Book Excerpt: Gentleman Jim Mooney: The 1970s - Mooney, Gerber & Marvel
In 2005 Jim Mooney and myself agreed that I'd be the one to write his life story. During the next year we spent a fair bit of time on the phone talking to each other and covering all the aspects of his life. We also corresponded, sending material, photos and art back and forth, and in doing so managed to capture the feel of his life, his art and his career. Jim's main regret was that his memory was failing somewhat due to age, thus it wasn't as sharp when he wanted it to be, other times he'd speak in detail about events dating back to the 1920s with such a clarity that I could imagine being there. These conversations exhausted him somewhat and most were brief, well brief for me, lasting around 30 to 45 minutes in length. Each time we spoke Jim would do his best to answer my questions (which I'd email through beforehand, mainly topics of discussion, in order to prepare him) and he was sure that others would help fill the gaps. And he was right. A lot of people gladly gave up their time to remember what it was like working with Jim, others went above and beyond and created new pieces of art from existing Mooney work for use in the book.
Jim, his family, friends and co-workers, were able to share details of his life that have never been revealed before. The end result is a book of scope showcasing a prolific career that dates back to the early 1940s (indeed Jim's first comic book work was published a mere 18 months after the debut of Action Comics #1) and finishes with Jim's sad passing earlier this year. It's a book that's been kicked around at several publishers but never published. "Limited appeal" is the excuse mainly used and that's a fair call. The final edits and polishes have yet to be done, as such this work is almost like one of Jim's preliminary sketches - an idea of what the end product should look like, virtually there, it just needs to be inked (so to speak). So until the final product does see print I thought I'd extract chapters from it and publish it here, myself, so that people can hopefully enjoy it and appreciate the life, the art, the man who was Gentleman Jim Mooney.
OMEGA THE UNKNOWN; THE MAN-THING; Ms MARVEL
One of Jim Mooney’s best known collaborators was Steve Gerber, with whom Mooney worked on Man-Thing and the Gerber/Mary Skrenes created Omega: The Unknown. Both titles remain amongst the best remembered of Mooney’s (non Spider-Man) Marvel work. From those days to now Mooney looked back at Man-Thing and Omega as being his best work of the 1970s.
(Preliminary sketch for the splash page to issue #9 of Omega The Unknown)
Writer and co-creator Steve Gerber remembered, “Omega was a departure for Jim, although it had all of the elements that made a strip like Supergirl really appealing. The way he drew kids was just remarkable. I’m sure that an editor brought up his name and I agreed to it immediately of course, but I don’t recall the exact process of his selection. We did have a lot of phone conversations and I liked him a hell of a lot, he’s a wonderful guy to talk to and he really understood what Mary (Skrenes) and I were going for with Omega, and what I was trying to do with Man-Thing. He was a very, very perceptive artist with a keen appreciation of story.
(Steve Gerber, 1970s, photo courtesy of Jim Mooney)
“I’ve said this about a handful of artists and it sometimes gets misunderstood, but there were a few people I worked with, Gene Colan who had very distinctive stuff, and Sal Buscema and certainly Jim Mooney, who really understood that the story in comics was primary. Not the writing, but the story itself. The job was to convey the story to the reader. Jim was just fabulous at that. He was really interested and not a show off and I really appreciated it. He did what he did and he did it really, really well, and as I was trying to do, he did it in service to the story, rather than making a spectacle of himself. I found that incredibly appealing and I still do.
“I think that one of the reasons why Jim was so fond of Omega and Man-Thing was because he was allowed to ink them himself. I think it’d been a while since he’d been given a chance to do that. I think he felt more proprietorship with that. Jim made those characters so appealing to look at and so interesting to follow while still maintaining the gritty feeling of Hells Kitchen in New York. That’s a rare talent, to be able to combine all of that.”
(Page 3 from issue #3 of Omega The Unknown. On the back of this page Jim wrote, "A talking heads page from my favourite series.")
“Man-Thing was my favourite that I did there,“ said Jim, “I loved working with Steve Gerber. I admired Steve’s stuff tremendously. I thought the guy was an extremely talented writer, way ahead of his time, a little bit like Harlan Ellison. I enjoyed it immensely but we never had much contact with each other for some reason. We almost always worked on the phone and Steve was a very articulate guy but he never had much to say. I knew he liked my stuff, he indicated that, and I let him know that I enjoyed working with him. I think that Man-Thing was one of the most interesting and stimulating strips I’ve ever done.
“I never met Steve in the early days, when we were working on it. The scripts at DC were ‘panel one, panel two, panel three, the guy comes in on the left, goes out on the right’ and it was bore, bore, bore. So I was not very fond of that kind of an approach and when I got my first script from Gerber there it was, all full script. Usually with Marvel you had an outline and you broke it down yourself. Stan’s scripts were ‘Well, page one, something like this happens, you figure it out and use as many panels as you want,’ and that was fun. But I got this full script and I thought ‘Oh God, I’m back to DC’. I read through it a little bit and I said “This isn’t too bad, this works pretty well”. I was really glad I’d latched onto it. It was a very pleasant experience. “
After a career spent drawing lighter characters such as Spider-Man, Supergirl and Tommy Twomorrow, Steve Gerber initially felt that Jim was an odd choice as an artist for Man-Thing in hindsight. “I have to say that I really was sceptical of it at the beginning until I saw the work,” said Gerber, “Jim had such a clean, crisp line to what he does so I really did wonder if he could draw a muck monster. It seemed like a bad pairing at first, but of course the work was beautiful.”
