This is just a personal note of sadness, it’s not anything but my own personal experience, and a little bit of grief for a man I didn’t really get to know except through his art and his actions.
Maybe it’s partly a gender thing, but when I was a kid reading comics, I never bothered to read the credits boxes. I learned to discern some artists I loved, but by their styles, never their names.
We were poor when I was a kid, my mom worked two jobs to support my brother and me, and when I got comics, it was usually at a garage sale or something like that. That was fine with me, I didn’t discriminate, I loved all comics at that time and was happy to read Archie, old Bugs Bunny and Disney comics, superheroes, scary comics, whatever was there.
But the score, the big treasures, were the DC specials that included Golden Age reprints. That stuff really fascinated me, and built my love of the shared universe concept. There were TWO Batmen? There was a JLA and a JSA? What?
I loved that stuff.
And I really liked the b-listers from those stories, people like the Ray, and the Black Condor, characters who hadn’t really made it big, but had a lovely vibe of their own.
And my favorite of those, by far, was Doll Man. He was a bit like the Atom before the ATOM was like the Atom, by which I mean, he shrunk, when the Golden Age Atom was just a short guy. He shrunk to the size of a doll.
He had a classic, simple costume, reminiscent of the same circus outfits that inspired Superman’s outfit. He had a girlfriend, named Doll Girl, who was fun to read about on her own. Unlike the Atom, Doll Man could only shrink to one size.
Like Plastic Man, the creators of this series milked the concept for all the fun in the world. It was gimmicky, but it was great. Doll Man rode a big dog, standing on its neck and pulling its ears to direct the canine transport.
He was tremendous fun. I’ve always wanted to write him.
Years later, when I was offered the All-New Atom, a huge part of wanting to do the book was because I loved Doll Man so much. I tried to bring the original Doll Man into the cast, but that was turned down. I still stuck a few Doll Man references in there, including Atom riding a dog, Doll Man style, in issue two, I believe.
So, okay, I can’t say what it was I liked about him, maybe it was his whimsy, or it might have been that when you feel small and powerless, it’s fun to imagine someone who is small and still kicks everyone’s ass.
Over the years, Doll Man has mostly been forgotten, I think. He was reinvented in an excellent series a while back by a great creative team, but obviously, the theme was very different for today’s audience.
Skip ahead to just a couple years ago, and the great author John Ostrander is having serious problems. He has glaucoma so bad that he is in danger of losing his eyesight, and can’t afford the corrective surgery to fix it.
Some friends and I decide to ask the comics community for help. I’ve talked about this a lot, how amazing it was to get the generous donations of both readers and the creative community. Many of my creative heroes became my compassion heroes as well, as they gave art, time and money to this worthy cause.
News got around, lots of people came to us to donate.
I got a note on facebook from a gentleman I had never heard of, named Geoff Brenneman. He had a friend who was an artist who had heard about this, and wanted to donate some art. I was so flooded with all the email and phone calls at the time, that I didn’t ask right away who it was, just gave Geoff the information for where and how to donate, and thanked him.
The next time I spoke with Geoff, I was more collected and asked if I might know who his artist friend was.
The artist’s name was Fran Matera.
Like I said, I am not that familiar with some of the names of the creators of even some of my favorite comics, so I asked a little about who Fran was.
What an amazing career.
Fran was one of the last remaining Golden Age artists. He was 85 years old when he made this offer.
He had drawn many comic strips for years, stuff like Steve Roper and Rex Morgan, M.D. As well as fun, oddball strips like Bruce Lee and Dolly Parton.
He had drawn Tarzan and the Incredible Hulk at Marvel.
I was incredibly touched by this. Out of all the people who had offered to help, here was this 85 year old former Marine, who didn’t wait to be asked, but contacted US to volunteer to help a much younger writer in a crisis. It was just one of those, holy crap, people really ARE good and kind moments.
I was stunned to hear that Fran was a well-known Golden Age artist who had worked with Will Eisner. He had done Blackhawks, for one.
But he was most known for drawing another Eisner creation, Doll Man.
I literally flipped my **** a little bit, there. It just seemed too weirdly fortuitous that I was possibly the biggest Doll Man fan currently writing comics and here this man approached US to offer to help, like a little love from my childhood coming back with a suitcase of unicorns.
Here’s Fran’s site:
And here are some samples of his work, including Doll Man sketches done later in his life.
I love that stuff, I love that art, I love the playfulness of it. I still would kill to write THIS Doll man someday.
So we talked to Fran, through Geoff, and Fran insisted on sending two huge Doll Man sketches to auction off. Original art by living Golden Age artists is getting sadly rare. And Fran’s art was still fantastic, you can see the heart and imagination at work, along with his wonderful skills.
When I told Geoff what a fan I was of Doll Man, Fran himself absolutely insisted on including a sketch of Doll Man just for me. I tried to talk him out of it, I didn’t want to benefit personally when the auction was for John, and I didn’t want to inconvenience Fran. But he insisted, just every inch a gentleman.
Sure enough, a short time later, I get a package with the sketches, including one drawn just for me…a gorgeous huge Doll Man sketch in in pencil and grey wash, complete with a hand-drawn logo. It says, “Greeting to Gail Simone from Fran Matera and Dollman!”
People have been very generous to me since I became a writer. I have a room full of lovely gifts and art that creators and readers and retailers have kindly decided to give me over the years.
But there aren’t many things I treasure as much as this sketch. Not just the art, and not just the memories, but a reminder that kindness and empathy are forever, and can outlast even the people who had those qualities their entire lives through.
Fran Matera passed away earlier this month at the age of 88 years old. Another piece of living comics history sadly gone.
I didn’t know him, I never met him, but I’m going to miss him.