Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Silver Age DCs: Robin the Boy Bystander

I was going to do an overview of Marvel's Thor, starting from the earliest days of the Journey into Mystery issues, for October's blog entry, but having the builders in the house has meant my scanner is packed away, which was a bit of a roadblock. So I've decided to offer a pictorial special instead.

Back in the early days of my obsession with comics, before I stumbled across Marvel's titles, I was a reader of Batman and Superman comics. Looking back on those early 1960s DC covers I've noticed some weird tropes and trends. One of the oddest was Sheldon Moldoff's ever-present drawings of "Scaredy-Robin". Nearly every cover of Detective Comics from 1959 to 1963 had a profile image of Robin, apparently frozen in terror at the situation depicted on the cover.

Sheldon Moldoff's trademark Robin portrait found its way onto too many Detective and Batman covers at the beginning of the 1960s.
Why this was is anyone's guess. Perhaps it was Moldoff's way of quickly demonstrating to readers that Batman was in terrible peril. Or maybe the artist had a rubber stamp of that Robin drawing. Whatever the reason, the gimmick got pretty old and disappeared when DC revamped Batman in 1964, and the old, goofy sci-fi stories were out, and Carmine Infantino's sleek crimefighter was in.

So enjoy these crazy covers from a time when DC's Batman was more clown than crusader.

1940s

Probably just a coincidence, but the earliest example of Scaredy Robin I could find was from a 1945 issue of Batman. The art was pencilled by Jack Burnley and inked by Charles Paris, who would be a staple inker of the Batman titles right through to the early 1960s.

Batman 28 (Apr 1945) was the first appearance of Scardey Robin, though the image wouldn't become a trope for another 13 years, when Sheldon Moldoff made the image his own.

1950s

We wouldn't see that image on another Batman cover for another 13 years, this time by ... Sheldon Moldoff. Batman 116 (Jun 1958) was one of those classic goofy covers that had Batman and Robin threatened by Bat People on an alien planet.

Here's Robin again, completely useless in the face of a weird threat on a weirder planet. You'd think the queen would be more concerned with the attacking Bat People than she would about the restrained Batman and Robin.
Less than 18 months later, Moldoff again put a scared Robin on a Detective Comics cover. This time the menace was a weird old hermit who projects electric bolts from his fingertips.

"The Hermit of Mystery Island", Detective Comics 274 (Dec 1959), was another of DC's crazy concept covers, that featured Shelly Moldoff's oddly stilted figure drawing. And there's Robin, gauntletted hand frozen halfway to his mouth, being completely useless.
Once the Sixties kicked in, Moldoff, often inked by Paris, cut loose and added Scaredy Robin to just about every cover he could.

Who is Sheldon Moldoff?

Shelly Moldoff was born in Manhattan, New York on 14 Apr 1920, though he was raised in the Bronx, living in the same apartment block as Bernard Bailey who, himself would go on to a stellar career as a DC Comics artist. "I was drawing in chalk on the sidewalk," said Moldoff told Alter Ego magazine in 2000, "Popeye and Betty Boop and other popular cartoons of the day—and he came by and looked at it and said, 'Hey, do you want to learn how to draw cartoons?' I said, 'Yes!' He said, 'Come on, I'll show you how to draw.'"


Sheldon Moldoff pictured during his 1940s heyday.
By the age of 17, Moldoff had begun making money out of his art. "My first work in comic books was doing filler pages for Vincent Sullivan, who was the editor at National Periodicals." This would have been 1937, before National, Detective Comics (DC) and All-American merged to form DC-National Publications. Within a year or two, Moldoff was contributing covers to DC, including the cover of All-American 16 (Jul 1940), the first appearance of Green Lantern.

Though Green Lantern was created by Martin Nodell, with Bill Finger, Moldoff was selected to draw the first cover appearance of the character.
Moldoff would create Black Pirate for Action Comics, but found his natural home when he took over Hawkman from series creator Dennis Neville with Flash Comics 4 (Apr 1940), at the instigation of publisher Max Gaines, and repaid his boss by creating Hawkgirl.

