'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." -- Ralph Ellison, prologue from INVISIBLE MAN
If you think Matt Baker was the first African-American to work in comic books, you are wrong.
Elmer Cecil Stoner had him beat by the better part of a decade.
He was the son of a church sexton from the Pennsylvania coal mining town of Wilkes-Barre. Born October 20, 1897, Elmer was the eldest of three children and part of the small portion of the town’s mainly immigrant population that was black. Or as the census takers would describe them, mulatto--the vague term used for light-skinned Blacks.
Main Street, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, circa 1906
Beyond those scraps of information there is little known about Elmer’s early years except for a story long associated with him that bears some scrutiny.
According to several respected sources, Stoner was the creator of the “Mr. Peanut” character for the Planter Peanuts Company.
(Hames Ware has confirmed that Stoner’s widow, Henriette, had that among his accomplishments when she filled out the questionnaire for the WHO’S WHO OF AMERICAN COMIC BOOKS database.)
Founded in 1906, the Planters company was indeed from Wilkes-Barre, where Stoner was living at the time. In 1916, it sponsored a contest to find a company logo. As the story is recounted in the official history on the company's website:
"Introduced in 1916, the debonair marketing image of Mr. Peanut derived from a crude drawing by a Virginia schoolboy. Prompted by a nation-wide logo contest sponsored by the Planters Company, (14-year-old*) schoolboy Antonio Gentile won $5 for his design submission of Mr. Peanut. Then, a professional illustrator enhanced the youngster’s drawing adding the top hat, monocle and cane”
Planters Peanut ad, July 24, 1917
THE DAY (New London, CT)
While it’s entirely possible that Stoner was employed as a professional illustrator in 1916 (he would have been 18 or 19 years old), there are facts that cast some doubt.
I’ve located his draft registration card dated September 12, 1918. In the section of the card that notes his occupation, Stoner has written “porter” and his employer as “F. W. Woolworth Co.”. Although this is some two years after the creation of the Planters logo, it seems unlikely that Stoner would have gone from being an illustrator to a porter. Perhaps he was employed by the Planters company as an in-house artist at the time, maybe as a temporary worker. However, since it is still a possibility--and a great story--let it stand with a question mark in parentheses.
Elmer Cecil Stoner draft registration (Sept. 12, 1918)
[note incorrect birth date, but correct age]
A significant clue that can also be derived from Stoner’s draft registration is his employment by the F.W. Woolworth Company. At one time, the seemingly ubiquitous five-and-dime store was in nearly every town.
One of the partners in Woolworth’s was a man named Fred Morgan Kirby. Kirby was originally a competitor of Woolworth who, in 1911, combined their two companies into one. Kirby’s original store in Wilkes-Barre location became a regional headquarters.
Fred Morgan Kirby
Stoner’s entry in the online WHO’S WHO notes that he was a “protégé” of Kirby; an interesting choice of words that connotes a personal relationship. Yet, on his draft registration, Stoner is employed as a porter at Woolworth’s, hardly a position one would expect for a protégé.
Reading between the lines, it is a fair assumption that Kirby was aware of Stoner and his talent. Fred Kirby was a philanthropist, particularly dedicated to the early Twentieth Century version of civil rights. Among his charitable gifts was the establishment of the Chair of Civil Rights at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. As Stoner was known to have attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, it is possible he did so with the help of Kirby, through a gift or a scholarship. When he did attend exactly, is harder to determine.
The 1920 census reveals that Elmer was still living at home with his parents in that year. He would have been 22 at the time when the census was taken. By 1922, though, Stoner was living in New York. It appears then, that Elmer attended college sometime between the January 1920 census taking and his showing at an art exhibit in August 1922.
This exhibition of “Negro” artists was held at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. Among the high points hailed by head librarian Ernestine Rose, were, “…the charcoal illustrations of Elmer C. Stoner,” which she noted, “were splendidly planned and executed.”**
It is significant that Stoner’s immersion into the New York art world corresponds with the advent of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was the period of African-American intellectual and artistic flowering straddling the 1920s that centered around that New York community. This re-discovery and awakening of Black culture nurtured such talents as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Duke Ellington. It’s no wonder that Stoner was drawn there.
