by Dylan Williams
[Originally published in Golden Age Treasury Volume Two, 2003]
To a comics reader Mort Meskin's name brings to mind the Vigilante and Johnny Quick. What I rarely hear or read, even in historical articles, is that this "Golden Age great" had a long career after that canonized work.
Even more amazing and rarely heard: I think Meskin only got better.
Just like with type-casting in films, a comic artist is often destined to carry the burden of their "greatest work" for the rest of their lives. This is especially true when they become associated with a dynamic character early on in their career. In many cases, comic artists are measured by their first and loudest note, not by their last. With few others is this more obvious than with Meskin.
The measure of an artist's ability and prowess are subjective. In comics there are wild differences between what any two people see as "good." For me, storytelling, composition.
and draftsmanship are the standard of well drawn comics. There is no one artist better at these things than Mort Meskin. He was a graduate of the Pratt Institute in New York. When he entered comics in 1938 he was already considered a skilled artist by his peers. Joe Kubert recalled the first time he saw Meskin's work (at the Eisner and Iger shop): "That's beautiful," I said as my jaw dropped to the floor when I saw his drawing ... "(Comics Journal #172, 11/1994) By the time he drew Vigilante, Meskin was wielding the pencil (and occasionally the brush) with a Rembrandt-like ease.
Meskin's work on the DC books in the '40's was, admittedly, the most accomplished work of a non writing artist being done. When he was driven from DC to take up temporary residence in a hospital for a short time, his notoriety seems to have vanished. You would think that he had suddenly become a second rate talent. Ron Goulart describes Meskin's career from 1948-1965 with this sentence: "When heroes declined in the late 1940s, he switched to romance, horror, true crime, and western." (Encyclopedia of American Comics, 1990). 34 mammoth paragraphs are devoted to the rest of Meskin's career.
That wasn't even the half of it. Listen to this quote from the obituary for Meskin in the Comics Journal:" Towards the end of his comics career he worked with Simon and Kirby on their comics Boys' Ranch and Black Magic." (CJ, 9/1990) That's it, in a 10 paragraph obituary. Amazing! This bit of his career has fared better in other sources: "In 1949 Meskin moved on to Prize and drew a whole range of features until 1956. Between 1952 and 1958 he drew weird and horror stories for the Atlas group, and In 1956 he returned to National. Remaining there until 1965, Meskin drew some war, science fiction, and love tales but the Mark Merlin adventure strip was the finest work he produced in the last part of his comic book career.
He was also a member of the Simon and Kirby shop [who fed Prize their comics] between 1949 and 1955 where he helped create the Black Magic book." (World Encyclopedia of Comics, 1976).
That is, without question, the best documentation of this 17 year period (after quitting DC the first
time in '47-'48 ) of Meskin's 27 year career as a comic book artist, that I have found. The rest, I've pieced together.
Meskin was never interviewed, not for lack of trying though. Alex Toth wrote me this account of an attempted interview: "I phoned Meskin long ago, our first/only real chat, about him, etc., since my pesky visit to his flat in the 1940s, tho' we met briefly with a gaggle of inkdippers in the late '40s / early 50s - but upon his retiring from his 'boarding job' at an ad agency of 20-odd yrs' tenure. I phoned to set up a NYC interview twixt him and I believe it was, John Benson, for his short lived 'Panels' fanzine. Well, we chatted on and on, Longhorn me here (in LA), him in NYC, to set it up for John, but no, at the end, the very quiet, shy, stammering Mort said no - he'd rather not - the up/down years of comic book biz and its editors/deal makers, etc. wasn't a pleasant topic to comb through -so no sale - I think John tried a call - finally, he asked me to write a think piece about Mort as I'd done for 'Panels', about Jessie Marsh and Jack Cole ... "
The piece Toth wrote on Meskin never made it into Panels but was reprinted in Robin Snyder's
amazing The Comics newsletter (issue 4/92, available for $2 from 2284 Yew St. Rd., #B6, Bellingham, WA, 98226-8899). This article offers many insights into Meskin's working methods throughout his career, some from firsthand, over-the-shoulder observation. Toth explains the emphasis on straightforward storytelling and design that seems to have dominated those 17 years, as well as the rest of Meskin's. Meskin was becoming the consummate comic book artist. He was abandoning "illustrative" techniques that only serve to drag the readers eye to individual points on the page and confound the story as a whole.
Occasionally during this period (mostly in work from '48-'58) his art would resemble the earlier work. He would go back to the feathered brush line or the thick-to-thin inking technique. Once in a while he would return to the detail he used so much in his venerated '41-'48 period. So if that is the Meskin work you are looking for, it's there after '48.