During this time Jim also worked on such ‘horror’ titles as Ghost Rider and Son of Satan, the latter was also with Gerber. Despite the satanic overtones associated with both titles (Ghost Rider being a man who sold his soul to the Devil and was betrayed and cursed) Mooney was never bothered by the religious aspects. “It didn’t bother me at all,” Jim said, “some of the stuff that came out later did bother me. I just don’t care for the splatter school, sadism. I defend their right to do it, but I also defend my right not to read it.”
“He did really well with that (Son of Satan) as well,” recalled Geber, “I think that he been forced essentially to draw these very kind of clean and wholesome things all through his career, even up to and including the Spider-Man material, which is pretty straight forward stuff. All of a sudden he was assigned to these other things and it is as if there’s a whole unexpressed side to his artistic personality that came out while he was working on these stories.”
Writer Tony Isabella worked with Jim on a handful of issues of Ghost Rider, but already had an admiration before he was assigned the job. “Jim Mooney was a favorite of mine ever since I figured out he was the guy who drew Supergirl in Action Comics,” says Tony, “When he also started drawing Dial H For Hero in House Of Mystery, I realized he had as much range as the best of the DC super-hero artists. When he later turned up on Amazing Spider-Man, I wasn't surprised. At that age, I thought Marvel was A-number-one, the top of the comics heap and, of course, Mooney was good enough to be drawing one of their top books.
“When I started working at and writing for Marvel, I was lucky enough to get Mooney for four issues of the Ghost Rider series I'd just inherited from creator Gary Friedrich. Mooney took my plots and made it look as if I actually knew what I was doing. Superb storytelling with great action scenes and real human emotion. Scripting those pages was an education in itself.
“I got to spend some time with Jim and his wife Anne - a great lady who left us too soon - at a Florida convention a few years back. It was such a pleasure to get to "meet" a man I had only worked with long distance and, no surprise here, he's every bit as terrific a human being as he is an artist. So here's to Jim...with much appreciation and love! “
Another title that Jim became well known for was the female version of Marvel’s Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel. Working with inker Joe Sinnott, Jim found himself working in familiar territory – a female version of an already established super-hero.
“The only editor I had much contact with at Marvel was Chris Claremont,” said Jim, “who wrote my Ms. Marvel. He used to call me up just about every couple of weeks to give me these plots that might run on for an hour, an hour and a half. And they were good, he wrote a good story but it always amazed me that Marvel had no qualms about running up a phone bill like that. And I would record our conversations, of course; but the drawback was that I couldn't necessarily ask questions once we were done talking. So, I probably would have preferred a written script or plot, but we worked it out. She (Ms. Marvel) survived for awhile. It was quite a bit different to Supergirl though, more action and far looser. It was a pleasant enough strip.”
Legendary inker Joe Sinnott worked with Jim on the Ms Marvel books. Remembers Joe, “It was indeed a pleasure working with Jim Mooney, a real professional. I thought Jim was a good artist and we worked very well together because we both do the classic type of art; fairly straight. His drawings were superb - clean, easy to follow and he told a great story with outstanding compositions. His work always reminded me a little of another favorite of mine, Fred Kida. John Buscema set a high standard with his pencils on Ms. Marvel and Jim Mooney certainly continued that tradition. He's one of the all-time greats!”
Jim Mooney was never in the superstar class of artists at Marvel. There appeared to be a pecking order of artists, both amongst the readers and the Marvel staff themselves. On the top of the tree resided the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Gil Kane and John Romita. In later days those people were replaced by the likes of John Byrne, George Perez, Frank Miller, Walter Simonson and others. Some artists, such as Don Heck, Werner Roth, Winslow Mortimer, and later the likes of Ron Wilson, Keith Pollard and the early work of Sal Buscema were considered to be ‘second tier’. Jim wasn’t enough of a favourite to be in the top class, but was far too good to be relegated to second place. It was almost as if Jim had carved out his own niche and remained there. Steve Gerber has his own views on which tier Jim occupied at Marvel, “The way things worked at Marvel was that there was John Romita and John Buscema and then there was everybody else. Five years earlier it would have been Kirby and Ditko. Jim ranked very high amongst the ‘everyone else’. The way people looked at his stuff in those days it was generally acknowledged that his stuff sold very well, which is why he was put on Spider-Man early on. I don’t think there was an appreciation of him more than a kind of ‘good journeyman storyteller’ until he did stuff like Omega and Man-Thing. I don’t think people realised he was capable of that kind of stuff.”