Sunday, December 17, 2006

Green Lantern and Pillsbury Doughboy Creator Passes On

Comic book artist and commercial art director Martin Nodell died December 9, 2006 at the age of 91. If the name doesn't sound familiar to you, I am sure the names of his creations will. With writer Bill Finger (co-creator of Batman), Nodell created the Green Lantern. With his creative team at the Leo Burnett Agency, he also developed the Pillsbury Doughboy, one of the most successful advertising icons of all time.

Martin Nodell was born November 11, 1915, in Philadelphia. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and then attended the Pratt Institute in New York City. It was in New York, around 1938, that Nodell started freelancing for various comic book publishers. He worked on such series as The Raven and Buck Steele. Nodell found that freelancing was not particularly lucrative and decided he needed steadier work in the comic book industry. He contacted National Comics (publisher of the ever popular Superman and Batman) seeking work, but was informed that they had all the artists they could handle. Fortunately for Nodell, they put him in touch with their sister company, All-American Comics. Initially editor Sheldon Mayer did not give Nodell very much work. Nodell then decided to create a superhero for the company's flagship title, All-American Comics. He was on the subway home when the idea for the Green Lantern occurred to him. Nodell showed Mayer some preliminary sketches and the first few pages of the Green Lantern's origin which he had written. Mayer brought in Bill Finger to finish the story and flesh out the character. Green Lantern made his first appearance in All-Star Comics #16, July 1940.

The original Green Lantern was was Alan Scott, an engineer for a railroad company. Scott's company had beat out a rival company in a bid to build a bridge. Unfortunately, this cited the owner of the rival company to violence. He planted explosives under the bridge so that they would detonate when the first train travelled over the bridge. When Scott's company sent a train across the bridge, then, there was a huge explosion. Everyone aboard the train was killed, except Alan Scott. Scott's life was saved by a green train lantern made of some unknown metal. To make a long story short, the lantern told Scott to remove a bit of its metal to make a ring. By touching the ring to the lantern every 24 hours, the ring would have the power of the lantern's magic green flame. The lantern's green flame was a very potent weapon. With it, Scott could fly, create various objects using the flame, fire bursts of energy, deflect attacks, and so on. Green Lantern became one of the most successful superheroes of the Golden Age. He was a founding member of the Justice Society of America. And at the height of his popularity he appeared in three different magazines. Although his own title ended in 1949 and the Justice Society made their last appearance prior to the Silver Age in 1951, the character's popularity would result in versions of the character being created over the years.

Nodell would continue to work on various Green Lantern stories until 1947. At that point he left National Periodical Publications (the company which resulted from the merger of National Comics and All-American Comics) for Timely Comics (which would later become known as Marvel Comics). There he worked on such characters as Captain America, the Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner. By 1950 superheroes had seriously declined in popularity, with many of the classic characters of the Golden Age (including Captain America, the Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner) no longer being published. Nodell then left the comic book industry for the world of advertising. He was hired by the Leo Burnett agency that year as their art director.

It was in 1965 that, with his design team, Nodell created his other famous character. C.A. Pillsbury and Company wanted a stop-motion character for their commercials. Nodell and his team developed Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Poppin' Fresh made his television debut in October, 1965. Paul Frees, the voice of Boris Badenov on The Bullwinkle Show, was the Doughboy's original voice. He proved popular enough to last 41 years and to star in over 600 commercials. He also inspired a good deal of merchandise and even parodies (the most famous of which may be the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of Ghostbusters fame).

Martin Nodell retired in 1976. In the Eighties he did a few drawings for DC Comics (the re-christened National Periodical Publications). He also pencilled Harlan Ellison and John Ostrander's adaptation of "Gnomebody" for Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor Quarterly #1, August 1986. Having been re-discovered by fans, Martin Nodell and his wife Carrie were regulars on the comic book convention circuit. After 63 years of marriage, his wife Carried died in 2004.

I must say that I was truly saddened to read of Martin Nodell's death. As I have said in this blog before, Green Lantern is my second favourite superhero of all time (the first being Batman). And while there have been different versions of Green Lantern over the years, my favourite was always the original, Alan Scott. Nodell may not have been the best artist to have ever drawn the Emerald Crusader, but his work had an energy to it and a liveliness about it that other, better artists often did not match. Green Lantern became one of the most popular characters of the Golden Age, largely due to the life with which Nodell infused the character. The various incarnations of Green Lantern would influence such diverse artists as singer Donovan Leitch, writer Harlan Ellison, and director Francis Ford Coppola. Nodell would be worth remembering if all he had done was create Green Lantern, but he had the privilege of also being involved in the creation of another pop culture icon, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Arguably, Poppin' Fresh is one of most successful advertising icons of all time. At the very least, there aren't many that have lasted 41 years. Again, it is a tribute to Nodell's creativity.

Of course, it is not enough that Martin Nodell created two pop culture icons. From nearly every fan who met him, he and his wife Carrie were two of the friendliest, nicest, and most polite people one could ever meet. By all accounts, he was the perfect gentleman and his wife the perfect lady. Quite simply, Martin Nodell was one of those artists who truly appreciated his fans. I must say that I am truly saddened by his passing.

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