Monday, February 20, 2017

Matt Baker: African American Comic Book Artist

Among the most famous comic book artists to emerge during the latter half of the Golden Age of Comic Books was Matt Baker. He is particularly well known for the "good girl" art of the early part of his career, although he would ultimately work in a variety of comic book genres. In his relatively short career, Matt Baker drew superhero comic books, crime comic books, romance comic books, and Western comic books. He even worked on what might be the first graphic novel, It Rhymes with Lust (1950). What set Matt Baker apart form many comic book artists of the era is that he also happened to be black.

Contrary to popular belief, Matt Baker was not the first African American comic book artist. Given the lack of credit given artists on many Golden Age comic books it is difficult to say with any certainty who the first black comic book artist was, but it seems likely it was E. C. Stoner. E. C. Stoner was a commercial artist widely credited for shaping the appearance of  Planters mascot, Mr. Peanut. He went on to work in comic books and even worked on the very first issue of Detective Comics (March 1937). Legendary artist Alvin C. Hollingsworth began working in comic books around 1940. His first work was as an art assistant on Holyoke's Cat-Man Comics. In the mid to late Forties Andre LeBlanc and Warren Broderick were two other black artists to emerge in the comic book industry. While Matt Baker may not have been the first black comic book artist, he was certainly among the most important black artists to emerge during the Golden Age. Some might argue that he was the most important.

Matt Baker was born on December 10 1927 in Forsyth County, North Carolina. He was very young when his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is where he spent most of his childhood. Sadly, as a child Matt Baker contracted rheumatic fever, the end result of which was that it weakened his heart. It was in 1940, not long after he had graduated high school, that Mr. Baker moved to Washington D. C. There he apparently worked for a government agency. He later moved to New York City where he took art courses at Cooper Union.

Matt Baker began his career in comic books with the Jerry Iger Studio, a comic book packager that provided material for various comic book publishers. His earliest confirmed work was pencilling and inking a 12 page "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" story in Jumbo Comics #69 (November 1944). In his early days with the Jerry Iger Studio Matt Baker spent most of his time pencilling backgrounds and female characters for other artists. He would not remain doing so for long. In Jumbo Comics #68 (October 1944) a new feature titled "Sky Girl" debuted. "Sky Girl" followed the adventures of a leggy redhead named Ginger Maguire who most often worked as a ferry pilot in the Pacific theatre of World War II. Matt Baker's gift for drawing beautiful women was already apparent early in his career, so it should come as no surprise that he was soon assigned to the feature. Mr. Baker continued to work on "Sky Girl" until Jumbo Comics #114 (August 1948).

While at the Jerry Iger Studio, Matt Baker would illustrate other female heroes for Fiction House beyond "Sky Girl".  He also worked on the feature "Tiger Girl" that appeared in Fight Comics. Tiger Girl owed a good deal to Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, the only significant difference being that Tiger Girl's adventures appeared to take place in some odd blend of India and Africa. He also drew another Sheena clone for Fiction House, "Camilla",  who appeared in Jungle Comics. Matt Baker's work for Fiction House was not exclusively female characters. He drew "The Skull Squad" for Wings Comics and "Kayo Kirby" for Fight Comics.

In the late Forties Fiction House was hardly the only comic book publisher for which Matt Baker provided material. He also worked on Classic Comics #32 (December 1946), which featured that title's adaptation of Lorna Doone. What may have been his most famous (or perhaps "notorious" would be a better word) work may have been for Fox Features Syndicate. Matt Baker worked on Fox's comic book Phantom Lady. The star of the feature, the superhero known as "Phantom Lady", did not originate with Fox. Instead she had been provided by the Jerry Iger Studio as a back up feature for Quality Comics' Police Comics and appeared in the first issue of that magazine (August 1941). At Quality Comics, Phantom Lady last appeared in Police Comics #23 (October 1943). The Jerry Iger Studio, assuming that they owned the rights to the character, later took Phantom Lady to Fox. Phantom Lady made her first appearance in a Fox comic book in Phantom Lady #13 (August 1947), taking over the numbering of the title Wotalife Comics. Given his gift for drawing women, it should come as no surprise that Matt Baker was assigned to the "Phantom Lady" feature. He even redesigned her costume. A rather modest, yellow affair when she was published by Quality Comics, at Fox Features Syndicate her costume became a blue outfit that revealed considerable cleavage and included a dangerously short skirt.

