You probably don’t know who Sheldon Moldoff is, but I think about him a lot. Shelly — as I like to imagine his friends called him — started working as an artist for DC comics when he was 17, during the great depression. Seventeen! In those early days, DC was comprised of two kinds of people: rich, cigar-chomping sociopaths (executives) and poor-but-earnest rumble-toughs just looking to get by (creatives). There were exceptions to be sure, but the exceptions proved the rule.
Back then you only worked as a comic artist because no other respectable industry would hire you. Can’t get a job as an ad man? Cool, fuck off and go a draw a Hawk guy for kids and simpletons for a tenth of the pay, which is what Sheldon did. And he did it well.
Sheldon had his hands in everything at DC in those early years. He drew the cover art for the first appearances of the Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder-Woman. He had a one-page insert comic that appeared in Action Comics #1, right beside the first appearance of Superman. He was given control over the Hawkman book, where he introduced Hawkgirl to the world. He was everywhere.
Eventually, he was secretly hired as one of Bob Kane’s ghost artists, where he would go on to create a slew of bat-characters that survive to this day. Mr. Freeze, Batgirl, Batwoman, Bat-Mite, Lord Death-Man, Clayface, Ace the Bathound – the list goes on and on. Officially, Bob Kane was given credit for breathing life into all these kooky kats, but he had virtually nothing to do with any of them. And Shelly was, as far as we know, totally cool with this arrangement. We know he wasn’t in it for the fame because there was no real fame associated with comics at the time. Eventually we’d get a tiny handful of corporate figureheads like Stan Lee or Bob Kane, but even that wouldn’t come until the 60s. Kane told him that as long as he kept his mouth shut, he’d have steady, paying work on the regular. For a depression kid, that probably sounded like a pretty sweet deal.
And unlike most everything else that came out of Kane’s mouth, this was true. He paid Shelly (very little) for fourteen years, taking credit for his work the entire time.
At one point in the 50s, Shelly was drawing at least 350 pages per year, and that estimate is probably on the low end. That’s a fucking insane number by any standard. He was doing all of Kane’s work, plus a slew of other personal projects that never quite took off in the way Batman did. By the late 1960s, DC was throwing the golden age creators overboard in favor of an up-and-coming pool of young talent, and ol’ Shelly got the boot. He went into animation for a spell, created promotional comics for restaurant chains and the Atlanta Braves, worked the convention scene, and then he died.
There were a lot of unsung heroes in those early days of comics, and a lot of very public villains disguised as heroes. Shelly stands out for the sheer number of enduring characters that he introduced, but the broad strokes of his professional life story were common as sin. Hell, a lot of the shit he had to deal with still goes on at Marvel and DC to this day.
So, why do I think of him so much? Why does any of this matter?
I dunno, maybe it doesn’t. Shelly took a job, eyes wide open, and cashed his checks. End of story. I guess I just love the idea of Shelly as the underdog. Bob Kane will be remembered for a mountain of timeless work he never actually created. Shelly will be lost forever in the garbage heaps of Limbo. But he got the job done before he vanished into the ether and we’re all better off for it.
He’ll never get the credit that he deserves, and that’s a goddamn tragedy. But the moral of Shelly’s story isn’t as depressing as it may seem. The fact that Sheldon spent his professional life hunched over a drawing table for pennies while Bob Kane took the credit for his creations proved that the craft was more important than the money. And those creations will keep living well past our own expiration dates.
I don’t want to put words into the guy’s mouth, but the fact that today’s comic book pages are filled with the same Bats and Hawks that Shelly birthed from those well-worn fingers is probably closer to immortality than you or I will ever achieve. Sheldon’s kids aren’t even human, and they’ve achieved immortality.
What have your shitty kids done?