Words of Questionable Wisdom: David Cockrum, Right Man, Right Place, Wrong Time
By Paul Sebert
The passing of David Cockrum’s a particularly hard subject for me to talk about, partially because the bulk of his work came about long before I entered comics fandom, and partially because it’s such a sad story. David Cockrum was a magnificent artist who has the unique accomplishment of saving not one, but two of the best superhero teams in comics. Cockrum was a brilliant character designer whose style helped create the “house” art styles that were so prevalent in the 80s. Cockrum co-created superheroes recognized and beloved the whole world over. Yet like so many creators in the golden and silver ages Cockrum never received fame or fortune for his accomplishments. Like all too many creators Cockrum got a raw deal from the industry he loved . Cockrum alas never saw any royalties from the countless toys, cartoons, and movies based on his creations.
After a stint at Warren Comics Cockrum would first make a major name for himself doing backup stories in Superboy starring the Legion of Superheroes. Cockrum made his debut in on the team in 1972 initially as an inker in Superboy #184 on the story “One Legionnaire Must Go!” written by Cary Bates and drawn by Murphy Anderson. Cockrum would become the main artist on the Legion stories in Superboy #188. At the time DC comics was just sort of toying with the idea of brining the Legion of Superheroes back as a main feature. The team had gone on something of a decline in popularity in the late 60s and early 70s following an ill-advised move as a main feature in Adventure comics to a backup in Action comics. Over the course of his run on the book heroes like Karate Kid, Phantom Lady, Duo Damsel, etc would all receive striking new designs. Characters who for a time looked like they would be relegated to Mort Weisinger-era kitsch suddenly seemed cool and hip again. By issue #197 the book received a new title logo proudly proclaiming “Superboy: Starring the Legion of Superheroes.” Then almost as swiftly as his rise to stardom began, Cockrum would leave the Legion in grand style with a 100-page extravaganza for “Superboy & The Legion of Superheroes #202.”
After leaving DC Cockrum would handle a number of diverse books for Marvel such as Avengers, Iron Fist, Marvel Team-Up, and Ms. Marvel. Cockrum’s second watermark achievement would come in 1975’s Giant Sized X-Men #1 written by Len Wein introducing an all new team of X-Men who would soon become much more well known than the originals. Cockrum would create the vast majority of the new team most notably Storm and Nightcrawler (a character design he had previously intended for the Legion.) Cockrum would remain with the new X-Men team, which made it’s regular ongoing debut in X-Men #94. He would remain on the title until issue #107. He would return to the book for a second run in 1981 for issues #145 to #158, which would introduce another team of Cockrum’s creations: The Starjammers.
Cockrum would later go on to a creator-owned team called “The Futurians” along numerous other short stints for Marvel, DC, Valiant, and Malibu among others. Cockrum never seemed to stay in one place before a lengthy run at Claypool Comics working on Soul Searchers & Company with Peter David. He was also a frequent fixture at comic conventions around the country as one of the most approachable creators in comics. I never had the honor of meeting him, but always heard good things about him.
Alas in 2004 Cockrum announced that he had became seriously ill due to complications from bacterial pneumonia and diabetes. Fans and other creators would rally to support him. A settlement was reached with Marvel regarding the creation of Nightcrawler and Storm to help pay his medical expenses. Things were looking up for him for awhile, but Cockrum would pass away last week at the age of 63.
Cockrum’s tale is one that’s both inspiring and tragic. Jim Shoote’s tenure at Marvel would mark the beginning of true progress in the way that creators are treated at Marvel, but these would come too late for Cockrum and countless creators before then. Alas David Cockrum was a brilliant talent who perhaps reached his prime too soon to be justly rewarded. He will be missed.