Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hank Chapman

(I am very pleased today to present a special guest blogger. He is Ger Apeldoorn, who in addition to be the top television writer in the Netherlands, is also a comic fan and historian. Ger most recently wrote a two-part article for ALTER EGO magazine about the 1950s MAD imitators and he has his own terrific blog, The Fabulous Fifties, which showcases his amazing knowledge of the sequential art. Apeldoorn's current quest is for information about the wonderfully talented and underrated comic writer, Hank Chapman.

If you can help Ger with his Chapman quest, you can either post here or contact him through his own blog.)


I wish I knew more about Hank Chapman. One of the most fascinating writers in comics from the early Fifties to the mid-Sixties, I would like to write an article about him. But I just don't know enough about the man to make it more than an appreciation piece.

And since I am not from the U.S., but from the Netherlands, Europe, I am cut off from all sorts of actual research facilities. I have to make do with what I can find on the Internet and the wonderful interviews with oldtimers such as by Jim Amash, Doc Vassallo and others. So I am glad Ken has offered up his blog for comic book researchers who have reached the end of their possibilities, where they can write down what they know and possibly get some help from others to fill in the gaps.

Hank Chapman started out at Stan Lee and Martin Goodman's Marvel comics. Okay, it was not called Marvel comics at the time, or maybe it was and Stan Lee was only the editor and not even the only one at that, but this is not about that mess. Some records show that Chapman did some writing in the earliest superhero books from the Goodman family company. I don't have those particular books, so I couldn't comment on that. One day, even these books will be reprinted or be available in scans, so I can read them and see if Chapman's peculiarities as a writer were even visible then. But more importantly, it means that Chapman was writing comics before he was in the army. If he was even in the army, because that is one of the more frustrating gaps in my knowledge.

After the war, Hank Chapman's name turns up again in the first horror comics brought out by Marvel/Timely/Atlas. There are tons of suggestions that he may also have written some western books before that, but unfortunately I have never been able to find one. Chapman was one of a few writers at Stan Lee's outfit who got to sign his name (or at least at some point and on some books). Others include editor Don Rico, writer/artist Norman Steinberg and of course head honcho, Stan Lee, himself.

Chapman's horror stories are nothing special, but they do all have a sort of weird, dreamy quality. When I finally do the article, I will have to go into that a bit deeper, with some samples. But for here that statement will have to do. It is important to note, because the only story we have about Hank Chapman privately is about those horror stories. It is by Stan Lee and as such, we can't be entirely sure of it's truth. Stan Lee is one of a few living people from the industry who knew Chapman and I would love to ask him about his old colleague. His memory is a bit poor about most events, but he seems to remember people better than anything else. Especially when his memory is jogged by a photograph. I think it is Doc V. who tells the story of showing Stan a photo of an office gathering in the forties or fifties and he could pick out most people from that. Anyway, what he would tell about Chapman, would probably be the same story he has told a couple of times. It seems that Chapman didn't like writing the horror stories. As Lee tells it, at some point he came to him and asked to be given other work. He said he was using his dreams as a basis of his horror stories and since he had started doing that, his dreams had started to haunt him. And he hoped that by stopping writing those stories, the dreams would go away.

"The Nightmare"
#4 (June 1951)
(image courtesy of Atlas Tales website)

There are two things wrong with that story. Chapman did indeed suddenly stop writing horror stories in the early Fifties. He was shifted to the war books, where he did the best work of his career all through the Korean war and beyond. But the war books didn't start until the Korean war was in it's first year. It seems more likely that Chapman was shifted from the horror books to the war books simply because from late 1951 onward there was much more work there. And secondly, the story Stan Lee tells is almost exactly the same as one of the later horror stories Chapman wrote (and Wayne Boring drew),"The Nightmare" from ASTONISHING #4 (June 1951). Did Chapman use his own situation as the basis for this story or did Stan Lee use the story as the basis of his memory?

