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The Men Of Matt Baker

“Matt Baker was one of the first important artists in comics. Not one of the first important black artists, one of the first important artists, period.”

“We were extremely fortunate to have him, and St. John is to be admired for having hired him in the prejudiced climate of the time.”

— Arnold Drake (cowriter of It Rhymes With Lust, the first graphic novel and cocreator & writer of Doom Patrol)

Born in 1921, Matt Baker is an artist who worked in comics beginning in 1944 up to his untimely death from a heart attack in August, 1959. Baker’s line work and aesthetic vision easily places him on the same high bar as other Golden Age lumunaries like Will Eisner (The Spirit), Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel, Flash Gordon), Lou Fine (Black Condor, The Ray, The Flame), Wally Wood (numerous stories for EC), and Joe Maneely (Black Knight and many Western stories for Atlas). While Baker drew recurring features with action, adventure, Western, war, and jungle themes, his work, especially in romance comics, is synonymous with the good girl style which was popular in comics, comic strips, and pulp magazines starting from the 1930s onward. The “good” in “good girl art” refers to the quality of the art. Who these women were mattered less than the artists’ ability to draw them in a sexualized manner. They could range from being gun molls, girlfriends of gangsters (a staple of comics, movies, and radio programs of the day), a seductresses, a strong willed “tough cookie” personality, a jungle adventurer like Sheena of the Jungle, and even a superhero like Phantom Lady.

Speaking of Phantom Lady, Baker’s cover art for Phantom Lady #17 (Fox Features with an April, 1948 cover date) came to the attention of the notorious Frederic Wertham who included it in his Seduction of the Innocent as an example of “headlight comics.” The inclusion of Baker’s cover in Wertham’s diatribe against comics publishers is ironic for two reasons. Firstly, one shouldn’t overlook the fact that Baker is one of the very few Black artists working in comics which, as a result of prejudices, bigotry, and constraints, caters to white Americans. In the Jim Crow era being a comics artist is an opportunity Baker would not have had if his family hadn’t moved from North Carolina to Pittsburgh and Baker himself on to New York City. Baker drew beautiful and alluring white female characters and was paid well for his work during a time when 21 year old Carol Bryant accused 14 year old Emmett Till of flirting with her without being questioned herself; an accusation which resulted in the young boy being lynched by racists.

The second reason for the irony is that Matt Baker was a gay man. This aspect of Baker’s life would have remained unknown if not for fellow Golden Age artist and Baker’s friend Frank Giusto’s interview with comics historian Shaun Clancy which was included in TwoMorrow Publishing’s Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour. Author George Chauncey recounted documentation of thriving gay enclaves in New York City dating back to the 1890s in his Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Despite the evidence of these subcultures and their relative safety queer people could still be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, loss of employment, housing, and rejection by family and friends if they were discovered to break any laws. One can easily imagine Baker keeping his sexuality a closely guarded secret so as not to risk his livelihood and prosperity. Baker loved jazz music, liked to dress nicely, proudly drove a yellow, convertible Oldsmobile, and took vacations to Mexico – though he also worked for St John during at least one extended trip. Other writers, essayists, historians, and podcasters have taken to heart Giusto’s candid comments and included and expounded on them in their various projects. One notable one is Ken Quattro’s Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books which profiles Baker and seventeen other largely unsung Black comic book artists. Most recently Angelique Roche wrote a tribute to Baker for Marvel’s Voices: Legends (released January 31st, 2024) which acknowledges the artist’s sexuality and his work for Atlas Comics towards the end of his life. It should be noted that Roche is the host and a producer of the Marvel’s Voices podcast and also the consulting editor of the Marvel’s Voices comics anthology series as well as an attorney, moderator, journalist, and voiceover artist.

Rather than dive into further details about Baker I’ll mention a little essay I wrote in May, 2020 titled The Importance of Matt Baker and encourage you to check out the sources listed below or go down a rabbit hole search when you have time. Certainly much has been written and said about Baker’s “good girl” art and rightfully so! Baker was without a doubt a master of linework, anatomy, and composition. Instead, I want to celebrate Matt Baker’s “good guy” art by showcasing a few pieces that stood out to me. As with the women Baker drew, all the males in the following examples are white too because the United States was segregated in so many awful and insidious ways thoughout the Jim Crow era. In case you’re wondering, the dialog in the woman’s thought bubble is original to the cover which is for True Love Pictorial #11. You can see for yourself!

Without further adieu…

Toward the end of his career Baker supplemented his income by illustrating articles for men’s pulp adventure type magazines. The following two illustrations are from Rage For Men. Rage For Men was published by Arnold Magazines which was owned by Everett M. Arnold. Arnold was also the publisher of Quality Comics which published comics featuring Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Black Condor, the Ray, Kid Eternity, and several strips for characters which would later be used to create the Freedom Fighters team for DC in the mid 1970s.

“The Lesbian Who Dueled Her Way To Infamy” ran in #8 (February 1958). Julie D’Aubigny was the notorious 18th Century bisexual opera singer and duelist who really did fight and supposedly kill men. D’Aubigny sometimes fought topless. These two illustrations are included simply to show that, if nothing else, Baker wasn’t adverse to accepting assignments like these at this point in his life.

Edward D Radin’s “The Queer Triangle Murder” was printed in Rage For Men #2 (February 1957). Radin’s article is a somewhat sensationalized recounting of a real murder case which happened circa 1948 in Puyallup, WA. Accounts on the internet are few. A link to download PDF copies of Rage is included below. Downloading copies is the easiest way to read and learn about them.

Interested in learning more about Matt Baker or seeing more of his art? Great Black Heroes has a profile on Baker.

TwoMorrows Publishing released The Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour in 2012. Print copies can be found on Amazon and other retailers. Prices may vary wildly as of this writing. TwoMorrows has digital copies if you prefer.

Of course there is the requisite Wikipedia entry as an overview.

Ken Quattro’s Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books profiles Baker and seventeen more Black comic book artists who worked during the Golden Age period. Invisible Men can be found at Amazon. This is an Amazon affiliate link so Gay League will earn a small commission if you make any purchases using that link. Copies may be available from other retailers.

A Conversation on Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books is a Society of Illustrators panel discussion moderated by senior news editor at Publishers Weekly, Calvin Reid, Ken Quattro, cultural anthropologist and artist Stanford W. Carpenter, PhD and author, editor, art director, graphic designer, cartoonist, and comics historian Craig Yoe.

Look for the Matt Baker Fan page on Facebook. The page seems to have an affiliation with TwoMorrows.

The PencilInk blog has a checklist of Baker’s art. The Grand Comics Database also has a checklist. Both lists are very useful if you want to read many of Baker’s stories now in the public domain from defunct publishers such as St John, Fox (the publisher of the Phantom Lady series) and Fiction House at Comicbookplus.

The Rage story art was found in the Internet Archive. You can download a PDF copy of it, two other Rage issues, and issues of various other “men’s adventure” pulp magazines at this link.

If you’re at all curious about New York City’s queer history, George Chauncey’s Gay New York is available from Amazon. This is also an affiliate link and Gay League will earn a small commission from any purchases made if you use the link. You may search for the book from other sources if you like.

May 14, 2024
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