One of my earliest memories from my grandmother and granddaddy Pickens’ house in Brewton, Alabama is lying on the floor in the den in front of the old gas heater reading the “funny papers.” I couldn’t read the words but I loved the pictures and two of my favorites were Pogo and Dondi. I was adamant about reading the Sunday comics throughout my childhood and annoyed if any of the adults in the household dared to interrupt that ritual.
Little did I know then that my grandfather Wheeler-Nicholson, hired a young Walt Kelly in the early days of his beginning comics and that at the end of his life I would get to know Irwin Hasen who created Dondi.
When I saw Danny Fingeroth’s post yesterday morning on Facebook with a panel of Dondi reading the comics with no explanation I had a sinking feeling that Irwin was gone. I was away from the computer for a while and by the time I got back the news was everywhere that indeed Irwin Hasen at 96 had passed away. Tears welled up and I was surprised at the depth of feeling I had about someone I knew for a short period of time at the end of his life. But what a grand and glorious life! And the best part of all is that it was a shared life with so many people.
One of the reasons many of us in this industry feel like a “family” is due to the elders like Irwin who take us in, who show their appreciation for the lives we’ve chosen sometimes against everyone’s best advice! They encourage us by their longevity and willingness to share themselves and their art in a business that is often full of heartbreak. Perhaps we imagine that somehow our visits and our tributes are a favor to them and that we are helping them but really it is they who give to us. Like all great teachers and masters we get the good vibes just by being in their presence.
Irwin’s joie de vivre was enormous and contagious. From the first time Barbara Moss said, “Let’s go see Irwin,” each time I was in New York with some of my “family” someone would always bring up that refrain and off we would go to Irwin’s apartment. Going to visit Irwin was everything I fantasized about New York from the time I was a child. My mother lived there in the late 1940’s when she met and married my father and the city was always a magical draw for me. And everything about Irwin’s life was a perfect slice of all that I love about New York. He was in an industry that is born and bred New York with the true familial connection to my own grandfather. His apartment on the Eastside was the quintessential New York City apartment of your favorite films and Irwin was the sophisticated, wisecracking uncle who adores you. He was the perfect counterpoint to the Auntie Mame we all long for. One of the last things he said to me when I saw him in New York in October was a message for Gerard Jones, “Tell Gerry to come and have a martini.”
To be creative is an act of giving of the best of oneself and Irwin was one of the most generous people I have ever known. His creative output is the stuff of every fan boy and girl’s desire and it was lifelong. He worked at DC for many years both before and after WWII contributing to The Green Hornet, debuted The Fox (currently being revived by Dean Haspiel, Mark Waid and J.M. DeMatteis), The Flash, Green Lantern and The Justice Society of America among others. He created the character Wildcat and later with Gus Edson created Dondi, which he is most known for. Millions of people over countless years have seen and know Irwin’s work, the very best of himself.
My favorite drawings of his are the slightly risqué drawings of many of the women he knew throughout his life. He was a big flirt, loved and appreciated women and I can assure you the feeling was absolutely mutual. His book Loverboy published in 2009 depicts some of his romantic escapades as a self-described “very short, blue-eyed, confirmed bachelor who adores tall, voluptuous women.”
Irwin loved an audience and was a natural performer. Danny Fingeroth presented Irwin and Jules Feiffer at an evening at MoCCA and besides the sheer fabulousness of these two amazing artists the two of them had quite a schtick going. Danny said all he had to do was introduce them and sit back. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that one of my favorite moments with Irwin occurred at his apartment. He had not been well for a while but perked up when we all trooped in and proceeded to entertain us with one story after another culminating in his getting up and performing his rendition of Maurice Chevalier’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” He was pitch perfect and we were wiping our eyes from laughing so hard.
It was especially touching last October at New York Comic Con when Paul Levitz, President emeritus of DC, Michael Uslan, the producer of all the Batman Movies, Dan Makara and Danny Fingeroth all paid tribute to Irwin. Michael then presented Irwin with his Eisner Award. Afterwards we watched Dan’s beautiful tribute to Irwin in his film, Irwin: A New York Story. What a great evening and I’m so glad Irwin was there to enjoy it. When Irwin began to thank us all for allowing him into our hearts and home he made a classic Freudian slip of the tongue, which will only be told by those who were there and not in print. But if you knew Irwin, you can make a guess! It was a perfect Irwin moment poignant and hilarious in one single shot that goes straight to your heart.
Danny Fingeroth expresses well what we all feel: “Irwin Hasen was a one of a kind character, as well as a representative of a certain generation of New York bred cartoonists who helped create comics as we know them. Toughened by prejudice and by the trauma of the great depression, Irwin and his contemporaries forged ahead and told the stories that have become the modern American mythos. From Wildcat to Dondi, Irwin’s imagination never faltered. He was a powerful spirit and a lot of fun to be around. Irwin Hasen will be missed by many for a long, long time.”
Michael Uslan sums up: “I was honored to present him with his Award for an amazing lifetime of artistic achievements at this past NY Comic Con. He gifted the world with one of its most heart-warming comic strips ever, “Dondi.” At DC Comics, he created Wildcat with Bill Finger, was a legendary artist of Green Lantern and The Justice Society of America, and was the first artist to make Wonder Woman truly beautiful. I believe he was DC’s last surviving artist from World War 2, thus bringing to a close, 77 years after it began, DC’s Golden Age of Comics. A witty, debonair ladies man and star of a fabulous documentary on his life and career, with profound sadness and heart-felt thanks for a job so well done, I bid farewell to the immortal Irwin Hasen.”
Irwin made every single one of us feel special and loved and we loved him back. He gave us a sense of family and now he’s gone. It’s up to us to remember him by carrying on in the best tradition—to be generous, to continue to create in the face of great success or great disappointment and most of all to enjoy life. The last frames of Dan’s lovely film are of Irwin in top hat and tails dancing. It’s a fitting end to a beautiful man and a beautiful life. Love you Irwin, keep dancing out there among the stars.