This is an important question (within the scheme of things) because if Stan Lee story is true, it is more than likely that Chapman did not serve in the army during the war or at least did not see battle. If he had asked to be removed from the horror books, because his stories were giving him nightmares, his far more horrifying war stories would certainly have given him a hard time had he actually seen some hardship during the war. And so we come to the most important unanswered question of my research. Did Hank Chapman serve in the army of navy or anywhere during WW II?

Starting from late 1951, Chapman wrote nothing but war stories. First he wrote some of the most horrifying stories of the period. Harvey Kurtzman is known for writing some great war stories for EC, illustrating the futility of war. Chapman's early war stories are from the opposite side of the spectrum. They illustrate the cruelty of war, but take the necessity of it as a given. So in Chapman's stories we have a lot of soldiers dying for their country heroically or just as often needlessly, parents getting letters about their sons dying, soldiers killing each other of small pieces of rock and ships going down due to mis-communication of stupidity. Chapman seems to have known the reality of war, but he also hated the sacrifices it took and in many of his stories he questions out loud if those sacrifices are worth it. Nowhere more than in one of his masterpieces, “Atrocity Story“, beautifully illustrated by Paul Reinman. “Atrocity Story” is written in a documentary style, a trick Chapman used more often. In those stories the writer often is a presence himself and the story is less about the events than what they mean. In “Atrocity Story” Chapman uses reports of cruelties by the communists to wonder if it wouldn't be better to drop another atom bomb on the enemy this time. But he can't really bring himself to advocate that, because he is aware of the huge human cost that would have.

"Atrocity Story"
#2, pg.1 (June 1952)

pg. 2

pg. 3

pg. 4

pg. 5

pg. 6

pg. 7

Another particularly horrific war tale (also drawn by Reinman) was the story of a young soldier who gets trapped on his own bayonet.

"Guard Duty"
MEN'S ADVENTURES #11, pg.1 (Dec. 1951)

Rather than being taken prisoner by the Communists and running the risk of folding under torture and revealing something that may harm his comrades, he shoots the rifle with the bayonet into his own stomach.

pg. 6

All in all, I don't think Chapman served in the war, or at least not in any significant way. He may have had a brother or a relative die, though. His personal connection to these tragic stories suggest at least something that would give him the need to examine the nature and need of sacrifice in a wartime situation. It is that palpable anguish that makes his stories from 1952 to 1954 so unique. It would be great to know what his personal connection to that material was.

Not all his stories from that period were like that. He also wrote a lot of gung-ho stories, about brave soldiers fighting the Communists and winning in the most remarkable way. Two of the heroes he created in that vein were Combat Kelly and Combat Casey.

COMBAT KELLY #5, pg.1 (July 1952)
art by Joe Maneely
(image courtesy of Atlas Tales website)

Both titles were continued beyond the actual boundaries of the Korean war and their deed got more heroic and fantastical as the years went on. Chapman also seems to have written more of these heroic adventure stories in a WW II setting for the other war titles of Timely/Atlas, when the war in Korea ended and a new arena for the still popular war books had to be found. He kept on writing these kind of stories when he jumped ship to Timely/Atlas main rival DC. There he didn't sign his work, but the Grand Comic Book Database has the records of many of the DC editors and that why we have quite an extensive list of his work for DC's war editor Bob Kanigher. I don't find his work for DC as interesting as that which he did I those first years with Stan Lee, but I will have to delve into it a bit more if I want to do a further appreciation of his career.

And that's it. That's his whole career. Chapman stayed with DC from the mid-fifties until somewhere in the sixties and all he did was write war stories for and probably with Bob Kanigher. After that he dropped of the radar ad nothing was ever heard from him again. He doesn't seem to have looked for other work, although I have found two written stores by him in two 1961 and 1965 issues of the Boy Scouts monthly magazine BOY’S LIFE (one of which was illustrated by artist Jerry Robinson).

