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Matt Baker: A Forgotten Pioneer

In an industry where the workers and the target audience were both overwhelmingly white in its earlier days, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that one of the most groundbreaking artists in the history of comic books was an African American. Yet, here I am writing one of my most meaningful stories about Matt Baker.

Since the beginning of the medium, comic book fans all hold the usual artists in the highest esteem. 

  • Gil Kane created the modern incarnations of¬†Green Lantern¬†and¬†Iron Fist.
  • Bob Kane (no relation to Gil) created¬†Batman.
  • Steve Ditko created iconic heroes such as¬†Iron Man, Spider-Man and Dr. Strange
  • Will Eisner has one of the most prestigious awards in comics named after him.
  • Then we have the modern titans such as Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Garth Enis, who have taken social commentary and storytelling to new heights and have expanded the possibilities for storytelling for future artists.

Matt Baker And Some Of His Notable Works.

Have we asked about the artist who perfected the realistic depiction of the female form? Has anyone ever thought about the first artist to publish what we now refer to as a “graphic novel”? Very few people have raised these questions.

That is where Matt Baker comes in.

Humble Beginnings

Clarence Matthew Baker was born in December 1921 in Forsyth County, North Carolina. Soon after, Baker’s family would relocate to Pittsburgh. After graduating High School, Baker would move back down south to Washington D.C.¬†

Born with a history of health problems, including a heart defect; Baker was unable to enlist or enter the draft and fight in World War II. Instead, the young man would once again move back north. This time, to New York City where his natural talent would grant him acceptance into the prestigious Cooper Union art school.

Jerry Iger Was So Impressed With Matt Baker’s Work, He Hired Him On The Spot After Looking At Only One Picture.

After graduating, Baker would take his portfolio to the Jerry Iger Studio (later known as Eisner and Iger) where he presented a single sketch of a woman. Jerry Iger was greatly impressed by Baker’s artistic take on the female form and hired him on the spot as a background artist before he would be given his first scripts.¬†

The Works Of Matt Baker

Baker worked his way up at Iger Studios and eventually would be given what is widely known as his first confirmed official comic, a twelve-page installment of Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle which was featured in the Fiction House publication of Jumbo Comics Issue number sixty-nine.

Sheena might sound familiar to some people who grew up in the early 2000s. That is because it was a syndicated television show that starred breakout Baywatch star Geena Lee Nolan. The comic also had a television show in the 1950s and a movie adaptation in 1984.

“Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle” Was One Of Matt Baker’s First Notable Illustrations.

 

Baker would also illustrate all 22 issues of the lighthearted military comic titled Canteen Kate. He also drew the illustrations for Sky Girl and Lorna Doone. Other works are said to have been attributed to Baker. Because of the times he lived in and the color of his skin, it is alleged that a lot of his work went unrecognized and the credit for his art would go to an inker on staff.

The fact that Baker could shake these injustices off and keep doing what he loved to do in spite of them is a testament to how much of a class act he was. These alleged sacrifices, if true should be brought to light so that today’s artists can see exactly what type of man/woman they should aspire to be when they are in the bullpen.

The Most Notable Work Of  Matt Baker

Perhaps the most recognizable character that Baker ever worked on was¬†The Phantom Lady. Now property of DC Comics, the character goes unused for the most part. The Golden Age of comics was a different story though.¬†Phantom Lady was an extremely popular character in that era and her most recognizable incarnation is attributed to Baker’s artwork.

Baker’s intimate knowledge of the female form and his ability to draw it so well for¬†Phantom Lady actually holds a special place in comic book history. The public did not always have the passive opinion on comic books that they have today. Many times, comic books and their imagery were embroiled in controversy.

“Phantom Lady” Number 17 Was One Of Matt Baker’s Most Notable Works. It Was Even Used As An Example In Dr. Frederic Wertham’s Biased Study Against Comics, Which Led To The Formation Of The Comics Code Authority.

Enter Doctor Frederic Wertham. Wertham had great disdain for the comic book industry and even wrote a book titled:¬†Seduction Of The Innocent.¬†The book made unfounded claims about comics. Wertham claimed that comic books had an adverse effect on a child’s development. He cited the cover of¬†Phantom Lady¬†number seventeen specifically as an example.

Today, we look at such a claim and can disregard Doctor Wertham’s claims as hyperbole and write him off as a crackpot. As I stated before, Matt Baker worked in a different era. Congress took these unfounded claims seriously. In 1954, to keep the Government out of the writer’s room; the Comics Code Authority was formed. Writers and artists would spend decades being hamstrung by industry-controlled censorship.

 

Baker’s Untimely End

Later in the decade, Baker would find work for Atlas Comics (The precursor to Marvel). It is hard to find out exactly how much work he actually did for Atlas as the history of the publisher is muddied and it is alleged that Stan Lee received a lot of credit for work that was actually done by Baker.

Confirmed works for Atlas include artistry for titles such as:¬†Wild Western, Strange Tales, Tales To Astonish¬†and the publication’s romance title:¬†Love Romances.¬†

When Working For Atlas (Now Marvel) Comics, Baker Lent His Expertise To The Female Form To Their Romance Line,

Sadly, Baker’s illustrious career and bright future would be cut short. The same heart defect that prevented him from joining the Army during World War II would go on to claim his life.

Clarence Matthew Baker would die in August of 1959. He was only 37 years old.

The Legacy Of Matt Baker

Aside from being the first prominent African American artist in comic book history, Baker left behind a distinctive style that artists still use today.

He was a pioneer and some would say the creator of the “Good Girl” art style, which depicted women realistically and heroically. Dave Stevens, best known for creating¬†The Rocketeer¬†and renowned comic artist Adam Hughes, best known for his work on¬†Wonder Woman¬†and¬†Catwoman have both stated that Baker had a profound impact on their artistic style and cite him as one of their biggest influences.

“It Rhymes With Lust” Is Widely Regarded By Comic Historians As The First Graphic Novel.

Baker also holds a special place in history publishing wise. In 1950, It Rhymes With Lust was published. This is cited by many comic book historians as the first example of what would become known as the graphic novel.

Posthumously, Baker was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall Of Fame where he would assume his rightful and well deserved place among the other legends of the comic book industry.

Final Takeaway

It takes a special and brave person to confidently navigate through a world where the cards are stacked against them. Matt Baker was barred from drinking from the same water fountain as the men he worked alongside of. He was not given credit for some of his work. On his way to the office, he was told where to sit when he got on the bus.

Matt Baker entered the professional arena at a time where black men were still not allowed to play on the same field as their white counterparts in Major League Baseball and the NFL. This did not stop him. He persevered and let his work speak for itself. He handled adversity and an environment that was unjust at times with confidence, dignity and class.

When all was said and done, he revolutionized the comic book industry with his art and I feel proud to be in a position where I can share his story with you.

It’s still sad to go through this story and find that such a remarkable young talent had his life cut short at such a young age.

He had already done so much, and there was still so much left for him to do.

What do you think, GNN Fans? Sound off in the comments below and let your voices be heard!

Thank You for reading! When I am not writing I enjoy spending time with my wife Barbara, my four year old daughter Frances, and my loyal hound Marbles.  For more hot takes, follow me here and on our brand new YouTube channel.  You can also check out more of my content on my author’s page.

Stay Geeky Everybody

 

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