Two years ago today, the comic book industry became a little less fantastic.
The reason? The unexpected passing of Mike Wieringo, a true bastion of the comics industry.
And in honor of ‘Ringo’s talent and impact on the industry, you better believe we’re gonna Dial H — for History!
Mike Wieringo was born in Italy in 1963, and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, Wieringo networked through conventions until he met Brian Stelfreeze and Karl Story, where he finally broke in as a penciler with Millennium Publications, working on Pat Savage and Doc Savage: Doom Dynasty in 1991.
Yet those gigs failed to get ‘Ringo steady work, and he continued to hone his craft and pound the pavement for another two years until catching the eye of DC Comics assistant editor Ruben Diaz. After successfully pulling a two-issue stint on Justice League Quarterly, the higher-ups at DC decided to give the fledgling artist the gig that would cement his artistic legacy forever:
“My name is Wally West. I’m the Flash… the Fastest Man Alive.”
Wieringo’s first issue on the Flash was a battle royale between Wally West and his slightly unbalanced ex, Magenta, in the first chapter of the story arc “Back on Track.” Under Wieringo’s pen, that title couldn’t have been any more appropriate. It was during his 12-issue run that Wieringo really became known his style: fluid lines, a great sense of energy and movement, and a hint of cartoonishness to his expressions that gave his characters a real sense of humanity and likeability. Among the adventures Wieringo drew included a team-up with former Titans Nightwing and Starfire, as well as a prelude to Terminal Velocity (an image from the first issue of that arc is shown above), in which Wally West recited speedster Johnny Quick’s formula for velocity and trapped himself in time.
Yet what really made Wieringo — despite only having a 12-issue run — one of the seminal Flash creators of his generation was the expansion of the Flash family: Bart Allen, known back then as Impulse.
In ‘Ringo’s very last issue on the book, Flash matriarch Iris Allen returned from the future with a problem only the Scarlet Speedster could solve: Bart Allen, grandson of Silver Age Flash Barry Allen, had grown up in a virtual reality simulator, as his powers threatened to age his body into dust. Yet Bart wasn’t the happy-go-lucky hero we think of him as then — running just on instinct, he lashed out at Wally. It was a heck of an introduction, and Wieringo made it sing, providing the template that the then-unknown Humberto Ramos would use for Impulse’s inaugural series.
Wieringo moved on to draw a few issues of Robin, where he had the Teen Wonder struggle with problems with his girlfriend Ariana as well as the satanically empowered one-time joke criminal Killer Moth. There’s one issue in particular — #25, also called “Sophomore Lethal” — that became a message against gun violence in schools three years before the Columbine School Shootings. Yet at the same time, Wieringo also began branching out to the House of Ideas, drawing a miniseries starring Rogue with Howard Mackie, as well as work at Malibu Comics on Firearm and Godwheel.
In 1996, Marvel and DC put together their comics in a crazy month-long crossover called Amalgam Comics. Superman and Captain America merged to become Super-Soldier, Batman and Wolverine became Dark Claw, and Ghost Rider and the Flash became Speed Demon. So when Spider-Man and Superboy became a whole-new character, it was fitting that Mike Wieringo, with his whimsical style and upbeat tone, was chosen to helm Spider-Boy.
Clearly this webslinging was a test, as Marvel soon thereafter put Wieringo as penciler and occasional co-plotter for the Sensational Spider-Man, from 1996 through 1998. Of course, these were dark days for Spider-Man, as fans had lashed out against the Clone Saga, with Marvel editors and writers scrambling to remove Ben Reilly — and all other mention of clones — and return Peter Parker as the One True Spider-Man. With the coup d’ grace — a crossover called Revelations — Mike Wieringo was one of the pencilers onboard, as he depicted Peter and Mary Jane just before the supermodel/actress went into labor with their child. Wieringo also co-plotted the event Identity Crisis — not the one with Doctor Light and Sue Dibny, but one where Peter Parker assumed four different costumed identities to help clear his name for murder.
Wieringo teamed up with his Spider-Man collaborator, Tom Dezago, in 1999 to pursue what Ringo later saw as the highlight of his career — TELLOS. This book was a coming of age story in a magical pirate world, starring a young boy named Jarek, and his half-man/half-tiger companion Koj. With pirates, anthropomorphic animals, and a genie at Jarek’s command, the series only lasted about ten issues, but Wieringo loved it — even when the imprint, Gorilla Comics, proved to collapse upon itself financially as the comics market continued to spiral. “TELLOS started out selling well, but the sales dwindled as the book continued — and eventually we were losing money on each issue by the end,” Wieringo recalled in a 2007 interview. “And so we had to stop work on it — and I had to go back to freelancing. But working on TELLOS was the most fun and creative time I’ve had in my comics career. I was very, very sad when the book ended and it took me a long time to get over it.”
