Matt Baker’s Disquieting ‘Romance’

« I can resist anything except temptation. » — Oscar Wilde

A master from the Golden Age of comics, Matt Baker (1921-1959) is surprisingly well-remembered today. Part of it stems from his singular biography — he was a successful African-American cartoonist, an especial rarity in that era — but his posterity chiefly rests on the quality of his comic book covers.

Looking around, I see that much has been written about him in recent years. But I don’t see any mention of what strikes me about his work: in essence, it creeps me out. But I understand: Baker, as a black man, must have observed and experienced affairs of the heart from a different perspective.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s technically superb, of course. But it’s the tone that I find jarring. Baker’s covers stand out by virtue of their darkly cynical realism. A lot of these situations could only end in tragedy, from unwanted pregnancy to Black Dahlia scenarios. These comic books bore generic tag lines about ‘exciting romances’, ‘love stories’ and ‘romantic adventures’, but Baker’s covers instead feature entrapment and extortion, blackmail, rape and other forms of illicit sex, procuring and corruption…

Perhaps I’m reading too much into these yellowing bits of old paper. But there stands the fact that inside these comic books, the tone changes: we receive the usual tidy moral homilies at the conclusion of every story. Yet the covers, with their unresolved scenarios, retain their haunting power.

Here’s my evidence. See what you think!

This is Pictorial Romances no. 8 (July 1951, St. John). Read the issue here.
This is Wartime Romances no. 2 (Sept. 1951, St. John). Hilda seems to basically behave like Baker’s Canteen Kate, a character that makes me cringe in much the same way as Katharine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby, even without the mannered accent.
This is Teen-Age Temptations no. 2 (June 1953, St. John). I sense a case of Section 2423 about to transpire. Read the issue here.
This is Diary Secrets no. 18 (June 1953, St. John). Soliciting is evidently far less demeaning than going on welfare. Read the issue here.
This is Teen-Age Romances no. 32 (July 1953, St. John). Oh, that Pat’s a keeper.
This is Diary Secrets no. 19 (Aug. 1953, St. John). In 1953, a twenty dollar bill could buy you two hundred comic books, not to mention a jailbait date or twelve. Read the issue here.
This is Wartime Romances no. 17 (Sept. 1953, St. John). No respect for the wingman. A rare case of two creeps who deserve one another. Read the issue here.
This is Pictorial Romances no. 24 (Mar. 1954, St. John). Read the issue here.
This is Teen-Age Temptations no. 8 (June 1954, St. John). For once, the cover matches the inside story. Read the issue here.
This is Cinderella Love no. 25 (Dec. 1954, St. John). Drunk gringos slumming it over the border, down México way… what could go wrong? At least we can rest assured that the whole ‘waking up in a tub full of ice cubes, short one kidney‘ is an urban legend. But the plot of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s 1975 classic, Grow Some Funk of Your Own, remains a distinct possibility.
This is Teen-Age Romances no. 40 (Dec. 1954, St. John). With the Comics Code looming, the scenes depicted on St. John’s covers got sanitised into looking like any other romance comic book of the era. But I daresay Baker’s work was better than ever — I mean, look at that delicate, yet confident and expressive line. Read the issue here.
A portrait of the dapper artist. Regrettably, work became scarce during the post-Code years, and Baker was reduced to hacking out page fillers for Vince Colletta’s studio. It’s an honest living, sure, but a waste, since nothing looks more like a dashed-out Colletta-inked romance than another dashed-out Colletta-inked romance.

Baker, cursed with a heart ailment, died tragically young at age 38 in 1959.


The Brave Josef Lada

When I looked up Czech painter-caricaturist Josef Lada (1887-1957), I was surprised to find him called ‘one of the best-loved Czech painters of all time‘. There’s no question that Lada’s work remains immensely popular among Czechs, but I suppose the question for context would be « how many painters from that corner of the world are well known outside of outside of the Czech Republic and ex-USSR countries » (probably not many). Lada doubtlessly deserves his lasting fame, at any rate.

My familiarity with his style comes from his illustrations for Jaroslav Hašek‘s sardonically hilarious novel The Good Soldier Švejk, a favourite family book from which we can all quote at length, and which I own in several Russian editions (thanks to inheriting my grandfather’s copy). There have been many adaptations of Švejk, but I can only imagine him the way Lada depicted him. Visit BibliOdyssey for a glimpse of the good soldier.