“…it was a pretty nifty place to live. Crime, dope and poverty were scarcely visible, protest and militancy were polite, the streets were clean and, above all, bourgeois aspiration prevailed."***
"Couple Wearing Raccoon Coats" (1932)
Photo by James Van Der Zee
Elmer Stoner was newly married when his wife Vivienne and he befriended another couple, Nella Larsen and her husband, Dr. Elmer Imes. Larsen was a writer--with time, one of the most important to emerge from the era--and she was taken with the young couple. It’s probable that Larsen met Stoner when she was an assistant librarian in the same 135th Street branch where Elmer had exhibited his artwork.
According to Larsen’s biography**, IN SEARCH OF NELLA LARSEN, the Stoners had moved from their home in Harlem in 1924 to Greenwich Village where “Vi” opened a gift shop on Christopher Street. The two couples often played bridge and were part of a tight-knit circle of African-Americans who lived in The Village. The Stoners hosted parties and hobnobbed with the intellectual elite of the community.
While it’s not entirely clear how Stoner was earning a living, he was successful enough (in 1925) to be part owner of an apartment building at 203 W. 122nd Street in Harlem. The Stoners’ marriage, however, proved to be not as successful. The Larsen biography mentions that a few days after the Jack Dempsey-Jack Sharkey heavyweight championship bout (July 22, 1927), Vi Stoner showed up at Larsen’s home with a new boyfriend.
From that point, I’ve found no trace of Elmer until the publication in 1930 of the children’s book, MIC MAC ON THE TRACK, written by Zillah K. Macdonald and illustrated by Stoner.
His trail picks up again in the early Thirties when, according to his WHO‘S WHO entry, he was employed as the art director at Tower Magazines.
The 1929 debut of the Tower Magazines introduced a (then) unique concept in marketing. The line of magazines, mainly oriented toward women and children, was to have exclusive distribution through the F.W.Woolworth’s store chain.
SERENADE (Feb. 1935)
a Tower magazine
Initially, the sales of such titles as ILLUSTRATED LOVE, HOME, TINY TOWER and SERENADE were brisk. But by 1935, printing costs drove the company to bankruptcy. A series of nasty court battles ensued with several Tower executives indicted for mail fraud and a lawsuit by the disgraced company president, Catherine McNellis, against its secret financial backer, Fred M. Kirby.
The connection of Kirby to Tower Magazines lends credence to the possibility that Stoner was indeed employed at that publisher. If he was, however, it is likely he wasn’t the art director.
The names of several different Tower Publishing art directors have been verified, such as Vern Noll and Hugh Ryan, but no reference other than the WHO’S WHO entry has mentioned Stoner. Once again, the fading memories of his widow likely exaggerated his position.
With the collapse of Tower, Stoner likely freelanced as an illustrator. The cover to THE WITCH’S TALES #1 (Nov. 1936) and #2 (Dec. 1936) from Carwood Publishing were both by Stoner, signed “ECS”.
THE WITCH'S TALES #1 (Nov. 1936)
Soon after, Elmer Stoner did his first comic book work.
The first story to appear in DETECTIVE COMICS #1 (March 1937) was Speed Saunders, with the pencils credited to Stoner and the inks to Creig Flessel.
"Speed Saunders and the River Patrol"
DETECTIVE COMICS #1 (March 1937)
This seems to be just a one-time effort by Stoner, though, as by Saunders next appearance in issue #3, Flessel is the sole artist. During the interim, according to WHO’S WHO, Elmer worked on the railroads exhibit “panorama” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Some clarification of that statement is in order.
Under the direction of designer Paul Perhune, Stoner was probably one of the artists involved with the creation of the huge (160' x 40') diorama in the “Railroads at Work” exhibit. During this time, he also illustrated a children’s book for young fair-goers entitled, SEEING THE WORLD’S FAIR. The time required of these projects likely accounts for the gap between Stoner’s first comic work and starting his comic career in earnest when he emerges as a member of the Chesler shop circa 1939.
The burgeoning comic book industry was a welcome situation for any artist looking for work during The Depression and particularly to an African-American one. There was little discrimination when it came to acquiring art to fill the pages of a comic as comic shop owners took whoever would work for the fees that they were paying. Working through a shop offered a secondary bonus for Stoner, as it provided a buffer between him and the publisher should they be reluctant to employ a black man.
Stoner’s Chesler output has been found at Timely, in particular, as Jack Binder’s inker on Breeze Barton in early issues of DARING MYSTERY.
