Updated: Jun 10
(This essay was originally written for a collection spotlighting the artists who followed Superman co-creator Joe Shuster on the comics and syndicated newspaper strip. A small portion of the piece was cannibalized for the “My Favorite 13 Win Mortimer Golden Age DC Comics Covers” column on the 13th Dimension website celebrating Win’s May 1 birthday.)
Sometime in 1982 or 1983, I don’t remember exactly, I was up at DC Comics’ offices at 75 Rock, dropping off some scripts and waiting to pick up a check from editor Julie Schwartz. He was off somewhere when I showed up, so I dropped my briefcase in his office and loitered in the corridor to wait for him.
Well, I never made it to the corridor. While I was putting my briefcase down, I’d glanced at the stack of art boards laying on top of Julie’s in box.
It was the pencils for a Supergirl story by Winslow Mortimer that I had scripted for an upcoming issue of Superman Family. I scooped the pages from the desk and started flipping through them. It was the Master Jailer story from either #219 (June 1982), “Prison Bars Do Not a Cell Make,” or #220 (July 1982), “Battle Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.” I had never seen the artist’s pencils before, only the finished pages after they had been lettered and inked by Vince Colletta.
I’d always liked Win Mortimer’s work. I grew up on his mid-1960s work for DC Comics, mostly humor strips like Plastic Man, Stanley and His Monster, Fox and the Crow, The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, and Scooter, but he also worked on the occasional superhero book like The Brave and the Bold and the Legion of Superheroes. I’d also spot stories by him in Gold Key horror titles like Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery and Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Mortimer was already assigned to the Supergirl strip when I took it over from Martin Pasko with Superman Family #217 (August 1982). I was thrilled to be working with him. One of the best parts of breaking into the comic business when I did in the mid-1970s was that most of the artists I grew up reading and admiring, many of them founding fathers of the business from the 1930s and 1940s, were still at their drawing boards.
Julie returned while I was looking through the penciled pages.
“Like those?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve always like Mortimer’s stuff. I thought Marvel was wasting him on Spidey Super Stories.”
“I thought you liked the newer, flashy artists.”
A year later I would have told him I worked with new, younger editors but still enjoyed working with talented old farts like him (Julie started at DC in 1944, when he was twenty-nine years old, just a couple of years older than I was when this conversation took place), but I was still a relatively new writer in his stable and intimidated by his reputation so instead I said, “Sure, but I still enjoy the classics too.”
Win Mortimer wasn’t flashy. He was, in fact, the opposite of flashy…which is not to say dull. Like many of the artists of his vintage, his art was like a classically cut suit, fitted perfectly to its subject and tailored to the needs of the story. He didn’t have to bedazzle his creations with sequins and gold piping to enhance them. They spoke for themselves.
James Winslow Mortimer was born May 1, 1919 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Art was in his blood as his father supervised the poster department of a Hamilton lithography company, where Win worked during his summer breaks from high school. After graduation, Win enrolled in New York’s Art Student League, returning home at the outbreak of World War II to join the Canadian army. He was discharged in 1943 and went to work designing posters for the Ministry of Information. But once the war ended, the job market grew crowded with returning soldiers, so Win went south once again to New York, then the center of the publishing industry. He was hired by National Periodical Publications’ editor Jack Schiff in 1945. Because his status as an immigrant required he show a steady source of income to stay in the U.S., he was hired as a staff artist in the National Periodical Publications (DC’s former corporate name) bullpen, finally going freelance in 1949.
Editor Schiff started Win at the top of the NPP heroes totem pole; his first credited work appeared on the 12-page story “The Batman Goes Broke” (Detective Comics #105, November 1945), written by Don Cameron. More stories followed for Superman, World’s Finest Comics, Star Spangled Comics, Mr. District Attorney, and Real Fact Comics. He was also assigned to draw the prestigious Superman daily newspaper strip from 1949 to 1955.
But where Win would leave his mark would be those covers.
