Friday, September 24, 2010

From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin

Back in the early 1970s, when I first began to seriously read and collect comic books, DC Comics, the publishers of Superman, were putting out what they called 100 page Super Spectaculars. These were, as the name implies, 100 page comic books and they were usually filled with reprints of comics from the long history of DC. If memory serves, the first Super Spec (as fans called them) that I purchased was one featuring Batman's early clashes with Two-Face from the 1940s. Most of the Super Specs spotlighted a particular hero; Batman, Superman, whomever.
But to fill out the rest of the 100 pages, DC editors would often reprint stories of old DC characters who were no longer appearing in current comics or even characters who had never appeared in a DC comic. (DC had bought up the rights to several defunct comic companies.) So you might get a story featuring Doll-Man or Kid Eternity or Wildcat or the Golden Age Green Lantern.
I loved these glimpse of old comics, and bought up all the Super Specs I could find. Later, when DC made an ill-advised move to make all their comics 100 pages (a move they reversed less than a year later) they would pull even more stuff from the reprint files. And as I read through all these various old stories I started noticing the art style and the byline of a man named Mort Meskin. I'm pretty sure it was a Johnny Quick story that first brought Meskin to my attention. Johnny Quick was another super speed character like the Flash, but Meskin had a unique approach to drawing Johnny's super stunts. Where flash was usually drawn as a single figure with speed lines feathered in behind him to suggest movement, Meskin would draw Johnny Quick as a group of figures working through a series of motions. It must have been a lot of work to draw six figures in a panel instead of one, but it did give the impression of Johnny Quick being fast enough to be everywhere at once.
So what was it about Meskin's style that attracted me? Several things. His figure work was dynamic, with the kind of loose limbed anatomy that Jack Kirby's early work had. His sense of composition was astounding. When he inked his own work, as he often did, his ink line was vigorous and stylish. I've always been impressed by artists who can get a lot of vitality into their brush work and Meskin had that ability in spades. He was just a very good artist. One thing that also caught my attention as a kid, I think, was that Meskin's heroes smiled a lot when they were in action. They seemed to be having a great time fighting crime and the good humor was infectious.
Once I learned to spot Meskin's style, I started finding it in characters as diverse as Wildcat, The Vigilante, and Starman. I even thought I saw it in a few Batman reprints and it later turned out that I was right as Meskin sometimes worked with Bob Kane "assistant", Jerry Robinson. (Apparently being Bob Kane's assistant often meant you drew everything and he signed it.)
Over the years I began to find examples of Meskin's work in comics from other publishers. Meskin drew The Black Terror and Fighting Yank for Nedor. He did some work at the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby on Boys Ranch and Captain 3-D. He also did a ton of stuff that I was, until recently, unaware of.
My new knowledge came from the just published book From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin, a lavish illustrated history of Meskin and his work. There are examples of his artwork going all the way back to cartoons he did for his high school newspaper and going forward to his later years working on story boards for TV advertising and his work as a painter. In between you get pages and pages of Meskin's comic book work, some shot in high quality from rare original art. Aside from the art, I have to say that I found the text fascinating because even though I had admired Meskin's art for years, I knew next to nothing about Mort Meskin the person. He apparently had some fairly serious mental health issues over the years, making his life a series of high and low periods.
Since Meskin passed away in 1995, the biographical details come mostly as a series of interviews and quotes from friends, family, and fellow comics artists. Meskin's children remember him as a fond and doting, if somewhat unpredictable father. His fellow comics professionals have nothing but praise for his drawing skill and his work habits. This isn't a 'behind the scenes things were falling apart' high drama kind of biography, just the story of a talented and hard working man who had some problems. A must read for all students of the American comic book and a lot of fun for anyone who enjoys the comics medium.

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