Many of us are aware of the “pop art” women of Roy Lichtenstein. But, Lichtenstein actually copied these images from romance comics of his day. And, before Lichtenstein’s portrayal of comic book women, there were the women of Matt Baker.
Little is known about the legendary artist Matt Baker. He was famous for his images of the “good girls”. This was a classification given to glamorous heroines who were like pin-ups. He was one of the first major African-American comic book artists.
He was born in 1921 and had rheumatic fever as a child, which weakened his heart. He died from a heart attack at the early age of 37. He was considered a really stylish dresser and was never married. Baker would say “Why make one woman miserable when I can make many women happy?” He started his career out at Iger studios before he was handed Phantom Lady, his best-known subject. He was mainly a freelance artist and worked for a succession of other comic book companies throughout his career. Baker’s career was predominately centered in the “Golden Age” of comics, which lasted from 1938 to 1955.
Baker was singled out by Dr. Fredric Wertham, who wrote a book called “Seduction of the Innocent”. The book brought about the creation of the Comic Code Authority (CCA). This began an era of censorship in comics. You can read more about the censorship and the demise of the CCA here. It’s really interesting to know that this sensorship included such things as “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds” “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities”. Intresting how times have changed and how comics have evolved now into the modern form.
Baker illustrated some of the finest romance comic covers of the “Golden Age.” In today’s standards, they are considered tame. But, in the day, his saucy portrayals were considered cutting edge. His romance artwork appeared in such comics as Teen-Age Romances, Diary Secrets, Teen-Age Temptations, Pictorial Romances, and Wartime Romances.
Matt Baker’s art was cutting edge for his time because of his attention to detail, the ability to capture movement, and the seductive way he could draw a woman. He really understood the human form and was able to capture a realism that was rarely seen. He also was a master at setting a scene by supplying many background details to capture the moment. The women in these romance stories didn’t shed a tear by the second frame. The covers often suggested more then what would actually occur. But, this is all about the allure and drawings of the fabulous artwork of Matt Baker.
Although Matt Baker did not write these stories, his images are an integral part of capturing your attention and keeping you wanting to learn more. If you’d also like to see more of his art I suggest the book “Romance Without Tears” by John Benson. This book shows many re-prints and covers of Matt Baker illustrations. If you’d like to see some additional famous covers, you can visit American Art Archives.
If, however, you get the opportunity to experience reading an original vintage romance comic, it is an interesting experience. These stories and images are trapped in an era when your reputation and what people believed meant everything. Some of the stories I have read have been about how women must be very careful in dating the “right man” and one story in particular was about a woman who went on several dates with many men and if they tried to kiss her they were the wrong man and heaven forbid it should be in public! It also brings a smile to your face when in one frame the couple make up for some misgiving and in the next frame the man is madly in love and proposes.
These comics were done in newsprint and it really does add to the feel of “vintage”. As the shift in values and relationships has occurred over the last 50 years, it really is interesting to look back on these stories as moments in time and in particular women’s history. It’s facinating to thumb through these pages and relate back to the 50’s and place yourself in the mindset of time period.
It is a loss that such a talented artist died so young but his contributions to the “Golden Age” of comics are undeniable. In today’s comic market, there is little in the way of romance comics, which is quite remarkable considering at one time in the height of romance comics, young women would sometimes out number young men at the comic stores.