I recently corresponded with a young lad named Lon Nowak. He and some friends are trying to break into comics with some impressive work. Check out their offerings at Atlas Comics.
But his name got me thinking of a man named Leo Nowak, one of the original Superman artists who worked cheek by jowl with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Lon is not related to Leo, but I think he has the same spirit. At least I hope he does, because Leo was a hell of a guy.
It was back in 2001 around this time that Leo died, Jan. 6 at the age of 93. His passing was, sadly and unfairly, barely noticed by the comics community.
I did a piece on him at the time for The Plain Dealer and found myself reflecting as much about the man as his art. Back in 1996, I spent some time with Leo at his home in the California desert where he lived by himself, but not alone. His home was a refuge for scraggly dogs, rabbits and injured turtles that Leo rescued and restored to health.
There was beautiful art everywhere, including Superman scenes. Leo said he still enjoyed penciling the big blue boy scout and people sometimes commissioned pieces from him. I was met by an ancient German shepherd at Leo’s home. The dog wagged his tail slowly but also gave me a look that said he would take off my head if I messed with Leo.
I asked about the dog. Leo said the dog just wandered onto his property one day, sat down and never left. Leo figured the dog was welcome to stay as long as he wanted, and that turned into a lifelong relationship.
There were also giant turtles, desert tortoises actually, all over the place, each with a number on its back and a funky cement on its shell. I asked Leo about it.
He said he often found injured turtles in the desert or the nearby highway.
“People just hit them and keep driving, like their lives don’t matter,” he said. “But they do matter. These turtles will outlive us, if we let them alone.”
Nowak took one of the turtles to a local veterinarian who almost laughed him out of the office. The vet said once a turtle’s shell is broken it’s all over.
Leo would not accept that. He asked the vet if the shell was repaired, would the animal live? The vet said the turtle would, but who would bother wasting his time fixing a turtle?
He went home and tried several mixtures of plaster of Paris, various sticky resins and other substances until he came up with one that would make the turtle’s shell as good as new. He tried it out and it worked: the turtle lived.
For more than a decade, Leo went into the desert and rescued the injured turtles, brought them home and repaired their shells and nursed them back to health. When they were ready, he took them back into the desert, as far away from the highway as he could.
Why did he paint numbers on them?
He said he just wanted to keep track of them. He liked the notion of walking in the desert and coming across one of his former patients years later. He said that happened more often than he expected. And sometimes he had to repair the same turtle more than once.
He said he admonished the turtles about their carelessness, but they didn’t listen.
Good thing Leo was around to save them. Even without red cape and tights, Leo was a superhero.
Below is the 1996 story:
Publication Date: May 26, 1996 Page: 6F Section: ARTS LIVING
You won’t find Leo Nowak’s name in the credits in the early years of Action Comics.
But the former Cleveland man drew stories for many of them.
Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman and they got their names on the books,” he said. “The only place I got my name was where it mattered – on my paycheck.”
Nowak, now 88 and living in the desert of California where he specializes in idealized paintings of the Old West, is one of the last of the breed of artists who were at the dawn of comics. His name is showing up in comic history books, now that researchers are digging a little deeper.
Nowak was there at the beginning of it all. The few recent comics he has seen have left him cold.
“A comics historian visited me recently to talk about the old days in Siegel and Shuster’s studio,” he said. “He left a stack of comics behind and I took a look. I don’t want to criticize them, but I didn’t care much for them. They were kind of sick. They are not like they were in the old days.”
Nowak got involved in the business when it was young. The two upstart men from Cleveland, Siegel and Shuster, had a hit with the first few issues of Superman in “Action Comics” in 1938. They quickly opened a small studio at E. 105th St. and Euclid Ave. to produce the monthly adventures in “Superman” and “Action.”
“I had an orchestra and was playing a nightclub in Cleveland around 1940,” Nowak said. “Business was slow, so I painted a mural for the nightclub. I was standing at the bar and a whiskey salesman comes up to me and tells me how much he liked my work. He told me he knew some guys who were looking for an artist, so I just walked right up to the studio and introduced myself.”
Nowak showed Shuster and Siegel his samples and was hired on the spot.
“Soon I was drawing covers and interior stories,” he said. “Joe was a great guy, but to be honest he was not that great of an artist. I would draw the books and he would give them a final once over. I know he would often redraw Superman’s head because he wanted it to appear a certain way. But that was fine. I had a lot of fun working with them in those days.”
Nowak said the last story he ever drew for Siegel and Shuster, before he was drafted into the Army and sent overseas in 1941, had Superman revealing his identity.
“It was the only one that was never printed,” he said.
Nowak’s artwork may have been for a “lost” Superman story that was recently discovered. DC writer Mark Waid said when he was going through the library at DC Comics he came across a manuscript written by Jerry Siegel that was a complete departure from the storyline.
“It’s a complete story, not an imaginary story, but one that was clearly meant to be part of the new continuity,” Waid said. “In it, Superman revealed his secret identity to Lois Lane. I couldn’t believe it, because if it had been published it would have meant a whole new history for Superman. I guess that’s why it was never published.”
Nowak’s art, unfortunately, is long gone. But Waid said he hopes to dust the story off and somehow get it published, perhaps in 1998 for the 60th anniversary of Superman.
Nowak still draws Superman every now and then, but only for pleasure. He said he has done sketches of the Man of Steel to be auctioned off for charity, but these days he’s mostly involved in serious art.
Nowak’s original art has long since disappeared, along with most of the original drawings from the early days of comics. Such original work is worth a small fortune, when it can be found.
Like most people who have been collecting comics, Nowak has his own “lost comics” stories.
“After the war, Jerry and Joe had moved their studio to New York,” he said. “I guess I could have gone there and gotten my old job back, but I didn’t want to live in New York. I moved to California where I met Mack Sennett [the silent film producer] who wanted me to write and draw a series on the Keystone Kops. I gave him a half-dozen very early issues of Action with my work in them. Well, he never got back to me and I never got them back.”
In addition to his western paintings, Nowak also painted a series of nudes and even illustrated “Uncle Wiggley’s” children’s books.
He said he does not regret his decision to leave comics because though people like Siegel and Shuster are now getting the recognition they deserve, comic writers and artists were not respected by the world at large for most of the past 60 years.
Nowak drew comics during a time when they were simple. There were the good guys and the bad guys, and the good guys always won.
For better or worse, comics have changed dramatically and no one is quite sure who the good guys are anymore.
When Nowak draws Superman, he still draws the Man of Steel who stands for everything good in America, a Superman untouched by doubt, weakness or fear. He draws the Superman who is close to the vision of two kids from Cleveland who had this idea about a man from another planet with abilities far beyond those of mortal men.