Invisible Men Review

By | Tuesday, January 19, 2021 2 comments
Invisible Men
I suspect that if you know Ken Quattro's name, there's a good chance from his writing about Will Eisner. Quattro's been an unabashed Eisner fan for years, and has done a great deal of primary research about him. You might recall back in 2010 when Quattro discovered that Eisner's oft-told story about how, during the DC vs Victor Fox lawsuit, he refused to lie about his creation of Wonder Man being directly patterned off Superman is actually bunk; Quattro uncovered the actual testimony transcript, which runs pretty much 180° counter to what Eisner later told everybody. (This pissed off more than a few Eisner fans!) Quattro has also been contributing to the overall discourse as "the comics detective" uncovering obscure details on frequently overlooked, sometimes totally unknown comics creators from the Golden Age.

I've been reading Quattro's work for about a decade, and I'm always amazed at his research. He's often able to find incredible primary sources that shed light onto creators who had previously only been known as a signature on a splash page. And it's never just one source. He's usually able to find enough to paint a full picture of a creator's entire life, literally from birth to death. (Well, I say "usually" but I'm sure that's skewed towards the successful searches he talks about, and doesn't count the people he hasn't talked about because he hasn't found anything.)

So coming to his new book, Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books, I have to admit that I had fairly high expectations. Not only does Quattro have a stellar track record for this type of thing, but the subject of Black comic creators is a topic I'm always eager to learn more about. The book consists of a brief introduction, followed by biographies of eighteen Black comic book creators from the early 20th century, each punctuated with samples -- often a complete story, sometimes two -- of the creators' work. It's worth noting the limitations that Quattro has placed on who he's chosen to represent here. He's only talking about the earliest Black creators, so the likes of Billy Graham or Afua Richardson who came decades later are absent. He's also looking at comic book creators, so comic strip creators like George Herriman and Jackie Ormes also get a pass. But even with those limitations, Quattro still fills out nearly 250 pages of fascinating work.

Of the creators Quattro looks at here, I had varying degrees of familiarity with them. Some, like Robert Pious, I don't think I'd ever heard of before (or so little in passing that I've totally forgotten them); others, like E.C. Stoner, I've done a fair amount of my own research on already. And naturally, a lot of folks fell somewhere in between. But in every case, regardless of how well-acquainted I was with them already, Quattro pulled out details and insights I had never come across before. Even in cases where I'd seen Quattro write on the creator before, he seemed to have found new documents to provide more context than when he'd written about them previously. As always with Quattro's work, his comics research is unparalleled.

Of course, research alone isn't enough to make a book worthwhile. They can be great discoveries, but if you can't present them well -- if you can't write -- then it might as well be junk. Fortunately, Quattro does an excellent job here too. I've read other books on comics history that have great research but are an absolute slog to get through because the writing is so dull and tedious. Quattro's style is fairly casual and engaging, and he's able to present solid narratives for each creator. Even the parts of their lives where he evidently has uncovered very little information, he's still able to keep the narrative flow fairly smooth, despite being light on details.

If I had to voice a complaint, it might be that I didn't understand the organization. I mean, each creator gets their own chapter and those are all clearly identified in the Table of Contents, but I'm not sure why they're in the order they're in. It's definitely not alphabetical, it's definitely not chronological by birth year, and I don't think it's chronological by when they entered the industry. The chapters are largely structured to be read wholly independent of one another, so it's not a big deal, but I did find it a little curious.

My ears always perk up when I hear Quattro has something new to share, whether that's a blog post or an full article or whatever. I find his work on comics always worth reading. Invisible Men is no exception; it's an absolute must-have for learning about sorely under-sung (i.e. Black) Golden Age creators. The book retails for $34.99 US from Yoe Books and is worth every penny.
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Ken Quattro said...

Thank you for the kind words about INVISIBLE MEN, Sean!
Please allow me to address a couple of items about the book that you brought up.
The limitations to the book were mainly due to space. My original intention was to tell the stories of all the Black comic book artists right through the 1950s. However, I was only allowed so many pages in which to work. This forced an end date of 1950 upon me, with the hope that a future volume would permit me to expand the timeline through the 1950s up into the Silver Age and beyond.
Secondly, the arrangement of the artists roughly corresponds to when they entered the comic book industry;from Barreaux as the earliest, to Cal Massey at the end of the 1940s. To use their ages would distort when they impacted the industry. Middleton, for instance, was older than the four artists I profiled before him, but his comic book "career" didn't begin until several years after their careers did. If I went by age, he would have appeared first in the book, but it would have no sense--to me--as there would have been no context to his career without the presentation of these other, earlier artists. Hope that clears things up!

I wasn't complaining you didn't include more folks; I know you've got to put some restrictions on who to include/exclude. I just wanted to make sure no one going into it is pissed because they can't find Morrie Turner or someone. :)

I did think of "chronological by when they entered comics" but it didn't seem to quite follow that from my scanning through a second time. But I suppose that's kind of a fuzzy definition to begin with, so that'd be hard to pin down even if we had specific dates for everybody.

Thanks for the insights. Like I said, it's a great book! Very glad to have this on my shelf!