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Clarence Matthew Baker is commonly regarded as the first African-American comic book artist. He specialized in so-called "good girl" art, and drew the wrath of Dr. Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent for his suggestive cover to Phantom Lady #17.
Despite his reputation for "good girl" art, he contributed heavily to the western genre, and was beginning to develop his science fictional style when he suddenly died at the age of 37. He had been weakened by rheumatic fever as a child, and his heart simply gave out at a much earlier age than it otherwise might've. He died as he lived: a stylish bachelor.
Getting the St. John treatment
While Baker had long relationships with several comic book publishers, and is arguably most famous for his connection to Victor Fox, his relationship with St. John was particularly noteworthy. Archer St. John brought him onboard in late 1948, and in many ways built his company around Baker's talents. Though he gave Baker work in a variety of genres—indeed, there are few St. John's comics which don't include Baker art—it was editor Marion McDermott who utilized his talents most regularly. As chief editor of the romance division, she made Baker her lead artist, and found back-up artists to complement his style. Under her guidance, his style matured, becoming ever more detailed and subtle. It would not be unfair to suggest that her influence was to gently nudge him from "good girl" art to plainly good art.
With the confidence of both publisher Archer St. John and the editor of his most lucrative division, it is unsurprising that Baker was chosen to illustrate one of the company's best-remembered projects. Soon after establishing his reputation at St. John, Baker was tapped to pencil It Rhymes With Lust, often noted as America's first graphic novel.
Other artists' praise
Arnold Drake, co-writer of It Rhymes With Lust, had a passing working relationship with Baker, and claimed to have met him three times. In 2004, he described the chance for the "first Black artist in comics" to draw his story as "a special kick for me". He also called Baker "the hippest dresser I had ever seen (and I knew Dizzy and Miles and a wonderful piano man, Walter Bishop, Jr.). He put together outfits that guys did not wear for another 30 years or so." Drake also said, "Women were crazy for him; all sizes, shapes and colors."
His love of women seems to have been confirmed by a singular quote from Baker himself: "Why make one woman miserable when I can make many women happy?"
Phantom Lady and Matt Baker's role in drawing her was recently highlighted in an episode of The Golden Age of Comic Books podcast. Click here to listen.
Date of Birth: 10 December 1921
Birthplace: Forsyth County, North Carolina USA
Date of death: 11 August 1959
Matt Baker is a favorite creator of 2 users
- 1999 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards - Nominee - Hall of Fame
- 2005 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards - Nominee - Hall of Fame
Baker's only known pseudonym, Matt Bakerino, is a combined one. It indicates collaborated work with inker Jon D'Agostino done at Charlton.
There may be some dispute about his death. Although there is wide agreement that he died on 11 August 1959, one source claims he had a stroke in 1957 and died of a subsequent heart attack in 1963. Given the overwhelming agreement about his date of death, however, we'll leave it as 11 August 1959 unless other sources can corroborate the later death date.
Baker's signature is largely absent on his work, as was typical of most work done by all artists in the Golden Age. However, where it appears, it does so with great variety. He never developed a standard, stylized signature, as is common of artists today. The most common variant is seen at top right, done in an unassuming, clear, cursive script. However, sometimes he printed his name, "Matt Baker". On some work he printed in all upper-case, "MATT BAKER", and on still others he just printed his last name, "BAKER". Rarely, as with the cover to Crown Comics #7, he printed his initials, "M.B."
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