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The Golden Age's Love/Hate Relationship

Illustration for article titled The Golden Ages Love/Hate Relationship

Today I came across 99Telepodproblems' post Which came first? Swamp Thing or Man-Thing? It was an unexpected shot of delight, as my grandfather, Mort Leav, was the artist who co-created both characters' progenitor, the Heap. (And can we all pause for a moment to appreciate that his rendition of the character isn't on that wiki page? Boo, internet!) The Heap showed up in WWII-era fighter pilot comics, and if my trawling of eBay and antique stores is any indication, appeared most frequently in the title Air Boy.


I'd say that's one of Mort's better-known contributions to the comics world, though he also spent quite a lot of time drawing covers and interior art for crime, romance and western-themed books. (As I type, I'm looking at a framed cover he did of Wild Bill Pecos, Westerner. It's busy, but gloriously dynamic.) While I'm a huge comics fan myself, it's an interest which I picked up without his influence, and so when child!Supernumerary discovered that Grandpa Mort drew comic books(!!!!!), there was quite a lot of time devoted to researching his work. It took poring over one of his numerous interviews with Alter Ego before I learned that he'd actually done work on 1940s-era Captain America. In fact, it was only last year that I discovered he'd worked on something like eight different issues, rather than the single one I'd expected.

For a Marvel fan, it was like discovering that I was Stan Lee's long-lost grandchild. And yet when I brought the topic up to him, he waved it off; it took an unfortunately long time for me to realize that the industry he'd worked in wasn't a straightforward point of pride. It was far more complicated than that — he'd left comic books because the pay was negligible, and moved to advertising so as to support his family. As a result, he wasn't still involved when comics started to be seen as more than cheap, trashy tales to keep the kids entertained. In his later years, I tried to plead my case to Mort — I told him about the work Neil Gaiman had done with Sandman, showed him a trade of David Mack's Kabuki to explain just how far art had been allowed to progress — but he had none of it. When we spoke, the comic book industry was a shitty environment which disrespected and underpaid its workers, and creativity was all but nil. Which it could be and certainly was at times, but when we spoke Mort refused to express any nostalgia whatsoever. He saved that for the Alter Ego interviews with Roy Thomas. Reminisces over seafood dinners between my grandparents, Jerry Siegel and Jerry's wife were sparingly doled out, but only in an official capacity; I never heard of it myself, always having to read it elsewhere. If he caught me reading a comic, which was often, it would be the usual spiel about wasting my money. I think we all know that sort of drill.


And yet I'm pretty sure the nostalgia was there, albeit locked up tight. Mort was a brilliant man who could out-pun anyone (I've yet to meet a punster who could match him), who never got caught cursing except the one time he very earnestly told me that Stan Lee was an asshole, who sang dirty Spanish songs with the waitstaff at Mexican restaurants and who always drew an iteration of the same thing during our frequent lunches and dinners out. Always a boy or an old man, eyes squeezed shut, tongue out, thumbs stuck in their ears and fingers splayed wide to waggle. His hands were severely palsied toward the end, but whether it was in pen or borrowed children's crayons, the back of a receipt or a paper tablecloth, it was the same shaky but visible drawing. I'd hang behind post-meals while the family headed back to the car, carefully tearing away the food-stained sketches to collect without my grandfather's knowledge.

Mort scoffed at comics, yet I remember my childhood self visiting his studio where he'd redrawn his Mad Hatter cover decades later, improving the anatomy and enhancing the fluidity of movement. The same man who co-created Mr. Whipple for a Charmin ad campaign secretly enjoyed and missed his comic book claim to fame, I think. He may have moved on, may have started teaching, may have channeled his creativity toward paintings of the seashore and portraits of his wife knocking out cancer in the ring — she won that fight more than once, and he was understandably proud — but I think beneath the surface of that older gentleman who only read non-fiction, there was still the young man's pride of having helped to carve a path into something new.


But I never think that too loud, because knowing him, he'd scoff from beyond the grave.

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