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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Happy 93rd Birthday Matt Baker!

Matt Baker, who was one of the very first African American comic artists and was the leading practitioner of Good Girl Art in comics of the 1940’s, was born on this day, December 10, 1921, 93 years ago (he died August 11, 1959 at 38 years old). He is most famous for his work on the Phantom Lady he did for Fox Feature Syndicate.

Matt Baker (right) on the cover of his creation, Phantom Lady #17, Apr, 1949, the cover that Fredric Wertham used in his book Seduction of the Innocent with a caption that read, "Sexual stimulation by combining 'headlights' with the sadist's dream of tying up a woman."

After World War II, the popularity of the superhero was in decline. While great for cheering on our soldiers in war, our returning servicemen had no use for the heroes and their martial endeavors. This combined with the fact that comic producers dumbed down their heroes' adventures to appeal to a 5 year old made them a campy shadow of their former, daring selves.

Detective Comics #31, Aug 1939 shows the dark drama that Batman once was next to the campy joke Detective Comics became in 1945.
In order to survive the comic companies would have to produce something for an older audience, so they went looking for a new genre to peddle. Superheroines, while not very popular in the early half of the decade, became huge in the second half of the 1940's. Every publisher came out with their own leggy blonde bombshell.

The second half of the 40's ushered in a plethora of superheroines. Every company had to have one (or more) buxom beauty filling out their ranks like Miss Masque in America's Best Comics #24, Dec. 1947, Namora in Marvel Mystery Comics #82, Mar 1947, and the Blonde Phantom in Marvel Mystery Comics #84, Feb 1948.
Fox Feature Syndicate was no different and picked up the Phantom Lady from the Eisner/Iger Studios who produced her original stories for Quality’s Police Comics. Along with the Phantom Lady, Fox got African American comic artist Matt Baker to draw her.

Fox started with publishing Phantom Lady #13 in Aug 1947 with stories by Ruth Roche and art by the incomparable Matt Baker.

The cheese cakey Phantom Lady was following a strong tradition of the pin-up girl that was hugely popular during World War II.
 
During the war our troupes would often "pin up" pictures of beautiful girls in their barracks or paint them on their planes to remind them of better times back in the states. Matt Baker's art and the Phantom Lady were designed to appeal to this audience.
Though a scantily clad, sexy heroine, the Phantom Lady was really a girl friendly comic with lots of positive images of strong women. She would often save men and women from the clutches of bad people using her superior fighting skills.
 

Phantom Lady was anything but a typical helpless female. Writer Ruth Roche did a great job of making Phantom Lady not just another Cheese Cake comic by giving her some balls. Here we see Phantom Lady punching (and kicking) the lights out of a couple of rough characters.
As buxom as Baker's women were, Matt was equally skilled at depicting women's fashion of the time. He would dress his characters up to the hilt in elegant evening wear but was equally well at depict his characters in casual wear or swim fashions of the day.
 

Not only was Matt Baker really aware of women's fashions, but he himself was known to be a really sharp dresser and something of a lady's man.
Ruth Roche brought a wonderful woman's perspective to her stories like in Condemned Venus from Phantom Lady #14, Oct. 1947, where the Phantom Lady actually goes to jail to help save an old friend.
 

In addition to the wonderful depiction of long legs and doe eyes, Phantom Lady stories were expertly colored. Considering the limited color pallet, there is a wonderful harmony in this page of purples and greens.

Baker also had a wonderfully playful design sense as shown in this page with his way of breaking up the panels using curves and jagged boarder lines

Baker had a master sense of design as seen here by the wonderful flow of the page as the eye skips from panel to panel.
 
In addition to doing gorgeous work on the Phantom Lady, Baker was also accomplish in other ways. For instance he drew one of the only black heroes in Golden Age comics with Voodah, from Crown Comics #3, September 1945.

Jano, female protagonist of this comic, looks every bit like a young Lena Horne who would have been big news in 1945, just two years after her two big motion pictures, the Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.

Depicting a black man strangle a white man must have given Matt Baker much satisfaction where he could take out his frustrations toward the white world in this early comic though it wasn't to last. Voodah became lighter and lighter skinned to the point of being just another Tarzan rip-off in his Crown Comics.
Baker is also credited with creating the first graphic novel in comics for St. John with It Rhymes with Lust, published in 1950. St. John called the title a “picture novel” and the entire issue by Baker was devoted to one story (This graphic novel was reprinted in its entirety by Dark Horse in March, 2007).
 
 
In August 1959 Baker tragically died of a heart attack at 38 years old, probably brought on by  A childhood bout of rheumatic fever that compromised his heart. In the later years of his life he was working for Atlas Comics, the precursor of Marvel. One wonders what would have happened had he lived. Would he have lived, and if so, what books would he have drawn or what role would he have played in that watershed company? All I can imagine is his role would have been something along the lines of Bill Everett's or Wally Wood's short lived time on Daredevil. Anyway, one can wonder.
 
Baker's time was way too short but the time he did have was wonderfully spent giving us some of the greatest gems of the Golden Age of comics!
 
You can see more links to Matt Baker's work on Matt Baker's Phantom Lady fan page.
 
You can read Phantom Lady's whole "Condemned Venus" story here at Hero/Heroine Histories BlogSpot.
 
 
 
 
 

3 comments:

  1. This is a nice and interesting article on comic artists. I love Batman comic the most. But I need some information on sexy comic characters if anyone of you know. Can anyone share some information on that?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great book out on Matt Baker art now. Worth the money for sure!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great book out on Matt Baker art now. Worth the money for sure!

    ReplyDelete