote to the Outpost once, complete with a picture of him from those halcyon, bygone days. Looking back at it now, it's as if there is a moment suspended in time, a moment when Dave Cockrum is still in his twenties and has just left DC for Marvel, where he doesn't know that his most successful days are still ahead of him. It's a moment that I wish would come again, if only so that I could meet him and thank him in person for helping me out and treating me as if we were both on the same level when we obviously weren't. That's the nice thing about comic books, and books about comics: they preserve the past as though it's still the present. And that's okay, because the past isn't such a bad place to be. After all, in the past, Dave Cockrum is still drawing, still making jokes, and still enjoying life. In the past his pencils are still being published by Marvel and DC, and fans are still gobbling them up with wide-eyed wonder. In the past we still eagerly devour his work month after month and look forward to the next issue with bated breath. How we took those days for granted when they were here, and how we long for them again now that they're gone.

Originally published as the cover of The Legion Outpost # 6 and revived roughly thirty years later for the Best Of collection.

I miss Dave Cockrum, and I hardly knew him. I can only imagine how those who knew him well feel today.

Glen Cadigan
November 27, 2006

Also of Interest

The Life and Art of Dave Cockrum

"Dave Cockrum was the best of us." -- Alex Ross, from his introduction.

From the original solicitation:

From the letters pages of Silver Age comics to his 2021 induction into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame, the career of Dave Cockrum started at the bottom and then rose to the top of the comic book industry. Beginning with his childhood obsession with comics and continuing through his years in the Navy, The Life and Art of Dave Cockrum follows the rising star from fandom (where he was one of the "Big Three" fanzine artists) to pro-dom, where he helped revive two struggling comic book franchises: The Legion of Super-Heroes and the X-Men.

A prolific costume designer and character creator, his redesigns of the Legion and his introduction of X-Men characters Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Thunderbird (plus his design of Wolverine's alter ego, Logan) laid the foundation for both titles to become best-sellers. His later work on his own property, The Futurians, as well as childhood favorite Blackhawk and T.H.U.N.D.E.R Agents, plus his five years on Soulsearchers and Company, cemented his position as an industry giant.

Featuring artwork from fanzines, unused character designs, and other rare material, this is the comprehensive biography of the legendary comic book artist whose influence is still felt on the industry today!

The Man Who Loved Comics

Written at the request of Alter Ego editor (and comic book legend) Roy Thomas after the passing of the co-creator and designer of the All-New, All-Different X-Men, "The Man Who Loved Comics" is a biographical essay about the life and career of Dave Cockrum. It covers his days in the fan press through his time at Marvel and DC, then goes into his later years when failing health forced the industry to rally around him to help secure funding for the legendary artist during his final days. Essentially a Reader's Digest version of the much-later published (and greatly expanded) The Life and Art of Dave Cockrum.