Cartoonist Irwin Hasen worked on superhero comic books starring Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern and others, but the character he helped create -- a pint-size war orphan named Dondi -- needed no greater powers than gumption and wide-eyed innocence to charm a nation.

From the moment Hasen heard the concept for "Dondi" in the mid-1950s, he knew it would be a winner.

"It's like that old story that you're on a dance floor," he said at a 1999 Comic-Con appearance, "and you look across a crowded room and you say, 'That's the woman I'm gonna marry.' "

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Hasen, 96, who drew "Dondi" for its three-decade run as a newspaper comic, died March 13 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. The cause was heart failure, his attorney Fredric Horowitz said.

At its height, "Dondi" was featured in more than 100 newspapers. Just as another orphan, Annie, caught the country's attention during the Depression, the story of Dondi being rescued from war-torn Europe by GIs resonated with postwar America.

He teamed up with writer Gus Edson, who had the initial idea, to develop the comic strip starring an adorable kid of Italian birth (although Dondi's nationality changed somewhat over the years) with dark eyes, tousled hair and too-big clothes.

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The strip was bought by the Chicago Tribune and made its debut in 1955 with Dondi living behind a rubbish heap and found by GIs who give him food and a place to sleep.

When the soldiers are ordered back home, Dondi sneaks aboard their ship to reach America, "where swell guys come from."

Once in the United States, however, Dondi is embroiled in an immigration battle. The plot pattern was repeated with Dondi becoming a pawn in custody battles. He also got the constant companionship of a dog, Queenie, and met up with a variety of characters.

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"The strip had a sense of wonder," said comic book editor Danny Fingeroth, known for his work on Spider-Man. "You saw America through a little kid's eyes -- a kid who had seen way too much unpleasantness in his young years."

Hasen was born July 8, 1918, in New York. As a boy, he drew pictures on whatever paper he could get his hands on, and his mother enrolled him in nighttime art classes at the National Academy of Design. During World War II, he was in the Army and stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he put out the base newspaper.

Hasen did his superhero work at DC Comics, turning out about 100 comic book covers. But in the early 1950s, he lost the job. "I really couldn't hack it with the competition of all these damn good artists," he told Alter Ego.

His rougher drawing style fit well with Dondi. The comic also changed little in attitude over the decades, even as wide-eyed optimism lost its sheen. In 1986, with the number of newspapers carrying the strip down to 35, Hasen pulled the plug.

"I think Dondi was just too sweet, too nice, too gentle for the times we live in now," Hasen told the Chicago Tribune. "He believed in everybody."