Jim Mooney, R.I.P.

Photo by Bruce Guthrie

One of the most prolific artists to ever draw comic books, Jim Mooney, passed away in Florida on Sunday. He was born in 1919 and had been in failing health for some time, especially since the passing of his wife Anne in 2005.

Reared in Los Angeles, Mooney moved to New York in 1940 and was a part of the comic book industry almost from its inception. His first job was probably drawing The Moth, a Batman imitation for Fox Publication's Mystery Men, and he worked for the legendary Eisner-Iger shop which he soon left, he said, because he was intimidated by how good all the other artists there were. He next worked for Fiction House and began freelancing for Stan Lee at Timely Comics (later Marvel), starting an association that lasted on and off for the next half-century. At first, he drew funny animal strips but Lee soon found that Mooney, along with being very dependable, was kind of a utility infielder who could do a little of everything. He was especially good at drawing cute ladies and a lot of his assignments were chosen with that in mind. (Asked how he drew such beautiful women, he usually pointed out that his sister had been a Ziegfeld Girl so he often found himself around lovely ladies.)

Around 1946, he began getting work from DC, where the editors were so impressed with his work on The Moth and other Batman imitations that they hired him to draw Batman. He was one of many artists whose work appeared on that strip under the signature of Bob Kane, though he never actually worked for Kane. For DC he did many other strips, including Tommy Tomorrow, The Legion of Super Heroes and the Superman-Batman team-ups in World's Finest Comics, but his two most famous runs were on Dial H For Hero, which appeared in House of Mystery in the sixties, and his long stint as the artist on Supergirl in Action Comics.

For those who grew up reading comics in the sixties, Mooney was the Supergirl artist. He was assigned to the strip for the most prosaic of reasons — her strip replaced the Tommy Tomorrow strip in Action Comics, and it was easier on the schedule to keep the same artist on that slot. Al Plastino drew the first installment but Jim took over after, making the character his own and drawing her from 1959 to 1968. During much of this time, he lived back in Los Angeles, managing an antiquarian bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard and drawing pages there when he wasn't waiting on customers. At one point, he hired some young art students to help around the store and they occasionally inked backgrounds for him, as well.

By '68, he'd moved back to New York, just in time to quarrel with DC editor Mort Weisinger, who was seeking a "fresher, more modern" look for the Superman-affiliated titles. Mooney phoned his old boss, Stan Lee, and the timing couldn't have been better. Marvel was on the verge of expanding and Stan needed new artists. He especially needed someone who could get the right look on Spider-Man, and that's what Mooney wound up doing primarily for the next few years. At first, he inked the pencil art of John Romita or finished rough layouts. Later, he pencilled Spider-Man stories himself, and also branched out to other strips, working on almost everything Marvel then published at one time or another. He enjoyed an especially fruitful collaboration with writer Steve Gerber, with whom he did Man-Thing and Omega the Unknown.

Jim was so reliable that Marvel didn't hesitate when in 1975, he asked for a contract that would guarantee him steady assignments if he moved to Florida. It turned out to be a ten year deal and after its expiration, he cut back on his work, freelancing when he felt like it for Marvel and occasionally for DC and even several independents. Comic historians have been known to debate who, in the history of the form, worked on more pages of comic art…and while names like Jack Kirby and Gil Kane and Curt Swan are often mentioned, I sure wouldn't bet against Mooney.

In semi-retirement, Jim began making the rounds of the comic conventions, appearing on panels and selling re-creations of some of his most famous covers and pages. We became good friends and I always enjoyed his company. I remember the four of us — he and Anne, Carolyn and me — spending an evening at a lovely seafood restaurant in Seattle with an ocean view. We got to the table just as the sun was setting over the water and it was just spectacular. Jim joked, "It's so frustrating. No matter how hard we try, none of us will ever draw anything a thousandth as beautiful as that." Maybe not…but measured against his peers, Jim Mooney did just fine.