While his renown is assured thanks to his work on Hašek’s magnum opus, the entirely self-taught Lada is also fondly remembered for his illustrations to children’s books (which he occasionally wrote himself), as well as paintings of pastoral life, probably inspired by his childhood in the small village of Hrusice. For a fuller biography, head over to The Genius of Josef Lada, the most complete source of information that I could find online in English.

Here’s an assortment of images from various books – among others, Ezopské bajky (The Fables of Aesop) from 1931; Kocour Mikeš (Tomcat Mikeš), written and illustrated by Lada between 1934 and 1936, and being a sort of a take on Puss in Boots; Nezbedné Pohádky (Naughty Fairy Tales) from 1946 – as well as some postcards and aforementioned village illustrations.

A typical pub night, 1929.
Winter Pleasures, 1936.

« In the first year of his life, [Lada] had a life-altering accident – he fell on his father’s knife and the injuries sustained permanently blinded his right eye. Some art historians later attributed the artist’s flat-perspective painting style to this incident.»

Lada’s depiction of ‘vodnik‘, an evil water spirit.
A page from Zvířátka (which translates to ‘beasts’ or ‘animals’), a book comprising a dozen animal illustrations.
A New Year postcard from 1928.
A collection of Lada’s caricatural cartoons – ‘A Hundred Cheerful Drawings’ – published in 1970. I found this little volume in a used bookstore, and was delighted to find what was clearly the work of the artist who illustrated Švejk – I didn’t know Lada by name, back then. I don’t speak Czech, but it’s still plenty fun to leaf through.

For more Lada art, visit the Notes From a Superfluous Man blog!

~ ds

Rowland Emett’s Ramshackle Poesy in Motion

« The whistle of the old steam trains … could conjure up visions of bleak distances with one solitary wail. » — M.C. Beaton

A couple of years back, I gave our readers an introductory sample of the genius (hardly too strong a word in his case) of Rowland Emett (1906-1990), and vowed I would return with a fuller, more lingering look.

Since I got the biographical trimmings out of the way that time, today, I’ll merely offer you an even dozen of my favourites.

Can’t tell a trébuchet from a catapult from a ballista? This handy guide will steer you right!
Prof. Lightning’s moniker is evidently well-earned.
Another inventive step in the harnessing of solar power.
While this particular train route sadly does not exist (as an editor once wrote, “the great Emett, whose crazy world seems so much saner than our own…”), there are some lovely birding tours available throughout that green and pleasant land, from Land’s End to John o’Groats.
Said nationalisation took place in 1948. Here’s a bit of background on that historic endeavour.


Pénélope Bagieu… and Her Cohorts

Today we foray into the land of semi-autobiographical, prototypically ‘female’ chronicles – you know the thing, jokes about dieting and weight gain, a never-ending quest for the right boyfriend, hoary chestnuts about opening jars and eating ice cream when sad. The focus may vary a bit – some characters are stuck in humdrum drudgery, potty-training children and husbands, and some are bouncing around on sexy outings (and all of them fretting about becoming their mothers). While I am not automatically dismissive of this genre, it’s difficult to pull it off in an interesting way. For every Sylvia, there are many, many Cathys*.

Anyway, lately French cartoonists who go down that road have tended to opt for a very similar drawing style, similar to the point where one starts wondering who has ripped off whom. One of the artists who stands out a bit more to me is Pénélope Bagieu, whose work, while adopting a lot of tropes inherent to this category, also provides some genuinely interesting moments.

Bagieu might be best known for her 2016 webcomic-turned-best-selling-book Les Culottées (Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World in English) that tells stories of exceptional women of different eras and nationalities. It’s a great idea… that I am not interested in, which can also be said about California Dreamin’, her biography of Mama Cass. However, two of her graphic novels are definitely worth seeking out.

Exquisite Corpse (translated from the French Cadavre exquis, published in 2010, Gallimard) does a great job of depicting the depressing life of Zoe, who shuffles between a mind-numbing job and a lackluster relationship, growing more desperate by the day. Her life takes an altogether different turn when she accidentally meets a recluse who turns out to be a famous author. I don’t want to give any spoilers about the set-up of the ending, but I did not see it coming at all.

