Matt Baker’s rightful place in the annals of comic book history has been debated by followers of the genre. But by most accounts, he is considered the first successful Black comic book artist, and perhaps the first altogether.
Born Clarence Matthew Baker on December 10, 1921 in North Carolina, he came of age in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After graduating high school, he lived in Washington, D.C. before attending New York’s famed Cooper Union art school. While there, Baker managed to join the growing field of comic book artists during the genre’s “Golden Age” between the late 1930’s and 1950’s.
Baker’s first penciling artwork appeared in a 12-page comic, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in 1944 for Jumbo Comics. This would begin a series of jobs both staff and freelance for Baker, who also did inking work under the name Matt Bakerino.
The biggest splash Baker made in his career was designing the cover art depiction of sultry super heroine, Phantom Lady. Baker was a master of “good girl” artwork, which typically showcased attractive women in skimpy clothing and suggestive poses. Although supported by the industry, Baker and his good girl art contemporaries were often criticized, given the salacious nature of the images at the time.
Along with Phantom Lady, Baker was also responsible for inking the military-themed Canteen Kate series before he went to work for Atlas Comics and focus on Western-themed books. Atlas Comics eventually morphed into Marvel Comics.
As his career evolved, Baker began tinkering with action and science fiction works but his health would betray him. Baker died from a heart attack in August 1959. He was 37.
The Eisner Awards, the comic book industry’s version of the Oscars, recognized Baker’s contributions and named him to the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.