A new book "Invisible Men" examines the lives of these African American trailblazers, who paved the way for generations of illustrators but were invisible to the mainstream in their own time.
“Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books” (Yoe Books). Profiling 18 male artists from the Golden Age of comics, the 1930s to the ’50s, Mr. Quattro examines the struggles they faced not just in getting published, but in their day to day lives. Real life heroes, many of them helped fellow Black artists succeed and paved the way for generations to come. Accompanying their stories are dozens of rare illustrations collected by Mr. Quattro — full-color strips, comic book panels and dynamic covers, many of which had been lost to history. Super heroes with flowing capes, smartly dressed detectives, soldiers in battle, damsels in distress and characters in big, bold primary colors leap from the book’s pages.
Though many articles have been written about Black comic book characters, the book takes a close look at the lives of a group of Black comic book artists — many unknown even to the most ardent fans. In his introduction, Mr. Quattro explains the influence of George Herriman, whose groundbreaking work on the strip “Krazy Kat” predated the comic book industry. Herriman, who died in 1944, was called the “Leonardo da Vinci of comics” by Robert Crumb.
In his wake was Jay Paul Jackson, of Oberlin, Ohio, creator of Speed Jaxon, a secret agent who crash lands in the hidden African city of Lostoni, a self-contained civilization that predates the Black Panther’s Wakanda by two decades. Jackson’s character appeared in the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, in the 1940s. The following decade, battling racism in the industry, Jackson formed his own feature syndicate to distribute his “Home Folks” cartoon, a humorous, bird’s-eye view of the Black experience in the United States.
Many of the artists Mr. Quattro profiles settled in New York City after moving from the South in the Great Migration of the early 20th century. Others were part of the Harlem Renaissance or got their start during World War II, providing diversity in an industry before it was a company goal. “Wartime provided a crack in a wall that these men may never have hurdled otherwise,” Mr. Quattro writes. Often their creations were white characters aimed at a white audience; especially in the South, comic book covers with a Black character would not be placed on newsstands.
He admits the book is just scratching the surface and is already compiling profiles of Black comic book artists from the Silver Age of comics (the mid 1950s to 1970) for a companion “Invisible Men” website.