It was the cover of Phantom Lady vol. 1, #17 (April 1948) that would become perhaps the most famous Matt Baker art of all time. The cover featured the buxom Phantom Lady bound to a post. This particular cover was noticed by Dr. Fredric Wertham, the notorious crusader against comic books. He included the cover in his book Seduction of the Innocent with the caption, "Sexual stimulation by combining 'headlights' with the sadist's dream of tying up a woman. ("headlights" was early Fifties slang for "breasts")." Here it should be noted that by the time Seduction of the Innocent was published in 1954, Fox Features Syndicate has been out of business for four years. The company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1950.

Matt Baker worked for other titles beyond Phantom Lady at Fox. He also illustrated Fox's jungle heroine Rulah in such titles as Rulah, Jungle Goddess and Zoot Comics.

It is unclear when Matt Baker left the Jerry Iger Studio, but it appears to have been some time in 1948 or 1949. Regardless, he would go onto work for St. John Publications. While Mr. Baker's work on Fox Features Syndicate's Phantom Lady might be more famous, arguably his best work was done at St. John. Not only did Matt Baker come into his own as an artist at St. John, but he became the publisher's most important artist. There were very few titles published by St. John that did not feature the artwork of Matt Baker at one time or another.

Matt Baker's first work at St. John Publications appears to have in titles cover dated "October 1948": Crime Reporter #2 and Northwest Mounties #1. He would go onto work on a wide variety of titles published by St. John, including Authentic Police Cases, Fightin' Marines, Flying Cadet, and The Texan. While he worked in a number of genres while at St. John, most of his work would be done on the publisher's romance titles, including Cinderella Love, Diary Stories, Pictorial Romances, Teenage Romances, True Love Pictorial, and yet others. Among his best work at St. John was on Canteen Kate, which had debuted as a feature in Fightin' Marines. Canteen Kate was a service comedy centred around the title character who ran a canteen in Korea during the Korean War. It was while at St. John that Matt Baker moved away from the "good girl" art of his early career towards a more naturalistic style. While the women he drew were still beautiful, they also looked more realistic.

What may have been Matt Baker's most important work at St. John is also what is widely regarded as the first graphic novel. Writers Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller conceived what they called "picture novels", essentially a longer, more adult format that would tell a single story. The two were able to convince publisher Archer St. John of the viability of the format, which would be published as mass market paperbacks. The very first "picture novel" was It Rhymes with Lust, which was written by Messrs. Drake and Waller.  It featured art pencilled by Matt Baker and inked by Ray Osrin. It Rhymes with Lust was definitely an adult tale that borrowed from both film noir and the pulp fiction of the day. It was followed by another "picture novel", The Case of the Winking Buddha, by writer Manning Lee Stokes and artist Charles Raab. Unfortunately neither sold well and Archer St. John cancelled plans for an entire line of picture novels.

Matt Baker not only worked in St. John Publications' line of comic books, but in its line of magazines as well. He provided all of the illustrations for the first issue of St. John's crime magazine Manhunt (January 1953). He also provided the illustrations for the first issue of St. John's men's magazine Nugget (November 1955). Unfortunately on August 13 1955 Archer St. John was found dead in a female friend's apartment. The cause seemed to be from an overdose of sleeping pills. St. John Publications stopped publishing comic books in 1957, although they continued to publish magazines well into the Sixties.

