A Tribute to the of

This was kind of a tough one to write up, for more reasons than one. First and foremost, I wanted to do a fitting tribute to Sheldon “Shelly” Moldoff, who passed away on the 29th of February, 2012, just a handful of weeks away from his 92nd birthday and the last living Golden Age Batman artist.

As if that wasn’t enough, Shelly, as any self-respecting comics fan knows, was also the last living contributor to Action Comics #1, granddaddy of them all, with his “Odds ‘n Ends” filler feature on the inside back cover containing a potpourri of tidbits about sports including a realistic rendering of Lou Gehrig.

Still not impressed? Shelly did the first cover featuring the Golden Age Flash for Flash Comics #1 and the first cover featuring the Golden Age Green Lantern on All American Comics #16. As the calendar rolled forward, he did a ton of work on Batman, from 1953 to 1967 and during that time he co-created Batwoman, the original Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite, the original Clayface, Poison Ivy, Mr. Sub-Zero who would morph into Mr. Freeze and Ace the Bat-hound. According to the note he sent me in 2007, he came up with Hawkgirl while he was working on the Hawkman strip. Throw in some of those PSA’s featuring Superman and Shelly was everywhere. The problem, of course, was that he wasn’t often credited, though ironically the Odds ‘n Ends piece prominently displays, “By Moldoff.”

But, as you’ll read further down, Shelly wasn’t one to complain much and he just kept cranking out the pages. That was my other dilemma. How on earth to decide which of his numerous works to showcase here? I looked through a bunch of my Batman memorabilia, and not surprisingly every edition of reprints is well-represented with Moldoff classics, from my copy of Batman from the 30’s to the 70’s, to Batman in the Fifties, to The Batman Annuals #1 to The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told and even The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told. After much deliberation I chose a classic from the early days, specifically Detective Comics #235 with a cover date of September 1956. Shelly did that classic cover for “The First Batman!” as well as the interior pencils. Inking by Stan Kaye. The writer was the legendary Bill Finger and editorial duties were credited to Whitney Ellsworth, but actually done by Jack Schiff.

The story begins in Wayne Manor in the unlikely locale of the attic, where Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are tidying up a bit. Dick accidentally discovers a concealed drawer in Thomas Wayne’s desk containing a sort of bat costume. Bruce muses that he’s seen it before on his father, years ago. Dick suggests that means that Thomas Wayne was the first Batman, but Bruce says that’s impossible. He then goes into reminisce mode and we are shown the Batman’s origin beginning with a vow to his parents’ memory to bring their killer to justice and to fight all crime.

Later he locates their murderer, Joey Chill, but before he can apprehend him, other gangsters gun him down.

Just then, Bruce discovers both a diary and a reel of film in the drawer. Quickly setting up a projector, Bruce and Dick see the proceedings of a gala masquerade ball where Dr. Thomas Wayne is receiving first prize for the best flying creature costume, his “Bat- Man.” Then a gunman approaches, demanding the doctor’s attention, but Thomas Wayne answers with a right cross. The gunsel has another armed friend, though, and reluctantly, Wayne follows. The film clip then ends.

Bruce picks up the diary to learn more. In Thomas Wayne’s hand, the evening is described and he makes note that his boy, Bruce seems particularly fascinated by the costume and he promises his son he can wear it one day when he grows up. Bruce pauses to tell Robin that the fateful night the bat flew through the window must have triggered this sub-conscious memory that helped push him toward becoming a Bat-Man in his own right. Now back to the diary, where the episode continues after the gunmen spirit Thomas Wayne away.

As it turns out they’re members of bank robber Lew Moxon’s gang, and they’ve taken him to meet the boss at an old warehouse hideout. Moxon has been shot and they want him to remove the bullet. Realizing his value will diminish quickly once he performs the operation, Wayne takes quick action, kicking Moxon and his chair over and then plowing into the two henchmen. Moxon is sentenced to 10 years in prison and vows revenge against Dr. Wayne upon his release. After the passage of the decade, he chances upon Moxon, who has not forgotten his vow, but tells the good doctor he’ll have someone else take care of the detail for him.

