Category Archives: 2009/02

The Eleventh Commandment

“Thou shall not desecrate art”. Okay maybe Moses did not forget to include the eleventh commandment on his tablets when he came down from the mount. And I will admit that most of the other commandments concerned more serious sins. Still alteration of art is truly morally wrong. This restriction may seem odd when it comes to comic books since that art often gets modified on its way through the publication process. However a point is reached when comic art is published (or not) and further modification should no longer be done. Some will say that when a person buys a piece of art he can do anything he wants with it. But the truth is no one really buys art, it is more like an extended lease. While the person may have possession of a piece of art, the expectation should be that someday, somehow, it will pass on to someone else. It is the owner’s duty and self interest to preserve the art for that eventual day.

Unpublished page art by Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin (as published in “History of Comics” volume 1, 1970)

James Steranko’s “History of Comics” is a great resource written by a man who is both a historian and practitioner of comic books. It was published in two tabloid size volumes and is long out of print. However issues appear at conventions and sources like eBay from time to time and are well worth the search. While profusely illustrated most of the images are small in size. There are a limited number of exceptions that take full advantage of the large dimensions of the books. One of the larger illustrations in volume 1 is the source for the image shown above of a page done in pencil by Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin.

There are good reasons why Steranko gave this image such a prominent treatment. Both artists played important parts in the history of comics. Among the many contributions by Jerry Robinson is the work he did on Batman as a ghost artist for Bob Kane. Unfortunately Mort Meskin’s importance in the history of comics is largely forgotten today but is well understood by Steranko. Hopefully a forthcoming book on Meskin may help to change his current reputation. However Mort is not completely neglected for instance Ger Apeldoorn has provided some recent posts about some of his work (for example Tom Corbett Viewmaster, Real Crime and No Kid Stuff) and there is a list group devoted to him (Mort Meskin List). Besides Robinson and Meskin’s importance to the history there is the rarity of the art. Not a lot of original art for either artist has survived from early in their careers. While they shared a studio for some time they only collaborated for a relatively short period (less then two years) so examples of their joint work would be expected to be rarer still. Original art that was unpublished and left uninked are particularly rare. Last, but certainly not least of the reasons Steranko illustrated this particular page, is the quality of the art itself.

What was this unfinished page originally intended? Meskin did some marvelous work on his creation, the Vigilante, which started as a hero feature and ended up as a western. However Robinson was never associated with the Vigilante and the young man on this page of original art was clearly not the Vigilante’s sidekick Stuff the Chinatown Kid. This page of art can also be found on the Meskin web site where it is suggested it might have originally have been meant for Prize Comics Western. The period that Robinson and Meskin are known to have collaborated was from January 1948 to August 1949 (cover dates). Prize Comics was converted to Prize Comics Western with the May 1948 issue so it certainly was a possible destination for this piece. Robinson and Meskin were doing work for Simon and Kirby during this time and although I do not believe S&K produced Prize Comics Western they may have provided Jerry and Mort a connection to the editor of that title. But Robinson and Meskin’s work never be published in any issue of PCW and the solo Meskin would not appear in the title until 1956 1955. So while nothing rules out Prize Comics as the intended comic, there is little evidence to support that suggestion.

Considering the artists, it is not surprising what a wonderful page this is. The third panel is particularly marvelous. This may be the most complex panel these artists had ever done either together or individually. The panel is framed on each side by the cutoff close-ups of two smokers. A gambling game gone wrong takes up most of the panel with onlookers filling the rest. Every little portion of the panel is filled with interesting details. The only problem is where would the speech balloons go? Actually this seems to be a difficulty with much of the page with only the second and fifth panels seeming to have room for the speech balloons. The fourth panel particularly seems to call for a balloon with no place to put it. This all suggests another possibility for this page, it may have been nothing more then a portfolio piece used to show perspective publishers what the artists were capable of doing. However in the end we are left with little more then informed speculation as to the intended purpose of this unpublished art.

Unpublished page art by Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin (recent scan)

The image in Steranko’s book is just marvelous. Pencils are difficult to reproduce (which is why art is inked for comic book publication) but the image in “History of Comics” is clear and easy to see. Considering this was done before personal computers and scanners that was quite an accomplishment. Above is a more recent scan of the same art. While it may not be as clear as the Steranko’s image it does show some subtleties that the published image did not. Even here the image has been enhanced as the original pencils are lighter.

