A Belated Birthday Celebration Of The Great Ramona Fradon
Ramona Fradon is one of the great living legends of comics, a creator with an instantly recognizable style who has worked on some of DC Comics' best-loved series -- and co-created a few classic characters along the way. Her crisp, lyrical line has elevated every book she's touched over her six-and-a-half decades in the business, and her work continues to influence and inspire creators to this day.
Fradon graduated from Parsons School Of Design in 1950, and began working at DC almost immediately, pencilling the Shining Knight backup story in Adventure Comics #165 – and when that feature was replaced by Aquaman two issues later, Fradon found her first signature character.
Fradon's elegant style was a perfect fit for the oceanic environs of Atlantis, and she would stick with the series through the turn of the next decade, bringing the Sea King into the Silver Age, and designing and introducing Aqualad and other characters along the way.
Fradon stepped away from the comics in the early '60s when her first child was born. She returned to DC for a few months in 1965 -- and co-created a new character called Metamorpho in that brief time -- and finally re-entered the industry full-time in the mid '70s, turning out a couple of fill-in issues for Marvel, working on a well-loved run on Plastic Man, and drawing nearly every issue of the successful Super Friends tie-in series.
In 1980, Fradon moved into the world of daily newspaper comics, replacing creator Dale Messick as the artist on Brenda Starr, Reporter; and though she retired from that strip in 1995, she has remained active since, pencilling occasional stories and covers, producing the picture book The Dinosaur That Got Tired Of Being Extinct, and providing art for a story in First Second's acclaimed Fairy Tale Comics collection. Fradon remains a popular presence in Artist's Alleys at conventions around the country, sketching, signing, and greeting her fans with smiles, stories, and endless grace.
Fradon's work is deceptively simple, with a number of defining elements – she's a master of perspective, often placing the reader slightly below the horizon, looking up at the scene; her skill at depicting body language and facial expressions is unequaled; and her pages and covers are rendered with an expert sense of composition. Her design for Metamorpho is both memorable and totally unique, imbued with all the liquid, breezy, and down-to-earth qualities that an elemental hero could require. And in a time when women were almost non-existent in the industry, she established herself as a first-rate stylist and a one-of-a-kind creator.
To mark the occasion of her recent birthday, we've compiled a small gallery of her art, and assembled a few friends to join us in celebrating her life and work.
I want to take a moment to talk about Ramona Fradon's amazing character designs for the cast of Metamorpho, which means I need to gas on about the characters of Metamorpho a little bit before proceeding...
Metamorpho is probably my favorite superhero comic (in concept, at the very least, if not always in execution), most likely because, at its best, it's the most perfectly executed group dynamic in superhero comics.
Despite the singular star of the title, Metamorpho is an ensemble piece, and what writer and co-creator Bob Haney managed to accomplish was to craft a dysfunctional, highly co-dependent quartet of characters, none of whom can fully be described as all-hero or all-villain.
It's easy to decide that Metamorpho, for instance, is a hero simply because he's the title character of the book, and because he contains so many heroic qualities; he's cool, fearless, rugged, resourceful and loyal... but he's also self-pitying, arrogant, sarcastic, quick to anger and easy to offend. Sapphire, his partner and romantic interest, is brave, clever, devoted and beautiful, but she's also gullible, obedient to a filial fault, and addicted to material comfort.
Java, one of the perceived baddies of the book, is an emotionally immature brute but also a lonesome romantic, and his boss Simon Stagg -- who, when placed in the care of other writers than Haney, ends up being the capital-V villain of every Metamorpho story -- is indeed manipulative, egomaniacal, deceptive, insincere, cold-hearted and cruel, but he's also quick to sacrifice his self-interest when the health and happiness of his daughter -- or even her beau -- is at stake (I've never done a proper count, but I bet in the original run of the series, Simon Stagg saved the day as often as did Metamorpho).
They're a wonderfully complicated group of characters with distinct individual relationships between one another, and Ramona Fradon's character designs convey that in a manner so perfectly executed and nuanced that I honestly believe they're the best-realized character designs in the entire genre of superhero comics.
Even setting aside the delightful four-quarter costume design of Metamorpho (which is definitely one of the most striking designs in comics, love it or hate it -- I love it, myself), look at the characters' faces. Sapphire Stagg is as lovely as a Tonner doll, but her bombshell features are tired and tremulous, fragile with worry and indecision. Rex Mason, the Element Man himself, has that heroic chin and jawline, but his eyes are crowned by a permanent set of worry lines, and his rugged cheekbones frame what resembles a series of chalk-white deep tissue scars, topping a powerful, heroic broad chest and limbs which are equally injured and scarred by misfortune.
Java is a prehistoric man revived by Simon Stagg during a mysterious expedition, and he's portrayed with a thick, unintelligent brow, dark bestial eyes and a protruding set of menacing teeth. On the other hand, everything that makes Java seem like a man-monster also makes him seem like an awkward adolescent, right down to the ill-fitting suits which barely fit his hulking form. Additionally, everything that makes his face seem unintelligent and brutal becomes, when the line of the features is turned upwards rather than down, vulnerable and sad, almost cloyingly romantic.
And then there's Simon Stagg. Black rimmed fiery eyes of determination, a classically aristocratic Roman nose, and all the dressings of his vanity -- that ridiculous hairstyle and absurd necktie, for instance. Simon looks so much like the Napoleonic villain with his short stature and halo of wild hair, but look closely at his jawline and chin, which are so wide and proud as to make Rex Mason's handsome pre-transformation jawline look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man's. Underneath his frippery and foolish excesses, there's an almost comically heroic shape to his entire skull -- again, hinting at the complexity of the character and the relationship he shares with the other characters.
I don't know why Fradon had such a keen sensitivity to this particular quartet of characters, all I can attest to is that she and Haney managed to create possibly the most fully-realized ensemble cast in superhero comics. It breaks my heart whenever I see the character of Metamorpho revived in a fashion where any of these group dynamics or character elements are thrown away, because when all of Haney's and Fradon's pieces are in place, this is the best superhero comics have to offer.
Text and Metamorpho illustration by "Calamity" Jon Morris, cartoonist and creator of Jeremy – Just Turned Nine
Graphic and text by K. Thor Jensen, author/illustrator, creator of Cloud Stories
- (The above quotes and images in this post are © their respective creators.)