Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Excerpt: Gentleman Jim Mooney: The 1940's - Batman

(In 2006 Norm Breyfogle inked a Batman sketch as drawn by Jim Mooney, thus creating a tangible link between two classic Batman artists - this is their only collaboration and was created exclusively for the Jim Mooney biography)

In this third part of the on-going excepts of the as yet unpublished Jim Mooney biography, Jim talks about how he found himself working for DC drawing Batman and life during the 1940s.

You can read the first two excerpts from the Mooney biography here (Part I) and here (Part II).

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DC AND BATMAN

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Although the character was co-created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, only Kane receives official credit for the character. Batman was, at first, just one of several characters featured in Detective Comics. He has since become one of the world's most well-known comic-book characters, along with Superman. Although unlike many superheroes he does not possess super-human powers or abilities, he makes use of his genius intellect, honed detective skills and physical prowess to deter crime.

The character was a breakout hit, but National sought to improve sales even further. Editors suggested that the character receive a youthful sidekick who the readers could use as an audience surrogate. Kane initially suggested an impish character named ’Mercury’, while Finger suggested a more down-to-earth character. The name ’Robin’ was suggested by Jerry Robinson after the then popular Errol Flynn movie "Robin Hood".

Jim Mooney was one of the original Bob Kane ‘ghosts’. Kane established a stable of artists and writers who anonymously produced issues of Detective Comics and Batman respectively, all under the banner of his own name. Eager to keep up with the growing demand for the comic, DC also began hiring artists to draw the character. Working with writers Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Edmond Hamilton and Gardner Fox, Mooney produced stories in the ‘house style’ of Bob Kane effortlessly. At the same time he became the regular penciller on the companion strip, Robin, which was appearing in Star Spangled Comics. In all Mooney produced over thirty issues of Batman/Detective Comics between 1947 and 1963, fifty six issues of Star Spangled Comics, making him one of the most prolific Robin artists and a smattering of World’s Finest Comics, featuring both Batman and Superman.

Mooney’s ability to both work to deadlines and also produce high quality artwork held him in good stead and as a result he found himself employed at DC comics from 1947 through to the late 1960s.

Jim remembers his time at DC with a degree of fondness now. “There were a couple of crashes in the industry. The one I remember well, I mentioned earlier on that I'd done funny animal strips, so-called "animated stuff" for Terrytoons, Stan and I worked on that. I'd say about '46 through there, the funny animal stuff was no longer in demand, and an awful lot of us were scurrying around looking for work, and I was one of those guys, and I heard on the grapevine that they were looking for an artist to do Batman. So I buzzed up there to DC, went in and talked to Whitney Ellsworth, who was the editor. Now, this was DC Comics, of course, the biggest outfit in the business. They didn't hand out art assignments on one of their most successful characters to just anybody who walked in off of the streets. When I expressed interest in the opening, Whit said, ‘What makes YOU think you can draw The Batman?' Well, I pulled out the stuff I had done on The Moth over at Fox, and I said, ‘Well, you thought my work looked enough like Batman on this stuff to sue Fox... What do YOU think?’

“He gave me a script and suggested I take it home and draw it up as a sort of a tryout, to see if he'd like what I'd do for him on the real Batman. I did so, and that story was called "The Carbon Copy Crimes", and it was one that Bob Kane had done several years earlier. This was a repeat of the same crimes, with some flashbacks from the original story. I brought in a few pages, and he liked them, and said "Go ahead and pencil the whole job." So I pencilled it, and then suggested I might like to ink it, too; because I might like to have the money, and that was the first job I did for DC. And that assignment was based on the Moth story I did for Fox that they were sued for.

“This was ghosting Bob Kane. I was not ghosting for him, I was ghosting his strip. I never worked with Bob Kane personally. I was hired by DC to draw Batman. Dick Sprang was one of their better production artists, and he'd taken off and wanted to do something else. So Dick took off for Arizona, and DC was looking for someone to fill in. So, that's where I fit in, and I stayed on Batman for quite a few years, and then I did "Robin, the Boy Wonder" in Star-Spangled Comics, and I worked on some strips for House of Secrets and House of Mystery, ‘Tommy Tomorrow,’ almost everything that came along. I was with DC on a freelance basis for almost 20 years.”

Bob Kane, born on October 24th, 1915, was born Robert Kahn but legally changed his name at age 18. Kane was the co-creator of Batman, although many sources erroneously credit Kane as the sole creator of the character.

