Irwin Hasen, the cartoonist and comic-book artist who drew, and helped create, “Dondi,” the widely syndicated comic strip about a lovable, wide-eyed World War II orphan, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 96.
The cause was heart failure, his lawyer, Fredric Horowitz, said.
“Dondi,” which was conceived and originally written by Gus Edson and illustrated by Mr. Hasen, won the hearts of generations of Americans. It ran from 1955 through 1986, and at its peak appeared in more than 100 newspapers. With a classical drawing education as a child, Mr. Hasen (pronounced HAY-zen) began promoting his drawings as a teenager during the Depression to make money for his mother. In the 1940s he became a comic-book artist, contributing to the adventures of the Flash, the Green Lantern, the Green Hornet and others, as well as an adaptation of the radio and television series “The Goldbergs.”
But he was best known for “Dondi.”
“Dondi,” which was distributed by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, was adapted into a widely criticized 1961 filmstarring David Janssen and Patti Page, with a cameo appearance by Mr. Hasen as a police sketch artist. David Kory, in his first and only movie role, played Dondi.
Drawing “Dondi” came naturally to Mr. Hasen, he said in an interviewwith The New York Times in 2011.
“I was drawing myself — very few cartoonists have had this kind of connection,” said Mr. Hasen, who served in the United States Army during World War II, editing a newspaper while stationed at Fort Dix, N.J.
The strip was conceived while Mr. Hasen and Mr. Edson were touring Germany with the National Cartoonists Society. Mr. Edson proposed the idea to him after hearing about American servicemen adopting Korean War orphans.
After returning to the United States, Mr. Edson sent a crudely drawn idea of how the boy would look, Mr. Hasen recalled in an interview in the book “Alter Ego Collection Volume 1.”
“The minute I saw the letter, I called him up and I said, ‘Gus, this is gonna be the best strip in America,’ ” Mr. Hasen recalled.
In the strip, Dondi was a 5-year-old orphan who was found by soldiers in a war-torn Italian village during World War II.
Mr. Edson died in 1966, and Bob Oksner became Mr. Hasen’s collaborator.
Mr. Hasen never married or had children. “Dondi” filled that space for him, he said, and the 31 years he spent drawing it were the happiest of his life.
His best moment, he said, came early one morning in September 1955, when he had just begun drawing “Dondi.”
“I was on 42nd Street and I saw a newspaper truck roll by, with a huge poster of Dondi on the side,” he recalled, like a proud father. “Just to see that kid’s face on the truck, to see him being delivered to newsstands all over the city. I’m telling you, I cried.”
Mr. Hasen was born in New York City on July 8, 1918, and grew up on West 110th Street. As a child he studied at the nearby National Academy of Design. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, he studied at the Art Students League of New York, while selling his drawings of prizefighters to magazines to earn money for his family.
By the early 1940s he had become a staff illustrator for some of the most popular comic books of the day, working in bustling offices with stables of prominent illustrators and dreaming up plotlines and characters. For the past 35 years, Mr. Hasen lived on East 79th Street in a rent-regulated apartment. Next to the entrance was a drawing of him standing with Dondi.
It was a bachelor pad with a wet bar, his shopworn drawing table and many photographs attesting to a life spent gallivanting with his artist crowd.
Instead of family pictures, the walls were covered with his sketches of the naked likenesses of former girlfriends, often in haremlike groups, with Mr. Hasen caricatured impishly serving them cocktails.
For decades before his death, Mr. Hasen would eat breakfast daily at the same Madison Avenue diner — he called it Cafe Hasen and called himself its staff artist — and drew “Dondi”-style sketches for the staff to post on the walls. His evening routine included a martini at a nearby Third Avenue bistro.
He called his longevity, and Dondi’s, a “crapshoot” and said that he, like Dondi, never really grew up.
“Why he never grew up,” he said, “was part of the charm.”