The diary ends and Bruce tells Dick that means that Joey Chill must have been Moxon’s hired gun and furthermore, Bruce had been an unwitting witness to the “robbery,” leaving Moxon in the clear. Determined to set things right, Batman and Robin pay a visit to Commissioner Gordon at Gotham police headquarters to enlist his aid to track down Lew Moxon.

Traveling west to Coastal City, Batman and Robin locate and apprehend Moxon and Batman formally charges him with murder at the local police station, but Moxon smiles and says he’s never heard of a Dr. Wayne and will gladly submit to a polygraph test, which he passes with flying colors leaving a perplexed Batman.

Playing a hunch, Batman calls Commissioner Gordon and learns that Lew Moxon suffered a head injury in an automobile accident shortly after his father’s murder, which led to amnesia. Convinced Moxon is still doing shady dealings, Batman decides to do some surveillance and hope for a break.

The break soon comes when the Dynamic Duo observe one of Moxon’s blimps lowering men onto a penthouse in the city to burglarize it in the middle of the night. They apprehend the thugs and then Batman changes out of his damaged uniform into the vintage Bat-Man costume of his fathers that he’d brought along and confronts Moxon in it. The shock of seeing the old costume jolts Moxon’s memory loose and he tells the dread figure to go away, that he’d had Joey Chill kill him. Terrified, Moxon dashes out an exit into the dark street where he’s run down by a passing truck, ending his career once and for all.

The final panel shows a new exhibit in the Batcave’s trophy room collection. The accompanying plaque explains the old costume: “From the Wayne murder case. Case finally solved by this costume once worn by the first Bat-Man.”

I thought this was a wonderfully enjoyable and classic story, incorporating a lot of the Batman legend into it while adding a new element in the mastermind behind the murder of Thomas Wayne. A pretty remarkable little read in only 10 pages. I give it a full 10 rating on the 10-point scale.

Shelly Moldoff was the 5th of my over 80 interviewees back in 2007 and he’d graciously set up an appointment with me, but when I called, he’d forgotten about it and it wasn’t a good time for him, so he suggested I mail my questions to him. I would have preferred a phone conversation, but was happy to get an audience of any sort with him and when he sent his handwritten responses, I posted them here, but I never was completely satisfied with it, so a couple of years later, in 2009, I called him on his birthday and conducted an impromptu interview then. I held onto it, thinking one day the time would be ripe to share it and perhaps this is now the time.

BDS:I was thinking of you today and I'm going to be calling Jack Adler here soon and it occurred to me that both of you did work on Action Comics #1 if the legends are correct.

SM: Yeah, I did a sports drawing [on the inside back cover], I believe. Lou Gehrig or something.

BDS: Yeah. Exactly. You're in a small club these days, Mr. Moldoff.

SM: I know, I know. The vanishing American. That's true.

BDS: (Chuckle.) Well, of course Jack is 90 years old, so he's just slightly older than you, but he did the coloring on it, of course.

SM: I remember Jack, yeah.

BDS: He's doing okay. It doesn't sound like he's doing quite as well as you are, because he's kind of home bound these days.

SM: Well, there's not too much you can do. I had played tennis until about a year and a half ago. Today's my birthday. I'm 89, so I'm blessed that I played that long and that I drew that long.

BDS: That's nothing to shake a stick at.

SM: I'm very happy that I was able to keep drawing. In fact, I'm going to San Diego in July and I'll be celebrating my 70th year as a professional comic book artist. That's an amazing record. To be in the business or to do whatever you do for 70 years. I'm very proud of that.

Prof: Very few can say that.

SM: I'm very happy, glad that I was able to keep drawing and never had to look for a job. (Chuckle.)

BDS: Amen. In fact you remind me that I saw some sort of ad for that event on the internet about how you, Lew Sayre Schwartz and somebody else was going to be in San Diego as special guests. I can't think of who the other person is right now.

SM: I think there was somebody else.

BDS: It's not coming to me. Right off the bat you two are the last men standing if you'll pardon the term who worked on Batman in the Golden Age.