Following the success of Superman in Action Comics, editors at National Publications requested more superheroes comics. In response, Kane created several characters before settling on ’The Bat-Man’. His collaborator, writer Bill Finger, offered such suggestions as giving the character a cowl instead of a simple mask, giving him a cape instead of wings and giving him gloves. Finger also opted to remove bright red sections of the original costume, suggesting a greyish black color scheme not unlike that worn by the Phantom, right down to leaving the eyeholes in the cowl blank to connote mystery. Finger wrote the first Batman story, while Kane provided art. Because Kane had already submitted the proposal for a Batman character to his editors at DC Comics, he was the only person given official credit at the time for the creation of Batman.

Kane, the more business-savvy of the Kane-Finger creative team, had negotiated a lucrative contract with National, signing away any ownership that he might have in the character in exchange for, among other compensations, a mandatory by-line on all Batman comics stating "Batman created by Bob Kane", regardless of whether he was involved in the specific issue. Bill Finger's contract, by comparison, left him with the barest of compensation and no credit even on the stories that he wrote without Kane, as was the standard policy during that era.

Kane's major contributions to Batman were in the 1940s. As Kane's comic work tapered off later in his career, Kane parlayed his official status as sole creator of Batman into a low level of celebrity. He enjoyed a post-comic book career as a painter, showing his work in art galleries. Even these paintings were produced by other, uncredited artists, now ghost-painting under Kane's name.

“Bob Kane had a contract stating that everything had to have his signature on it,” said Jim. “I guess he was smart enough and fortunate enough to get that advantage. I think the main thing I objected to through the years, and I think many other artists did, too, is that you got a cheque and on the back, you signed away all rights. In other words, you got paid for that one job and that's it. In most cases, this was relatively fair. However, if you created a strip and say, for instance, it goes into radio or the movies and advertising and so on, you got nothing on it, or very little, this I think is exploitation.”

Jim only met Bob Kane once in his life and didn’t warm to him at all. “He handled the truth a little carelessly,” said Jim. “I didn’t take to him too much to be honest. You know how it is with people; you can meet them and say right away, “Hey, I like this guy”. You might change your mind later but usually your first impressions are pretty solid. And I thought Kane was somebody that I’d not care to spend much time with. He tended to have a rather unpleasant display of ego and had a tendency to put people down, which I wouldn’t take and I’d put him back very nicely.

“In a way I wouldn’t say it was deliberate (the Batman style) but it was what they wanted so I tried to oblige to draw it a little more in that style. At that time, Batman in the 40s, I hadn’t really matured to any great extent artistically. I was still developing so I couldn’t say, “Hey, this is my style”. It wasn’t that difficult to make it fit into the niche of the Sprang/Kane style. Dick Sprang was good. Jerry Robinson was a master draftsman even early on. That guy could draw and was unbelievably good.

“I thought the strip was interesting and I liked the mysterious motif and emphasis on shadows. I gradually worked it out a little bit more to suit myself. I had some very good inkers, like Charlie Paris and Jack Burnley, who enhanced my work.

“Ultimately I was quite pleased with the strip overall because I thought it was an important one, far more important than what I’d been doing previously. I had managed to get a pretty decent rate out of it, so that instead doing comics for about enough to eat rice and beans and a roof over my head, I was making a little money then. But certainly very few of us, ever really made enough money in comics to say, “Hey, I’m going to have a very comfortable life later on”. It didn’t happen. A few guys were sharper than everyone else, they knew where to invest, what to do, but I’d say the majority of us, we got by fairly nicely. But it wasn’t a magnificent amount of money that we made or a large amount anyway.”

Bill Finger, born on February 8th, 1914, was a writer who is best remembered, albeit never officially credited, as the co-creator of the character Batman with artist Bob Kane and creator of Catwoman.

Like his contemporaries including Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, and Gardner Fox, Finger wrote a number of uncredited stories for DC. His 1950s work on Batman with artist Dick Sprang was known for putting Batman and Robin through elaborate death traps, often including oversized objects and strange schemes. By the time Finger died in 1974, he had almost never been officially credited once for his work. He died destitute and without any heirs to continue his fight for credit.

Unlike his encounters with Kane, Jim met Bill Finger on more than one occasion and found him to be a very likable person. “I admired his writing,” said Jim. “Whenever I got a script I used to pray it was from Bill Finger because it was so good and so much fun to do. But to go off a little bit on that, so many people think because you worked at DC or Marvel you knew everybody. You didn’t because if you came in as a freelancer then you weren’t in the bullpen. So you didn’t see everybody that worked there. In fact, I didn’t meet Dick Sprang until I went to a convention in San Diego many years later. Jerry Robinson I never met. And when people say, “Oh God, you must have known everyone and that Bullpen must have been a real live party”, it wasn’t. It was fun, and Stan made it sound like it was hopping all the time, which is typical of Stan but, I mean I love John Buscema’s work, but I didn’t meet him until much later. His brother Sal I never met. Almost all of the luminaries there, the guys I thought were very, very good, I never met. And this is not just me, unless you were in the office all the time you didn’t know these people.