But the best, at least in the eyes of many fans, was yet to come. Wieringo was at the height of his powers not with later projects, such as his return to DC drawing Superman with Joe Casey, but with his final collaboration with former Flash writer Mark Waid — on the Fantastic Four. As a reviewer who’s read more than his fair share of issues, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Waid and Wieringo were seen by many as some of the best stories in FF history since the glory days of John Byrne.
In the first issue of the series, Wieringo brought a real sense of humanity and comedy to this all-too-familiar family, giving Mr. Fantastic a real sense of pathos as he revealed that he made his family into celebrities in order to protect them from being freaks — and to atone for his arrogance that put them in that situation to begin with. The emotions ran high in that epic run, with Waid jettisoning any “nobility” found within Doctor Doom, as Wieringo depicted his former lover Valeria being magically burned alive, as her skin became the all-new armor for Doctor Doom. Wieringo’s cartoony design work only masked a level of tension that became all too apparent when Franklin Richards was traumatized after being imprisoned in Hell, or when Reed Richards was trapped in a magic room too irrational for his scientific brain to comprehend.
In fact, Wieringo and Waid’s Fantastic Four was so popular, that Marvel suddenly put itself in a bad position when they offered the series to newcomer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Fan outcry became so intense that Marvel gave Aguirre-Sacasa Marvel Knights: 4 to play with, and Waid and Wieringo were reinstated as the creative team. With time short to pump out a new story arc, Waid quickly enlisted Howard Porter to illustrate Authoratative Action, a controversial storyline that certainly mirrored the post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. But Wieringo returned to see the Fantastic Four do the impossible: to bring back Ben Grimm from the dead. It’s a sequence that played to Wieringo’s strengths — giving compassion, likeability, and humanity to everything he drew, as Reed Richards stretched his intellect to literally break into the afterlife for his best friend.
Following Fantastic Four, Mike Wieringo rounded out his career working on Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, one of the many Spider-Man titles being published before Brand New Day, as well as working with Jeff Parker on Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. During this time, Wieringo got to portray Peter Parker after he revealed his secret identity, donning a scarlet-and-gold armor and taking on alternate universe versions of the Hobgoblin… and Uncle Ben!
It proved to be the last work Wieringo had ever completed. He passed away on August 12, 2007 of a sudden heart attack at the age of 44.
The industry’s reaction to Wieringo’s passing was of shock and sadness: “This doesn’t make any sense,” said Mark Waid. “I’m trying to adjust to this feeling that I’ve lost my right arm. I’ve never done better work than with Mike, and I probably never will. I miss you, buddy. Thanks for letting me be your partner.” Meanwhile, Tellos writer Todd Dezago was simple: “He was my best friend. He was my brother. I will miss him more than I can say.” And Karl Kesel had this to say: “I have a lot of framed original art on my walls, almost none of it pieces I’ve worked on. It just seems out of place to me to hang something I’ve worked on next to a Caniff or Kirby. The one exception is the cover to Fantastic Four #517, penciled by Mike Wieringo. It’s my all-time favorite comic-book series, from a run I am very proud to have been a small part of, penciled by an exceptional artist and dear friend,” he said. “And it’s never coming off the wall.”
Wieringo’s 15-year career in comics was far from unnoticed, as Marvel donated the last pages the artist had worked on — a What If? story starring Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and the Hulk as the 1990s replacement Fantastic Four – to the Hero Initiative, an organization that raises money for creators in need. With the help of artists such as Art Adams, Stuart Immonen, Skottie Young, Mike Allred, Barry Kitson, and more, the Hero Initiative put together a 48-page What If?–The Fantastic Four Tribute to Mike Wieringo. In addition, Wieringo’s family established an art scholarship in Mike’s name, affectionately called “The ‘Ringo,” which named its first winner, Rae Rochelle, at this year’s Heroes Convention.
Family, creators, fans, anyone who knew him — please feel free to comment below. It’s one thing to lose an incredible talent — but no matter where you go or who you talk to, the most profound loss in Mike Wieringo was the fact that the comics industry lost a very, very good man. Now discuss.