Saturday, September 08, 2012

RIP Martin Filchock

Martin Filchock passed away Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at the age of 100. It's not a name I expect to resonate with many. Despite him close to being the oldest working cartoonist, he worked in comicbooks for such a brief time and that was mostly at Comics Magazine Company/Centaur Comics. Centaur was groundbreaking at the time, featuring some of the first female superheroes and supervillains, the first major recurring supervillain, a couple of native-american superheroes, the first cyborg and some cross-dressing characters. And, then there were just some that were unique like the Eye and Speed Centaur. But, by 1942, the company was gone. If he had gone to work for DC or Timely, maybe his name would be more familiar. Not "Joe Simon", "Jack Kirby" familiar, but as known as Martin Nodell, Craig Flessel, Paul Norris.

After all many of Centaur's creators worked and made names for themselves and their best known creations at other companies: Will Everett, Carl Burgos, Tarpe Mills, Jack Cole, Frank Thomas, Fred Guardineer, Paul Gustavson. While, Filchock would work on humor strips at various companies from the late 1940s  onward, as far as I know, his name is not attached to another superhero property. Part of it may be that there's a brief gap in his comicbook work history: the end of 1941 near the end of Centaur's time and 1944/46, according to His obituary explains a big part of the reason for that gap. He was serving in the Army during WWII. By the end of the War, there was less demand for new superheroes and many existing ones were slowly fading away.

Despite Centaur's short time on the stage, he created many memorable superheroes for them: the Owl, the Buzzrd, the Ermine, the Headless Horseman, Electric Ray, Fire Man (one of Centaur's several "chemical" men). I'm still waiting for a reprint of the Headless Horseman to show up online as it's a strip I know by reputation only.

His most memorable character would be Mighty Man. Mighty Man started off as a Paul Bunyan type character. He's a giant with incredible strength found in a valley out West and has several adventures. Maybe Filchock sensed the storytelling limitations (artistically and writing) of a character that seems to be around three times as tall as anyone else. Regardless, a friendly scientist gives him the ability to shrink to normal proportions as well as to Doll-Man size and to grow to even greater heights. His strength and invulnerability stayed the same regardless, so you got to see him just inches tall stop a locomotive. An added twist, he could grow or shrink just parts of his body, giving him a pseudo-stretching ability ala Elasti-Girl of the later Doom Patrol. This muscular control also allowed him to alter his facial appearance, which came in handy when he worked undercover.

Continually tinkering with the status quo, he had a serialized story where he was going up against a female crime boss named the Witch. The Witch was a beautiful young woman who through potions could make herself look old. What she failed to realize was that one of her henchmen was the hero in disguise. Later, Mighty Man would get a side-kick of sorts with Super-Ann. Ann had gotten lost during a storm and met up with a mysterious hermit who somehow gave her super-strength and some invulnerability. While tough, she was still a fledgeling at the hero game and tended to get in over her head. Mighty Man secretly kept an eye on her and helped her out of jams, usually at just inches tall so she didn't realize she was being helped, much less by whom.

Odds are, even if you haven't seen or heard of these characters, you're very familiar with one of his creations: two near identical cartoons side by side and you are to spot the differences between the drawings. His freelance cartoons ran in over a hundred different magazines with recognizable titles like Good Housekeeping, Reader's Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and Christian Science Monitor, not just post-War comics, including the "Check and Double Check" puzzle that he drew for over forty years for the Highlights for Children magazine. Making him possibly the most read freelance cartoonist outside of the syndicated newspaper strips.

It's no real surprise that this superhero artist would make a successful move to humor strips. Many of his superhero strips have a certain tendency towards what's called "big-foot" style of drawing, something that worked for the odd visual effects of Mighty Man's powers. While the Owl and Fire Man were done reasonably straight-forward, his Buzzard is another that plays to the creator's strength of infusing his artwork with a certain humorous approach to proportions and anatomy. Like his Centaur co-creators Frank Thomas and Jack Cole, he could do and create straight forward superheroes, but they were often an odd fit like a mis-matched pair of shoes. The light-hearted nature of his talent just couldn't help but shine through more often than not.

In 2007, it was reported that he was trying to break Al Hirschfield's Guinness Book of World Records as oldest working cartoonist. Hirschfield worked until his death at age 99 so he may have just done that depending on when his last cartoon was published. My condolences to his family. His obituary can be found here. The 2007 article detailing his attempt at getting listed in Guinness.

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