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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Matt Baker

Matt Baker is best know for his Phantom Lady art in the late 40s — which Monalesia Earle and I analyze in our chapter from Desegregating Comics out next month from Rutgers. We have lots to say about Baker’s layout techniques and how they relate to his being a gay Black man in the mid-century U.S. comics industry.

But first, a history lesson on a completely unrelated character:

Tyroc was one of DC’s first Black superheroes, premiering in Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #216 (April 1976). He was preceded only by Jack Kirby’s Black Racer in New Gods #3 (July 1971), Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams’ John Stewart in Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow #87 (December 1972), and Robert Kanigher and Don Heck’s Nubia in Wonder Woman #204 (January 1973).

Tyroc’s first appearance over three years later coincides with Jeanette Kahn taking over from Carmine Infantino as DC’s publisher in January 1976. He featured prominently again in Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #218 (June 1976) and #222 (December 1976) before vanishing for three years.

He reappeared as a member of the assemble cast in #250 (April 1979), in #263 (May 1980) and #264 (June 1980) of the retitled Legion of Super-Heroes, and in the three-issue limited series Secret of the Legion of Super-Heroes (January-March 1981). He vanished again for a decade, then reappeared as a member of the Legion of Substitute Heroes in #16 (March 1991) of a new Legion of Super-Heroes series, with sporadic appearances there and then in Legionnaires until 1994. He made no appearances until cameos a decade later, and then as a recurrent character in the 2011-13 Legion Lost.

One of Tyroc’s creators, artist Mike Grell, regretted his involvement. “Tyroc was sort of a sore spot for me,” Grell told an interviewer. When Dave Cockrum left DC to draw The X-Men at Marvel in 1974, Grell took over Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes. The series was set a thousand years in the future, and Grell didn’t understand why there weren’t any Black people. As discussed previously, when he interpreted a police rookie as Black while drawing his fifth issue—the script didn’t specify race for the one-off character—his editor made him change the artwork, promising him that a new and permanent Black superhero was in development. Grell received the script nine months later. He hated it.

He disliked the character’s superpower (“the world’s stupidest … By screaming really loudly and making different noises, he could cause different things to happen”), but more importantly Grell objected to DC’s explanation for why no other Black characters had appeared in the series before:

“far worse in my mind—as a writer, as a reader, as an artist, as an inhabitant of the planet Earth—was the concept of the explanation as to why there had never been any black people in the 30th century: they had all gone to live on an island, which sounds like the most racist concept I have ever heard.”

Grell complained similarly to another interviewer:

“Their explanation for why there were no black people ever featured in the Legion of Super-Heroes up until this point was that all the black people had gone to live on an island. I was dumbfounded. It’s possibly the most racist concept I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, it’s a segregationist’s dream, right?”

Grell wanted to do something in protest:

“So I cobbled up a costume that was a combination of Elvis Presley Las Vegas shows and old blaxploitation movies. I drew it, but I didn’t take credit for it” (9).

He explained in another interview:

“I gave him a silly costume. It was somewhere between Elvis’ Las Vegas costume and something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing… I modeled him somewhat after Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, who was a movie star at the time [and] a football player …” (89-90).

I had to google Fred Williamson (Hammer was released in 1972, a year after Shaft). The resemblance seems clear:

Grell references Elvis twice, but the open-shirt costume design was disproportionately common for Black male characters (including Lothar, Falcon, Brother Voodoo, Luke Cage, Blade, and Black Lightning). Grell also gave Tyroc Robin’s bare legs and ankle-exposing winged boots, a visual allusion that places the adult Black male in the position of a White adolescent sidekick. The voiced-focused superpower may follow another 1970s trend of giving Black male superheroes traits associated with White female characters, in this case DC’s Black Canary and Marvel supervillain Lorelei.

Despite its unflattering elements, Grell’s costume design did not concern his co-creator, scripter Carey Bates, or their editor Murray Boltinoff. This presumably was Grell’s intent, since an overt parody would have been noticed, rejected, and replaced. Though protesting the shortcomings of a Black character by adding more shortcomings is a questionable strategy, Grell may have employed an additional strategy that also slipped past his colleagues:

He draws misdirecting layouts.

Fellow comics scholar Monalesia Earle and I recently co-authored “Misdirections in Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady” for the collection Desegregating Comics edited by Qiana Whitted (Rutgers 2023). We explain in the essay: “misdirection functions as a series of performative feints” that “seeks to effect perceptual shifts.”

