The Good Girl Artist vs the Greatest Villain of Them All
Let’s look at the second half of that title first, shall we? Who is the greatest comic book villain of them all?
Lex Luthor? Not even close.
Galactus? What a piker.
Darkseid? Can’t even remember which planet he left his Mother Boxes on.
Green Goblin? Red Skull? Purple Pantywaist?
Nope, nope and nope.
The greatest villain in the history of comic books was a Vienna-born American psychiatrist who studied under Sigmund Freud and specialized in the treatment and understanding of violent behavior. His name was Fredric Wertham, M.D.
Like most villains, he was the hero of his own narrative. And, truth be told, he was not otherwise a horrible person. He never slaughtered half the life in the universe. He didn’t eat inhabited planets or reduce them to cinders. He didn’t kill Spider-Man’s girlfriend. His research was even put before the Supreme Court as evidence in the Brown vs Board of Education case that overturned racial segregation in American public schools in 1954. No, all he did was virtually shut down an entertainment medium on the verge of expanding out of its cultural ghetto into near respectability. Would the Pulitzer committee have had to wait until 1992 to award the first and only prize to a graphic novel without his baleful influence? Maybe, but we’ll never know, will we?
Wertham never set out to destroy the comics industry. He simply wanted to stop juvenile delinquency, using the false notion that, because naughty kids read comic books in the 1940s and early 1950s, then obviously, quad erat demonstratum, comic books caused childhood misbehavior. Of course, he had to falsify his data (i.e., make it up out of thin air) to prove his point, given that virtually every child in America read comic books in the period before television absorbed American popular culture into its unblinking cyclopean eye.
Along the way, he facilitated the forced shutdown of vast swaths of the comic book publishers of the time. The number of markets for comics creators dwindled from dozens to a handful. There were other factors, of course, and other decriers of the latest medium to draw the ire of concerned parents, but it was Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, that slew the so many of the giants of the field and made his name anathema to generations of comic book fans.
Notice I used ‘fans’, there. ‘Fen’ is only the plural of ‘fan’ in science fiction fandom, or was when I was active in both, way, way back in the Cultural Pleistocene Era.
Wertham didn’t manage to kill the industry off completely, nor was that his aim. He simply wanted parents to know what their children were reading, and give them tools to help them head off the behaviors he found so problematic. Like that has ever worked. Right, Tipper?
He didn’t even kill off the worst offenders among the super-heroes, Batman with his ‘homosexual’s dream’ relationship with Robin or the ‘lesbian ideal’, Wonder Woman. They, along with Superman, were too big to succumb to the general dying off of the rest of the super-hero genre.
Wertham did, however, inflict a fatal blow to other genres, particularly crime and horror. A Comics Code Authority was cobbled together by the remaining publishers to address Wertham’s concerns, led by the president of Archie Comics, John L. Goldwater. Werewolves and vampires were banned, as were the very words ‘horror’ or ‘terror’ in the titles of the magazines. Refusal to conform would cost the recalcitrant publisher access to distribution, unless that publisher was the acknowledged curator of wholesome sequential art content, Dell Comics. Those specific restrictions alone wiped out entire companies, most particularly E.C., which had drawn the ire of the Code hierarchy with a merciless and nearly libelous lampooning of Goldwater’s main money-maker, Archie Andrews, in Mad #12. E.C. publisher William M. Gaines soon switched over from putting out titles like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear to dumping all his yeggs into a single basket, a magazine format continuation of E.C.’s ground-breaking parody comic book, MAD, that was beyond the reach of the Comics Code Authority.
Didn’t see that one coming did you, Goldwater?
Among Wertham’s other targets for opprobrium were the ‘headlight’ comics, those that prominently featured female, er, prominences. One of the illustrations included in Seduction of the Innocent was a specific example of such, the cover of Fox Publications’ Phantom Lady #17 from 1948, an illustration in which the title character was bound with ropes to what looks like a dock piling in such a posture as to accentuate her, um, pulchritudinous assets.
The artist who drew that cover was the subject of the first part of the title above. Bet you were wondering when I’d get around to that. His name was Matt Baker, and he was the first significant African-American comic book artist. And from this point on, he is the focus of our tale, for he was the dominant, so to speak, ‘Good Girl Artist’ of his day.
