Brainiac On Banjo: To Ramona

I’ve heard you say many times that you’re better than no one and no one is better than you. If you really believe that you know you have nothing to win and nothing to lose, from fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem that hype you and type you, making you feel that you gotta be just like them. “To Ramona,” written by Bob Dylan

Back in the post-WWII days when 10 cent comics cost a mere 10 cents, there were but a handful of ongoing superheroes, all of them were published by DC Comics, and each had a very distinctive look. Not the razor-sharp nearly photogenic linework of artists like Curt Swan and Carmine Infantino, but highly stylized and not quite real-world: Wayne Boring’s Superman, Dick Sprang’s Batman and Robin, Russ Andru’s Wonder Woman, George Papp (and, briefly, Jack Kirby’s) Green Arrow, and Ramona Fradon’s Aquaman. They maintained and advanced the standard for comics’ most enduring characters.

Of course, this was seven decades ago. Time seems to move on and, now, the last of these famous artists has left the building.

Doubtlessly, you have heard or read about the death of Ramona Fradon last week at the age of 97, an artist who enthralled at least three generations of comics readers with her work on Aquaman, Plastic Man, Super Friends, Brenda Starr, and a massive number of other features. Ramona continued to do commissions and convention appearances until about six weeks ago.

In late 1964 Ramona co-created Metamorpho with writer Bob Haney. At the time, this was a very, very big deal. New superhero launches remained infrequent even though the contemporary age of Marvel Comics had started a few years earlier. Today, we get a new superhero title approximately every 89 minutes; back then in those days prior to Adam West’s Batman television show, we got us a major launch less than a half-dozen times a year — and few of those would be successful. Well, at least not at first: the secret to success in superhero comics is to not give up the ship. Just ask Superman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil, The X-Men, and a whole lot of others who hid out in flatfile drawers.

I saw the house ad for Metamorpho and thought “What is this?” “Is this a new superhero?” “God he looks weird — what does he do?” I noted the on-sale date and eagerly awaiting its arrival at Lincoln-Crawford Drugs, the store across from my grammar school. To be fair, I was there for every new comics day, but this time I was awaiting the thrill of the completely unknown. I was not disappointed in the least.

I met Ramona Fradon about a dozen years later as she walked past my office at DC Comics, back in the 75 Rockefeller Plaza days. I told her how much I’ve enjoyed her work and she scoffed. Not that she thought her work was trivial, but Ramona didn’t seem to be aware she had that type of influence on her readers. She later told me she thought I might have been hitting on her. Oddly, that’s how I discovered we both were Chicagoans.

That loose, fluid yet high definitive line of hers was consistent throughout her career. Whereas we see her influence in the work of such gifted cartoonists as Joe Staton and Dean Haspiel (two more of my favorite artists), it was not the type of style that was in vogue in the 1960s and 1970s where following in the huge footsteps of Jack Kirby and Neal Adams was the thing to do. It does not seem as though she suffered for work, and that wonderful style of hers that shouts her name in every panel endured throughout her long, fruitful and well-earned career.

As she approached her 90s, Ramona became a fixture on the convention circuit, gathering the accolades she so richly deserved. She also had a few things to say — visually, of course — about a treasonous former president. For me, that was quite affirming.

Ramona Fradon was an original working in a medium when such originality usually was the less commercial alternative. The world of comic art and storytelling is so much better for her contributions.

Thank you, Ramona.



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