For most illustrators, creating even one iconic character is a dream come true. Martin Nodell, however, helped invent two: the superhero Green Lantern and baker's hero the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Nodell, one of the few surviving artists from comic books' Golden Age and a former Huntington resident, died Saturday in Wisconsin after a brief illness. He was 91.
It was a subway ride in Manhattan that inspired Green Lantern. En route to his Brooklyn home in 1940, Nodell noticed a trainman waving a lantern along the darkened tracks. He coupled the imagery with a magic ring - akin to Wagner's "Ring Cycle," which also inspired "The Lord of the Rings" - and the hero was born.
But when Green Lantern debuted in All-American Comics #16 in 1940, the Philadelphia-born artist felt obliged to use the nom de plume Mart Dellon.
"Comics were a forbidden literature, culturally unacceptable," Nodell told Newsday in 2000. "It wasn't something you were proud of."
Two months later, he met his future wife, Carrie, in Coney Island. "It was a good year for Marty," recalled Carrie, who died in 2004 after 63 years of marriage. In 1941, they moved to Huntington to live with his brother, Simon, a Republic Aviation engineer.
Green Lantern's prominent fans include Jerry Seinfeld (who joked about the hero in several episodes of his sitcom), sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, singers Donovan and Eminem, DJ Green Lantern, and director Francis Ford Coppola, who said the character stoked his desire to tell stories.
"As a child, Green Lantern was my favorite superhero," Coppola said in 1999. "It caught my imagination. Whether it was the notion of coming into possession of a magic talisman ... or the dashing character I identified with, I don't know.
"Maybe it was the idea that, like Batman, a normal person like me could come into such powers - without being born to it. I certainly had an affinity for that character."
After stints at DC and Marvel Comics (where he drew Captain America and Human Torch), Nodell joined the Leo Burnett Agency as art director. In 1965, his design team had an idea. A poppin' fresh idea, actually: the Pillsbury Doughboy.
"They wanted something in 3-D for live stop-motion," Nodell said. "Most commercials don't last more than a season. He's still going." Pillsbury officials say the jiggly mascot has been poked about 60,000 times in hundreds of ads.
On his Web site, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein points out that Jewish talents such as Nodell filled a vital need in post-Depression America.
"Clearly the world needed heroes," says Weinstein, author of "Up, Up, and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero." "Even before their own country went to war with Hitler, Jewish-American artists and writers began creating powerful characters who were dedicated to protecting the innocent."
Nodell lived his later years in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was a regular at comic-book conventions.
"His last show was in Detroit in May, and he was still drawing until about two weeks ago," said his son Spencer, of Waukesha, Wis. "My dad is one of the last of the Golden Age artists. Guys like [Superman creators Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster, [Batman creator] Bob Kane, they've all passed. Jerry Robinson [co-creator of the Joker] and [Batman artist] Sheldon Moldoff are still with us, but otherwise they're all gone."
Nodell is survived by another son, Mitchell; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. The family has requested that any donations go to heroinitiative.org.