I had previously wondered what method Robinson and Meskin used when they collaborated on art since the final result looks like an amalgamation of their two styles. At least some of the inking appeared to have been done by Mort so the simplest explanation would be that Robinson did the pencils and Meskin the inking. But is the simplest explanation actually correct? The best way to answer this question is to examine uninked art such as the page discussed here. Most of the figures on the page look like they were done by Meskin with the exception of the woman in the third panel who looks like she was drawn by Robinson. That assessment is based on the style of the art but notice that the woman is drawn slightly darker then the rest of the figures. Remember this image is an enhanced scan and the difference is even harder to detect on the original art. The panel is so intricate and fully realized that I doubt that Meskin had simply left the woman blank for Jerry to fill in. To me this all suggests that Mort first penciled the entire page and then Jerry came in and altered portions. Robinson may have worked on parts of the art other then the woman but they are now hard to distinguish. I am not suggesting that this was the creation sequence that Robinson and Meskin used in all cases but it does suggest that the reason for their amalgamated style was the passing of the pencils from one artist to the other.

It is interesting how fully developed the drawing is on this page. Not only are all outlines clearly indicated but the required spotting is shown as well. For example the shadows cast by the post sticking out of the top of the house in the first frame and the shadows on the underside of all the hats. Even the cloth folds have the sweeping parallel lines that are characteristic of Meskin’s inking. Previously I felt the inking of the Robinson and Meskin pieces had been done by Mort, but perhaps Jerry also did some inking that is now hard to detect because the inks closely followed the pencils.

By now the reader maybe impatiently proclaiming “but what about the bottom row of panels”? What indeed. Because of the Steranko illustration we know that this row was originally uninked. Did Jerry Robinson, still very much active today, come back and resume working on the page? Or did Mort Meskin return to it before his untimely death? Unhappily neither is the case. A good comparison between the inked version and the one found in the Steranko illustration shows many discrepancies. Hairlines were altered and cloth folds moved. Even the outlines were not closely followed. While it is not completely clear in Steranko’s illustration, the boy on the extreme right of the last panel is cast in shadow with just enough traces of light patches to indicate the shape of the figure. Apparently this was all beyond the questionable talents of the inker who covers it all in solid black. It is true that since the silver age of comics inkers are often expected to add their personal touches, but this particular inker’s alterations have done nothing but deaden the art. Since he did not follow the pencils closely one wonders why the inking was done directly on the original art and not over some copy? Once he had finished the bottom row the contrast between it and the two upper rows must have been painfully obvious even to this inker and he finally halted his destruction before any more damage was done and the page become worthless. The page is now a monument to the wisdom of the Eleventh Commandment. Frankly even if the inker had been more talented he should not have attempted inking the actual pencils. A modern inker has modern sensibilities and his art could not truly recreate the type of inking that would have been done on this page had Robinson and Meskin completed it.

Bill Draut’s Demon

After Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had fulfilled their military service they could easily resumed working primarily for DC. Instead a deal was made with Harvey to produce some new titles, Stuntman and Boy Explorers. Ignoring very short features these comics included:

Stuntman #1 (April 1946)
 3 Stuntman (Kirby)
 1 Furnished Room (Draut)
Boy Explorers #1 (May 1946)
 1 Boys Explorer (Kirby)
 1 Duke of Broadway (Simon)
 1 Danny Dixon Cadet (Riley)
 1 Calamity Jane (Draut)
Stuntman #2 (June 1946)
 2 Stuntman (Kirby)
 1 Duke of Broadway (Simon)
 1 Furnished Room (Draut)

At this point both titles were cancelled, victims of the glut of new comic book titles that appeared now that wartime paper restrictions were lifted. However Harvey sent to subscribers small issues of Stuntman and Boy Explorers. These were small not only in size but also in content (only two stories) and without color printing.

Stuntman #3
 1 Stuntman (Kirby)
 1 Kid Adonis (Simon)

Boy Explorers #2
 1 Boy Explorer (Kirby)
 1 Danny Dixon Cadet (Riley)

However original art in Joe Simon’s collection indicates that a Vagabond Prince story (“Trapped in Wax”, Simon) was also originally meant to be included in Boy Explorers #2. This origin story would never be published.