“It was kind of fun though. When I came into the offices it was fun. Stan was always a ham; especially if he was giving the plot of a story he’d act it out. He’d jump on the chair and be the Green Goblin or whatever he was talking about. But he’d make it seem like the whole office was like that. I wasn’t there all the time but I’m sure it wasn’t more exciting at other times and I just didn’t pick up on it.

“I met Jack Kirby a couple of times. Kirby was not always an easy person to converse with let’s say, to get along with socially. The only ones I know down here are Shelly Moldoff and Nick Cardy, and Nick and I get together at conventions and I do the same thing with Shelly. But those are the only two I’ve had any real contact with here in Florida, but there’s quite a few of them I know. I could see the reasons why we all came down here, at the time I came down it was fairly reasonable and it wasn’t over crowded. Today there are too many people who’ve had the same idea. Its way, way overcrowded.”

Mortimer Weisinger was most famous as the editor of the Superman line of comic books for DC Comics during the Silver age of comic books. He also co-created such long-running features as Aquaman and Green Arrow, as well as Johnny Quick, served as story editor for The Adventures of Superman television series, and compiled the often-revised paperback 1001 Valuable Things You Can Get Free.

His tenure on the Superman comics was marked by the introduction of a variety of new supporting concepts and characters, including Supergirl, initially introduced by Al Plastino and quickly taken over by Mooney, Krypto, the Phantom Zone and the Legion of Super-Heroes also with Mooney. A few of the recurring plot threads in Weisinger's stories included plots about Lois Lane trying to prove Superman was Clark Kent, and "imaginary stories" that featured events deviating wildly from the comics' status quo. It has been said that many of Weisinger's ideas came from talking to children in his neighborhood, asking them what they'd like to see, and then using those ideas, uncredited.

Weisinger also encouraged a static picture book style of illustration in his stories, and was known for reusing previously published stories as new story ideas; a noted example of this is a 1950s story featuring Superman encountering an alien being he thought might've been his long lost brother being reused in the early 1960s to publish the Superboy story introducing the Legion character Mon-El. During Weisinger's reign, the Superman comics maintained a reasonably tight internal continuity, but related little to the rest of the DC Universe. Weisinger was noted by some for having a micromanaging attitude and a heavy-handed, overbearing treatment of his writers and artists.

Weisinger retired from his editorial reign over the Superman comics in 1970, and was succeeded by Julius Schwartz.

At the time a change was in the air for Jim and his family. “We finally decided we wanted to do something else, as my wife usually called the shots on these things, she felt that Woodstock was not the greatest thing, probably because I was becoming too involved with the artistic crowd there. We decided to move a little further into rural Connecticut into Southbury. I took a lease on a pre-Revolutionary house. I re-did a lot of it; I put in a furnace and a few other things and was about to buy it but again that also got to be a bit too heavy. Too much time was involved and I decided for some reason or another that this might be a good time to take off. I cancelled the lease on the place and we headed for California. At this time I mentioned to Mort and some of the editors at DC that I’d like to take a little sabbatical and would it be alright if I took a few months off to move to Los Angeles, which I did. I established a studio on Hollywood Boulevard there, opposite Grumman’s Egyptian Theatre. I did a tremendous amount of work there and kept holding off coming back, not that anyone said anything about it. I think I made one trip back to New York to make contact with Mort.

”This lasted year after year and I thought, ‘Well, I’m here now and I might as well face it.” I took on an awful lot of advertising work; I did a little bit of animation, basically anything that walked in the door. I was very happy there. My next door neighbour was Leon Franks the painter, and we became very close and occasionally I posed for Leon in his life classes. Then the fans finally discovered me and it was pretty hard to hide. I was pretty much exposed, and at times it got a bit sticky. These were all nice kids; most of them were maybe twelve to sixteen years old. But they would descend on me and I wanted to be nice to them, but they sure took up a lot of my time.

“That period lasted until Mort got a little tough and decided if I was going to be working for DC then I’d better damn well come back to New York. That was the ultimatum and obviously I wanted to keep my accounts with them, particularly with Supergirl, I was very deep into that at the time. I realised that I was going to have to move to New York so that I could be in contact with Mort when he decided it was necessary, which was a kind of unpleasant thing to have to accept, but I knew that if I was going to continue working with DC then it was going to have to be it.

