Burnley was the first person to draw Superman, Batman and Robin other than their creators.
His drawing of the three heroes for the cover of an issue of "World's Fair Comics" in 1940 marked the first time the crime fighters appeared together in public. He was also the first to carefully outline the caped crusaders' muscle structures, setting the style for hundreds of heroes who followed.
"Just the fact that the creators let him take over says a lot," said Beau Eichling, owner of Atlas Comics in Rio Hill shopping center. "The extra ripples and muscles is kind of the comic book hero style now. They've really embellished on it."
Although famous for his comics, Burnley was an accomplished syndicated sports cartoonist working for newspapers during the 1930s. He worked for several years as illustrator for Damon Runyon before being hired to draw Superman and the syndicated newspaper strip "Batman."
"I gave Superman a lot more muscle than he had originally," he told The Daily Progress in 2000. "When I came into comics I had a background in drawing the musclemen and heroes of sports, so it was rather easy for me to make the transition to drawing the comic figures."
Behind Burnley's pen, the superheroes stumped for the War Department, fighting Nazis and encouraging the purchase of war bonds. Burnley's drawings proved popular and he went on to create, with Gardner Fox, his own superhero, Starman. Starman, however, proved less enduring than Superman and Batman, and was given an early retirement when interest in superheroes dwindled after World War II.
The character, however, continued to pop up over the years, sometimes appearing as a member of the Justice Society of America, and has benefited from recent renewed interest in the characters from comics' "Golden Age."
Burnley continued drawing comics from 1940 to 1947 before returning to newspaper illustrations. He worked for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph for four years and then the San Francisco News, from which he retired in 1976. He and his wife moved to Charlottesville in 1981.
"It was exciting growing up around them," said Burnley's niece, Elizabeth Hamilton of Charlottesville. He lived with her and her daughters Catherine and Elizabeth before his death. "I'd walk into his studio and there'd be these huge drawing boards with artwork on them. This was before [World War II] and my uncle and mother would be working on the lettering."
Although best known for his artistic skills, Burnley was steeped and versed in philosophy and theology, Hamilton said.
"He came to the Catholic faith through reading and studying," she said. "He was a quiet, modest man and he would listen and discuss philosophy with you."
Burnley was married to Dolores Farris, a famous pre-war dancer who combined ballet's grace with jazz rhythms. The two were inseparable until Farris died in 2003 at the Heritage Hall nursing facility of complications from a broken hip, Hamilton said. Burnley also died at Heritage Hall of complications from a broken hip, according to Hamilton.
Eichling, of Atlas Comics, said Burnley visited his store nearly every Christmas.
"We'd see him at least once a year," he said. "Mr. Burnley helped support our store and was a great guy. We'll miss him around here."
Burnley had no children. In addition to Hamilton, he is survived by a sister-in-law, Ann Burnley, and a nephew, John Burnley.
Copyright © 2006, The Daily Progress.