Following his years with St. John, Matt Baker became a freelancer. He worked on Dell Comics' Lassie comic books featuring the famous Collie. For Dell he also worked on Four Color #58 (October 1954), their adaptation of the movie King Richard and the Crusaders. He also did a good deal of work for Atlas Comics, the company that would evolve into the modern day Marvel Comics. Not surprisingly given his career at St. John, he provided a good deal of art for their various romance titles, including Love Romances, My Own Romance, and Teen-Age Romance. He also worked on the company's many Western titles, including Frontier Western, Quick Trigger Action, Western Outlaws, and Wild Western. While today Atlas may be best known for their various "monster" comic books, Matt Baker did very little work on those titles. He only contributed one story each to the monster titles Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and World of Fantasy.

Sadly, Matt Baker's weak heart would catch up with him in the end. On August 11 1959 he died of a heart attack at age 37. His last confirmed work was "I Gave Up the Man I Love!" in Atlas Comics' My Own Romance #73 (Jan. 1960).

Despite Matt Baker's importance in comic book history, very little is known about his personal life. Perhaps because he was one of the very few African Americans working in the comic book industry at the time, he did not associate with a lot of his fellow comic book artists and comic book writers. He did develop a few friendships within the industry. He was a close friend of inker Frank Giusto, who even asked him to be the best man at his wedding. While Matt Baker declined the honour, he did attend Mr. Giusto's wedding. Another close friend was fellow artist Ray Osrin. Matt Baker would take Mr. Osrin and his family for drives in his convertible. He also appears to have been close to publisher Archer St. John. They went to California together once, where they were photographed outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Matt Baker had a reputation for his fashion sense. Writer Arnold Drake described him as "the hippest dresser I had ever seen." Ray Osrin said of Mr. Baker, " I envied the way he wore clothes." According to more than one source Matt Baker was a fan of jazz. Frank Giusto said that they would listen to jazz while they were working.

While we know little of Matt Baker's personal life, we do know his impact on the art of comic books. During the Golden Age of Comic Books, much of the art was either cartoony or, at least, highly stylised. Matt Baker was among the first comic book artists to use a more realistic, more naturalistic style. Matt Baker's influence would be seen most immediately on EC Comics' titles in the early Fifties. Al Feldstein, who was an artist, editor, and writer at EC, had worked with Matt Baker. By the Sixties there would emerge several artists who used more realistic styles, including Neal Adams and John Romita. In the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, realism would become the dominant style in superhero comic books.

Of course, beyond pioneering realism in comic book art, Matt Baker was also a pioneer in the comic book industry simply because he was one of the earliest black artists to work in the industry. We know very little about how Matt Baker was treated as one of the few African Americans in the industry at the time. That having been said, race would seem to have been the elephant in the room. Al Feldstein thought much of the reason that Matt Baker did not associate with a lot of his colleagues in the comic book industry was due to the fact that he was black. Mr. Feldstein said, "Part of Matt’s problem, I feel in retrospect, was due to a basic and despicable problem prevalent in America during the early post-war period, racial bias and racial inequality. Matt was a black man. He was a rare phenomenon in an industry almost totally dominated by white males."

While one has to suspect Matt Baker experienced racism in the comic book industry of the post-war era, his sheer talent overcame many of the obstacles being an African American presented in the industry. Matt Baker's half-brother Fred Robinson noted that Mr. Baker got considerable work in the comic book industry because of his sheer talent. Mr. Robinson said of Matt Baker, "He got it because he was good. It’s as simple as that. If you’re good, and you have what people want, they’re going to use you. You get hired. Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier mainly because he was good—he could play ball better than anyone else. He just happened to be black, and was given a hard time because of that, but the fact remains that he was still good and rose above all that." Matt Baker broke colour barriers in the comic book industry because he was an extremely talented artist. While he was not the first African American artist in the comic book industry, he was arguably the most important of the early African American artists to emerge in the Golden Age. In many respects, he was the Jackie Robinson of comic books.

(Much of the information for this article was drawn from the book Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour by Jim Amash and Eric Nolen-Weathington)

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed that read. I am in awe of artists.