Some three hundred and fifty of them, between April 1946 and June 1956, for Detective Comics, All-Funny Comics, Star Spangled Comics, Real Fact Comics, Adventure Comics, World’s Finest, Batman, Action Comics, Mr. District Attorney, Gangbusters, Strange Adventures, Superman, Superboy, and House of Mystery. He would also be DC’s choice to illustrate a series of one-page public service announcements featuring Superman, Superboy, Batman, and other DC heroes created in conjunction with the National Social Welfare Assembly to tackle such topics as racism, civic, social, and personal responsibility, and safety tips. DC received requests for hundreds of thousands of copies of these pages from schools and civic groups, getting Win’s work into the hands of kids who didn’t even read comics.
Comic book covers were once the single most important part of a comic book. In the age before the Diamond catalog and the direct market, the cover was the one chance to “market” a comic to its young readers, typically eight- to thirteen-year-olds. A kid had no idea what to expect when they walked up to the spinner rack or newsstand so if a cover didn’t grab them at first glance, they would just move on to one that did.
The comic book industry discovered this with its first hit, Action Comics #1—featuring Joe Shuster’s iconic image of Superman smashing a car against a boulder while frightened felons flee—was a newsstand sell-out, but the Man of Steel didn’t appear on the cover again until Action #7, by which time the publishers had received enough sales reports and newsstand feedback to know they had a hit on their hands. Beginning with the tenth issue, Superman was receiving at least a mention on every cover and, as of #19 he became its permanent resident when they saw that covers with Superman outsold those without.
Because of their importance, publishers assigned covers to their top artists; Alex Schomburg at Timely in the 1940s, Neal Adams at DC in the 1960s, Nick Cardy in the 1970s, the decade in which over at Marvel Comics, Gil Kane was the dominant cover artist.
What all these artists had in common was the ability to create not necessarily the most dynamic covers (although they could all deliver on that front when necessary), but the most intriguing, the ones that made readers reach for a comic book on the newsstand, asking “What’s going on?” or “How can the hero get out of this mess?”
Probably thanks to his training as a poster designer during the war, Win understood as well as any artist that a picture was worth a thousand words (fitting, for the co-creator with writer Otto Binder of the strip Merry, the Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks)…it just had to be the right picture. Modern comic covers are explosive images, highlighting violence, musculature, and cleavage, but the covers of the Golden and Silver Ages told a story. Win’s art wasn’t flashy, but it told the story at a glance.
Take, for instance, his cover for Adventure Comics #182 (November 1952). At first glance, you think you’re looking at a scene of Superboy hiding on a ledge below a bunch of boys on a rooftop overlooking a city. But take a closer look and you realize the building is crumbling and Superboy isn’t hiding but holding up the wall and preventing the kids—who are, at that very moment, mocking his Clark Kent alter ego for being afraid of heights—from plummeting to their deaths. Win angles the shot from above, emphasizing the dizzying height, fitting the five figures, a skyscraper roof, and an entire city block in the background without having to crowd anything in or cheat to sell the idea. It’s a sweet little bit of storytelling in a single image.
Or how about the cover of Star-Spangled Comics #65 (February 1947), introducing “a thrilling new series of smash adventures starring Batman’s famed partner in peril, Robin the Boy Wonder in solo action!” It features Robin literally stepping out from Batman’s shadow to take his place in his own feature. Simple and sweet.
A lot of the cover images were symbolic, having little or nothing to do the stories inside. The Man of Steel/Dynamic Duo team-up book World’s Finest featured a series of such “buddy covers,” including Superman, Batman, and Robin admiring their own images on a brightly lit Times Square billboard (#64, May-June 1953), or the trio fishing on a boat, with the embarrassed Superman and Batman looking on with their scrawny little catches while Robin hauls in a big fish (#43, December-January, 1950), or Batman cheering on his young sidekick in a victorious game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots against Superman (#45, May April-May 1950).
Win was no slouch when it came to portraying action. Action Comics #165 (February 1952) shows a startled Man of Steel being punched so hard by “The Man Who Conquered Superman” that he’s sent crashing through the brick wall behind him. On the cover of Batman #46 (April-May 1948), the Caped Crusader and Robin dangle precariously from a ladder (presumably from an off-panel Bat-copter) over a prison yard, pinned in a spotlight from the guard tower controlled by armed prisoners. For Action Comics #153 (February 1951), Clark Kent’s suit is being shredded by the barrage of bullets from gangster’s Tommy gun, revealing his Superman costume beneath it to the shocked Lois Lane.
