Sunday, March 27, 2011

Matt Baker's Romance Covers: Graceful Titillations


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full issue available here

So I've tried to focus on magazine material here on my blog, but today I'd like to post some of the comics I've been working on recently from the St. John line and take a minute to talk about perhaps my favorite artist of the golden age, Matt Baker. I posted an issue with one of his covers and a story (along with some recommendations for further reading) back here but today I want to diverge from my normal pattern a bit and post a number of issues focusing mainly on the covers. The issues I'm posting today all come from the collection of Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr., who my the readers of my blog who are fans of magazine illustration might know as publisher of Images, containing lavish printings of classic and re-discovered art from 1880-1922, or from his most excellent collaboration with Everett Raymond Kinstler on the artist's life and work. Comics fans might know Jim from his contributions to so many works in comics scholarship, as he is widely recognized as the go-to-guy for help with artist identification and as the premier indexer of golden age comics. Jim has been generous enough to loan out comics from his amazing collection to a number of scanners working at the golden age comics sites with the goal of archiving the entirety of the golden age that rests in the public domain. So big thanks to JVJ for letting us scan his often-valuable and scarce comics (along with priceless index information that accompanies each issue) and to all the donators who have helped in the costs of shuttling the comics back and forth. Thanks also to my scanning partner on the project, Twobyfour, for his dutiful work in handling and producing the raw scans of Jim's books which I'm editing. Having an instantly available library of golden age comics is such an incredible boon for comics fans and researchers, so thanks to all involved in the project and the scanning of golden age comics in general.

But back to the man of the hour, the inimitable and enigmatic Matt Baker. I first became aware of Baker's work in my initial forays into the golden age, as his good girl art in the Fox and Fiction House comics instantly stands out from many of his peers. And then I came across his covers for the St. John Romances (which I think most would agree represent his greatest achievements), and I was hooked. Doing my first bits of research, I learned something that I found utterly surprising which added to my curiousity. This master of titillation and the female form was a black man, and quite a handsome fellow at that.


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This photo is from John Benson's short-but-thrilling and absolutely informative Confessions, Romances, Secrets, and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics, companion to his Romance Without Tears, a reprint collection of selected stories from the St. John line (many by Baker). There's another great photo of Baker in the book together with Archer St. John in front of Grauman's theater standing by Jean Harlow's footprints, these being the only two photos of Baker I've ever come across. Benson's book along with Alter Ego #47 has helped clear up some of the mystery surrounding Baker's life. One nice online biography on Baker can be found here, and American Art Archives has a nice little gallery of varied Baker covers along with a couple of magazine illustrations here.

That Baker was a black man shouldn't matter, of course, but I readily admit I find it adds to his mystique and my curiosity. I've since learned that there were indeed a handful of other minorities and women in the business, but the idea of such a prolific black artist in the medium is surely surprising in a field that was dominated by white men. A black artist circa 1950 drawing a scene like this?!?! Very cheeky, I'd say. Taboo upon taboo:


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full issue available here

Drawing blondes and redheads behaving badly?! Oh, my. Teen-Age Temptations is perhaps my favorite title for a romance comic, and some of the issues seem to have particularly spicy covers. But surely many of the players don't look like teenagers, heh heh. Another cover from the series:



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full issue available here

Sure it's sleaze, with taglines like "Flirtation on Wheels" or "The Powerful Story of a Trailer Girls Love" the cover is meant to play with scandal (the Estrada story within the cover goes with however is actually a thoughtful examination of stereotypes and class bigotry). I even catch the connotation that maybe she's preggers, scandalous! But there's also a subtle artist at work here. Her hands gripping with tension, the agonizing but thoughtful look on her face, the sort of smarmy smirk (a Baker trademark) on her suitor. And the whole scene is flushed out with depth and detail. I love the old trailers and the good ol boys working on the car in the background. Who could resist pulling this off the newsstand? It's no wonder that he penned over 220 covers for St. John during his tenure for the publisher.

One more from the series, more drama, and another fully-rendered scene. Many of the Baker romance covers have a great sense of perspective and are packed with little details. With main players, bystanders, and a feeling of depth, the reader as voyeur can slip right comfortably in and feel unobtrusive...


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full issue available here

Despite the sometimes sensational aspects of his covers (perhaps dictated by market necessity or St. John himself, the mid-50s covers with the approach of the comics code are downright wholesome - not to mention breath-taking), if I had to associate one word with Baker's art it would be grace. He makes it look so easy. I've seen stories of where another artist would be talking with him and sit there and watch him draw out an entire splash page without using the eraser once. There's a flow and an economy to his his art in the St. John period that is just so appropriate for a romance and for drawings of the female form. He had a reputation as a ladies' man, and you can certainly see in his work an understanding of the female form and facial expression that's just a wonder to behold. The cover I started my post with is perhaps unique among his covers for the close-up perspective, and I can see why John Benson used it for a cover for his book. And here's some more covers from the longest running St. John title, Teen-Age Romances.


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full issue available here


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full issue available here


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I love to work on these covers, but it is definitely a labor of love. I'd say the average cover from the golden age takes me about 15-20 hours. Here are a couple of the before and afters side by side for those of you that are interested in the digital restoration out there to check out.

Teen-Age Romances 14 before
Teen-Age Romances 14 after

Teen-Age Romances 12 before
Teen-Age Romances 12 after

Admittedly, much of the finer detail I seem to obsess about gets lost at screen size, but still I think the proof is in the pudding one way or another. The image I share is much compressed in width as well as quality, so I make sure and always keep my working files in case there's ever a need for the bigger image. Not to mention, some covers are done to a higher standard than others, and I might always return to some of them some day. You can check out an example of the large working tif files for this last cover here for a much closer look at what goes into erasing the tears, flaked inks, stains, page bleed, etc. on one of these covers. I try to always keep textures and printing patterns as intact as possible and avoid anything as tacky as bucket fills or re-drawing. Most of the work is done with the clone stamp at various opacity settings. Even though I'm "restoring" the cover, I like to keep the feel of the original printing methods. A reminder also that the picture hosting site compresses these images before they relay them, so the images in the scan files will be of greater width with less compression and artifacting.

While I'm at it, I'll go ahead and share my folder for all the scanned issues of St. John's romances. A reminder that these and many more golden age comics can be found at the Digital Comics Museum. The St. John romance scans are a work in progress, and many, many issues are left to be scanned (I figure less than a quarter currently scanned). They tend to be pricey and scarce, so it's great JVJ has let us scan his, and once those are done there will still be issues in need of scanning. Some interesting titles to check out are the Adventures series packaged by Leonard Starr and Warren King in a cool, slightly oversized format along with Hollywood Confessions, packaged by a young Joe Kubert for St. John. The scanned St. John issues are all in here, and I'll try and keep those folders current. Big thanks to all scanners represented. There's a hot off the presses batch of Diary Secrets scanned and edited by my pal Snard from the JVJ collection in there, so enjoy those romance fans.

I'll be returning to Matt Baker's art at some point in the future with an update on the JVJ project along with a high-resolution collection of some of his illustrations for men's adventure magazines and crime digests which should be fun for those that haven't seen Matt at work in that sort of format before.

3 comments:

L7 said...

great stuff monkey man
amazing art

Annukka said...

Wonderful post! And a great blog, thank you!

amerikanprincess said...

Thanks for your post and the useful links therein. My dad, Arnold Drake, wrote IT RHYMES WITH LUST with Matt Baker, and if anyone attested to Matt's artistry (not to mention his reputation as a ladies' man ;) ), it was Dad. He remembered Matt as suave and well-tailored, and "Boy, could he draw women!"