"Breeze Barton in the Miracle City"
DARING MYSTERY COMICS #3 (March 1940)
[image from GOLDEN AGE DARING MYSTERY,
courtesy of Dr. Michael Vassallo]
Shortly thereafter, Binder, Chesler’s art director, broke off to form his own studio in 1940, one of the artist’s to come along was Stoner.
"By March of 1941, the shop's output had grown to 95 pages a month,a total of $1,150.00 worth of work. Newcomers included Dave Beens, Arnold Hicks, Ben Nee and Elmer Stoner, one of the few black artists to work in the comics.” *****
While at Binder’s, Stoner has been credited with work for Fawcett (Spy Smasher) and Street and Smith. Along with the titular feature in early issues of DOC SAVAGE COMICS, Stoner also drew Ajax the Sun Man.
Ajax the Sun Man
DOC SAVAGE COMICS #3 (Feb. 1941)
[attributed to Stoner]
It was the comics published by Dell, though, that featured Stoner most prominently.
Beginning in 1940, Elmer drew a variety of covers for POPULAR and THE FUNNIES. The covers, depicting the interior strips Gang Busters, Martan the Marvel Man and especially Phantasmo, clearly reveal Stoner’s clean-lined, if somewhat awkward, style. Frequently, he drew the interior art as well.
Martan the Marvel Man
POPULAR COMICS #66 (Aug. 1941)
His Phantasmo covers often showed the awesomely powered hero as a giant, likely owing much to Bernard Baily’s contemporary Spectre covers for DC.
THE FUNNIES #46 (Aug. 1940)
One of Stoner’s lesser known efforts for Dell was the Night Devils feature that ran in WAR STORIES.
WAR STORIES #5, pg. 4 (1942)
As is readily apparent, Stoner’s work was not in the league of Eisner or Kirby or Fine. He was, after all, a middle-aged fine artist, who had only worked in advertising and magazine illustration, trying to make the jarring transition to comic books. The techniques and requirements of sequential storytelling were new to him and it was apparent. But he was competent and perhaps more importantly, available. With the U.S. entry into WWII, most of the able-bodied young artists were service bound and those who remained found steady work, including Elmer Stoner.
By 1944, Stoner appears to have left Binder’s employ. His presence in PRIZE COMICS #39-41 seems to indicate he did some work through Bernard Baily’s studio.
PRIZE COMICS #39, pg. 8 (Feb. 1944)
He main source of income during this period, though, was the Iger shop. Victor Fox’s re-entry into the comic book industry meant the re-introduction of some old superheroes and the creation of new ones. The BLUE BEETLE and GREEN MASK both picked up in their own titles and both were initially depicted by Stoner.
BLUE BEETLE #31 (June 1944)
GREEN MASK #10 (Aug. 1944)
In a series of emails over the last months of his life, Jerry Bails confirmed for me that the Stoner run of BLUE BEETLE comics ran from #31 (June 1944) to #45 (June 1947), a run in which he supplied either a cover, interior artwork or both.
BLUE BEETLE #33, PG. 6
[Since when is the Blue Beetle a giant? Since Stoner drew him!]
(an odd recurring theme of Stoner’s work of this period were his “ Pin-up” covers. BLUE BEETLE #38, THE BOUNCER #10 and GREEN MASK vol. 2 #2 all had the lead character singularly posed with a script “Pin-up” notation nearby. Were these intended to be removed from the comic and treated as a poster? Who knows?)
THE BOUNCER #10 BLUE BEETLE #38 GREEN MASK v. 2 #2
Interestingly, Elmer had at least one fan on staff at the Communist Party USA's newspaper, the DAILY WORKER.
“Stoner is working right now on a 30-page volume of the Blue Beetle continuity,” wrote Eugene Gordon in a 1944 DAILY WORKER profile of Stoner, “This renowned counter-spy is known to our troops on all battlefronts, and, being the practical anti-fascist that he is, Stoner sees to it that the Blue Beetle carries a practical lesson.”******
Even though Gordon evidently never read a BLUE BEETLE comic book, he still provides some interesting background: “Right now, in between doing his Blue Beetle continuities and painting portraits, he shows up regularly at USO centers to draw for servicemen and servicewomen. One of the USO centers is Harlem's, where, also, he teaches the soldiers to sketch. He occasionally gives art lectures as a means of improving Negro-white relations.”