Matt Baker was a gay Black man working in a overwhelming straight White industry in the 40 and 50s. What he “demonstrated through his drawings was not just a deterministically inscribed awareness of his secondary status in the U.S. (hence, drawing at the margins), but most certainly a deliberate de-centering of the White gaze upon his Black body by drawing from the margins– i.e., drawing empowerment from his marginal status.”

This is especially apparent in his layouts: “His idiosyncratic approach to viewing paths may be his most significant contribution to comics and also his most salient self-expression in an industry and culture doubly biased against his race and his presumed sexual orientation… By employing misdirection in his layouts, Baker effectively mounted an implicit critique of White norms.”

To understand what’s so disruptive about his layouts requires understanding the norms he was quietly overturning. Z-paths and N-paths “assume that contiguous panels are viewed consecutively as determined by their placement in approximately straight horizontal or vertical paths, and that when a path segment ends, typically at the physical border of a page, viewers skip to the beginning of the next row or column. Such skips are termed saccades in vision science, and they typically create a backward, page-wide, diagonal leap over a lower horizontal gutter dividing the next row (or over a vertical gutter dividing the next column). Forward viewing movements within segments (either rows or columns) typically involve no leaps because images are contiguous and parallel.”

We identify five layout misdirections that, while not unique to Baker, emerge as his signature style. While we were writing the chapter, I assumed the misdirections were essentially limited to him. But now I see that Grell uses them for Tyroc too. Of the five we discuss for Baker, three matter for Grell:

  • Misdirecting appendage: a portion of an image drawn as though extending beyond its frame and into another panel that is not next in the viewing path.
  • Reversed path: a path that moves from a right image to the next contiguous left image.
  • Parallel saccade: a backward but non-diagonal leap over a middle image that has not yet been viewed to reach the beginning of a next row or column.

In a previous blog I discussed the most notorious panel from Tyroc’s premiere issue, where Superboy and his fellow Legionnaires explain that they are “Color-blind,” revealing to Tyroc that he has been wrong for feeling “only hatred and contempt” toward them.

The panel appears in the center of the page:

Note the unframed third panel of the first row. It features Tyroc’s and Superboy’s full bodies and extends down the right edge of the page for three rows. Though the depicted moment is the third in the sequence of images, Tyroc’s legs are to the right of the fourth image, and Superboy’s feet are to the right of the fifth image. Viewing the complete image produces a reversed path. Viewers must move right to left to reach the “Color-blindness” panel. Like in Baker’s Phantom Lady, the misdirecting appendages are legs, but they don’t break frame because Grell includes no frame edges for the third image (a strategy Baker never employs).

Baker uses the techniques often, but in the Superboy issues Grell drew, from #204 to Tyroc’s premiere in #216, this is the first time he uses either a reversed path or a misdirecting appendage. If that seems coincidental, look at a page from Tyroc’s second appearance in #218:

Again, Grell draws Tyroc and a second character in an unframed, right-edge image that extends below the next row. Because the third row has two panels instead of one, the result is parallel saccade instead of a reversed path: viewers need to leap over a sequentially unviewed panel to reach the correctly ordered panel.

I’m looking at the reprint Showcase Present: The Legion of Super-Heroes volume 5, which includes issues Grell’s #193-220, plus the one-off Karate Kid #1, for a total of seventeen comics. The only pages that include either a reversed path or a parallel saccade are the two Tyroc pages discussed here. (There is one other minor misdirecting appendage, but it is only a single boot extending into another panel.)

Did Grell know Baker’s style of layouts and imitate them to silently protest Tyroc? Maybe. Parallel evolution may be more probable: both artists innovated disruptive layouts for similar reasons. Grell was disturbed by a racist script and embedded a visual flow disturbance into his rendering. Baker was disturbed by a racist and homophobic industry and regularly embedded his signature disturbances into his art.

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Trump supporters long for a Golden Age. “I used to sleep on my front porch with the door wide open, and now everyone has deadbolts,” one guy told Republican pollster Frank Luntz early in the primary race. “I believe the best days of the country are behind us.” So Trump gave him what he wanted, what The Atlantic‘s Ester Bloom calls “a sugar pill coated in nostalgia.” Actually, Trump didn’t give him anything. He just sold him a slogan. “We know his goal is to make America great again,” another supporter told pollsters. “It’s on his hat.” And now that time-travel hat is headed to the White House. “But,” Bloom asked over a year ago, “to what era does he intend to take the nation back? And what would that look like, practically speaking?”

