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Matt Baker: A Golden Age Legend

on Mon, 01/20/2014 - 00:00

Matt Baker
The 1940s and 50s are part of the Golden Age of Comic Books, a time period when the industry was still young and fresh and vibrant, and the spinning racks at the local corner grocery store were filled with not only tales of superheroes, but westerns, romance and jungle stories as well.

Although the era is famous for its iconic artists, including Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson and Joe Shuster, one of the greatest illustrators of the period was a young African-American from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While Matt Baker did not write scripts or create his own characters like the aforementioned trio, his style was so realistic and original—especially when it came to female characters—that his impact on the medium is equally significant nonetheless.

“In the better Phantom Lady, Sky Girl and Tiger Girl stories, one can find the hallmarks of Baker’s definitive style,” Alberto Becattini remarks in Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2012), a hardcover retrospective filled with essays on Baker and interviews with his family and friends. “His women have prominent cheekbones, his men have broad faces, and the eyes are always drawn rather far apart. The style Baker came up with was, and still remains, unique. Whereas most of the comic book artists belonging to Baker’s generation were clearly inspired by such syndicated strip masters as Alex Raymond, Harold Foster or Milton Caniff, this did not seem to be the case with Baker. His way of drawing was unmistakable and would prove inimitable.”

Matt Baker distinguished himself during the early years of his career as an illustrator at the S. M. Iger Studio in New York, operated by another icon of the era, Jerry Iger. “Baker came to my studios in the early 40s,” Iger once explained. “Handsome and nattily dressed, ‘looking for a job,’ as he put it. His only sample was a color sketch of—naturally—a beautiful girl. On the strength of that and a nod from my associate editor Ruth Roche, he was hired as a background artist. When given his first script, he showed originality and faithfully executed its storyline. His drawing was superb. His women were gorgeous!”

Although Baker’s style highlighted the sexual qualities of his female characters, they were not mere fantasies for teenage boys but strong, independent women more than capable of taking care of themselves. Phantom Lady is arguably the most famous and a prime example of Baker’s strengths and capabilities. Originally created in 1941, the Phantom Lady is not so much a superhero in the traditional sense—she does not have any superpowers, for instance—but the daughter of a United States Senator who dons a costume at night to fight crime nonetheless.

Phantom Lady was later reinvigorated by Iger, with Ruth Roche doing the scriptwriting and Matt Baker providing the artwork. Roche and Baker regularly worked together throughout the 1940s on other projects, including the zebra-skin wearing jungle queen Camilla and Romanian gypsy Flamingo.

Matt Baker left Iger Studios after having built a large enough reputation to make a living as a freelancer. He eventually ended up at St. John Publishing were he used his talents of bringing “beautiful women” graphically to life in an entirely different genre of the medium—romance comics.

“Now sporting an utterly realistic style devoid of any caricatural residue, Baker drew an incomparable collection of believable lovestruck beauties,” Alberto Becattini observes in Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour. “After years of drawing more flesh than garment, he was now able to visualize his passion for clothing in almost every panel.”

Matt Baker found his greatest success at St. John Publishing as a cover artist. Baker had already drawn over ninety covers for the company by mid-1952, but by the middle of 1954, that number had jumped to 219. This was in addition to the inside pages of various romance, crime and western comic books that St. John had in its stable, including another of Baker’s more famous characters, Canteen Kate.

When St. John’s was forced to cut back on its comic book publishing, Baker went back to freelancing, working on graphic storylines involving the classic female collie Lassie for MGM as well as providing the artwork for Stan Lee-penned westerns for Atlas Comics, a forerunner of Marvel.

Al Feldstein, who working at Iger Studios at the same time as Matt Baker, remembers him as a talented artist but someone who rarely socialized with his fellow co-workers. “Part of Matt’s problem, I feel in retrospect, was due to a basic and despicable problem prevalent in America during the early post-war period,” Feldstein says. “Racial bias and racial inequality. Matt was a black man. He was a rare phenomenon in an industry almost totally dominated by white males. However, he was extremely talented, and it was his talent that overcame any resistance to his presence based on racial bias. But I feel that Matt personally was acutely aware of the perceived chasm that separated him from the rest of us. And it may be that because of that perceived problem there is little known about Matt Baker, aside from his stunning artwork that speaks for himself.”

Matt Baker’s half-brother Fred Robinson has a similar viewpoint in regards to Baker’s ability to find steady employment despite being African American. “The reason that Matt got so much work wasn’t because he was black or white,” Robinson explains. “He got it because he was good. It’s as simple as that. If you’re good, and you have what people want, they’re going to use you. You get hired. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier mainly because he was good—he could play ball better than anyone else. He just happened to be black, and was given a hard time because of that, but the fact remains that he was still good and rose above all that.”

Matt Baker was born on December 10, 1921, in Forsyth County, North Carolina, but his family moved to Pittsburgh shortly thereafter. Baker then spent the rest of his youth in the Steel City until his graduation from Westinghouse High School in Homewood/Brushton. Baker contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which inevitably caused heart problems throughout his life. He died in New York City on August 11, 1959, at the still young age of 37.

Although Baker had not personally called Pittsburgh “home” since 1940, he would still visit his family on a regular basis and even purchased the house that his mother rented, selling it to her for one dollar afterwards. Matt Baker may have made his living in New York, but Pittsburgh was obviously still in his heart.

“He always spoke of Pittsburgh as though it was Nirvana,” Lea Osrin, the wife of comic book inker and Matt Baker colleague Ray Osrin, says. “I always remember him talking about Pittsburgh. I could never figure it out. When we were all together, his longing to go back and visit home, that was the key or common thread in a conversation. There was always that thread of returning to Pittsburgh, to his roots, to the place he loved, and I used to think, ‘What the heck is in Pittsburgh that he’s always got to be talking about?’ I understood it when we moved there. I learned that Pittsburgh grabs you and never lets you go. There is something there, but I can’t put my finger on it. There is something so tangible about the people and about the place that it just grabs you.”

Matt Baker’s career as a comic book artist may have been cut short due to a chronic heart condition, but the illustrations he drew during the 1940s and 50s are genuine works of art and a lasting testament to his talents. Baker was one of the true greats of the Golden Age of Comic Books and one of the first African Americans to break into the industry, making him an indisputable trailblazer as well.

Last but not least, Matt Baker was a Pittsburgher, and the city can be proud to have him as one of its adopted sons.

Anthony Letizia

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