That’s as in artist who drew girls good. The morality of the females involved was not necessarily their salient feature. Or features, as it were.
Clarence Matthew Baker was born in Forsythe County, North Carolina, on December 10, 1921. His family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania circa 1924, where Matt graduated from high school in 1940 with the stated ambition of being an artist and photographer.
Due to a heart condition, possibly due to having had rheumatic fever as a child, Matt was not eligible for military service during World War II. He did some sort of job for the Navy Department until moving to Brooklyn in 1943 with his brother and working for the National War Labor Board while studying art at Cooper Union in New York. He stayed at that school for only one term before taking a job with the Iger Studio.
Jerry Iger had started a studio that supplied content for the burgeoning comic book markets with his partner Will Eisner, but when Eisner’s creation, The Spirit, gained lucrative newspaper syndication, Iger carried on without him. Through Iger, Baker churned out mass quantities of work for the aforementioned Fox, as well as Fiction House, St. John Publications and myriad smaller houses. He drew mostly jungle hero and heroine stories for Fox and Fiction House, even going so far as to create the first obviously black hero in a mainstream comic book. Voodah ran in Crown Comics, published by a very minor house called McCombs, for the magazine’s entire nineteen-issue run from 1945 to 1949. Alas, Voodah was only dark-skinned in the first few issues before he miraculously transformed into a garden-variety Caucasian jungle hero.
Baker’s work for St. John was mostly in the romance genre, a field in which he excelled. Few artists of his day drew women so beautifully. There are those who claim his attention to the details of feminine beauty was due to him being quite the ladies’ man. There are those who claim the opposite and even speculate on the nature of his relationship with Archer St. John, his primary publisher. Either way, he turned in some great comics stories in those days, along with the first graphic novel, It Rhymes with Lust, published in 1950 by St. John, and a short-lived syndicated newspaper comic strip, Flamingo.
Baker did do horror tales for St. John, as well as for other, lesser publishers. Alas, in the wake of Wertham’s attack on his medium, Baker lost his most reliable markets. Fox and Fiction House were defunct by 1955. St. John held on until 1958, but just barely. Baker spent the rest of the decade working for the less prestigious houses Charlton and Atlas, the latter being the forerunner of the modern-day Marvel Comics. The titles he contributed to for those houses are a litany of defanged spookiness – Out of This World, Tales of the Mysterious Traveler and Strange Suspense Stories for Charlton; Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, and World of Fantasy for Atlas. None of them with the frissons he created in his earlier horror work, but they paid the bills for the remainder of his short life.
Baker passed away from his life-long heart condition on August 11, 1959, at the much too young age of thirty-eight. Had he survived another decade, he would likely have been a major player in Marvel’s ascendancy in the 1960s. But that was not to be.
I doubt that Wertham took note of Baker’s passing. He wrote more books, even managing one last dig at the baleful effect of comics on American youth in his 1968 tome, A Sign for Cain. His last book was a generally favorable examination of the phenomenon of fanzines, those amateur paeans to various fandoms that proliferated in the days before the internet made everyone a pundit on whatever topic took their fancy. Present company included.
Wertham died in 1981, if not reviled by comics fans, at least regarded with ye olde legendary jaundiced eye. Comics writer Mark Evanier wrote a not entirely condemnatory article that was reprinted in his 2003 book, Wertham Was Right! I won’t go so far as to say that Wertham’s reputation was fully reformed by Evanier’s essay, but it does put his actions, however questionable, into a context that is more favorable than he enjoyed in earlier days.
Baker’s reputation, in the meantime, has remained high and even grown. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009, and numerous artists of the last several decades cite him as a major influence on their own work. Given the comparative legacies of the Good Girl Artist and the Greatest Villain of Them All, I’d settle for Baker’s over Wertham’s any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.
In addition to my well-worn copy of Seduction of the Innocent and the Evanier volume mentioned above, I would like to commend to the populace two other essential works on the relevant history of the period covered herein. To whit, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hadju, and Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro. Both are available from Amazon.
And, so, until next time —
Be afraid. Be very afraid.