BOY'S LIFE (July 1962)

Both of those stories were about Indian tribes, which gives some credence to the idea he may have written western stories at some point of his career. Since we do not know Chapman's year of birth, we don't know if he stopped writing war stories for DC because he tired of it and looked for another job, retired or maybe if Kanigher just got tired of him and let him go. All I have is a note from another fan, who told me Chapman had written a travel book later in his career, but I have never been able to find it.

And that's it for me. I wish I had more. And I hope there is someone out there who can help me. I know there are some fans who are good at finding birth records. I'd love to know when Chapman was born, when he died, where he lived, anything. I'd love to get in touch with his offspring, if he had any. The travel book he was supposed to have written, was apparently done with his wife, so maybe there were children. I'd love to write to the US government and ask for his service records, but apparently you have to be from the US to be able to do that. I would like to talk to anyone who still remembers him. Maybe John Romita Sr. ran across him in his early years. Maybe Joe Kubert knows how and why he left DC. Maybe Jerry Robinson knows how he came to write something for BOY‘S LIFE. Maybe Stan Lee remembers where he lived. Anything would be a clue at this point. So at the very least I am asking anyone who interviews one of the older artists to ad a note to their list of questions to ask about Chapman as well. He may not have been the greatest or the most influential writer in comics, but he did make a living from it for more than 15 years and for some of those he certainly was one of the most interesting ones.


  1. Burt Frohman had Hank Chapman has his editor at Marvel on "Young Men" - per his typewritten scripts that were sold on ebay.
    jerry Bails had Chapman married at one time to Bonnie Hano, who worked in the Marvel editorial office.
    It looks like Chapamn stopped working for DC right before Kanigher retired. Last work in 1967, Kanigher retired early 68.
    I note that the "Henry P. Chapman" travel writer wrote articles for newspapers from 1962 - 1973. If "Our" Hank wrote the travel book, then this might be the man to look at.
    A "Henry P. Chapman" writer, served in ww2 as a photgunner (1942) he wrote a story "the day i died!" about his experience being listed as KIA, in the American legion Magazine in 1960.

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  3. The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post all have pieces on travel subjects by Hank Chapman in that 1962-1973 period. In later years he sometimes appeared alongside his wife, Toni Chapman, who *may* be the editor of some Fodor’s Travel Guides. This piece by Hank and Toni Chapman published in The Washington Post, February 20, 1972, sez “The Chapmans combine marriage with free-lance travel writing and photography. They live in New Mexico.” I can send you a copy if needed.
    The Social Security Death Index lists 217 separate Henry Chapmans, none in New Mexico, none with P. as middle initial. It only lists two Toni Chapmans, for what it’s worth...

  4. Excellent, Leo!

    Yes, if you could send that WASHINGTON POST article to Ger, or to me and I'll forward it, I'm sure he will be very grateful. Thanks!

  5. To Steven:
    I accidentally deleted my response to you--duh!

    Thank you for the additional Chapman details. I know they were extremely helpful to Ger. He's going to be posting an update to his Chapman post and an acknowledgment of your help is included. Thanks again, Steven!

  6. Hank Chapman seems to me to personify the style during the Silver Age. His work seems to be creative, inventive, and very consistent in quality, provide a great example of the better work during that period.


    Steven G. Willis

  7. Chapman was certainly one of the unheralded greats. Ger intends to expand upon his Chapman findings and I'm sure we will see an article in print before long.

  8. In BATTLE ACTION #3 (June 1952), an unsigned story titled "Banzai!" (drawn by Russ Heath) has a panel showing a dead soldier being registered by his dogtags: "Chapman...John! Serial number...12044277! Bayonet thru throat!"

    Don't know if this bit was taken from a real-life relative of Chapman's, or even if he was the author of the story. But if it was, it would add some perspective.

    Also, Chapman was one of the few writers credited for a text story at Atlas, and may have written others.

  9. Good information! I'll pass this along to Ger, as I'm sure he will be interested in seeing it.

    Given Chapman's own war record, I wouldn't be surprised that this was taken from an actual event.