Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, December 27, 2012
      ( 12/27/2012 04:11:00 PM ) Bill S.  

GIRLS AND LADIES: Mention the name Matt Baker to most generations of comic book fans, and chances are you’ll only get a blank stare. But to those readers enamored with what has become somewhat condescendingly known as Good Girl Art, Baker is the Man. Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour (TwoMorrows Publishing) is a fannish attempt to bring this unduly neglected artist back into the spotlight.

Good Girl Art flourished in the late forties/early fifties and focused on heroines who were strong but also gorgeous in the manner of WWII pin-ups. Two of the foremost practitioners of this art were Baker and Bill Ward (who would later go on doing his distinctive penwork for men’s magazines and Cracked). Baker, initially working for a comics shop known as the Iger Studio, drew a variety of spunky heroines, some with “girl” affixed to their title (Sky Girl, Tiger Girl). The Art of Glamour includes sample stories from this period, including two featuring a scantily clad crime-fighter known as the Phantom Lady. If the stories ultimately prove slight, the art is anything but. Baker had a knack for rendering his leggy characters with a sensual naturalness that was unmatched by any other artist of his day.

That the man isn’t better known today can be attributed to several factors: the studios he worked for typically peppered their stories with pseudonyms in place of legitimate credits, while the comics fandom that would work at unearthing so many uncredited artists didn’t really burst in full-blown action until after his untimely death from a heart attack in 1959. Too, much of the work that he did in the early fifties was for comic book genres – romance titles and westerns – that wouldn’t receive much fannish attention for years. An anthology of fifties romance comics, Romance Without Tears, which featured a hefty selection of Baker art is unfortunately out of print.

Baker himself also had several personal strikes against him in the early days of the industry: an introvert who was one of the few black artists in early comics, he also (though The Art of Glamour soft-pedals this suggestion) appears to have been gay. Whether any of these factors kept him from working more high-profile projects, one thing is clear: he inspired an army of imitators even as he was still working. Baker’s natural way of draping clothes on his voluptuous femmes was especially noteworthy.

His way with (comic art) women led to his involvement in one particularly intriguing project: one of the first graphic novels, a paperback “Picture Novel” written by fledgling comics pro Arnold Drake and Les Waller entitled It Rhymes With Lust. The story of a ruthless redhead named Rust Shannon who schemes to take control of a copper mining town after her corrupt politician husband dies, Lust was a crisp little noir, a project for which Baker was admirably suited. Drawn on graftint paper with plenty of shaded backgrounds, the 1949 novel looks like a B-picture from the era, but since those weren’t getting much critical respect at the time, it’s not surprising that the paperback comic with the seemingly dirty title didn’t either.

Matt Baker’s editors, Jim Amash and Eric Nolen-Weathington, structure their appreciation by opening with a quartet of color stories: two featuring the vigilante Phantom Lady, two centered on more comic dames like waitress Ginger Maguire, a former ferry pilot in the Pacific theatre who gets demoted to waitress “serving mustard to the better class of pilots.” An opening essay by Alberto Becattini provides a chronological overview of the man’s career with appreciative commentary by some of the artists who worked with him in the forties comics shops. One interesting snippet for fans of EC comics: both the line’s editor Al Feldstein and mainstay artist Jack Kamen worked as inkers on Baker’s work – you can definitely see Baker’s influence in the latter’s work for EC’s crime comics, though I don’t think that Kamen ever drew a woman as provocatively as Baker’s.

A series of reminiscences with family, friends and colleagues follows, the volume concluding with three more reprinted stories, two of which are presented as the original pencil and ink pages. Throughout the rest of this lavishly packaged book, of course, are Baker covers, panels and pages from both his comics and short-lived attempts at newspaper syndication work, as well as illos that he did for men’s magazines. (In this last, he and fellow Good Girl Artist Bill Ward followed similar paths.) While some of the remembrances focus more on the mundane aspects of the artist’s life than necessary, the art speaks for itself.

Now where’s the full-blown Baker anthology?

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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