And for just downright pretty, I point you to the Action Comics #206 (July 1955) cover for the tale, “Superman Marries Lois Lane!” On it, Superman flies off with his bride, an adoring Lois Lane in a beautiful wedding gown, over the heads of the streamer and rice-throwing horde of guests below. His women (and girl) characters were realistic and relatable, but they were always pretty and petite, with a touch of the illustrator’s glamour.
His six-year stint penciling and inking the Superman newspaper strip lead in 1956 to an offer to draw David Crane, a daily newspaper adventure strip syndicated by Prentice-Hall. Most comic book artists in the 1950s still dreamed of landing a syndicated strip; Win would eventually leave his mark on three, including the Toronto Star Syndicate’s Lance Bannon, which he drew after David Crane, from 1961 to 1968.
By 1965, he was also back working on a fairly regular basis for DC and Gold Key, drawing the stories I remember as a young fan. In 1972, he was also penciling for Marvel Comics on Night Nurse, and a number of humor, romance, and horror titles. But Win Mortimer’s main claim to fame to that generation of readers wouldn’t come until 1974, when he was assigned to pencil stories for Spidey Super Stories, a comic book spin-off of the recurring segment on public television’s Children’s Television Workshop program, Electric Company. More than a few lifelong comics fans were first introduced to both Spidey and comic books by that series, which he continued to work on until 1982.
Julie was still grinning at me as I went through the pages. As I said, I hadn’t been working for him long enough to know what that meant, but I did know it was out of the ordinary.
“I mean, it’s all so clean and straightforward. Great storytelling. You can tell what’s going on even without the dialog,” I said. I was reminded of a shot I had called for in my first story with him, one panel out of six on an action page. Supergirl tunnels straight down underground and, in the panel in question, dives up and down in a multiple action shot as she punches holes in a water main; there are four separate images of Supergirl in that panel alone, all fully realized. I’m more considerate of artists since these days—Don Heck once yelled at me for calling for Alexander the Great’s entire army, elephants included, crossing the Alps in a half-page splash panel for a Weird War Tales story—but I never heard that Win complained.
“You hear that?” Julie said in a suddenly loud voice.
I answered like a comic book character. “Do I hear wha—?”
But Julie wasn’t talking to me. He was talking to someone out in the corridor, which I realized as soon as I heard the chuckling over my shoulder. I turned around.
I didn’t recognize him, but something told me I knew. He was in his sixties, with mostly gray hair, a dapper little mustache, and a shy smile. He was shaking his head in amusement.
“I heard, Julie,” he said.
“This young man is Paul Kupperberg,” the editor said. “Writer of your Supergirl stories. Paul Kupperberg, this is Winslow Mortimer, the man who draws them.”
I jumped up to shake his hand and babble my fannish appreciate of his work. Win accepted and deflected my enthusiastic compliments graciously, telling me how much he was enjoying working on my scripts. I mumbled my thanks, but I assumed that Win, being Canadian, was just being polite.
“Aren’t you glad you didn’t say anything bad about the art?” Julie said.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about the art,” I said.
Win and I spoke for a few minutes while Julie busied himself with paperwork. In my younger fan days, I had accumulated quite a few late-1940s and early-1950s issues of Star-Spangled Comics that featured not only his covers, but his Robin and Merry stories. And, always a bit of a comics historian, I knew about his impressive run on DC’s covers and on the Superman newspaper strip. I had recently taken over writing the current syndicated strip, The World’s Greatest Superheroes Presents Superman (originally edited by Joe Orlando and only recently taken over by Julie) and mentioned this to the artist.
“Comic books were always fun, but I loved working on the newspaper strips,” he said fondly. “They were always much more challenging.”
“Did you hear that, Julie?” I said. “If you ever need a replacement…!”
“Who made you assignment editor?” Julie growled.
Win chuckled. “Oh, I like the artist who’s drawing it now. He’s doing a terrific job.”
“You trying to make trouble, Kupperberg?” Julie said.
“No, but you know, Win’s one of the legendary superstar Superman artists.”
“This may come as a newsflash to you, young man,” Julie Schwartz, the living legend, said as he leaned across his desk to me, “but we knew that before you were born.”