“Instead of going back to New York, I moved back to my old haunts at Woodstock with my second wife, Anne, and stayed for a while with my sister and brother-in-law Ed Jurist. Ed Jurist, in the early days, had done some comic books with me and realised this was not exactly the most lucrative thing and became involved with vintage cars becoming very, very successful. He established a vintage car business and dealt in vintage aeroplanes too. A very interesting guy. We were interested in a lot of the same things, although I wasn’t into vintage cars I would have loved to have a part of that.”

“We stayed in Woodstock for a while and decided that it’d be better to get a little closer to New York City so we moved to Stanford, Connecticut. In many ways that was really an ideal work situation because I was only 45 minutes from New York by train and I could get in as often as I wanted to, or stay away if I had to. It did work out very well and Anne was able to get into something she would be interested in. She used to manage a jewellery business with her ex-husband in Hollywood. In fact their quarters were very close to my studio. She wanted to get into something else and we were both interested to some extent in antiques, I probably a little bit more than Annie was. We established the Stanford Antiques Association and gradually learnt as we went along. We exhibited at antiques shows from New York to Boston. Sometimes we did as many as thirty to forty shows a year, which kept us pretty busy and again cut into my comic book output to a great extent. We did enjoy it and we learnt a great deal. As I look back and think about some of things we passed up that I wish I had bought. Some of the antiques I still have and a few I sold at a fairly nice profit.”

Despite all the moves Jim managed to keep his output with DC intact by keeping his relationships with editors such as Jack Schiff and Murray Boltinoiff on good terms. During his time at DC Jim never worked for Julie Schwartz, although the two men both knew and liked each other. Mort Weisinger was the main editor that Jim worked with though and he remembers Mort, although not always with fondness. “God forbid that anyone should have to work with Mort,” said Jim. Weisinger was a wealthy man and was successful in many fields. “Mort made so much money that we were kidding at one time and saying you can’t take it with you, and one guy came up to me and said, “You said Mort couldn’t take it with him? I know damn well that before he died he made arrangements and took it with him!” He came out to visit me when I lived in Los Angeles and I took him around quite a bit. He was working with one of the studios there, we went night clubbing, and we got along fine socially, if you can call it that. However he was never an attractive man personality wise, or physically and at that time I was going to art school and later on I had connections with Earl Carroll and his girls, but he was always trying to get me to get a date for him and I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do it to any of my girlfriends; they’ll never speak to me again.’ He was a very shrewd person and unusually insecure. I remember one time my brother-in-law, who was a very attractive guy, I tried to get him to do comics before he made his fortune in vintage cars, and he went out to see Mort at his place in Long Island. Mort’s wife was there and she was obviously attracted to my brother-in-law. Everything was going fine until the wife walked in and suddenly he just said, “That’s it. I’ve had enough, I’m busy right now. I’ll talk to you another time. I’ll give you a call” and he never got a damn thing from him.”

Despite his policy of never letting the artist or writers know his feelings about them, Mort Weisinger later declared publicly that Jim Mooney was his all time favourite Supergirl artist.

It wasn’t long after that the reality of comic books hit home in a savage way. In the early 1950s, just after the end of World War II, two things would change the face of comic books forever. The first was the publication of Dr Fredrich Wertham’s book, Seduction Of The Innocent, and the other was the resulting Senate subcommittee hearings chaired by democratic presidential hopeful Estes Kefauver. “I had moved to Connecticut at that time and that was when I was first watching the thing on my television, gritting my teeth.

(In 2006 Bob McLeod inked the same Mooney sketch as Norm Breyfogle, again creating a link between two Batman artists. Sketch inked exclusively for the Mooney biography)

“I was exposed occasionally to people’s feelings, that if you were doing comics you might do better if you went out on the street and pimped. And you’d make money instead of having a bad reputation and making very little. I was somewhat sensitive to it, but not too much. A little later Stan came up to visit me when I was living up in Woodstock, New York. One of the guys I knew was a gun dealer and later was doing some pretty unsavoury things, selling guns to different countries that might be getting ready for revolution but he felt that comics were utterly reprehensible and he came over to talk to us and he asked Stan what he was doing and Stan said, “Well, I’m into publishing”. He said, “Oh, what are you publishing?” and Stan very reluctantly said, “Comics”. The guy said, “Comics!! You’re doing that terrible stuff?” Stan handled it very nicely but it was a rather sticky, embarrassing situation. I think that would have to have been the late 40s.”

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