Paul Wilson: Superman's Hamilton story

The man who drew Superman, Batman and lots of other super heroes for the comics of yesteryear was born and raised in Hamilton. His fans include the woman he left behind, now nearly 90 and living outside Pittsburgh.
Years after they left Hamilton, Win and Eileen Mortimer sat for a Newsweek portrait at their home in Carmel, NY. This picture hangs in her house today.

He knew Superman well. And Batman. And Spider-Man, Plastic Man, Catwoman, Superboy, Supergirl, Green Arrow, Tomahawk, the Honeymooners, Scooter, Binky, Fat Albert, Frankenstein.

Win Mortimer, born and raised in Hamilton, drew them all for the masses who loved comics. It’s been said no one created more comic book covers than Win. He was no household name, but he was big league.

He died 15 years ago tomorrow, January 11, 1998. There was not a word of his passing in Hamilton back then. We’ll fix that today.

James Winslow "Win" Mortimer was born May 1, 1919. He grew up on Burris Street, south of Main, went to Stinson School, then Central.

His father headed up the poster department at Howell Lithographic on Vine, right downtown.

Young Win showed talent early. After high school, he went off to the Art Students League of New York. Anatomy was on the curriculum. So later on, when Superman needed pecs and a chiseled jaw, Win knew just how to deliver.

He made posters for the big-guns plant

When the Second World War began, Win signed on with the Canadian Army. He was discharged with ear problems, but his talents were soon utilized at the big Otis Elevator plant on Victoria North. It had been converted into "the largest intermediate anti-aircraft gun plant in the British Empire."

Seven acres under one roof, making the big Bofors weapon. It could shoot 125 rounds a minute, to a height of 20,000 feet.

And there Win produced posters for the war effort. The message – work hard, be careful, be smart. Democracy depends on you.

The war ended, and Win needed work. He was married by then, and the first of three children – Carole, Patricia, Jim – had already arrived. The big jobs were south of the border, and Win landed a good one with DC Comics in New York City. They put him in the "bullpen" and he got working on Batman right away.

The Man of Steel was not far behind. Not just comic books – Win did all the daily newspaper Superman strips from 1949 to 1955.

From superheroes to man of the cloth

Superheroes are fine, but Win yearned for more. A story in The Spectator in 1956 tells of Win’s new syndicated strip – David Crane, about a young minister and his wife trying to build up a broken-down parish in the country.

The Spec reported in 1960 that Win was moving on to a new strip – Larry Brannon, trouble shooter for a Canadian businessman. On occasion, Larry’s action-packed adventures even took him to Hamilton. That ran until 1968.

After that, Win did more comics and lots of commercial art. He never did retire.

Just south of Pittsburgh, we find his son Jim Mortimer. He’d be glad to talk to us, but suggests someone even better, just down the road.

It turns out Win’s wife is still alive. She drives her own car, owns her own house, and next month she’s having a big birthday.

"Wow," we say, when she picks up the phone, "you sure don’t sound 90."

"I don’t think I look it either," she replies.

She answered his fan mail

Eileen Cutting Mortimer was born in Hamilton and grew up on Mayfair Crescent in Westdale. At 17, she got a job at the Otis plant. There she met Win, good-looking guy and funny too. Two years later they married at Christ’s Church Cathedral on James North.

Win got that plum comics job in Manhattan. And it wasn’t long until they moved to Carmel, New York, onto a two-acre spread, with a nice home and barn/studio out back. When Newsweek came calling for a feature, they shot Win and Eileen at the barn. That black and white glossy hangs in Eileen’s home today.

"I answered all his fan mail," Eileen says. "David Crane (that strip about the minister) ran in over 600 papers. But Win got a little discouraged with it and wanted to branch out."

In the late 1980s, the couple detoured through Hamilton to see the old places, and found it much changed. Then they headed up to their cottage property in the Muskokas.

Win worked to the end. "Eight days before he died," Eileen says, "he was doing posters for (New York) Governor Pataki."

Cancer took Win. Eileen misses him greatly. "It still seems like last week that we were together."

She says a nice reminder of her talented mate arrives every few months, when the mail brings another modest but welcome Win Mortimer royalty cheque.

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.