Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Jim Mooney RIP

Jim Mooney passed away. A great tribute to the man and his life as well as looking a bit at his history in comics can be read here.
Makes me wish I had known more about him. I especially love the section about his interviewing with Stan Lee from Lee’s perspective.

When he was doing Supergirl and the LSH books for which he is well known and lauded, I wasn’t at an age I could read more than words like “cat”. So, I was exposed to a lot of his work via reprints and reading old comics from various sources. While the artwork was clear and crisp and the stories fun, I was at an age that most artists didn’t really register with me. I couldn’t tell you which of the stories I read was by him or by Curt Swan or any other of DC’s stable of artists at the time. Indeed, about the only work I probably was aware of was Omega the Unknown and that was some time later after that series had come and gone.

My appreciation for Jim’s contributions came a few years ago. AC Comics had been reprinting golden-age comics for awhile and various people on the internet were also getting in on the act. Through them I was gaining a deeper appreciation of artists that I recognized their names as being from the 70’s but turned out to be groundbreaking much earlier. Men like Dick Ayers, Irv Novick, and, of course, Jim Mooney. In one of AC’s reprint books, they focused on Quality Comics and interviewed Mooney. In the book Mooney talks about his work for Fox on the Moth and who was turned into the Lynx after threat of lawsuit from DC, his work on Wildfire, Phantom Lady, and the Spider Widow at Quality.

Now, I’ve seen a Moth story or two as well as the Lynx. Frankly, I don’t see the similarity between it and Batman. Even quality wise, I have to agree with Mooney’s own assessment of his talents as compared to others at that point in time. However, it’s like looking at Novick’s first stories for the Shield and then seeing his later work after being exposed to Simon & Kirby’s hyper-extended kinetic frenzied work and taking all those lessons to heart and applying them to his own work but with a more organic and softer feel. Mooney’s own talent explodes while working for Ace on strips like Magno for SUPER-MYSTERY COMICS and becoming a regular cover artist as well as interior work for them. He made the Magno stories a lot better than they had any right being considering the generic nature of the character. Again, taking a page from Batman, Magno would most often face a killer clown of a villain called the Clown though cannot really say who actually created the villain. The Magno strip would have several artists over time and have a decent run for a character that languishes in almost complete obscurity today. Mooney’s skill grew quickly by leaps and bounds.

Over at Quality, Mooney worked on the Wildfire strip. Wildfire is possibly most notable for NOT being in the All-Star Squadron. Roy Thomas apparently wanted to use her but the powers-that-be thought it might be confusing as a Wildfire was a member of the Legion of Superheroes. Keep in mind that All-Star Squadron as an Earth-2 WWII book already has similar but subtly different versions of Wonder Woman, Batman, Robin, Superman, Hawkman and Hawkgirl as well as very different versions of the Flash and Green Lantern in it. Would Wildfire be all that confusing? So, Roy created a new Firebrand instead. But, one only has to look at his work on Wildfire and see just how far he had come as an artist.

(SNIP) I cut a paragraph that was originally here. Mainly because I have a memory of an interview that Mooney did saying he worked on the Spider Widow and Phantom Lady and he introduced the character, the Raven to the strip. The Raven was originally meant to spin off into his own strip but never happened. The problem? I cannot verify this interview, all the online sources cite someone else as the creator and artist at the time of Phantom Lady, Spider Widow and the Raven. And, I haven't had the time to hunt up the actual comic with the interview all though I'm reasonably certain I've tracked it down to AC's MEN OF MYSTERY #20. Anyone else remember this?

In the late 40’s would have Mooney as one of the ghosts for Sprang working under Kane's byline on Batman, in many ways bringing Mooney’s work almost full circle. Only this time, he does a very passable Dick Sprang and there's no lawsuit.

So, I’ll miss Mooney, not so much because of his work on Supergirl or the Legion (but thank you for Streaky), but because I really enjoyed his work from decades earlier and seeing how his skill and style grew and changed over the years. I find Magno a lot of fun to read. And I enjoyed the Spider Widow and Raven stories quite a bit, whoever did them.

