For most illustrators, creating even one iconic character is a dream come true. Martin Nodell, however, helped invent two: the superhero Green Lantern and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Nodell, one of the few surviving artists from the Golden Age of comic books, died Saturday at a nursing home 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.
His collaborator was writer Bill Finger, who had already made comic-book history by working closely with Bob Kane on the earliest adventures of Batman. But when Green Lantern debuted in All-American Comics No. 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. Carrie died in 2004.
The Green Lantern that flew across the page in 1940 was blond engineer Alan Scott, who had come into possession of a ring that tapped into a mystical emerald power. That character would change drastically through the years. By the 1960s, for instance, the Green Lantern was dark-haired test pilot Hal Jordan, and his ring was a science-based weapon given to him by a galactic police force.
Regardless, the Lantern name and core concept endured with comics, television cartoons and several notable pop-culture echoes. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has cracked jokes about him, pop star Donovan sang about him, and in hip-hop circles there's a star that works with Eminem and calls himself DJ Green Lantern in homage. Director Francis Ford Coppola has said that 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 advertising agency as art director. In 1965, his design team developed 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 doughy mascot has been poked about 60,000 times in hundreds of ads.
A native of Philadelphia who studied at art schools in New York and Chicago, Nodell lived in 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.