Cartoonist Irwin Hasen worked on superhero comic books starring Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern and others, but the character he helped create — a pint-sized war orphan named Dondi — needed no greater powers than gumption and wide-eyed innocence to charm a nation.
From the moment Hasen heard the concept for "Dondi" in the mid-1950s, he knew it would be a winner.
"It's like that old story that you're on a dance floor," he said at a 1999 Comic-Con appearance, "and you look across a crowded room and you say, 'That's the woman I'm gonna marry.' "
FOR THE RECORD:
Irwin Hasen: In the March 19 California section, a photo caption with the obituary of cartoonist Irwin Hasen misattributed the source of this quote: "You saw America through a little kid's eyes —a kid who had seen way too much unpleasantness in his young years." It was comic book editor Danny Fingeroth who said it, not Hasen.
Hasen, 96, who drew "Dondi" for its three-decade run as a newspaper comic, died Friday at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York.
The cause was heart failure, said his attorney, Fredric Horowitz.
At its height, "Dondi" was featured in more than 100 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, where it appeared from 1955 to 1965.
Just as another orphan, Annie, caught the country's attention during the Depression, the story of Dondi being rescued from war-torn Europe by GIs resonated with postwar America.
"What inspired it was that during the Korean War, officers were adopting war orphans," Hasen (pronounced HAY-sen) said at Comic-Con. "We just made it World War II, instead."
He teamed up with writer Gus Edson, who had the initial idea, to develop the comic strip starring an adorable kid of Italian birth (although Dondi's nationality changed somewhat over the years) with dark eyes, tousled hair and too-big clothes.
The strip was bought by the Chicago Tribune and made its debut in 1955 with Dondi living behind a rubbish heap and found by GIs who give him food and a place to sleep. When the soldiers are ordered back home, Dondi sneaks aboard their ship to reach America, "where swell guys come from."
Once in the U.S., however, Dondi is embroiled in an immigration battle. The plot move was "a master stroke," said comics historian Maurice Horn, writing in "The World Encyclopedia of Comics." "It created a national sensation and a great deal of anxiety about the comic character's fate."
Readers breathed a sigh of relief when Dondi, whose newspaper subscription base grew steadily, was allowed to stay in the country. The plot pattern was repeated with Dondi becoming a pawn in custody battles. He also got the constant companionship of a dog, Queenie, and met up with a variety of characters.
"The strip had a sense of wonder," said comic book editor Danny Fingeroth, known for his work on Spider-Man. "You saw America through a little kid's eyes — a kid who had seen way too much unpleasantness in his young years."
Hasen, whose height topped out at just over 5 feet, said the character was in some ways autobiographical.
"Most of the strip has to do with Dondi and the big world around him," he said in a 1986 Chicago Tribune interview, "as it was with me all of my life."
Hasen was born July 8, 1918, in New York. "I weighed a pound and a quarter," he said in the 2011 documentary "Irwin: A New York Story." "The doctor at the hospital ... said 'If he survives, he'll be a genius,' but he said, 'Don't count on it.' "
As a boy, Hasen drew pictures on whatever paper he could get his hands on, and his mother enrolled him in nighttime art classes at the National Academy of Design. "During the day I would hawk, sell, drawings of prize-fighters," he said in a 1998 interview for the Alter Ego zine. "They were printed all over New York, in different newspapers. It was like public relations for the fights."
During World War II, he was in the Army and stationed at Ft. Dix, N.J., where he put out the base newspaper.
Hasen did his superhero work at DC Comics, turning out about 100 comic book covers. But in the early 1950s, he lost the job. "I really couldn't hack it with the competition of all these damn good artists," he told Alter Ego.
His rougher drawing style fit well with Dondi, who never grew much older than in the debut strip. The comic also changed little in attitude over the decades, even as wide-eyed optimism lost its sheen. A 1961 movie based on the strip was a critical and box office flop.
In 1986, with the number of newspapers carrying the strip down to 35, Hasen pulled the plug.
"I think Dondi was just too sweet, too nice, too gentle for the times we live in now," Hasen told the Chicago Tribune. "He believed in everybody."
Hasen made appearances at several comic book conventions in the 1990s and 2000s, but after Dondi, he never again drew a character on a regular basis.
He has no immediate survivors.