SM: Well, Jerry Robinson is still around.

BDS: Jerry! That's the other one. Golly, how could I forget Jerry? (Laughter.)

SM: Well, I'll tell you, see, a lot of these guys did it for awhile and then they moved on, but when I first got involved Jack Liebowitz called me into his office and I had an offer to go to Cleveland to work for a syndicate and at that time to work for a newspaper syndicate, that was great because we didn't think comic books were going to last or whatever. And he called me into his office and he said, "We want you here." I said, "Yeah, but this is a great opportunity." He said, "Well, we think that you belong with the comic book. We'll match any offer and anything that you want, we will do and I will keep you busy." "More important," he said, "I have a hunch that eventually the superhero, the big one, is going to be Batman, and Bob Kane can't handle it. We've got to have somebody that we can depend on, because I'm betting on Batman." Now this is the president, Jack Liebowitz, and he had that intuition that it was going to go beyond Superman and that it was going to continue and it was going to be the biggest thing in DC's history or whatever. And it did. Batman is the biggest. There's no question about it. Bob Kane was very difficult to work with, but we became friends and one of the reasons I stayed with him so long was because of Jack Liebowitz. Because he said, "Shelly, I need you there." I honored that and anything I wanted, he gave me. I didn't ask for favors and I never had to ask for work, but when he saw me in the office he came over right away to shake hands, talk to me. "Is there anything you want? Are you happy? Have enough work? Are you making enough money?" He was like a godfather to me. He just had that feeling that in the long run, it was going to be Batman. Of course at that time Superman was the rage, you know. But he was right. Look at The Dark Knight. My God.

BDS: Yeah, that's been probably the ultimate hero movie.

SM: It's taken in a heck of a lot of money. You know Jack Liebowitz lived to be 100, and as I said, every time I came to the office and he heard me he would go out of his way to come to talk to me and see how I was doing. Quite often he had a check in his hand for me and he always seemed very grateful and I found him very good, but he had that intuition. He just had the feeling it was going to be Batman in the long run. He was right.

BDS: A visionary man.

SM: Now Bob Kane was a pain in the ass. He was a sick man.

BDS: That's what I've heard. As one person told me, he was not on many people's Christmas card list.

SM: No. He was not a nice person. Of course I became friends with him. He had a daughter, Debbie, who was the same age as my daughter and I was in New Jersey and had a beautiful home in the Palisades and she would spend many a weekend with my daughter, and so I was a friend and he always considered me a friend. "You're my two friends." But he'd screw me every chance he got. That's the kind of guy he was.

BDS: That's so sad.

SM: I had a favorite story with Bob, because he was really something. I said, "Bob, you know what? I think that closet you have in the hallway, I know there's a painting in there, and it's a painting of you." He looked at me and he said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "You know the story 'Dorian Gray?'" He said, "Oh." I said, "Yeah. There is a painting of you in that closet, and all the sins that you commit are on that painting." He laughed. He said, "You know, Shelly, you're crazy." I said, "No, that's how I feel about it. You look great. You're always handsome and the ladies man and all that, but the sins that you have committed, and will continue through your life; that's your style, they're on that painting. I'm dying to look at it." He would laugh and say, "Shelly, you're a riot, you know?" That's how I would get in and needle him, because I knew he didn't have a painting, but you could compare him to Dorian Gray. He was that evil, and that's why I made the comparison, because he was sinful. That was Bob.

BDS: I think you're exactly right. That certainly corroborates what some of the other creators have told me. Everybody talks about what a shafting poor Bill Finger got as far as who actually created Batman.

SM: Well, Bob created it. I hear that bullshit also. Let me tell you something.

BDS: Please.

