Piedmont-Born Comic Book Pioneer Matt Baker
Black Man’s Bombshells:
Piedmont-Born Comic Book Pioneer Matt Baker
by Ian McDowell
Matt Baker was a damn good-looking black man who made his living drawing damn good-looking white women at a time when talking to one could have gotten him killed. Born in Forsyth County but raised in Pittsburgh, this debonair young man-about-Manhattan who didn’t live long enough to be an old one was the most successful African-American comic book artist of the postwar era.
Mastering a wide variety of genres, including crime, jungle adventure, western and romance, he was a top talent at a time when very few black artists drew comics. George Herriman, brilliant creator of Krazy Kat, was of mixed Creole heritage, but passed for white. The comic book and magazine publishers, editors and writers with whom Baker worked, including Stan Lee, knew that he was black. So did the ladies who liked him.
“All the women, white and black, went crazy for him, and I know he had a bunch of gals on the hook,” said artist Bob Lubbers, whom David Hajdu interviewed for his 2008 book The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. Lubbers recalled Baker as something of a player. “You know how he drew women perfectly? The anatomy was magnificent, down to every muscle. Everyone who knew him knew that could only come from exhaustive personal research. He was the envy of everybody.”
Arnold Drake, who would later co-create The Guardians of the Galaxy and who worked with Baker on the pioneering 1950 “picture novel” It Rhymes with Lust, painted a similar picture in a 2004 interview. “Women were crazy for him; all sizes, shapes and colors.” Drake also called Baker “the hippest dresser I had ever seen.”
Frank Giusto, who claimed to have been one of the rare peers Baker truly opened up to, had a different take. In a 2011 interview with Sean Clancy included in Jim Amash and Eric Nolen-Weathington’s highly recommended Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2012), the veteran inker says his friend wasn’t interested in women. “I knew he was gay because of some of the people he hung around with and the parties he went to; he’d tell me about this one or that one or whatever.”
Was he a pioneering LGBT talent as well as a pioneering African-American one? As Joe Palmer notes in “The Importance of Matt Baker” at www.gayleague.com, “the claim that Baker was gay rests solely on Frank Giusto.” His nephew Matt D. Baker, who so graciously supplied family photos for this article, mentioned his uncle’s “numerous attractive lady friends.” Despite the work of comics historians like Greensboro’s Jim Amash, who put me in touch with Baker’s namesake, much remains unknown about this singular talent.
We know he graduated from high school in Pittsburgh around 1940 and, like many African-Americans of the time, moved to DC for government work, then relocated to New York, where he enrolled in the Cooper Union School of Engineering, Art and Design in the East Village. An admirer of such comics artists as Lou Fine, Reed Crandall and Will Eisner, he applied in 1943 or 1944 to the studio co-founded by Eisner and Jerry Iger to “package” comic book pages for publishers entering the new medium. His only sample was a drawing of a beautiful woman, but that and his sartorial sense, looks and charisma, not qualities for which comics artists were noted, impressed associate editor Ruth Roche. His first confirmed work was penciling and inking the women in a “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” story in Jumbo Comics #69 (cover-dated Nov. 1944).
Whatever his private life, Baker was a master of what comics collectors call “Good Girl Art,” drawing bombshells that could have been played by Rita Hayworth or Bettie Page. He drew them in action, at ease and, of course, tied-up, dressing them in sarongs, military uniforms, leopard skin bikinis, smart forties dresses and sexy fifties gowns, and in the case of his best remembered character, the Phantom Lady, a barely-there costume that made Wonder Woman’s look demure and earned Baker the reputation of the premiere “headlight artist” in the business.
Baker’s bosom-n-bondage cover for Phantom Lady #17 in 1948 was singled out for condemnation six years later by Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose alarmist bestseller Seduction of the Innocent helped kill the bestselling crime and horror titles of the 1950s and marked the end of the innovative EC Comics. Baker didn’t create the character, whose debut in Police Comics in 1941 made her one of the very first female superheroes, but working with editor and writer Ruth Roche (who also scripted Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Señorita Rio and clearly needs a biography of her own), revamped her into a scantily-clad bombshell who put the “bust” in crime-busting.
That Baker’s heroines were white (barring the occasional Polynesian princess) was just the way it was in comics of the 40s and 50s. Even today, too few titles from Marvel and DC feature heroines of color. Other than the short-lived Negro Romances, for which Baker never worked (but may have been the model for the fedora-wearing hepcat on the cover of the final issue), there weren’t any during his too-brief lifespan.
He did draw the first known black hero in American comics. Voodah debuted in Crown Comics #3 in 1945 and headlined until issue #19. But while black in the interior panels, he was a white Tarzan clone on the cover. After his first couple of appearances, he became white inside the book, as did his girlfriend Jano. Despite creating a loincloth-clad jungle hero who was, briefly, actually African, Baker was better known for drawing scantily-clad women than scantily-clad men, although he depicted muscular action heroes better than most of his peers.
He was born in Forsyth County on December 10, 1921. His nephew Matt D. Baker told me there’s no surviving record of his birth city or hospital. In a 2011 interview with Jim Amash, he identified his uncle’s father Clarence as born in Abbott’s Creek and his uncle’s mother Ethel as born in Kernersville.
