Irwin Hasen, one of the last of the artists of the Golden Age of comic books, passed away on March 13th. He was 96 years old.
Hasen was born on July 8, 1918 into an upper middle class family in New York City. In 1930, when he was 12 years old, his family lost their money in the Great Depression, and they had to move into a cramped two bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. This unfortunate turn of events would actually lead to Hasen’s career as an artist. The apartment was right around the corner from the National Academy of Design. When Hasen was 16 years old his mother enrolled him there, where he studied for the next three years.
Hasen got his first job as a cartoonist at the boxing magazine Bang in 1938. As he recounted decades later:
“I drew sports cartoons, and I had to compile out of town weekly boxing results, type them up, and draw each week’s top fighters for the covers.”
Shortly after, Hasen began working in the brand-new comic book industry. One of his earliest assignments was the superhero The Fox, which he co-created with writer Joe Blair for MLJ / Archie Comics. Although a rather obscure character for many years, recently The Fox has been the subject of a successful, offbeat revival by Dean Haspiel.
Most of Hasen’s work in comic books was at National Comics and All-American Publications, two of the entities that soon merged to form DC Comics. At National, Hasen drew on his background as a sports artist to collaborate with writer Bill Finger in creating Wildcat, a prize fighter turned costumed crimefighter. Wildcat’s first appearance was in Sensation Comics #1, cover-dated January 1942. Hasen was also one of the earliest regular artists to draw the original Green Lantern, who Finger had co-created with Martin Nodell in 1940.
After World War II broke out, Hasen was drafted. Due to his 5 foot 2 inch height, he was stationed State-side, and his work was featured in the Army newspaper Fort Dix Post. Hasen also found the time to keep working within the comic book biz:
“During my furloughs into New York City, I would sit in full uniform at a drawing board in M.C. Gaines’ Lafayette St. offices of AA Comics, creating Wonder Woman covers, those Valkyrian images possibly nurturing my fancy for the women to come.”
After the war ended Hasen returned to comic books full-time. In the late 1940s he was one of the regular artists drawing the Justice Society of America feature in All Star Comics. As future comic book writer, editor & historian Roy Thomas commented in his 2001 introduction to All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 “the next year and a half of JSA stories would be some of their best ever.” According to Thomas, one crucial part of that was “the solid storytelling of Irwin Hasen.” As would be seen in Thomas’ writing on All-Star Squadron in the 1980s, these stories would be a major influence upon him.
Certainly during this time period Hasen illustrated some of the most iconic cover images to ever feature the JSA. His striking cover art for All Star Comics #33 (Feb/March 1947) had the ominous form of the undead swamp monster Solomon Grundy looming over the imprisoned JSA. All Star Comics #35 (June/July 1947) saw the debut of the time traveling fascist Per Degaton, who was devised by writer John Broome. Hasen’s dramatic cover for that issue featured that villain warping the flow of history within an immense hourglass. Hasen’s cover for #37 (Oct/Nov 1937) was also memorable, depicting the JSA’s greatest foes, joined together as the Injustice Society of the World, literally carving up a map of the United States.
Like most artists in the 1940s, Hasen regarded comic books as a job to pay the bills and put food on the table. Certainly that is understandable, as the first few decades of the industry were far from glamorous, with most creators toiling anonymously in conditions that were almost akin to a sweatshop. Hasen’s dream was to illustrate a newspaper comic strip, which in those days was regarded as a much more fashionable & lucrative position.
Hasen finally achieved this goal in 1955 when he co-created Dondi with writer Gus Edson. A five year old war orphan from Europe, the wide-eyed Dondi was adopted by an American soldier who brought him back to the United States. The newspaper strip lasted until 1986. It appears that Dondi was the project that Hasen was most proud of out of his entire career.
Later in life Hasen write & illustrated Loverboy, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about his lifelong bachelorhood, and his romantic relationship with a woman named Eevie in the 1970s. It was both a humorous and poignant story. Loverboy was published by Vanguard Productions in 2009. The final four chapters of the book were a brief text autobiography of Hasen’s life complemented with various photographs & illustrations. I recommend picking up a copy.
I was fortunate enough to have met Hasen several times throughout the years. He was a regular at NYC-area comic book conventions. It was always a pleasure to see Hasen at a show. He was a real gentleman, full of life and energy, with a genuine sense of humor.
I acquired a couple a sketches from Hasen. The first was a color illustration of his creation Wildcat. The other was a black & white drawing of the Golden Age Flash, another of the characters he drew regularly throughout the 1940s, both in solo stories and in the adventures of the Justice Society. You can view scans of them at Comic Art Fans.
Okay, this is a bit embarrassing… back in late 2010 I was unemployed. I was having trouble finding work and had a lot of free time on my hands. On a whim I looked up Hasen’s address & phone number and gave him a call. I told him I was a fan and I asked if it would be okay to stop by for a visit. He was surprised, but he graciously agreed.
I visited Hasen at his apartment on the Upper East Side, stopping by for about half an hour in the early afternoon. He autographed my copies of All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 and 8, showed me some of the various interesting items he had acquired over the decades, and regaled me with a few stories. I asked Hasen a couple of general questions about his career, and he humorously replied that I probably knew more about his work in comic books than he did! Well, it had been a long time before for him. Then I said goodbye and headed home, while Hasen went off to meet one of his friends at a local bar for a martini. I gather that was a daily ritual for him.
That was the thing about Hasen: right up until the end he was full of life and energy. I always thought that if anyone would live past 100 years old it would be him. Well, he didn’t quite make it, but 96 years is a really good long run, especially as he appeared to have led a very rich, full life for most of that time.
Hasen certainly has left behind a memorable legacy, having worked on numerous classic comic book stories in the 1940s, and co-creating Dondi, a beloved comic strip that ran for three decades.