Hawkman's girlfriend Shiera first appeared in a Hawk costume in All-Star Comics 5 (Jun-Jul 1941), but wouldn't officially become Hawkgirl until Flash Comics 24 (Dec 1941).

Though he'd been contributing many covers to DC, he didn't draw his first Hawkman cover until four months into his run. The wings look more like fur than feathers, but the Alex Raymond style is quite apparent.
"Max Gaines took a shine to me ... He's the one who said, 'We're going to put you on Hawkman, and do whatever you want with it. Do a good job; I know you can do it." And that was it! ... But when I looked at Hawkman and read a couple of stories, I said to myself, 'This has to be done in an Alex Raymond style.' I could just feel it ... I'd saved the Raymond Flash Gordon Sunday pages and the dailies for years! ... Gaines liked my style; he liked the realism ... I spent a lot of time on it. I had books on anatomy and shadows and wrinkles; I studied, and I worked very hard on it, and I think it showed."

Pretty quickly, Hawkman became the co-star of Flash Comics, featuring on
more-or-less alternating covers of the series.
Hawkman also became a mainstay of the Justice Society of America, starring is his own chapters in All Star Comics, also drawn by Moldoff.

Shelly Moldoff was one of DC's principle artists until 1944, when he was called up for military service. By the time he returned to civilian life in 1946, his mentor/sponsor had departed DC and set up Educational Comics. So Moldoff rejoined his old boss and created Moon Girl, with DC stalwart Gardner Fox.

Sheldon Moldoff created Moon Girl for Max Gaines at EC Comics. The first couple of issues featured covers by Johnny Craig, even though all the interior art was by Moldoff. This one is the first by Moldoff.
But it all went wrong at EC after Max died and is son Bill Gaines took over. Sheldon Moldoff created the format of the EC horror comics, designing horror hosts for the books, on the understanding that Gaines Jr would pay him a royalty on the books. But Bill reneged and there was an acrimonious split.

A couple of years later, after jobbing for companies like Fawcett and Standard, Moldoff joined the Batman team at DC, ghosting for Bob Kane on both the Batman comics and Detective. In fact Moldoff defined the look and style of the Batman titles during the 1950s, creating Batwoman, Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat Hound. 

"I worked for Bob Kane as a ghost from '53 to '67," Moldoff told Alter Ego magazine. DC didn't know that I was involved; that was the handshake agreement I had with Bob: 'You do the work, don't say anything, Shelly, and you've got steady work'. No, he didn't pay great, but it was steady work, it was security. I knew that we had to do a minimum of 350 to 360 pages a year. Also, I was doing other work at the same time for [editors] Jack Schiff and Murray Boltinoff at DC. They didn't know I was working on Batman for Bob ... So I was busy. Between the two, I never had a dull year, which is the compensation I got for being Bob's ghost, for keeping myself anonymous."

Even after the Julie Schwartz revamp of the character in Detective Comics 327 (May 1964) and Batman 164 (Jun 1964), Moldoff would continue to pencil Batman stories, ghosting for Bob Kane. In fact, Moldoff also drew the cover for the first revamped Batman issue, though in a much more Infantino-esque style.

DC fired Moldoff in 1967, along with Superman stalwarts Wayne Boring and George Papp - presumably because they were "old-fashioned". Moldoff turned to storyboarding animation for TV and worked on Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse. He also produced promotional comics for the Burger King, Big Boy and Red Lobster restaurant chains. He returned to DC thirty years later to draw a segment for Superman and Batman: World's Funnest in 2000.

1960s

As 1960 kicked in, Moldoff was drawing all the covers and much of the insides of the Batman titles. And in even more of those covers, there was that same illustration, in that same pose - sometimes close-up, sometimes in long-shot - of Robin looking scared and useless.

