Just why is it, when Matt Baker is acknowledged as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest romance comic artist, that we know so little about him? My answer to that question is that he was African American, possibly the first African American to work in comics. He lived and worked in a segregated America, whose comics portrayed a bleached society in denial of its own diversity. Matt Baker clearly did his job well, but passed away before he could receive the public recognition that his work deserved and is given, as far as is possible, nowadays. Baker's work is rare, sought after, and expensive. Why expensive? Looking at the cover of Teen-Age Romances 37 (above) it's not hard to see why. He's every bit a Norman Rockwell, but more dynamic.He understands so well how people move, and his figures are full of expression, not static or starched. He's especially good at drawing beautiful women, and while he is most widely known for Phantom Lady, his romance art is arguably his most accomplished.
A Google search doesn't bring up much background on Baker. There used to be a website with some biographical material, but it no longer exists. He's the subject of some online encyclopaedia entries:
But basically its going to be difficult to ever know much about the man who left us such an impressive portfolio of wonderful art.
Anyone for tennis?
The story from Teen-Age Romances 37 (pictured at top of entry), entitled "Thrill-seekers' Weekend", is one of a number of Baker classics from St. John comics featured in John Benson's invaluable compilation Romance Without Tears (2003. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books). 11 Baker-illustrated stories, written by Dana Dutch, are contained therein, along with some gorgeous Baker covers. It is still obtainable new and used through Amazon:
as is Benson's companion volume, Confessions, Romances, Secrets, and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics (2007. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books) which delves into the background of the St. John Publishing company, and contains a three page interview with Matt Baker's half brother, Fred Robinson:
Thanks to Dark Horse, we're also able to enjoy It Rhymes With Lust (2007. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books), Baker's ground-breaking 128 page St. John digest size masterpiece, that has claims to be the first graphic novel:
and which carries a short, one-page bio of Baker on the last page.
Baker's work suffers or benefits depending on who his inker is. Undoubtedly his St. John work gets some of the best, if not the best treatment, while I've seen Atlas obscure Baker's pencils almost beyond recognition. To finish, here's a Quality Comics, middle-of-the-road piece of Baker. Nice cover, and a short, six-page story (the entire comic can be downloaded from Golden Age Comics Dowloads). "Was He Ashamed Of Me?" echoes the theme of my previous post - again the uncertainty of whether love is possible between people who come from different socio-economic strata: