Thursday, December 14, 2006

Looking To The Stars - A Light Dimmed Too Quickly

Comics lost one of its’ eldest and greatest artists this past week. On Saturday, December 9th, Martin “Mart” Nodell – the beloved creator of Green Lantern - died peacefully of natural causes at the age of 91.

Born in Philadelphia, Nodell was no stranger to travel. He moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and then to New York to study at the Pratt Institute. It was also in New York that he began free-lancing with a number of comic companies in 1938.

After two years of unsteady (and frequently unpaid) work, Nodell went to DC Comics, found a position with affiliated publisher All American and, perhaps annoyed at his assignment one day, asked the fateful question; What do I need to do to get regular work? Editor Sheldon Mayer told Nodell to come up with a new character – something new and exciting that had never been done before.

Perhaps it was on his way home from work that same day that it happened. Inspiration struck! And as Martin Nodell was waiting for the subway, he happened to see a subway worker holding up a green-tinted lamp as a signal that the tracks were clear

Regardless of the exact day, Nodell returned to Mayer a few days after Mayer had made his request for a new character with the first few pages, written and drawn, of the hero he called The Green Lantern. While Nodell was no writer, Mayer proved impressed enough with the concept and the art to bring experienced writer Bill Finger (co-creator of Batman) on to handle the scripting duties while Nodell provided the artwork.

The Green Lantern would make his first appearance in July 1940 in All-American Comics #16. Sales figures from the period are erratic so it is difficult for us to say how big a splash Nodell’s creation made financially. What we do know is that Green Lantern was apparently popular enough to warrant inclusion in the new Justice Society (All Star Comics #3), which was founded in the winter of that same year and starred all of AAC’s biggest characters.

Nodell’s creation was a bona fide success. He spent the next year penciling and inking all the Green Lantern stories in All-American Comics and All-Star Comics for the next year. Then, in July of 1941, Green Lantern got his own title, for which Nodell also provided the artwork.

The end of 1941 would bring even more joy into the young Martin Nodell’s life. Not only did he find the artistic fulfillment and steady employment he sought but he found love as well. In October of 1941, he met a girl named Carrie at Coney Island. Truly theirs must have been a magical whirlwind romance, for by the end of December that year, the two were wed and living in Long Island.

Martin would continue to work for All American Comics until the summer of 1947. It is unknown why he left his position but some speculate it was a dispute over salary. Whatever the reason, Nodell took up a position with Timely Comics that same year and found work drawing the adventures of The Human Torch and Captain America. He would continue to work at Timely for three years, leaving the comic book business in 1950 following a rash of title cancellations. He feared the market was about to become tight again and with a young family to provide for, he needed steady work.

Nodell went into advertising, finding work as an art director for the Leo Burnett Agency. Perhaps his best known work in this time was being part of the team that created the Pillsbury Doughboy in 1965. He retired from advertising in 1976 but proved unable to rest on his laurels for too long.

In the early 1980’s, Nodell contacted DC Comics and began doing some special projects for them, providing art for Who’s Who” and the Superfriends comic. His last work at DC was published in December of 1991 in Green Lantern #19. Appropriately, it was a portrait of Alan Scott – the character he had created some 50 years earlier.

Nodell, and his wife Carrie, became a fixture on the comic convention circuit throughout the 1990’s. They were both known for their generosity to Martin’s fans and Carrie herself became a beloved grand dame of the convention circuit. She was never far from her husband’s side as he met with the four generations of Green Lantern fans that came to him for autographs and original artwork.

Having been fortunate enough to meet the pair of them at the first Wizard World Texas, I can safely say that every story I have heard about Martin Nodell’s kindness is true. His hands may have shaken a little holding his pen but he still had a young man’s eyes when I met him. And he was clearly having the time of his life sitting there in a temple devoted to the art form he’d helped to revolutionize.

I only wish I could better remember what I had said to him and he to me. I don’t remember the exact words though I suspect I made a fool of myself talking about how Green Lantern was the character who got me into superheroes in the first place. But I do remember the emotions. I remember Martin thanking me for my praise and if he thought I was foolish he was nice enough not to show any sign of it. And I do remember a great feeling of love between himself and his wife – an aura, if you will. The sign of two people who truly loved one another. And I remember feeling wistful that I had no better way to express my gratitude than to say “thank you” and to buy an autographed mouse-pad with Alan Scott hand-painted on by Martin himself. And I’m sad that I have no better tribute to the man than this article.

I think my friend R.K. Milholland put it best though, proving once and for all that a comic is worth the just over 1,000 words I’ve written so far. I reprint the following with his generous permission.

Rest In Peace, Mr. Nodell. You too, Carrie.

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