Clarence Matthew Baker, who never went by the first name inherited from his father, was a year younger than Stan Lee, with whom he’d work at Timely and Atlas, the predecessors to Marvel. His heart, damaged by childhood rheumatic fever, not only kept him out of World War II, but prevented him from seeing the 1960s superhero renaissance Lee would take credit for. He was four months short of 38 when he died of a stroke on August 10, 1959, less than two years before the November 1961 debut of The Fantastic Four, the book that launched the so-so-called Marvel Age of Comics. It’s easy to imagine Baker becoming a star Marvel artist like Jack Kirby.
I talked about this with veteran comics inker and historian Jim Amash, whose aforementioned Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour is the sourcebook for anyone interested in the artist’s life and career. I’ve known Jim since he worked at Acme Comics in its original Elm Street location, back when prostitutes would yell “Hey, college boy” out of the broken windows of the skid row hotel next door. He sums up Baker’s style this way:
“I think his influence is really far reaching. Look at [contemporary fan favorite] Adam Hughes. Baker transcended his time period. He was working in a house style through most of the forties. When he got to the fifties, his style became more Madison Avenue, less bombastic. The fact that he could switch from bombast to that so quickly is a good indicator of his range.”
“If you look at his Westerns and his stuff for [Marvel predecessor] Timely, you see another shift. He started to break out of that urbane sleek style that he had done for [magazine and comics publisher Archer] St. John in the early 50s and added more emphasis on drama. It’s like he splits the difference between what he’d done in the 40s and the 50s. My personal feeling is that if he had lived into the 60s, he would have adapted to and mastered the Marvel style, and you might have seen a Matt Baker version of Jack Kirby, with correct anatomy and everything. I think he could have adapted to the 60s styles with no problem. He had three styles as it was. A man who was doing that, and was 37 when he died, he could certainly have adapted to the Marvel Age.”
Jim thinks the happiest professional period in Baker’s life was when he worked for Archer St. John, whose publishing empire included various crime and men’s magazines as well as comic books like Mighty Mouse, Atom-Age Combat, Strange Terrors, and Married Romance. For St. John, Baker drew stories for Canteen Kate, Teen-Age Romances and the allegedly true crime Authentic Police Cases, as well as the proto graphic novel It Rhymes with Lust.
“St. John was very progressive for his time. Didn’t care about your race or your gender. Matt Baker was obviously going to flourish under that. Stan Lee was the same way. He was color blind, all he cared was that you could get your work in on time. He was probably happy to have Matt Baker. Not a common occurrence in that time period.’
What was common was having to work your ass off in a low-paying industry, particularly if you lived as large as Baker and had higher-paying non-comics markets denied to you because of your color. And that, along with his damaged heart, helped kill him.
“He was always under deadlines and deadlines were always heavy pressure. In 25 years of working in comics, I know you have to do the best job you can with the deadline they’ve given you. Sometimes you have plenty of time and sometimes you have to work all nighters. Matt Baker in his prime years was putting out a lot of work. I’m sure he was working around the clock.”
Jim also speculated that the five flights of stairs to Baker’s apartment on 116th Street contributed to his death. In Shaun Clancy’s interview with Frank Giusto in Jim’s book, Giusto says the elevator was often out of service, and that he once joked to Baker “Can’t you find something a little lower than five floors?” Giusto says that Baker was conscious of his own mortality, but “He didn’t dwell on the fact that he had a bad heart. He was never looking for sympathy.”
Baker’s final comics panels appeared posthumously. His last known confirmed work is the six-page “I Gave Up the Man I Love!” in Atlas/Marvel’s My Own Romance #73 (Jan. 1960). Coupled with his dying before the superhero revival, the fact that much of his mature work was for romance comics is another reason his achievements have only been recognized in the last decade or so. Romance comics, with their once-vast readership of girls and grown women, used to be ignored by historians and critics of pop culture, who viewed comics fandom as a boys club, although that’s changing with the publication of such works as Michelle Nolan’s 2008 Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics.
There’s an argument to be made that working on the 1950s romance titles edited by Marion McDermott helped Baker develop a more realistic style aimed at a female readership, just as much as working with Ruth Roche at the Igor Studio in the 40s shaped his depictions of va-va-voom bombshells for the millions of soldiers buying comics at the end of World War II. He was also experimenting with a more science fiction-oriented style in the years before his death. As Jim Amash said to me, “It’s a shame we never got to find out what opportunities the 60s and 70s might have held for him.”
Due to comics historians like Jim Amash, Clarence Matthew Baker is better remembered now than he was in previous decades, when I, who’d been reading about comics history ever since I was a teenager, had never heard of him. In the course of my email correspondence with Matt D. Baker, the artist’s nephew expressed gratitude for Jim’s work. “Jim’s dedication to getting the true essence of my uncle’s life as an artist and his place in the comic industry gives me knowledge that Uncle Matt’s talent, skill and style were both revered and sought after, especially when very few African-American artists were able to do the work he did. Jim’s work throughout these years has been heaven-sent.”
Baker was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009. For a career-wide sampling of his work, along with copious interviews and analysis, Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour is hard to beat, but It Rhymes With Lust and Matt Baker’s Canteen Kate are also in print and highly recommended.
Addendum: The print version of this article contained a typo in the next-to-last paragraph on page 22, stating that Baker’s first published work was “cover-dated Nov. 1994.” The actual year was 1944.
Since this issue went to press, the author has learned that Baker scholar Jim Amash confirmed Frank Giusto’s claim that Baker was gay or bisexual with the artist’s half-brother Fred Robinson before including it in his book Matt Baker: the Art of Glamour. That book is currently being offered at a discount from its Raleigh-based publisher TwoMorrows at http://twomorrows.com/