« 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!
Baker, cursed with a heart ailment, died tragically young at age 38 in 1959.
A fine and far-reaching tribute to Matt Baker. No real villains here, just a cold cultural adjustment borne of fear. That fear had been a long time building and was more correctly attributed to industrial urban centers created in the wake of the Industrial revolution. From Jacob Riis, to alcoholism, to the pervasive spread of racism, cynicism, xenophobia, and the comics and film noir we love, cities-as-hiring halls for the churning behemoth of industry is the wellspring. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
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Thanks for the kind words and thoughtful and beautifully expressed comment, Ted. I’m relieved to see that my chief point came through: several of these covers get under my skin because of their downbeat verisimilitude — Baker was expressing some uncomfortable truths, and this aspect of this work doesn’t receive nearly enough attention, as most casual fans are content to be blinded by Phantom Lady headlight covers.
Vinnie’s studio was a Godsend, not only for Matt but many out-of-work artists during those lean years. Much of the artwork that came out of that studio was actually pretty good.
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You’re quite right, Ed! Anything that served as a lifeline to victims of the industry’s brutal compression is to be applauded. And of course, given the calibre of the talent involved, some pretty fine work was produced.
I just wish that it didn’t have to be so homogeneous, but that’s what the publishers were paying for… product with a specific, established look. Still, to not make use of Baker’s gorgeous inking is regrettable.