From Shadow to Light: The Life & Art of Mort Meskin

DC Comics artist Mort Meskin’s remarkable talent is showcased in this retrospective on his life and work.

From Shadow to Light: The Life & Art of Mort Meskin By Steven Brower Fantagraphics 224 pp., $39.99

When asked to name a great comic book artist, Mort Meskin may not be a name that pops into the minds of most fans, but it should be. The huge amount of amazing comic work he did from the 1940s through the ’60s is today mostly remembered by the artists he’s influenced rather than by comic aficionados. Meskin, however, deserves to be treasured by all comic fans and studied by all artists of the medium. Now, at last, he gets some of the attention he is due in From Shadow to Light: The Life & Art of Mort Meskin by Steven Brower. This coffee table book showcases Meskin’s art and offers a concise biography that outlines Meskin’s struggle – through most of his life – with a fragile mental state.

On display in this book are amazing examples of comic art. Meskin was one of the few early comic artists to have been formally trained at an art school, and it showed with his fluid, anatomically correct figures and detailed backgrounds. He is most recognizable for the bold blacks and strong light-and-dark contrasts of his chiaroscuro technique. Sometimes – as described in the text and shown with plenty of original art – Meskin would cover an entire page with a gray tone using the flat of his pencil and then chisel out shapes and layouts with an eraser. He liked to work large, with some of his panels created as full-size illustrations as wide as 16 inches.

Besides his better known work for DC Comics (The Vigilante and Johnny Quick), there are examples of other characters such as Golden Lad and Fighting Yank. We also get to see lots of Meskin’s unpublished work and aborted projects for the first time, including his later advertising work and personal images. There are hours and hours of art here to admire and to study.

The biographical portion of the book is enlivened by vivid detail from many personal recounts by artists and friends Meskin worked with and his own sons, Peter and Phillip. There are also many sidebars of appreciation by comic greats such as Alex Toth and Steve Ditko, demonstrating how much those who knew Meskin’s art learned from him.

Meskin’s story also offers a glimpse into the grueling life of a comic book artist in the 1940s and ’50s. He toiled hundreds of hours, seven days a week at times, for very little pay. (He was paid by the page for so many panels filled with art.) The sheer volume of work Meskin produced helped bring about two mental breakdowns which led to the loss of his wife and sons. (His wife, too, buckled under the pressure soon after he did, sending their sons into foster care.)

In 1965 Meskin left the comic book business. It was a tragic loss for the comic book world but Meskin soon landed a job in advertising where he excelled and was much better compensated. He also got his personal life back together thanks to his second wife, Molly, and lived his remaining years quite happily. (He passed away in 1995.) “From Shadow to Light” describes not only Meskin’s artistic technique but his personal struggle as well.

Brower does a good job of organizing the book, keeping his text to a minimum – sometimes too much so. Some other minor points: Brower could have done a better job of pegging events to dates. Also, I wondered what happened to Meskin’s first wife after she gave up their boys and why his second wife was not interviewed for the book. (Did she pass away as well?)

Overall, however, this book is an incredible testament to an incredible talent and hopefully it will encourage more comic fans to learn about Meskin and seek out some of his work.

With so many unsung artists from the early days of comics such as Bob PowelI or Dan Gormley, perhaps this will be the first of many such remarkable books.

Rich Clabaugh is a staff artist at the Monitor.

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