Comic book art is created well before it appeared on the newsstand, so when the two titles were suddenly cancelled it would be expected that some of the art would already be completed for the unpublished issues. This would not go to waste as Harvey would include them in some of their other titles in the following year (as well as reprinting most of those from Stuntman #3 and Boy Explorers #2). These previously unpublished inventory stories included:

1 Stuntman (Kirby)
2 Duke of Broadway (Simon)
1 Vagabond Prince (Simon)
2 Kid Adonis (Simon)
1 Furnished Room (Draut)
4 The Demon (Draut)
7 Danny Dixon Cadet

The more observant reader may have noticed two anomalies in the list of inventoried stories published elsewhere by Harvey. While most features had only one or two stories there were 4 for the Demon and 7 for Danny Dixon Cadet (the subject of a future post). The Demon was also unusual in that it had never previously appeared in either Stuntman or Boy Explorers. My original reaction when I was reviewing this was that perhaps The Demon really was not a Simon and Kirby production but something that Bill Draut pitched to Harvey after the two titles were cancelled. However on further thought I considered this unlikely because the origin story was the third Demon story that Harvey published. This sort of error would have been unlikely to happen if The Demon was new feature but just the sort of thing to be expected if the Demon was just inventoried material.

I think a better explanation for the Demon anomaly would be that a third title was originally proposed. Work may have already progressed when Harvey decided to test the waters with just two titles. If there was to be a third comic book it was most likely that the Duke of Broadway would have been the title feature. The Duke’s appearance in the other two titles would have been a means of generating interest. Bill Draut’s Demon would have been a backup feature.

Black Cat #6 (July 1947) “The Midnight Killer”, art by Bill Draut

Simon met Bill Draut through a mutual friend while Joe was stationed in Washington during the war. Bill was in the marines working as a combat artist. I used to believe that Bill did not have any previous comic art experience but in fact in 1945 and 1946 he worked on the syndication strip Stony Craig. Joakim Gunnarsson has written a nice post about this with some examples (Coming Soon and Stony Craig by Bill Draut). This work would have been done while Bill was still in the marines. After fulfilling his military service, Bill accepted Joe’s invitation to join him in New York and try his hand at comic books. The work Draut provided for Stuntman and Boy Explorers was his first published comic book art

Draut’s art for the Demon, the Furnished Room and Calamity Jane along with Stony Craig was already very distinctive. Not that all the characteristics of his later work for Simon and Kirby were present but there is enough that it is easy to recognize his hand. I had previously considered Jack Kirby a big influence on Bill but the Stony Craig art clearly shows that is not strictly true. Many of the similarities between Draut and Kirby are the due to their common interest in Milton Caniff’s art.

Black Cat #6 (July 1947) “The Midnight Killer” page 7, art by Bill Draut

As I mentioned above, the origin story for the Demon was not the first one printed. This can be clearly seen from page 7 of “The Midnight Killer”. Here the judge posing as a bank thief on the run finds the costume worn at a party by the murdered victim. This device would make no sense unless it was the origin story.

Black Cat #4
Black Cat #4 (February 1947) “Double Trouble”, art by Bill Draut

Because so much of the work Bill Draut produced for Simon and Kirby would be for romance titles there is not much depiction of action in most of his art. However action plays an important part of the early work by Draut particularly in the Demon. Frankly in some cases Bill is not very effective in drawing fight scenes. In the splash for “Double Trouble” it is clear that the woman has thrown the man into the Demon. But how did she accomplish this feat, was is some sort of Judo trick or was she stronger then she looks? How was the man standing before the throw that could explain his final position? Draut’s splash is just not very convincing.

Black Cat #7 (September 1947) “Too Cold for Crime” page 4, art by Bill Draut

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Draut simply could not handle action scenes. The page shown above from “Too Cold for Crime” is a great example. While the layout is not done the way Jack Kirby would have handled it, it still is very dynamic page. The high angled view used in the first panel along with having the fight occur during a snow storm both are very graphically interesting. Unfortunately the page is marred somewhat by the colorist use of blue for both figures in the first and third panels.

Black Cat #4 (February 1947) “Double Trouble” page 8, art by Bill Draut

Although I now credit Milton Caniff with jointly influencing Bill Draut and Jack Kirby (among many other comic book artists) there are still aspects of Bill’s art in the Demon that suggests that he had lately studied Kirby’s art. The use of exaggerated perspective when depicting a fist fight is not something associated with Caniff, but it is a classic technique for Kirby. While I do not think Jack would have made the slugger in panel 4 so relatively small, the perspective of the sluggee does remind one of Kirby’s art.