Proving his commitment to this end, Stoner provided artwork for Interfaith Publications 1945 comic series, THE CHALLENGER. The comic’s high-minded purpose was to be, “a magazine pledged to fight race prejudice, discrimination and all other forms of fascism in North America."
THE CHALLENGER #nn, (1945)
In an interview I once conducted with Al Feldstein, he made the following comments in relation to working with Matt Baker, but they are a commentary on the contemporary comic industry as a whole:
"...when I returned from Service in 1945 and took my old job back at the S. M. Iger Studio, Matt Baker was there...and I was assigned a drawing board right next to his."
"As I recall, he was treated as an equal by all of us, which his unique, special and outstanding talent demanded. He was well respected for that talent. But this was 1945-6...and the Racial Divide in America was still pretty much with us. Matt, I am sure, was acutely aware of this unwritten abomination... as were the rest of us...so it kept all of us apart."
Despite the steady income, Stoner had aspirations beyond drawing comics. “With all this commercial stuff I am doing," Gordon quotes him, "I still like to paint. I still hope, some day, to work in fine arts."
Elmer obviously wanted to be a publisher as well. In 1946, he and a partner with the last name of Gould (the first name yet to be determined) established Gould-Stoner Company and on October 8th of that year, they copyrighted their one and only publication, CHRISTMAS PLAY BOOK.
CHRISTMAS PLAY BOOK (1946)
The concept was straightforward--a child’s activity pamphlet, 16 pages in length, containing puzzles, games and Stoner drawings throughout. It was distributed through department stores and apparently, also by 20th Century Fox. It seemed innocent enough: Fox bought the pamphlet from Gould-Stoner and was selling it to exhibitors, who would in turn distribute it to movie-goers. Except that in 1945, Fox had bought another publication with the name of CHRISTMAS PLAY BOOK and the publishers of that were now suing both Fox and Gould-Stoner for copyright infringement and damages of $100, 000. The outcome of the suit isn’t known, but the fact that no other publication was forthcoming from Gould-Stoner seems to indicate that it effectively killed the company.
But Stoner wasn’t without work. The first issue of BLACKSTONE, MASTER MAGICIAN (March-April 1946) featured both a Stoner cover and interior artwork illustrating Walter Gibson’s text.
BLACKSTONE, MASTER MAGICIAN #1 (July-August 1946)
“That was done by William C. Popper,” Gibson told historian Will Murray, “who also published under the name of Vital Publications.”*******
Walter Gibson is mostly remembered as the writer of Street and Smith's pulp and comic book versions of The Shadow. Gibson was also a good friend of the real Harry Blackstone and scripted his manifestation as a comic character at each of his various publishers.
BLACKSTONE, MASTER MAGICIAN #3 (July-August 1946)
Vital’s version of BLACKSTONE ran only three issues (all with Stoner art) when it was then briefly published by Max Gaines’ Educational Comics. The one issue, again containing Stoner art, was cover dated Fall 1947 and was titled, BLACKSTONE, THE MAGICIAN FIGHTS CRIME. With Gaines’ death that year, the title was picked up once again, this time by Timely, but without Stoner as its artist.
BLACKSTONE, THE MAGICIAN FIGHTS CRIME #1 (Fall 1947)
Stoner interior artwork
Elmer wasn’t quite done with the master magician, though. He also provided the cover art to several programs that were distributed at the real Harry Blackstone’s magic shows in the late 1940s. Note that Stoner's artwork is noticeably more polished and he even uses a different signature than in his comic book work.
Harry Blackstone show program (1948)
As his work in newsstand comics diminished, Stoner’s work on giveaways increased. The 1949 giveaway comic, THE STORY OF SALT, was a 16-page Stoner creation depicting the history of that all-important mineral for the Leslie Salt Company of San Francisco.
THE STORY OF SALT (1949)
By this time, Alvin Hollingsworth, Ezra Jackson and Matt Baker had all followed a similar path through the comic shop system. In fact, Stoner's employ at Binder, Iger and Baily coincided at times with each of them. Was he a conduit for the younger Black artists into the comic industry? At this point it is only speculation, but Elmer's success in comics was certainly noticed by some. In the late Forties, two aspiring African-American cartoonists from Philiadelphia--Samuel Joyner and Cal Massey--made their way to New York and to Stoner’s studio.