While still working at DC in '48 Meskin and long time Batman artist Jerry Robinson were sharing a studio. They were hired to draw two characters for Nedor publishing: The Black Terror and The Fighting Yank. Meskin would pencil and Robinson ink. The results were quite good and have been recently reprinted, thanks to publisher Bill Black (available in various books published by AC Comics, go to the AC Comics on-line store found at www.accomics.com). Robinson learned a lot from the tight-lipped Meskin: "If I asked him how to draw something, he wouldn't tell me a
damn thing except "Work it out.” (Comics Interview #57). Longtime Meskin inker George Roussos also cut his teeth on Batman early on. Looking at Mort Meskin's art will give you a lot of insight into the work of both Roussos and Robinson.
Meskin had worked with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby while at DC in the '40's. Editor Jack Schiff gave this description of typical comic shop contest from those days: “We once had a sort of race in the front office. We had a big artist room. Jack [Kirby] and Mort Meskin were sitting next
to each other and there was some copy that we needed pretty quickly from both of them. Each of them turned out five pages of pencils beautifully. It was really something. After a while, people began to crowd around watching. And they would both go ahead undisturbed. Meskin was a more careful artist than Kirby."(History of DC Comics, 1989). Meskin seems to have impressed Simon and Kirby so much that they gave him a job as soon as he was a free agent. The majority of his Simon and Kirby work published through Prize is quickly shrugged off by most historians, except for the Black Magic pieces.
What is amazing is that Prize is where Meskin's work began to really soar. The Simon and Kirby studios gave Meskin the respect that editors Mort Weisinger and Whit Ellsworth seem to have refused him at DC. During this period, there is much made of Meskin's shyness by those who
worked with him, like George Roussos: "Mort was a very uncertain guy, extremely sensitive." (The Jack Kirby Collector #18, 1/1998). This shyness may have caused him a fair amount of anxiety over his art.
Joe Simon respected Meskin's work so much that he employed him in spite of an initial inability to produce work for their studio (see The Comic Book Makers by Joe Simon, 1990, for a great firsthand account of this period). Soon enough, though, Meskin was rolling along. He drew for Young Romance, Young Love, Black Magic. Prize Westem, Justice Traps the Guilty, Tom Corbrett., The Westerner, Captain 3-D, Boys' Ranch, Captain Flash, Headline and the Strange World of Your Dreams (a comic title that Meskin is said to have proposed to Simon). Some of these books are still obtainable and well worth finding since much of the art is also inked by Meskin. Headline and Justice Traps the Guilty are particularly rich in his art and some issues have two stories by him.
When the art is inked by someone else, you have your choice of Marvin Stein, George Roussos or a few of the other amazing Simon / Kirby employees Once in a while you will even come across a collaboration with Kirby or Ditko (Captain 3-D). This can be a problem when the ink obscures Meskin's ability but, luckily, this didn't happen too often. This work is a treasure trove of relatively unknown Meskin. For me, the work improves as he continued to work there. Years later Joe Simon had this to say about Meskin's stay at Simon and Kirby: "He was probably the fastest, most inspired artist in the room, and certainly one of the most dependable. "(The Comic Book Makers, 1990).
At this point, there's no better way to say what I feel about this period than to illustrate it. Let's take a look a typically amazing Meskin crime story for the Simon and Kirby studios. The book: Justice Traps the Guilty. The story: "BIG WHEEL!" Like many of the S&K studio crime story, this one is gritty with a capital "G". Meskin's style fits these kind of stories like a glove. One of the first things I noticed with the S&K Meskin stories is his lack of interest in the faces of the cops. He's drawing this as the story of a criminal. A rat. Sandy's face is the first thing you look at in the story.
[click the above image or here to read a scan of the entire five page story Big Wheel in a larger format than this layout supports]
Everything on the first page points at his face in the splash panel. He's on the spot and Meskin lets you know this. The title, right next to Sandy, couldn't be more ironic. This difference, between what Sandy wants and what he gets, is what the story is all about and Meskin lets you know this before reading one sentence. He has set a tone for this story with Sandy's face and it is the most important thing in the art of the story. That sniveling weasel face pops up over and over again, while everyone else is just interchangeable. This is Sandy's story.
Sandy has been caught and beaten down to a sniveling mess. What he did to get to this point isn't certain but Meskin makes it quite clear that he's on the spot. Panel three, page one is the
key point of the story, by my mind. Here we see a moody, expressionist version of what Sandy's all about. The sad little kid who's going to make the bully pay. When he's taken for a ride, Sandy is caught between Porky and Dancer in panel four, page one. What's gonna happen? You're going to have to turn the page. This is the mark of artist who knows what he doing. He knows how you are reading the story.
