There is a hesitation in calling something or someone the ‘first.’ More often than not, there are too many unknowns, too many what-ifs, too many complications for us to arrive at that designation with any certainty. We call Matt Baker “the first known African-American artist to find success in the comic book industry.” Today is the anniversary of his birthday and it presents us with a lot of questions.

Matt Baker is “the first known”, but what do we actually know? Some fans, and worse, some people in prominent positions in the industry, are fairly certain that there aren’t really black people in comics. Because if there were, obviously they would’ve heard of them by now. The line is: "Black people aren’t underrepresented in the industry; there just aren’t that many around." The people saying this "know" this to be true, and seem to believe it.

Matt Baker is “the first known”, but we don’t really know anything. We don’t know how many black comics creators had their work passed off as someone else’s; how many black comics creators were denied opportunities; how many black comics creators were written right out of history --- but we can probably guess.

It is less likely that Matt Baker is “the first known,” and more likely that Matt Baker is the “first remembered.” When you think about him today, and his significance in the industry, think also about “the first unknown,” “the first forgotten,” “the still unknown,” and “the still unremembered.”

 

Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour (2012), TwoMorrows Publishing, Edited by Jim Amash and Eric Nolen-Weathington

 

Uncertainty remains, because what does it mean to "find success,” and who makes the rules?

Baker is known for his pencils on It Rhymes With Lust, one of the prototypes for what we now call a graphic novel, but his main success, historically speaking, is drawing the best known version of Phantom Lady, one of comics’ first (there it is again) female superheroes.

Baker’s take on Phantom Lady was typical of the “good girl" art style, in which women are shown in provocative, pin-up styles. The changes he made to the Eisner & Iger Studios creation were simple, but effective --- change the colors from red to blue, ramp up the cleavage, and give her a short skirt. Naturally, sales soared. Baker’s rendition was so successful, in fact, that Phantom Lady #17 appeared in Frederic Wertham’s infamous 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, for encouraging “sexual stimulation by combining ‘headlights’ with the sadist’s dream of tying up a woman.”

In other words: Baker’s success is as largely as an artist who furthered the sexualization and objectification of women in comics. This adds a wrinkle; we're faced with the choice of celebrating the triumph of blackness against all the odds while looking the other way when it comes to the wreckage that “good girl art” made way for. Of course, we might say wreckage, but someone else might say history.

 

Phantom Lady #17

 

Baker’s iteration of Phantom Lady was, in combination with DC’s Black Canary, the inspiration for the character of Silk Spectre of Watchmen fame. You can find Phantom Lady in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Elseworlds story, Kingdom Come. Grant Morrison even took her for a spin in in the last issue of 52.

Like Baker, Phantom Lady is a part of history --- to be valued, to be cherished, and also to be learned from, so that such things may not happen again.

Today, while you are thinking of those first forgotten and those still unremembered, think also of the choices that led us here. On the anniversary of Matt Baker’s birth, it's crucial that we bear witness to what results when we don’t ask who writes histories, who determines what is known, who defines success. On the anniversary of his birth, it's essential that we question every aspect of every word of every sentence.

“Matt Baker is the first known African-American artist to find success in the comic book industry.”

On his birthday, you can maybe start with that one.