Dave Cockrum

Saviour of the X-Men
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The Independent Online

David Emmett Cockrum, comics artist: born Pendleton, Oregon 11 November 1943; married (one son); died Belton, South Carolina 26 November 2006.

Without the comics artist Dave Cockrum's sleek science-fiction designs and costumes, it is doubtful whether Marvel's X-Men comics, and later the blockbuster films based on them, would ever have achieved such popularity.

In 1972 Cockrum was working for DC Comics when he was made the regular penciller for "Legion of Super-Heroes", a back-up strip in the comic Superboy. The title he inherited was not doing well: the characters looked dated, sales were dropping, and the cultural revolution that had swept through comics over the past few years appeared to have passed the Legion by. With not much to lose, Cockrum began modernising the teen heroes' costumes to dramatically sexy effect (sometimes against the editor's say-so) and injecting a clean, science- fiction look to the series. With new characters from the writer Cary Bates and the re-energised look, sales picked up to such an extent that the comic was retitled Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.

In 1974, Cockrum fell out with DC over their refusal to hand back a page of his artwork, but his work had not gone unnoticed by DC's rivals Marvel Comics, who had in mind a similar rescue of their moribund X-Men comic. Marvel, the publishing phenomenon du jour, had had massive success with other titles created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but The X-Men, which began in 1963, with a theme of persecuted mutants intended as a metaphor for racial issues, was a rare failure. After several years of dwindling sales (thanks to below-par artwork and cardboard characters for much of its run), the comic had suffered the half-life of relegation to reprint status, one step above cancellation.

Marvel's chief editor, Roy Thomas, wanted to resuscitate The X-Men, however, so Cockrum with his sketchbook of sexy character designs was teamed up with the writers Len Wein and Chris Claremont to come up with a new, international cast of heroes, including Nightcrawler (a character with powers of teleportation, originally intended for the Legion), Storm (who can control the weather) and Colossus (who can turn his body to steel). The effects were electrifying: renamed The Uncanny X-Men, the series was transformed from the failing runt of Marvel's litter to sales chart-topping juggernaut, spawning multiple spin-off titles, along with films and a merchandising feeding frenzy.

The son of an American Air Force colonel, Cockrum loved comics ever since learning to read with them, and endured his art teachers' horrified naysaying to pursue a career in the field, though not before serving a six-year stint in the US Navy. He was still in the ranks when he was first published in Fantastic Fanzine in 1968, and his progress through the pages of the comics fan press led to his being hired in 1971 by Warren Publishing to pencil their "Vampirella" strip at $25 a page.

His talent caught the eye of the DC editor Julie Schwartz, who pointed Cockrum in the direction of the long-time Superman artist Murphy Anderson, who was then in need of a background inker. (American comics were traditionally the product of an artistic production line, with one artist laying out the original drawings in pencil, another going over them in ink, a letterer supplying the captions, and a colourist then applying coloured inks to an overlay.) He also assisted another industry legend, Wally Wood, on the newspaper strip "Shattuck". Cockrum was second choice when Anderson turned down a story for Superboy's strip "Legion of Super-Heroes", but this proved to be his big chance, eventually leading to the job with Marvel.

Cockrum was to benefit little from the hoop-la surrounding The X-Men, either financially or critically. Leaving the title after two years, he returned to it three years later after his successor, John Byrne, quit, before jumping ship for good to become a Marvel staff artist, while trying to get his own comics into print. Thereafter his career took several turns for the worse: his pet project, The Futurians, was published by Marvel and then Lodestone, to critical acclaim but commercial failure. The 1980s and 1990s saw his style fall out of fashion, as he freelanced for one failing publisher after another (Lodestone, Acclaim, Defiant, Broadway), before spending four years working on Soulsearchers and Company for Claypool Comics. Receiving no royalties from any publishers, he was facing a poverty-stricken future in obscurity when he was admitted to hospital in 2003 with health problems.

Fortunately, that wasn't the last word: word of the artist's plight got out, and the comics industry rallied round with a benefit auction and book of artwork by his peers (The Uncanny Dave Cockrum Tribute) and persuaded Marvel to come up with a generous retirement settlement for him in 2004.

Alan Woollcombe