BLACK HISTORY MONTH: MATT BAKER THE FIRST BLACK COMIC BOOK ARTIST
Matt Baker, the first black comic book artist, was born on December 10, 1921, in Forsyth County, North Carolina. He was the son of Clarence and Ethel baker, Matt had two brothers, Robert and John. Matt graduated from Westinghouse High School in Homewood/Brushton. Baker contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which caused heart problems throughout his life. The heart condition prevented him from being drafted into the U.S. military in World War II, and he began studying art at Cooper Union School of Engineering, Art, and Design, a privately funded college located in New York City. He worked for many different publishers until his death from a heart attack in New York City on August 11, 1959, at the age of 37.
Baker distinguished himself during the early years of his career as an illustrator at the S. M. Iger Studio in New York. Baker’s first confirmed comics work is penciling and inking the women in the 12-page “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” story in Fiction House’s Jumbo Comics #69 (November 1944), the rest of the story was penciled by Robert Webb and Alex Blum.
Jerry Iger stated “Baker came to my studios in the early 40s, 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!”
Phantom Lady is the most famous character that Matt Baker worked on. He co-created the Fox version of the Phantom Lady with Ruth Roche after the series moved from Quality Comics. Phantom Lady was much like any other female character in those days. She was a Washington socialite who wanted to fight crime, designed a super-heroine outfit and use a “Blackout Ray” invented by a friend of her father. When Victor Fox of Fox Features Syndicate asked the Iger Studios to furnish him with a sexy female costumed hero, Iger sent him Phantom Lady and assigned Baker to the artistry. Baker immediately made changes to the character and her costume. He put her in blue short-shorts with slits up the sides and a matching halter top. He gave her belt in front and a dramatically plunging neckline along with a scarlet cape. This look became her most popular version and premiered in Fox’s Phantom Lady #13 in (August 1947). He penciled and inked the character through 1949.
Roche and Baker regularly worked together throughout the 1940s on Camilla and Flamingo.
Matt Baker left Iger Studios and moved on to St. John Publishing to work on romance comics including, Canteen Kate.
Baker also provided the artwork for Stan Lee’s western comics starting with Gunsmoke Western #32 (December 1955) at Atlas Comics.
In later years, he independently teamed with inker Jon D’Agostino under the pseudonym Matt Bakerino at Charlton Comics.
Al Feldstein said “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,” “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 stated “The reason that Matt got so much work wasn’t because he was black or white. 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.”
His last known work was “Happily Ever After” in Marvel’s Love Romances #90 (Nov. 1960) published after his death.
Baker was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009.https://www.firstcomicsnews.com/black-history-month-matt-baker-the-first-black-comic-book-artist/https://www.firstcomicsnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Matt-Baker-siginature-600x257.pnghttps://www.firstcomicsnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Matt-Baker-siginature-150x64.pngNews