Well, superhero comics have a very specific Golden Age. It runs from the 1930s to the 1950s. I write about it in my forthcoming book Superhero Comics. (I didn’t choose the title, but Trump has taught me that simplicity sells.) So what did the superhero Golden Age look like? That depends on who swallows the sugar pill. Practically speaking, it’s not so golden if you weren’t a white guy in tights. So adjust your hats, and let’s take a peek …

Image result for ebony white will eisnerSuperhero comics in the pre-Code years of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s are dominated by a lack of black representation and punctuated by instances of extreme racist caricature. “Racism was built into the foundations of entire once-popular genres, especially jungle comics … and war comics,” writes Leonard Rifas, noting the predominance of “early American comic books that show white characters in dominant positions of over nonwhite domestics, natives, or sidekicks”.

The pattern begins with the first recurring black character in superhero comics, Lothar, created by Lee Falk for his daily newspaper strip Mandrake the Magician. For the June 11, 1934 debut, artist Phil Davis drew Mandrake’s sidekick in what would be the character’s signature wardrobe: shorts, cummerbund, lion-skin sash, and fez. Although in the second installment Lothar introduces his “Master” in what was termed General American English in the 30s, before the end of the year, Lothar’s speech had devolved into ungrammatical fragments: “Three men fight lady. Is bad. Me almost get mad.” The “lady” is Barbara, Mandrake’s white love interest, who then dubs Lothar “My watchdog”.

As Mandrake continued its newspaper run, readers witnessed Jesse Owens’ Olympic and Joe Louis’ boxing victories, as well as the appointment of the first African American federal judge, William H. Hastie. But five years after his debut, Lothar’s speech has not improved; after rowing his master through a swamp and holding an umbrella over Barbara’s head, Lothar faces the ghosts of two pirates: “Me scared—but me sock!” Although identified as the prince of several African tribes, Lothar chooses to live in the United States as an ambiguously slave-like servant to a white, Orientalist magician.

The following year, Will Eisner introduced newspaper readers to another crime-fighting sidekick, The Spirit’s Ebony White. Nonwhite sidekicks were a standard outside of comics, with the Lone Ranger’s Tonto and the Green Hornet’s Kato speaking broken English on the radio, and The Spider’s “turbaned Hindu” valet Ram Singh speaking in faux middle English in the pulps: “Fortunate it is that thy servant obeyed his orders”.

Eisner introduced Ebony as an unnamed taxi driver in the first The Spirit newspaper insert on June 2, 1940. In the second, he apologizes for speeding: “Sorry, boss, dis car jes’ nachelly speeds up when ah drives past Wildwood cemetery!!” In the third, he acquires his name and becomes the Spirit’s “exclusive cabby”, though by July, the Spirit has his own car, and Ebony is his “assistant” in August. Ebony’s face dominates the entire splash page the following month: bulging cheeks, round and crossed eyes, a tiny upturned nose, two protruding teeth, and, most prominently, enormous red lips—a cartoon embodiment of blackface minstrelsy. Eisner described the caricature as “a product of the times”.

Black characters in comic books were rarer. Joe Shuster drew no African Americans in the first three years of Action Comics, and Harry G. Peter drew only four in Wonder Woman’s first two years: a train porter, two hotel workers, and an elevator operator. The first three speak in slightly abbreviated General American English: “Yes, Ma’am! Suitcase comin’ up! This suitcase is heavy! Must be fulla books!”, but the last William Marston scripts: “Bell done buzzed f’om dis floah—but dey ain’ nobody heah!”

Analyzing the seventy-eight issues of Captain America’s 1940-1954 titles, Richard A. Hall counts only two African Americans: a cowering and superstitious butler named Mose in 1942 and a member of the adolescent Sentinels of Liberty named Whitewash a year earlier. Both are rendered in a style Hall terms “Amos and Andy-esque,” referencing one of the most pervasive and demeaning representations of African Americans by white authors of the period. Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski’s rendering reproduced the enormous lips of 19th century cartoons, the same tradition Eisner followed.

Beginning in 1941, the zoot-suit-wearing, harmonica-playing, watermelon-eating Whitewash Jones regularly appeared in Young Allies, which ran twenty issues before being cancelled in 1946, and in ten issues of Kid Comics from 1943-46. Although Hall concludes that “There were literally no non-white heroic figures during this period”, Whitewash, while fulfilling the role of comic relief through racist caricature, is also the first African American hero in superhero comics.