Black Cat #5 (April 1947) “The Man Who Didn’t Know His Own Strength” page 9, art by Bill Draut

I will close with another action sequences. This page opens with the Demon battling his opponent only to end with the hero turning to the villain for help. Of course an unknown writer should likely be credited for this plot but Draut does a great job of graphically presenting the story. I love the way the smoke is introduced in one corner of the first panel and how the fire progressively takes over more and more of the panel until the fourth one where the Demon carrying his defeated foe is almost lost in all the smoke and flames.

The Romance of Money

The Romance of Money (1937) page 1 (cover), art by Jack Kirby

Early in his career Jack Kirby was employed by Lincoln News. There Jack worked on a number of strips for syndication but he also did the art for a give-away to be used by banks, “The Romance of Money”. Since this publication has a 1937 copyright date, some have designated it as Kirby’s first comic book work. Well I guess it all depends what the reader’s definition of a comic book is. “The Romance of Money” is a small book (5 by 6.5 inches) that is just a little larger then half the size of a normal comic book. It is only 24 pages long including the covers. The cover and all interior pages are printed on the same type of paper. The paper is not newsprint, has a nice white color and is a heavier stock then what is found in a typical comic book. The interior of the book is printed in black and white while the front and back covers also include a single color, cyan.

The Romance of Money (1937) page 5, art by Jack Kirby

The subject of this book is, not surprisingly, money. The approach taken is very similar to the old Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strips. Except for the covers, each page presents a number of related subjects. Despite the presence of a H. T. Elmo signature, Jack Kirby did all the artwork. Horace T. Elmo was not an alias of Jack’s but rather the owner of Lincoln News. Art with his signature appears in both pocket books and comics up to at least 1957. Most of what I have seen are gag cartoons. However considering how Elmo signed work actually done by Kirby, I would be cautious about attributing to him any of the art with his signature.

The Romance of Money (1937) page 19, art by Jack Kirby

The inking in ROM is incredibly detailed, particularly considering the small size of the publication. The Elmo signature is so small that I suspect that originally a larger sized book was planned. I have never seen a comic book printed with such fine lines although I have seen numerous cases where even less detailed work failed to print properly. Either a letter press was not used or the printer was particularly skilled. The higher quality of the paper compared to that normally used in comics may have helped as well. Frankly the fine pen work is uncharacteristic of Kirby and raises the question as to whether Jack did the inking. At this point in his career it is hard to believe that Kirby would have been given the luxury of only providing the pencils. On the other hand the inking is rather poor in some places (for instance the portrait of Charles Dickens on page 19). My belief is that this is in fact Jack’s inking but he was inexperienced with the fine pen work that he was attempting (perhaps at the direction of H. T. Elmo).

The Romance of Money (1937) page 6, art by Jack Kirby

Most of the work Jack did for Lincoln News had cartoon-like imagery which can sometimes be hard to relate to his later comic book work. The more realistic style used in “The Romance of Money” makes for easier comparisons with the work from much of Jack’s career then the rest of what Jack did for Lincoln News. While Kirby had a long way to go some of his stylistic traits can already be detected. Note for example the wide strides of the running couple in the bottom scene of page 6.

The Romance of Money (1937) page 13, art by Jack Kirby

“The Romance of Money” was republished in 1942 using the same artwork. I understand that the older and later versions can be distinguished by the cover but I have heard two reports of how this can be done. One is that 1942 version used red ink for the color instead of cyan. The other explanation is that the 1942 issue uses colored paper for the cover. Unfortunately I am unable to say which explanation, if any, is the correct one.

The Romance of Money (1937) page 23, art by Jack Kirby

It’s A Crime, Chapter 11, The New Team

(Justice Traps the Guilty #13 – #23, Headline #39 – #45)

This chapter will continue the coverage of the Prize crime comics from the period December 1949 through February 1951. In the last chapter I discussed the work of Jack Kirby and Marvin Stein; this post will be concerned with some of the other artists.

Justice Traps the Guilty #17 (August 1950) “The Statue Screams”, art by Mort Meskin

While most artists associated with Simon and Kirby productions were no longer found in the Prize crime titles there are a couple of glaring exceptions. Probably the most significant artist to jointly work the crime and S&K titles was Mort Meskin. At this point Meskin had become the second most used artist for Simon and Kirby productions (Jack Kirby retained the first place position although that would not always be true in the future). Even though Kirby’s presence in Headline and Justice Traps the Guilty had greatly diminished, Mort still did not achieve the status of primary artist in those titles; he never provided a cover nor did he ever do any lead story. Still he became a frequent contributor appearing in most crime comics and sometimes showed up twice in a single issue.

