INTERVIEW: "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" Hunt Rebirth's Oracle
It’s really a shame that Golden Age artist Matt Baker was so relatively mysterious among his peers, as the historical importance of his influential work and his being one of the first and few black men working in comics at the time make him a figure a lot of people should want to know more about.
That there are so many question marks regarding Baker’s personal and professional life beyond his drawing table isn’t exactly a tragic thing, however. As editor Jim Amash notes during an interview included in his Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour, it meant Baker could be appreciated for his work more than any biographical details, as interesting and colorful as some of those may be .
Fred Robinson, Baker’s half-brother, puts it this way in the interview: “The reason that Matt got so much work wasn’t because he was black or white; he got it because he was good. It’s as simple as that. If you’re good, and you have what people want, they’re going to use you. You get hired. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier mainly because he was good; he could play ball better than anyone else. He just happened to be black.”
Baker died in 1959 at just 38 years old, the victim of a lifelong heart problem, and therefore didn’t live as long as so many of his peers (some of whom, like the 90-year-old Stan Lee, are still working today), and didn’t even last long enough for the rise of a fan culture around comics, and the nostalgia-driven efforts to collect and chronicle the medium’s beginnings.
His age wasn’t the only thing that made Baker’s biography hard to fill in. There was also his race, which seems to have, consciously or unconsciously, kept him from forming very close relationships with too many other artists in the field, or socializing with them on a daily basis (a dramatic exception being inker Ray Osrin, who asked Baker to be the best man in his wedding, an honor he declined). There was also the fact that Baker simply seems to have been a somewhat mysterious and withdrawn guy, open, as one subject notes in an interview, only to a point.
(A good example of how mysterious Baker might have been is probably the issues of his sexual orientation; he never married. His half-brother said, “His theory was: ‘Why make one woman miserable when you can make so many happy?” Several others flatly state he was gay. Osrin’s widow and others, when asked whether Baker was gay, say he definitely wasn’t).
Good thing, then, that he left so much work by which future generations could know him, and that so much of it is of such high quality. If Art of Glamour struggles with other aspects of Baker’s life, it succeeds in presenting plenty of that, more of it, and from a much greater range of sources, between the same pair of covers than you’re likely to find anywhere else.
Included in these 190 pages are full-color, full-size reprints of a pair of Phantom Lady stories, a Sky Girl story (despite the superhero-sounding name, she was a pilot-turned-waitress) and a Canteen Kate story. There are also black-and-white reprints of full stories featuring Kayo Kirby and Tiger Girl, the latter of whom was one of the many, many jungle girls that were variations of Sheena (who Baker also drew a couple of times).
Thanks to the inclusion of these comics, one need not read a single word of the book to see what’s so special about Baker. The draftsmanship is incredible, a sort of bright light that makes the work of so many artists drawing comics at the same time as Baker seem to pale in comparison, and the action and storytelling propulsive. Baker’s layouts were filled with irregularly shaped panels, with slanting, zigzagging gutters. The white space between the border of panels formed lightning bolts down the centers of the pages, often detouring into wide curves to allow semi circular panels.
And then there are the women, the subject matter that Baker is best known for dealing with. An early innovator of Good Girl Art and often referred to as an, um, “headlight artist,” Baker was responsible for one of the most infamous female heroine covers (left), and these particular stories are all filled with leggy, curvaceous women, usually in the foreground. In their daring and the skill with which their rendered, Baker’s girls put to shame the work of most modern comic book artists. Is it a testament to Baker’s skills that sexy American mainstream comic art in the more socially repressive 1940s and 1950s is so much more effective and sexy than most American mainstream comic art in more anything-goes permissive later decades of the 20th century, and our first dozen years of the 21st century? Or is it a statement on the skills of too many of today’s artists? Let’s go with the former; that’s more positive.
While the above-mentioned stories are the only full stories included, there is a ton of art in here, including covers, panels, pin-ups, sketches, magazine illustrations, portfolio selections and photos. These photos show one more fascinating thing about Baker: He was a handsome, handsome man, usually sporting a meticulously groomed, thin mustache and generally dressed to the nines.
Other parts of the book might be of more questionable value, depending on the reader, and what he or she is looking for. The prose content is of the article variety, with a long biography, plenty of sidebars explaining the various players in the comics industry at the time, and a lot of Q&As, seemingly presented as primary sources for future books on Baker (these include short interviews with artists like Al Feldstein, Joe Kubert, Don Perlin and others), even though some Q’s get only one- or two-word A’s in response.
There’s also a 28-page checklist of all of the comics containing Baker’s work, which seems rather complete to me, ill-equipped as I am to judge such a thing (it is full of pictures though).
It is an excellent place to start learning about Baker though, even if there’s only so much to learn. That he was a great artist with a lot of great, extant work that hasn’t been collected into trade collections, even during our current “Golden Age of Reprints” is an important lesson. Here’s hoping there are publishers with that checklist open on their desks right this moment, assembling complete collections of Baker’s work in various genres or on various characters, even as you read this.
Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour, by Jim Amash and Eric Nolen-Weathington, TwoMorrows Publishing, 190 pages, $40