« 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.