SM: You cannot take the credit away from Bob. It was his idea, period. Now, whether he wanted to put Bill Finger in the byline, whether he wants to put Jerry Robinson or me, or anybody as a byline, or Lew Schwartz, that's his prerogative, because he is the creator, and he doesn't have to do it if he doesn't want to, and he certainly doesn't want anybody's name next to his. He wouldn't allow that. And we don't have a right…that's how I felt, and I did more work for him than anybody else; than all of them combined. I felt I don't have a right. It's his property, and if I'm not happy, I quit. Do something else. But as long as I'm working for him, and he's paying me, then I will do the best I can. At least one day he said to me, "Shelly, I'm going to give you a byline." Well, that's fine. But I felt I don't have the right to do it. And so I never pushed him on it, but I'm very different from most of the other guys. I've seen these guys claim so many things it makes me sick. On many panels they say, "Who created the Catwoman? Who created this? Jerry said this. Who said this? That guy said this. He created that." I said, "Let me tell you the truth, because you'll get nothing but the truth from me. The writer and the editor are responsible for keeping that book alive; that character. And every week or so they get together and think of new plots, new stories, new villains to keep the interest in that particular character and the book. That is a lot of hard work. So I give credit to the writer and to the editor. Now they may come up with a character that could be called The Frog or The Penguin, whatever you want. We get the script. As artists we read it and then it's up to us to determine what The Penguin is going to look like. But the creation of characters is primarily done by the writer and the editor. And they work their butt off. Because in order to stay alive, they have to have stories that will compete with other magazines. So I always give them the credit. I give the writer and the editor the credit. Then I get the script and if there's a villain it's up to me to try to figure out what it looks like. Like the Bat-Mite, or something like that. It's all in the story, but the artist has to figure out what they're going to look like, so that's our job. But they create the character. They create the Catwoman and Poison Ivy and all these things. It comes out of the minds of the writer and the editor. But I've seen so many guys, I don't want to mention any names, "Oh, I created this; I created that," it's all such bullshit. It's a team job, and if you keep a book alive, and you're successful at it, it means you did a good job. Because there's plenty of competition out there. A lot of hard work, and you've got to really work hard at it, and not everybody can do it.

BDS: It does take an incredible amount of dedication.

SM: I've met many artists who came up along the way, and they were good, they were terrific artists, but they could not maintain the schedule where they could make any money. They couldn't work that hard. They couldn't do that quantity of work. And so a lot of them would leave the field. They would go on to something else. Because to make a living drawing comic books, you've got to be able to turn out a lot of pages a week, otherwise you're not going to make any money. I could do a whole book in a week and have no problem with it.

BDS: My goodness.

SM: So I didn't have a problem. I did more than just Batman. I did the Hawkman. I did so many things. But I was able to sit there and do it. A lot of good artists can't do it. They can't work that long. It's not easy.

BDS: No, not at all. I've got to tell you, Mr. Moldoff, that's one of the most sensible points of view I've ever heard. I applaud you for that.

SM: Well, as I say, I had a different attitude, and when I decided to go to conventions, I want to say I met with overwhelming success. They were waiting at my table before I got there. And I wouldn't be there 20 minutes when everything was gone. It was amazing. And I would never say how much money I made. I would never say how many drawings I brought, because it's a sensitive subject with a lot of people. You know many artists, and I know so many; they go out there and they work for a weekend and didn't even cover their expenses. It's not easy. But I treated the fans great and I treated the dealers as they were my friends. Many of them I took to dinner. You remember Dan Barry?

BDS: Yes, I sure do.

SM: Well, he was a terrific artist and he spent most of his time in Europe. He was a painter and he did Flash Gordon for like 25 years. He came back a few years ago and he wasn't well. He was a sick man when he came back. I met him, and I'd never met him before, and he said, "Shelly, the next time you go to a convention is it okay if I come along?" And I said, "Sure. I'd love to have you, Dan." And so we became friends and whenever I was going to a convention I'd call him and I'd say I'm leaving and give him the dates and he would go. So we went to a half a dozen conventions before he passed away, but when he came, he would try to sell his stuff, but there was really no demand for it, you know? But I would pick up his bar tab all the time and he would come to dinner with us and everything and I treated him very nice. He said to me, "Shelly, you're very generous." I said, "Well, I don't know. I'm me. I have a tremendous admiration for you. You're a terrific artist, and I'm glad we're friends. Anything I can do is fine. I hope you can start selling some of this stuff, but you've been out of the public spotlight for so long they don't really know you." So we went a half dozen times to some conventions, but there was no demand for his stuff.