“Elmer Stoner and Ted Shearer were the highest paid cartoonists I met starting out in the business around 1949 and the early 1950’s,” Joyner wrote to me,” I understand Stoner owned the apartment building where his studio was located. He had a baby grand piano in his living room (as a beginner, I was really impressed). He was painting full color calendars for Pennsylvania Railroad Company.”
Elmer C. Stoner, circa mid-1940s
In his interview with Murray, Gibson recalled a similar experience from his perspective:
"He lived in an apartment house. He had the top apartment. He was the only colored man in the apartment, and very friendly with the tenants. Well, one day they came in and there was a big hullaballoo. The guy that owned the apartment said he was going to sell the place. They were afraid rents were going to change. They were protesting. And Stoner comes in. He stopped at the apartments coming up. 'I want to talk to you about the house. Don't worry about it. There's not going to be any raise in the rent,' he says, 'because I bought the place!'"
He also drew at least one other comic for Vital Publications, JOHNNY STARBOARD AND THE UNDERSEA PIRATES. This small (3 ½ x 6 ¾”) 1948 giveaway was part of the series distributed through Wisco “99” service stations.
JOHNNY STARBOARD AND THE UNDERSEA PIRATES (1948)
Another title in the Wisco series was JIM SOLAR, SPACE SHERIFF, the creation of Stoner’s old Blackstone collaborator, Walter Gibson. Jim Solar was part of a space lawman lineage that included Spurs Jackson in Charlton's SPACE WESTERN comics and “Rick Kane, Space Marshal”, the short-lived comic strip authored by Gibson and drawn by Stoner.
Rick Kane, Space Marshal ad
[image courtesy of Allan Holtz]
“There was a guy named Higgins who was in the syndicate business," Gibson recounted to Will Murray, "I met him through the Ledger Syndicate. We decided to do a comic called Rick Kane, Space Marshal. Stoner did the first for me, and it was like Star Wars, taking off from the world on a trip to Mars. I treated Mars just as you would treat an airplane flight across the ocean. We had it in the New York Post. It ran as a daily. Then there were some problems. Stoner quit. Higgins was handling it. He was one of these promoters, and he wanted to get more money out of it. So he was bleeding him and trying to grab money from the people. And he wasn't paying Stoner. And we were having trouble meeting our deadlines."
Rick Kane, Space Marshal (Aug. 27, 1951)
[image courtesy of Will Murray]
The strip, distributed by the Enterprising Feature Syndicate, only ran from the summer of 1951 until early in 1952, with Stoner's work on it ending sometime sooner. Stoner sued the syndicate to restrain it from continuation of "Rick Kane” with another artist (Walter Johnson) as it violated the terms of his contract. A judge disagreed and on December 17, 1951, he denied Stoner’s request.
Elmer Stoner apparently left comics around this time. Except for an educational comic entitled, DEADLINE, THE STORY BEHIND THE HEADLINE, produced in 1957, I’ve found no other publication in that medium carrying his name. His reputation outside the comic industry, however, apparently continued to grow. According to his WHO’S WHO entry, Stoner finally received recognition of his fine art and was accorded many honors during the waning years of his life.
One unique and likely lucrative honor was his role as a spokesman for Gordon’s Gin in a series of print ads that ran in various African-American publications of the mid-to-late 1960s.
Gordon's Gin ad
EBONY MAGAZINE (June 1966)
On December 16, 1969, Elmer Stoner passed away. Since then he has been largely forgotten by the comic book industry and overlooked as a trailblazer. He was no Jackie Robinson, his presence in the comic industry didn't alter its course. He did, however, pave the path for Al Hollingsworth, Matt Baker, Ezra Jackson, Cal Massey and for every African-American artist who followed. Stoner’s life is worthy of further exploration and his story deserving of wider recognition. He should not remain invisible.
"I hadn't worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in a crowd. Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me..." -- Ralph Ellison, op. cit.
* sometimes said to be 13-years old.
** THE SOUTHERN WORKMAN, pgs. 542-543.
*** NY Times article, “Harlem's History Through a Camera“, Oct 16, 1971.
**** IN SEARCH OF NELLA LARSEN by George Hutchinson.
***** Jim Steranko’s HISTORY OF COMICS 2, pg. 32-37.
****** DAILY WORKER, May 21, 1944.
******* Will Murray article, “Gibson's Secret Comics Career”.