The crime titles provided Meskin with more opportunities for the depiction of action then the romance art that dominated his work for Simon and Kirby. Not that the diminished use of violence hindered Mort for those occasions when he was to draw it. However Meskin’s Prize comic work had greater similarities to his romance work then it did to the hero genre stories he had previously done such as the Vigilante.

Justice Traps the Guilty #18 (September 1950) “The Way to Prison”, art by John Severin

John Severin also did art for both the crime and romance titles during this period. John is probably best known for his western and war genre comic book work. He may not have done that much crime stories for Prize, but they are very well done (I wish I could say the same thing about his S&K romance art). Not a criticism against Severin, because the same thing can be found in much of the crime comics from the 50’s, but note how well dressed the stick-up criminals are!

Headline #42 (July 1950) “Jewels of Death”, art by George Gregg

George Gregg is not in the same category as Meskin or Severin. While he previously had provided some work for the Simon and Kirby romance titles during the period covered in this chapter that was no longer the case but he would supply a small number of stories for the crime titles. “Jewels of Death” is not most typical of Gregg’s work but I still think that is the correct attribution. But what a great splash! Gregg’s females generally are rather stiff but not this native beauty. While the Prize crime titles are really pretty tame stuff by this time, they still could be quite suggestive (“we have ways of inspiring speech”).

Headline #40 (March 1950) “Counterfeit Winners”, art by Mart Bailey

I have discussed Mart Bailey previously in Prize Comics Western, a Rough History. For about a year and a half he was the primary artist for that western title. He was originally brought in to draw the movie adaptations that PCW featured when they switched to photographic covers. He remained the principal artist until the photographic covers were dropped at which point John Severin became the principal artist for the title. However Bailey continued to provide backup stories. Mart was not as important an artist in the crime titles but he did draw a number of backup stories but he never provided any art for any Simon and Kirby production. Bailey drew in a realistic style which was probably why he was used for the movie adaptations in PCW. While his art is technically fine it is a bit dry for my tastes.

Headline #45 (January 1951) “Penny Shakedown”, art by unidentified artist

There are a number of artists appearing in Headline and Justice Traps the Guilty during this period that I have not been able to identify. Frankly in most cases it is not a big loss as their art work is really not that great. However there is one story, “Penny Shakedown”, that I wish I could provide an attribution. This story is certainly one of the best from the Prize crime titles during this period. Note how in the splash panel the woman is speaking to the reader, Simon and Kirby often used this type of confessional splash design.

Headline #45 (January 1951) “Penny Shakedown” page 8, art by unidentified artist

This story is so good that I once suspected that Kirby supplied layouts. However the “cinematic” approach is not quite the same as Kirby’s. For instance in one panel the artist uses a very low viewing angle of a crowded sidewalk where the foreground consists of mostly legs and the arrest of a criminal is almost lost in the background. Not the sort of thing Jack would do.

This period, from October 1949 until January 1951, is the one that I am most uncertain about. It is clear that previously Simon and Kirby produced the Prize crime comics; basically the same artists were used in both the crime and romance titles. During this period, however, only a few artists worked both genres. Kirby did some cover art and probably provided a layout for one story. Both Mort Meskin and John Severin drew stories for both crime and romance. On the other hand, Mart Bailey was a significant presence in the crime titles and Prize Comics Western but never did any romance stories for Joe and Jack. At this time the first story of both Young Romance and Young Love always had a “produced by Simon and Kirby” credit but that cartouche never appeared in Headline or Justice Traps the Guilty. This despite Simon and Kirby’s long history of self promotion. While it may never be possible to say with certainty, in my opinion Joe and Jack were no longer producing the Prize crime titles during this period.

Whatever the reason for the changes in Headline and Justice Traps the Guilty, is was not due to poor sales. While I have no figures on the number of copies sold there are clear indications Prize was still making good money on these two titles. Why else would Justice Trap the Guilty go from a bimonthly to a monthly publication schedule with issue #18 (September 1950)? While Headline would never become a monthly, JTTG remained one until September 1955.

Chapter 1, Promoting Crime
Chapter 2, A Revitalized Title
Chapter 3, Competing Against Themselves
Chapter 4, Crime Gets Real
Chapter 5, Making a Commitment
Chapter 6, Forgotten Artists
Chapter 7, A Studio With Many Artists
Chapter 8, The Chinese Detective
Chapter 9, Not The Same
Chapter 10, The Master and His Protege