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RIP, DICK AYERS: Remembering the great talent behind ‘Sgt. Fury,’ ‘Ghost Rider’ and so much Kirby ink

DICK AYERS liked to laugh at the idea of a Marvel “Bullpen” — that would-be physical collective of cartoonists that, readers were led to imagine, happily churned out all those inspired pages of Hulk and X-Men and Thor and Fantastic Four from a single Manhattan dugout of Stan Lee’s clever invention. Like they were the perpetual-champ Yankees or something, all playing together in the House of Ideas That Stan Built. “There was no bullpen,” Ayers would smile, before describing the humble Marvel offices of the Silver Age.

And yet, though so many of the Stan-nicknamed freelancers worked from elsewhere, the decades have fully brought into focus how much these early Marvel mates were like the oft-nicknamed Yankees, and how “Daring” Dick Ayers was one gifted part of a Murderers’ Row of mad talent. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko may have shined the brightest the soonest under Stan Lee’s editorship, but dozens, of course, made the history-making machine hum.

As fewer of these great talents are with us today, the notion of a Marvel bullpen helps frame the nostalgia for not only the pages, but also the people.

And so the memories kick in this week with the news that Dick Ayers died Sunday, just days after turning 90. He reportedly suffered symptoms from Parkinson’s disease.

“Dick Ayers was one of the giants of the Marvel Age of Comics,” says former Marvel writer Danny Fingeroth, who co-edited “The Stan Lee Universe.” “The look and feel of his work, both his pencils as well as his inks over others, especially Jack Kirby, were a big part of defining what made Marvel special in its earliest days, and helped hook me on those comics.”

Ayers broke into the business during the World War II era, first creating a military comic strip while in the Army Air Corps, and soon doing a Jimmy Durante comic for Magazine Enterprises and working with Siegel and Shuster about a decade after they sparked the entire superhero industry with their Superman.

He worked for Marvel-predecessor Timely/Atlas in the ’50s, the same decade he created his Western-horror character, the original Ghost Rider. “An undersung hero, Dick Ayers was there at the start,” says longtime Marvel editor/senior vice president Tom Brevoort, “when the outfit that would become better known as Marvel Comics transitioned from doing monster and Western stories to creating daring, new superheroes.”

Beginning in the ’60s, Ayers’s wartime experience would inform his amazing 10-year run on Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandoes — a time during which he became best-known for inking Kirby. Ayers was a virtuoso with a broad skill set in a time of great growth.

“Dick Ayers was that rare talent who penciled beautifully in his own very distinctive style, inked superbly, could do his own lettering if needed and was also a fine storyteller,” Stan Lee tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.

Ayers knew precisely what Lee wanted, and needed, and he delivered. He was a pro’s pro.

“Dick and I worked together at Marvel for many years and he was truly the perfect freelancer,” Lee tells ‘Riffs. “His artwork always arrived on time, was never less than his best and, to me, one of the most important things of all was his never-failing good nature. He was always, cheerful, positive and a pleasure to talk to and be with.”

Richard Bache “Dick” Ayers was born in Ossining, N.Y., in 1924. He was drawing military comics by 1942, and soon attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. He later would teach at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art and the Guggenheim Museum.

“Dick was a real professional who loved drawing comics even back when you had to work day and night for not much money,” Mark Evanier, the comics and TV writer and comics scholar, tells Comic Riffs.

To draw, Ayers would get into a sense of the character. “You’re being an actor at the same time when your draw a comic book story,” he said. “You’re the producer, the writer, the director, the casting director — I mean, you’re the whole works.”

His most famed works included Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Nick Fury (as both wartime sergeant and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Strange Tales, as well as his Western adventures, including Rawhide Kid, Outlaw Kid, Wyatt Earp and Two-Gun Kid.

“I particularly loved his cowboy comics,” says Evanier, who authored “Kirby: King of Comics.” “The Old West would have been a fun place to be if it had been drawn by Dick Ayers.”

“To me,” Ayers said, “what I draw comes to life.”

Ayers won the National Cartoonists Society’s Best Comic Book award in 1985, and was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2007. He was taking drawing jobs as recently as 2005.

“Dick Ayers was truly a professional, in the best sense of the word,” Stan Lee tells us, “and I’m proud to say, I always considered him a good friend.”

What better can be said of a man than that.