On May 19, 2017, Rich Buckler died at age 68. The name may not mean much to a lot of people, but it should, especially those in Detroit.
Buckler was the first comic book creator from Detroit, and he also very likely created the first comic book character who called our city home – Marvel’s Deathlok.
Admittedly, I never met Rich Buckler, but I always hoped to have the chance. However, I have been a fan of his work since I was a teenager, but it was only a year ago that I found out how important he was to Detroit and his phenomenal mark on comics.
You see, there was a time when comic books weren’t blockbusters. They were what they were intended to be – stories that mixed words and pictures. The appreciation level then was much like the crowds of us who still care about that original medium … small.
Back in the 1960s, a Detroiter, Shel Dorf, had an idea to incorporate comic books into science fiction conventions, which had been around since the 1930s. The show was called Detroit Triple Fanfare. While the founder was not Rich Buckler, he did attend the first one and helped organize future events.
Dorf is better known for putting together the giant San Diego Comic Con. Many of the contacts who made it possible were put together by Buckler when he convinced his fellow comic creators to come to Triple Fanfare in the 1970s.
After he made it in the industry, he even helped bring more big name creators to the show.
Detroit Triple Fanfare was also important for another reason. It is where Buckler met a handful of other aspiring artists, Jim Starlin, Arvell Jones, Al Milgrom, Keith Pollard, and Terry Austin, just to name the most well-known. All of them later worked for Marvel, DC and independent publishers. They met at the show, and then later met up in a used book store in Hamtramck where they helped each other develop their individual styles.
In the early 1970s Buckler became the first member of what the industry would dub “The Detroit Mob” to make it in the industry. Most importantly, not from a creative stand point but rather a human one, he didn’t forget his old convention pals. One by one he brought his them into the industry they all loved.
He gave Arvell Jones his first job as his assistant before Jones made it himself. This connection between the Detroit creators of the importance of watching out for each other is a tradition that lasted for decades, and Buckler started it.
For me, Buckler’s biggest accomplishment as a creator was the character Deathlok. He was a solder living in a post-apocalyptic world and who was brought back to life as cyborg. As a cyborg he argues with the computer that helps run his body about life, his future and his mission.
Yeah, it is similar to Terminator and Robocop, especially being a cyborg from Detroit. The catch is Deathlok came out in 1974 before either film existed.
Buckler was one of a generation of comic book creators who saw superheroes in a different light with bigger possibilities and worlds to occupy than the medium had previously seen, which expanded people’s views of what could be done with comics – and Detroit led the way.
In the 1980s he also helped firmly re-establish DC Comics WWII-era characters with All-Star Squadron, which he co-created with Roy Thomas. An interesting fact about that series is his friend Arvell Jones later took up drawing chores.
In All-Star Squadron, he drew a beautiful wartime New York City and also classic DC characters including Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Plastic Man, and many more heroes popular during World War II.
He also had his fair share of work at Marvel where his career began.
Back then it wasn’t uncommon to do fill-in work for another artist, so I can’t give a full list of characters he drew, but I can tell you after Deathlok my favorite character he worked on is the Fantastic Four’s Thing.
The 1970s were a complicated time for the Fantastic Four, but Rich Buckler’s take on the Thing was great. To some people that is a controversial statement, and I won’t say it was better than the character’s creator Jack Kirby did, but for the time it was perfect.
Buckler came onto the Fantastic Four at a strange time for the series, which launched the Marvel Era of Comics. The book was known as a representation of the early 1960s sense of optimism. Unsurprisingly, it had trouble gaining ground in the cynical 1970s.
When Buckler drew the book’s most popular character, the Thing, he exaggerated the features and facial expressions. In some ways he looked more like a cartoon character than a superhero or monster at times. It was a way to bring the people in and easily empathize with the character most consider the team’s soul. Ýou always knew the mood of the book when Buckler drew Thing.
In some ways it is fitting he died when he did, however sad it was. May 19, the day of his death, was also the first day of Motor City Comic Con. It may be said his death is symbolic of the loss of comics in the Detroit Comic Con scene. While there is validity to that claim, I prefer to see it another way.
The fandom of the city that he took part in as a teenager and helped build and foster is still going on, even if the medium that mattered most could use more attention. The fruits of his labor are still appreciated by some fans.
The day before Buckler died musician Chris Cornell also died. I don’t want to take anything away from his loss, or the effect it had on his friends, family, or fans, but he got much more attention than Buckler’s death did, or likely will.
That is perfectly understandable. Cornell was known by far more people than Buckler. However, while I liked Cornell, I loved Buckler’s work. I just hope Detroit’s first native son of comics will get some of the respect that the Seattle-born musician who died in our city did.
To Buckler’s friends and family I offer you my condolences and well wishes. His death is great loss and he will be missed.
To anyone who has ever attended and enjoyed a comic show in the area, whether as a fan of comics or not, I hope you appreciate the work he did decades ago to help make your fandom possible.
To my fellow fans of his work, remember his legacy lives on in his art and writing.
To everyone, I encourage you to appreciate his work, and if you have never seen it at least pick up a Deathlok comic. You won’t be disappointed.
Detroit lost one of its native sons who put his mark on a medium that is an American institution. He gave us a voice. His time certainly mattered to a lot of us. He will be missed.