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.
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.|
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.
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.
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.|
|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.|
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.