The Virginia-raised artist's legacy looms large in today's superhero boom.
12 months ago
By Eric San Juan
Mike Wieringo probably wouldn’t have expected that he would become one of the most beloved names in American comic books.
After all, he was an artist who drew Marvel and DC superheroes in a joyful, exuberant, cartoony style during the 1990s, a time when the rest of the industry was moving toward darker, grittier, more hyper-realistic art.
But now, ten years after Wieringo’s untimely death from a heart attack at 44, two of the characters he was most thoroughly associated with — Spider-Man and the Flash — are both headed to the screen in new Hollywood blockbusters.
Particularly in the case of Marvel Studios’ new “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which hits theaters Friday, it’s become apparent that what the moviegoing audience loves is that same playful sense of fun that was always such a huge part of Weiringo’s approach to making comics.
And these days, more of the industry appreciates it, too.
“He was ahead of the curve,” says Wieringo’s frequent collaborator, writer Mark Waid. “I cannot count the number of times in recent years that younger artists have told me what an influence Mike was on them.”
Wieringo’s death on Aug. 12, 2007 came as a shock to the comics world – not just because of his young age, and not even because of his memorable work on titles like “The Fantastic Four,” but because, simply put, the kid from Virginia who they called ‘Ringo had become known as one of the most positive, likable people working in the field.
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Born in Italy and growing up in Virginia as a dual citizen, Wieringo developed an interest in art at an early age; by 11, he was already thinking about drawing comics for a living. In 1981, after high school, he applied to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to study art. He was accepted, but family financial troubles thwarted his plans; five years later, he reapplied, and this time, he was awarded the financial aid that made it possible for him to attend.
Wieringo majored in fashion illustration at VCU. “I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything,” he said in an interview for the Modern Masters series shortly before his death. “I actually look back on my time at VCU as some of the most wonderful times of my life.”
His fondness wasn’t one-sided; the people of Richmond loved him back.
Marsha and Marvin Humphrey, for instance. Marsha started running Nostalgia Plus, Richmond’s oldest comic shop, in 1979, with Marvin later joining her after being promoted from customer to husband. Before selling the store in early 2017 to enjoy their retirement, the couple were mainstays of the local comic community. They knew Mike Wieringo first not as a Marvel and DC artist, but as a regular customer who made something of himself.
“He was a dear friend,” Marvin says, “undoubtedly one of the nicest men I’ve ever met in my life.”
He recalls that Wieringo started coming into the shop around the mid-1980s. Like any other customer, the young VCU student stopped in on Wednesdays to get his regular comics, chatted about what books he liked, and eventually, after becoming comfortable with Marvin and Marsha, started sharing his art with them.
“He was very humble,” Marsha remembers. She admired that he stayed that way when he finally made it as a professional, too: “He went to a lot of [comic conventions], but he kept it all in perspective. He loved it for what it was. He didn’t get a swelled head.”
Wieringo got himself into the comics industry the old-fashioned way: through legwork and talent.
In 1992, he made a pilgrimage to the San Diego Comic Con, the world’s most popular gathering of comic book fans and professionals. There he met the late Neil Pozner, then an editor with DC Comics. Pozner liked Wieringo’s work and shared it with other editors. Soon Wieringo began getting small jobs, stories in comics like “Justice League Quarterly” and other fringe titles.
His big break came when DC paired him with Mark Waid on “The Flash.” It ended up being Waid’s big break, too, though neither of them yet realized it at the time.
The two worked together for a year on the book, creating a series of stories that have since become fan favorites. Waid stayed on the book for eight years altogether, during which time he became a comic book superstar. Wieringo, meanwhile, moved to Marvel to draw one of the most popular characters in history, Spider-Man, with writer Todd Dezago.
The characteristics that made Wieringo so perfectly suited to Spider-Man were the same ones that made his popularity in the ‘90s comics scene so exceptional. His exaggerated, cartoony style stood in stark contrast to the gritty, macho attitude that was in vogue at the time. While other artists strove for photorealism or impressionistic grunge, Wieringo drew bold, smiling characters who looked like they were having fun fighting evil.