BDS: That's a shame.

SM: It's a shame, yeah, but he was a very talented guy. I saw some of his stuff and he was great. But you know not everybody makes a financial success out of the field. It's not easy.

BDS: No, not at all and as you said it requires a great deal of effort and dedication and of course some talent.

SM: You have to be able to get along and it's not the nature of everybody to get along with everybody. It's not easy.

BDS: You're right. You make me think of an old quotation that I'm sure you're very familiar with that says success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.

SM: Yeah. My life has been interesting.

BDS: It surely has, and you've been part of history.

SM: Well, I wanted to draw and I ended up drawing all my life and I'm very content with that. I've met a lot of people and a lot of different things and I was always available for DC and as I said I became Jack Liebowitz's friend and he wanted me on his side. He needed me. And I stayed and it was well worth it. It wasn't easy keeping Batman alive. There was a lot of competition in the books. A lot of competition.

BDS: Yes, and it was amazing to me as I began to study the history a little bit about how close that character came to be cancelled in the 60's. I was just stunned.

SM: Oh, yeah. Sales were lousy. Sales were terrible. There was a time when Jack Schiff was handling it and boy, he was searching all the sales to find out what sold. Then he'd say, "This magazine last month sold. It had a picture of a gorilla on the story, so let's have a gorilla on the cover." Hoping for different things that might sell. But it's a very competitive thing. Very competitive.

BDS: Oh, yeah and if you can't get decent distribution. There are just so many factors.

SM: Oh, distribution is a big factor. You've got to get out there and serve everybody. Your book has got to be up there or else it's going down the drain. It's a competitive field and it's not easy to stay alive so long, but it (Batman) stuck there for some reason. It did stay and of course it changed many times. The form, and it had different artists and they started using more illustrating, but I always kept it in the vein of a cartoon. I always felt it should be kept as a cartoon, not as an illustration.

BDS: That's what Lew Sayre Schwartz was telling me, too. He said, "These aren't supposed to be anatomy charts."

SM: That's right. That's right. It's a cartoon character.

BDS: And this year is Batman's 70th birthday.

SM: Yeah. This is my 70th year as a pro.

BDS: Who could have ever predicted?

SM: That's a long time to stay in a job. (Laughter.)

BDS: Yes, it is. Congratulations, Mr. Moldoff. You've done very, very well.

SM: Anyway, I appreciate your calling me.

BDS: Nice talking to you, sir. If I don't speak to you between now and then I hope you have a great time in San Diego.

SM: Yeah, I'm looking forward to it.

BDS: One thing I thought I'd mention real quick: I don't know how many people I've quoted you to from when we talked the one time and you told me that comic book people are usually pretty good people. I've mentioned that to I don't know how many folks and everyone nods and smiles so you've got a definite insight into human nature.

SM: I'll tell you, I have a lot of friends that are dealers and I'll come up to their booth and they'll be sitting there reading. They can read the same comic book over and over and over again. They do not get tired of it. They just love it. They love the comic book, and they're so devoted to it and they work so hard to set up and then go to another convention and another one. There was a time when they made good money, but they don't make good money any more. It's very hard to make a living today in comic books. Years ago they used to average 50 grand. An outfit could make 50 grand, but they can't come near that today. They love the comic book. They can sit there and read the same stories over and over again. They're just dedicated because they have a sincere love for the comic book. Anyway, it's been nice talking to you.

BDS: My pleasure, Mr. Moldoff. Thanks for taking the time.

SM: It's my pleasure, too.

Rest in peace, Shelly. You’ve more than earned it and the legacy you leave is impressive and immortal, to say the very least.

The latest edition of this feature will appear in this very space in about two weeks, so you are cordially invited back. In the interim any comments or questions can be addressed to my handy e-mail: professor_the@hotmail.com.

Until then…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2012 by B.D.S.

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