Her other graphic novel I like, La page blanche (2012), was written by Boulet and remains untranslated into English. It opens with a young woman sitting on a bench, having no idea how she got there or who she is. The interesting thing is that her amnesia never goes away — she never gets to remember anything about her past life, or discover who she was. All she finds was an apartment full of books that everybody reads and movies everybody watches, as well as shallow friends who are not really friends.

More in ligne with the aforementioned ‘woman seeks partner, settles for ice cream instead’, here are a few pages from the first volume of Joséphine, a series of three albums published between 2008 and 2010:

Joséphine’s only weapon against her holier-than-thou sister is sarcasm.

Since I made a point of mentioning artists with similar styles, here’s an example. The following pages have been scanned from La célibataire, written by Quebecoise India Desjardins and illustrated by French Magalie Foutrier (although given how light in storytelling content this book is, and how very French it is, too, I’m not really sure what Desjardins actually contributed):

Making pâté chinois from scratch… or not.
One of my favourite storylines in this book, about a cat she finds on her balcony one autumnal afternoon. Not sure why she’s bathing it, though. Unlike the very human Joséphine, this gal is always impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed.

Despite its lack of originality, I like La célibataire a lot for its the bright colours and textured art. Sometimes, ‘it’s pretty’ is a justification to keep something despite multiple attempts at purging the books one doesn’t really need. This one has survived every purge, so far.

That was two examples I actually like — for kind-of-similar-but-no-thank-you, check out Margaux Motin or Nathalie Jomard.

~ ds

*On Hating Cathy over at The Comics Journal is a worthwhile read, though I disagree with its conclusion.

Treasured Stories: “Why Can’t You Be More Like Marvin?” (1975)

« The devil’s most devilish when respectable. » — Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Ah, the nineteen seventies… and their Satanic panic, in which we can recognize so closely the roots (or at least relatives) of today’s disinformation maelstrom, before the politicisation and weaponisation of septic paranoia and lies had become honed to such an anti-science. In a lot of sordid ways, Lawrence Pazder was an Andrew Wakefield of his day.

Here’s a story that I first encountered around the time of its release, remembered, but didn’t revisit until a couple of weeks ago, when a good friend (merci, Keith!) helpfully snapped up a copy for me. This deceptively dark tale was created by writer Arnold Drake (I surmise), penciller John Celardo and mysterious inker Wanda Ippolito, who may have a been a spouse or relative of Celardo’s. It’s odd to find someone else inking Celardo, as this was his chief, most enduring and distinctive strength. For comparison’s sake — and presumably, reading enjoyment — here’s another Drake-Celardo outing, The Anti-13!

I won’t make any claims that this is great art: by this time, Gold Key’s printing was shoddy, they barely bothered with the colouring (straight Magenta and Cyan and Yellow everywhere — how lazy can you get?)… but I treasure this one because of the story. Given its moral — what moral? — it’s hard to imagine The Comics Code Authority giving this one a pass, as it merrily violates several of its key precepts. I’ve got another such blasphemous entry in the pipeline… this one duly Code-Approved! Just you wait…

I had a childhood friend who was a lot like Marvin (minus the devil worship — for all I know)… he was incredibly talented, but also scarily unpredictable, and not in a good way. One day, he just disappeared.

On the other hand, the accompanying cover is spectacular.

« Why Can’t You Be More Like Marvin? » originally appeared in Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 63 (Aug. 1975, Gold Key), which bore this masterfully disquieting cover by Luis Domínguez. It would have made it into my Domínguez retrospective, Luis Domínguez (1923-2020): A Farewell in Twelve Covers but for the fact that I didn’t own a decent copy of the issue.

And as (nearly) always, a bonus for context: Celardo had a long and fruitful career, and I’m sure one of its highlights was to number among Fiction House’s elite cadre of cover artists. I’ve said it before, but despite their mind-numbing repetitiveness, FH covers were tops in the Golden Age in terms of draftsmanship and production values.

Aw, poor Ka’a’nga — always left at home to feed the jackals while Ann Mason goes off on escapades with her other boyfriends. And who insisted on adopting them in the first place? Ann, that’s who! This is Jungle Comics no. 98 (Feb. 1948, Fiction House). Judging from his ability in the jungle antics genre, it’s no wonder that Celardo was picked to illustrate the real thing (at least comics-wise): the Tarzan comic strip, from 1954 to 1968, between Bob Lubbers (another FH cover artiste!) and Russ Manning.
And here’s one of Celardo’s Tarzan Sundays (March 27, 1954, United Feature Syndicate).