These Shelly Moldoff covers, published in the early part of 1960, all included Robin in that characteristic pose.
The first half of 1960 gave us three examples. The second half gave us six. It was though Shelly was warming to the idea and wanting to include it on every cover he reasonably could, without raising the ire of editor Jack Schiff.

It did seem that Robin's sole role in these old Batman tales was to react fearfully
to whatever situation Batman found himself in. 
What was curious during this period was that Moldoff's art had become stiff and posed. Where his Hawkman art of the 1940s looked for all the world like it was produced by the Alex Raymond studio, this Sixties art was curiously stilted and lacking in any kind of flow.

These comics were published in October and November of 1960 ... all show Robin in that same pose, all facing to the left, whether in close-up or long-shot. What could Moldoff have been thinking?
Moldoff had mentioned that the page rate for this material wasn't great, so perhaps he was knocking it out as quickly as possible. Or perhaps he was consciously imitating Bob Kane's stiff figure drawing. But whatever the reason, the look certainly defined a particular era of the character.

Between January and April 1961, Scaredy Robin made three appearances. 
The following year brought a  bumper crop of these trademark Robin figures. There were nine of those pesky images included in the Batman titles that year. Just three appeared in the first quarter of the year. The rest featured on Batman covers in the latter part.

Here he is again, reacting to the situation instead of being part of it. It's like the editors thought of Robin as a Damsel in Distress instead of being an active part of the dynamic duo. These covers appeared from August to December 1961.
1963 was Moldoff's last great shout on the Batman titles. Almost as if he knew the countdown had started, he pulled out all the stops and managed to squeeze his trademark Robin image into another seven covers that year.

Another gaggle of goofy early Sixties Batman covers, covering the first half of 1963 ... a catalogue of bizarre aliens, 5th Dimension imps and freakish Batman transformations, all with Robin facing to the right.
But the writing was on the wall for this bizarre era in Batman's career. Sales had been dropping steadily since the late 1950s and the DC bigwigs were giving serious consideration to cancelling the Batman titles. However, they decided to give the character one last shot. Julius Schwartz, who had successfully rebooted the Golden Age characters Flash and Green Lantern - with sleek modern makeovers - to a firm financial footing was drafted in to solve Batman's problems.

The tail end of 1963 would see the end of the space rockets and the whacky Batman transformations. And not a moment too soon. DC's management were unhappy with the sales and were hinting that the character could be consigned to limbo.
Out were the hokey Batman family - Batwoman & Batgirl, Bat Mite and Bathound - the aliens and their planets, and the weird transformations of Batman. In came standard crooks, death-traps and a polished New Look, courtesy of Carmine Infantino.

Though Moldoff wasn't quite out the door - he'd last another three years - he would have to follow the Infantino template and bring more a fluid grace to Batman.

"Robin Dies at Dawn" in Batman 156 (Jun 1963) was an uncharacteristic break from the hokey claptrap on either side of it, a fondly-remembered masterpiece by the great Bill Finger.
And though it's very easy to mock the naivety of these comics today, they weren't without their charm. There was even the odd classic story. And, of course, in 1966, the fortunes of the character were transformed by that TV show, and once again Batman (898,470 per issue) was a top-selling title for DC, even outstripping his stablemate Superman (719,976 per issue) in sales for 1966.

How differently things might have turned out had Julius Schwartz not turned the fortunes of Batman and Detective Comics around in 1964.

Next: Marvel goes mythical (promise!)



2 comments:

  1. 'Scaredy-Robin' - love it. Though I'd say he looks more surprised than actually scared in the first few images, Al. I think I was dimly aware of that repeated pose on a subconscious level, but probably just put it down to uninspired drawing. Robin was pretty useless anyway, I thought, existing primarily so that Bats wasn't always talking to himself.

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    1. It's something that's niggled for a while ... but I figured I could get an entertaining post out of it.

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