In the Young Allies premiere, Wojtkoski and writer Otto Binder present him as an equal member of the “small band of daring kids”, one who wrestles Nazi spies, discovers a trail that leads to the Red Skull’s cave, saves team leaders Bucky and Toro by triggering a cave-in, and saves the entire team by discovering that their drinks have been poisoned. When a military officer presents “each with a distinguished service medal” for “exceptional bravery in action,” Wojtkoski draws Whitewash beside Toro and in front of two other white members, and for the chapter four splash page, contributing artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby place Whitewash at center, pinning Hitler with his team members. In one panel, the character leads the team on bicycles stolen from German soldiers.

Yet Whitewash also exposes the team as stowaways and is chided for his shocking “ignorance”. He is, however, no more comic than his teammates. Though Whitewash is afraid to enter the cemetery, Knuckles dives head-first behind a bush at the sound of an owl. Whitewash trips over his own rifle, but only because Tubby backs into him. Whitewash complains about walking, while Tubby complains about hunger and Jefferson Worthington Sandervilt about the smell of fish. Sandervilt also voices fear, “My. What a harrowing experience!” before Whitewash, “Is dey gone?” Arguably all four of the secondary Young Allies characters are sidekicks to Bucky and Toro, and so are not independently heroic themselves. But Whitewash, while a grotesque amalgam of African American caricatures both visually and verbally, is not singled out for comic relief and often contributes more significantly than his white teammates.

Despite these exceptions, nonwhite protagonists remained a rarity in pre-Code comics, superhero-oriented and otherwise, and black creators were even rarer. Jackie Ormes is considered the first African American woman cartoonist, with her 1937 comic strip Candy running in the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed African American newspaper. Beginning in the early 40s, Alvin Hollingsworth drew for Holyoke’s Cat-Man Comics, as well as “Captain Power” in Novack’s Great Comics, female Tarzan knock-off “Numa” in Fox Feature Syndicate’s Rulah, Jungle Goddess, and “Bronze Man” in Fox’s Blue Beetle. In 1947, Philadelphia publisher Orrin Cromwell Evan’s one-issue All-Negro Comics featured artist George J. Evan, Jr.’s “Lion Man,” the first African American superhero by black creators and one, the publisher explains in his introduction, intended “to give American Negroes a reflection of the natural spirit of adventure and a finer appreciation of their African heritage”.

Matt Baker achieved the highest level of success and, indirectly, notoriety in the early comics industry. Alberto Becattini and Jim Vabedoncoeur, Jr. index over six hundred credits for Baker in roughly 150 different titles. Working through the Iger Studio, which had previously included Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, Baker began his career on “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” and “Sky Girl” in Fiction House’s Jumbo Comics in late 1944, before expanding to “Skull Squad” in Wings Comics and “Wambi the Jungle Boy” in Jungle Comics. Baker rendered his African tribesman in the same relatively realistic style as his white characters, with no hint of Eisner’s and Wojtkoski’s racist cartooning.

Baker’s off-page experiences were less integrated. A fellow Iger artist recalled how Baker “would go off on his own” during lunch breaks, “acutely aware of the perceived chasm that separated him” in “an industry almost totally dominated by white males”. Baker’s greatest successes came in his sexualized renderings of women—a style that may have been influenced by Jackie Ormes’ Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger one-panel comics that ran in the African American newspaper Chicago Defender beginning in 1945. After Sheena imitations “Tiger Girl” and “Camilla,” Baker drew Fox Features’ redesigned Phantom Lady as one of his last projects before expanding to freelancing.

While Baker was amassing romance credits in the 50s, Frederic Wertham reproduced his April 1948 Phantom Lady cover in Seduction of the Innocent with the caption: “Sexual stimulation by combining ‘headlights’ with a sadist’s dream of tying up a woman”, and a blow-up of the “objectionable” cover was displayed during the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency. Wertham condemned “race hatred” in his testimony (specifically a Tarzan comic in which a “Negro” blinds twenty-two white people, including “a beautiful girl”), but the absence of any mention of Baker in the hearing transcripts is likely due to committee members not knowing that a black man had drawn the images of a scantily-clad white woman. Juvenile Emmett Till would be murdered for flirting with a white woman and his killers acquitted the following year.

[So much for the Golden Age. But maybe Trump supporters have a slightly different era in mind? I’ll continue my search next week.]

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