“Once Mike made the distinction to me that he wasn't sure why people still liked his work so much, because violence seemed to be what was in favor and he was an action artist,” recalls Patrick Godfrey of Richmond’s Velocity Comics. “He liked heroes being heroic and there being a clear separation between the good guys and the bad guys.”
Shortly thereafter, Wieringo and his Spider-Man writer, Todd Dezago, launched their own creator-owned series, “Tellos.” It served as a showcase of what separated the artist from his peers: Anthropomorphic animal stories were seen as passé in that era of heightened violence and “adult” themes in comics, yet here was a series with swashbuckling pirates, sword-wielding tigers, and thieving fox rogues. “Tellos” suited Ringo, who was a vegetarian in large part due to his love for animals. More accolades followed.
Dezago, who quickly became one of Wieringo’s closest friends, is currently finalizing the second volume of a massive 500-page tribute to Wieringo, in which a host of artists tell new stories with the Tellos characters. The book is on sale for only a limited time, until July 10. Proceeds are being donated to the ASPCA.
Marvin Humphrey says Wieringo’s work reminded him of an era of comic books that had come and gone, a time when heroes were heroics and the art was simple but striking: “DC and Marvel should thank their lucky stars that he helped bring their characters back.”
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For Waid, there is no mystery as to why his friend was so universally loved in the world of comics. “He was just flat-out a good and nice man,” Waid said. “He treated everyone with respect, especially each and every fan, and that served as an example to his peers.”
Those who attended the annual Heroes Con in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Wieringo was a regular attendee, got to see his authenticity first-hand. As a high-profile artist, he was one of the famous people at the convention – but he never saw it that way himself.
“When I would go to the conventions, Mike would always take the time to sit down with me and talk about anything,” recalls Phillip Hillis, owner of Richmond Comix. “I never saw him treat anyone without the upmost respect. He never felt he was bigger than the industry and appreciated every day that he was able to work at doing something that he loved.”
After the artist’s death, the Indy Week newspaper in Durham, N.C., where he lived at the time, reported that “so many of Wieringo's comic book colleagues showed up for [his] Aug. 17 memorial service in Durham that some attendees jokingly nicknamed it ‘the worst comic convention ever.’”
Wieringo’s career was really only just beginning when he died. Yet even in his short time on Earth, he left behind a legacy that’s still being felt today.
In addition to the impact his energetic Spider-Man work may have had on this summer’s big superhero movie, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the Flash has surged back into the popular consciousness, as well, thanks to a popular TV show on the CW network. The character will appear in November’s upcoming blockbuster Justice League, and a solo movie is currently in pre-production. All these Hollywood productions draw on decades worth of comics history, and Wieringo is a part of that.
“From what I've been told directly by some of the TV people, our work has been a direct influence,” Waid says, “and I couldn't be happier to hear that. Mike brought a vibrancy and a way to really visualize Flash's super-speed and many of the stunts he can do with that, and I can see that on-screen.”
That enduring impact on the superhero genre, Waid says, would have astonished Wieringo. “I can tell you unquestionably that, yes, he'd be stunned. Mike never had one shred of ego. He was always convinced that he'd be forgotten quickly and often lamented that he didn't feel he could figure out how to work [so] as to leave a lasting impression. Little did he know.”
Marsha Humphrey agrees. “Sometimes when people [turn professional doing] stuff that they like, it becomes work for them,” she says. “I think he would have done it even if he didn’t get paid for it.”
Today, Wieringo’s legacy lives on not just in the comics he gave the world, but in the renewed sense of fun in many of today’s new comics and, more importantly, in endeavors like the Mike Wieringo Scholarship at the Savannah College of Art and Design, which provides $4,000 each year to an aspiring artist.
But perhaps most important of all, it’s in the positive memories he left with the people who knew him, both personally and from afar. “It gives you a sense of pride to see his work. He was just a nice guy. We laughed about a lot of things,” Marvin Humphrey says. “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. We had some good times together.”
Eric San Juan is the author of Breaking Down Breaking Bad, the coauthor of Geek Wisdom and A Year of Hitchcock, and the creator of the Pitched! graphic novel anthology series. His work has appeared in Weird Tales, Boston Literary Magazine, and the Philadelphia Weekly, among other publications.