The story is paced liked this on the first page and all pages to follow. Each page ends in the middle of some action or with some promise of things to come. Seems easy enough? Take a look at some other artists who drew for the S&K studios. Most artists don't plan their layout like
this. Meskin does it over and over again.
Meskin is always in touch with person reading his comics. He always manages to lead your eye through the story from one key point in a panel to the other. In page two, panel one and two notice the way the laughing Porky leads your eye into the key action in the third panel. There is a line through each page's composition, flowing along until Meskin wants it to stop. This is an action story and your eye just flows through it until the last page, you'll see what I mean.
Indeed this is a great story. It is even more amazing that there are many hundreds like it; all relatively unknown and still relatively obtainable for those of us interested in reading comics and looking at the art.
The Atlas books Meskin did' are wonderful, as well, but hard to come by for under $20 in today's market. For Stan Lee / Atlas he drew not only horror and sci-fi stories but some amazing war stories. He adapted his drawing perfectly to the grimness of war. Dan Barry had this to say about Meskin's career during the post comics code hard times of the '50's: " ... nobody could get work,
even Meskin couldn't get work - and I got so many scripts that I gave Mort work. I couldn't shine Mort's shoes as an artist, but I was getting work for him” ( Comics Interview #81, 1990). He could have very well been talking about the Atlas jobs.
As I said before, the '48-'65 work was sometimes inked by Jerry Robinson (Prize / Nedor) or
George Roussos (Prize / Atlas / DC) who would add their own inking effects to the surface of Meskin's art. They had both inked some of that early work. Their styles had matured, as did Meskin's. The job Robinson and Roussos did wasn't bad, it just doesn't look like the '41-'48 work. In fact, during the later years Meskin did a lot more of his own inking. There are wide variations in his finishing technique during this period, making it even more enticing to anyone interested in Meskin as a creative artist, rather than simply a craftsman. The truth is that all those variations in his "style" have to do with technique; what is just on the surface.
In the later years Meskin still had all of that much lauded ability and technique, he was just more reserved in its use. He was telling the story as simply and straight forward as he knew how. He used the same brain power that he had once spent on thick-to-thin lines and gothic shadows towards cropping, stage setting, and storytelling and to what effect! Joe Simon relates an opinion of Meskin common among his peers by saying: "Mort was (or is) the best. No question" (The Comics, 6/92).
Meskin seems to have drawn comics for almost every issue (I'm not kidding) of House of Secrets and House of Mystery between '56 and '65. His work pops up in My Greatest Adventure, the DC war books, Strange Adventures, but I have yet to find it in the romance books (no doubt it is in the more expensive ones). Almost all of this work is forgotten.
Dan Barry gave some insight into Meskin's lack of fame: "(His) stuff was lost on the public. He worked in great big compositions and it lacked detail, but the readers see detail, they like that" (Comics Interview #83, 1990). Unfortunately, for us Meskin fans, there are even fewer details available about Meskin's second term at DC. He was a real workhorse during this period. As with the rest of his career, his art during this time speaks eloquently for him. The work continued to lose detail, but I believe all that energy went towards figuring out how to best tell the story. This is why he was perfect for storyboarding, the job he had for 20 after quitting comics.
Ron Goulart ends one description of Meskin's comics career by saying: "In the fifties and sixties, like many others, Meskin drew crime, romance, science fiction, and horror. There are fine stories from these years, but some of the work looks hurried and dispirited. While even a less than inspired Meskin page is better than most, much of his later work simply doesn't match what he was doing in the forties" (Great Comic Book Artists, 1986).
Meskin was never like others and his work never stopped improving. I think it is high time that comics historians rewrite the second book on his career. Maybe it could read more like this Alex Toth appraisal of his work: "Mort shifted gears! viewpoints! emphasis and methods throughout his career - each on another switch back, side-step or leap ahead which brought just one more
entertaining facet of his talent to the fore. Mort invented, questioned, assessed, discarded, tested, reached out .. more than ten other cartoonist of his time - ever searching, finding, losing,
winning ... ah, but always learning. His restlessness kept him facile... as he learned, tested and applied ... so did we, his observers and students." (The Comics, 4/92).
[Since this article was originally published, Fantagraphics has published the coffee table book From Shadow to Light: The Life & Art of Mort Meskin as well as a 200 page collection of Meskin's comics, Out of the Shadows. Online, Ger Apeldoorn has posted hundreds of Mort Meskin's public domain comics, follow this link to his site.]