Long before the likes of Alex Ross, Adam Hughes and Brian Bolland – there were ‘Go To’ Artists for comic book covers. From time to time a publisher would latch onto a particular artist in an attempt to convey a certain dynamic look across the entire line. Examples of this would be Alex Schomburg for both Timely and Standard/Nedor in the 40s, Neal Adams at DC in the late 60s, Nick Cardy at DC in the 70s and Gil Kane at Marvel in the 70s. You probably know about all those guys – but how about Win Mortimer?
James Winslow Mortimer was born in Hamilton, Ontario – just a 45 minute drive southwest of yours truly. He entered the comic book industry after serving in the Canadian Army during WW2. My initial exposure to Win Mortimer’s work was through the Spidey Super Stories. I later learned that he’d done some work for Gold Key as well as some short-lived assignments for Marvel and DC (Legion back-ups and Night Nurse come to mind). For all I knew, he was just one of those good, reliable yet nameless artists who really never made his mark in the industry. Was I ever wrong! For nearly a decade, Mortimer was the cover artist on many of DC’s top titles. One could argue that Win Mortimer was responsible for the company look at DC throughout the late Golden Age (or Atom Age – however you want to slice it).
Win Mortimer’s name is often forgotten when people discuss the important Superman artists. That’s too bad, as he’s responsible for an incredible number of Superman-related covers (not to mention a 7 year run on the newspaper strip). The cover to Superman #90 fully demonstrates Mortimer’s skill at cover design. He was able to inject sufficient narrative into a cover while keep everything as clean and simple as possible. This cover features Clark Kent and three versions of his alter ego, and yet doesn’t even come close to being 'busy'. I’ve included the cover to Adventure Comics #182 as a nice offset to the Superman cover, as there's much more detail. The perspective here is absolutely fantastic – giving the reader a sense of vertigo. There is some dialogue, but the image is strong enough to stand on its own. I’m not going to declare that Mortimer was the first to design a cover like this – but I can’t help that think it had an influence on a number of the covers drawn by Romita Sr., Kane and Andru covers from the 60s and 70s.
If you browse the Batman cover gallery from the late 40s until the late 50s, you’ll be amazed by how many iconic images were drawn by Win Mortimer. From the wonderful first Riddler cover from Detective #140 to the great “Return of Bat-Hound” cover to Batman #97 and beyond, Mortimer was responsible for dozens of memorable covers. The two I’ve selected are among my all-time favourites. The cover to Batman #61 is a great example of how Mortimer can keep a complex cover simple. We’ve got chalkboards, test tubes, blue prints, a Bat-Plane model and Batman and Robin and yet it comes across as clean, classic image. There a nice voyeuristic feel to it, as if we’ve been invited to witness a nice, quiet moment in the Batcave. Much more dynamic is the cover to Batman #84. Mortimer drew a ton of iconic Catwoman covers, but this is by far my favourite. It is beautifully designed with a great ‘worm’s eye view’ perspective. I love the way it seems as if Batman & Robin are swinging in from the top left corner of the cover.
Win Mortimer provided covers for numerous series during this period, but he had the greatest impact on World’s Finest. The task is simple, and yet daunting. Take 3 of the best known characters in comics, and portray them in an inventive way. Sorry, but you cannot tie it into the narrative of the book, as Superman doesn’t actually share any adventures with Batman and Robin. The best word to use to describe Mortimer’s covers for World’s Finest is ‘whimsical’. I’m certain that these covers have been the butt of many of joke amongst the Snark-Set, but I find them to be very charming. The cover to World’s Finest #37 is absolutely brilliant. Who wouldn’t have killed for this as bedroom wallpaper as a child? I’m also particularly enamored with the cover to World’s Finest #45. Robin is able to do in the “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em” world what he could never do in the real world. I love the fact that Superman is banging on the glass in frustration. Classic!
Next week, I’ll take a quick look at some of Mortimer's non-superhero covers for DC, which will include one of my top 12 favourite covers of all-time. For more comic book talk, stop by my blog Seduction of the Indifferent.