Most worked in “shops” where their main employers had no idea who they were. A couple passed as white. No matter: in the early days of comics, readers would only know them by pen names that covered whole art teams. There was a reason for “house styles” in comic books, which even at their best were still considered low art.
That was then. Now comics are held in higher regard — and should be — and with his book Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books, historian Ken Quattro has dug deep to both reveal some seminal (and often uncredited) comics artists and place their lives and work in the context of American history. Gathered from newspaper articles, historical records, and anecdotes passed down, Quattro weaves short narrative biographies, followed by letting the work speak for itself.
Occasionally, it’s glorious work. Some artists like Elmer Cecil Stoner saw comics as a way to make money while establishing themselves as fine artists elsewhere. Even when Stoner’s comics work might have been tossed off — and there are weird elements to it — it’s obviously the work of a man in full mastery of his craft, which Quattro also provides samples of. Most of us only know the modern Blue Beetle, but seeing Stoner’s work on the Golden Age version makes it clear why the character stayed in people’s minds.
A few chapters later, you’ll discover Clarence Matthew Baker, successful in his day but almost criminally overlooked today. His work would sit easily alongside many of today’s comics artists — probably because they borrowed so much from him. Looking through the samples Quattro provides, let’s just call it — the later great Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer owes a huge debt to Baker. Check out his work on Phantom Lady. That’s before even getting into Baker having drawn the first actual graphic novel — sorry, Will Eisner — the hard-boiled It Rhymes with Lust.
Baker also had a hand in another piece of comics history, as artist on “Voodah,” a jungle action hero notable for being one of the only actual Africans of the genre. (“Lion Man” being the other.) The rest, of course, were white, over-muscled, and strangely overwhelmingly blond. Ironically, it turns out that many were also drawn by black artists. As Quattro notes, though, there may be many other unidentified stories, as real credits were rare in the Golden Age.
As a kid, I know I read a few reprints from the Golden Legacy line of comics, books that told stories from Black History — a few artists of which are included here. Teachers knew I’d devour them, but I didn’t know anything about creators at all, then, and I always have to caveat this as I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have no idea how widely those comics were disseminated in classrooms outside of California. Reading Quattro brought back memories of those important books, and drive me to dig deeper and find some others of these artists.
There are well-known creators mentioned here, too — Joe Kubert and Alex Toth clearly worked to give more work to some of those covered in this book, and there’s an anecdote about Stan Lee that both speaks to the time and Stan being Stan. But they’re absolutely background characters (and should be). This is about making the Invisible more visible, and comics history is better for Quattro’s writing and scholarship.
You can purchase Invisible Men through this link on Bookshop.org. The book is published by IDW through the YoeBooks imprint.
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