Who is Hugo Hercules?

It’s been a strange couple of weeks. Stuff I’ve been wanting to comment on, just kinda gotten forgotten or slipped by the wayside. Such as when I reviewed MEN OF MYSTERY back on March 6th. I mentioned that one of the stories concerned a character called Dr. Drew. As I was actually working on the D’s of my golden-age heroes encyclopedia, I made sure to include him. While doing research, I found another couple of stories of the character leading me to a better appreciation of him and the Eisner-style atmosphere of the stories. Then, lo and behold, Don Markstein includes him about the very same time on his Toonopedia site! So, Doctor Drew is getting a bit of exposure these days it seems. And Mr. Markstein and I must travel in some of the same circles in our research.

When I first encountered Toonopedia site a few years back, I thought his name sounded familiar. Yet, it wasn’t until last week that I realized where I had heard it before. He’s the editor of COMICS REVIEW, a magazine I’ve been getting for close to 10 years! For those not in the know, COMICS REVIEW reprints comic strips such as the Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Buzz Sawyer, Ally Oop, Krazy Kat, Modesty Blaise, etc. Sadly, when I first started getting it, it reprinted a bunch of current adventure strips as well as various classic story strips and the odd spattering of classic humor strips. These days, it’s almost all old strips and I would love to be seeing the Phantom dailies since my paper dropped that strip a long time ago.

Yesterday, my brother wanted me to find comic strips that had to do with muscles (something for his student teaching, I didn’t ask). It’s always interesting how sometimes you cannot find what you are looking for but also the esoteric things you find you weren’t looking for.

In this case, it’s a little known strip from 1902 of a fella by the name of Hugo Hercules. Hugo predates not only Superman but also various other incredibly strong characters such as that other more famous Hugo, Hugo Danner of Phillip Wylie’s GLADIATOR (1930) and comic strips’ Mandrake (created in 1924, first saw print in 1934), the Phantom (1936), and the Phantom Magician (1935), as well as the other supermen that pre-dated comics such as Tarzan (1912), John Carter of Mars (1912), the Night Wind (1913). Heck, he even beats out the Scarlet Pimpernel (1903)!

Hugo is a big burly but amiable chap who talks in a blue-collar type slang and seems to wander around looking to aid people with his great strength such as lifting automobiles, a porch as an umbrella, or even wrestling various animals (a horse, elephant and a bear, all of which talk) into submission. His response to his incredible displays of strength that astounds others is invariably “Just as easy.” In one strip and possibly the earliest crossover of its type, a building catches on fire and Hugo rescues several of the inhabitants, four other comic strip characters: Alice and the Duchess of “Alice in Funnyland” and Archie and Boggs from “Archie and Boggs”, all of whom seem aware of their comic strip status. The strip only ran for a few months. Samples of those and all of Hugo’s strip can be found at: http://www.barnaclepress.com/

Hugo is the creation of William H.D. Koerner, a German immigrant who was on staff for the Chicago Tribune. He eventually left to study painting and became an accomplished illustrator/painter for Harper’s Magazine among others. One of his paintings, “A Charge to Keep” was a favorite of George W. Bush. The President’s account of the painting, its name and what it symbolized was very different from the story it was used to actually illustrate and became a source of ridicule among various pundits and critics of the President. Especially as Bush even used the “name” as the title for his memoirs.

While the name Hugo is an interesting similarity with Hugo Danner, it should be noted that Phillip Wylie was only 6 months old when the strip ran. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster wouldn't be born for another decade. Hugo Hercules may very well be a proto-superhero, but he is reminiscent of the American Folk Tale or Tall Tale, though he predates some of those as well. He serves as an illustration in that the idea of a Superman wasn't really all that new, these ideas and archetypes were already part of the American culture from the tall-tales, the dime novels (there had been various "super-villains" for Nick Carter and his kin to face), the dime novels, and even in the comics. Siegel and Shuster had even already paved the way with Dr. Occult, Superman was just applying even more of the Tall Tale mentality and a science fiction veneer as opposed to a magic one.

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