Ken Quattro's deep dive into Black comic book artists started out of frustration. Twenty years ago, while researching a man named Matt Baker whose drawings were distinguished by his strong style, Quattro, a comics fan and blogger, kept coming up empty-handed. "There was nothing about him except that he was Black and that he died young," said Quattro, who is known as the Comics Detective.
So he wrote to Samuel Joyner, a Black comic artist in Philadelphia, and received a long, beautiful letter in return, not only telling him about Baker but mentioning names of other Black artists whom Quattro had never heard of before.
Yet when he tried to follow up in the mainstream media, "there was zero," Quattro said. He turned to the archives of Black newspapers and magazines. "I read thousands of them," said the writer, who is Italian American. "I found that these guys were celebrities in the Black media but were totally unknown in the white world. It was just two different worlds."
What he found has been published in "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, 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 Quattro.
In his introduction, 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.
Many of the artists whom 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," 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.
"I rarely saw people who looked like me in comic books," said William Foster, a comic book historian and retired professor whose 2005 book, "Looking for a Face Like Mine," explores the portrayal of Black people in the comics. "You could have African characters, but never African Americans."
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.
Foster, who has taught and lectured internationally about some of the artists in "Invisible Men," lauded Quattro for taking the subjects to a new level. "This book is a treasure to me," he said. "It's one thing to turn the light on in a darkened room, but Ken went to each room in the house and turned on every light. The whole house has that aura."