While they say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, that rule certainly does not apply to Golden Age comic books. Fantastic works of art can be found in these comics from bygone years, some that remain classics to this day. Whether superhero, horror, romance, sci-fi, funny animals, or adventure, iconic covers abound. One of the greats, and a mainstay of DC Comics for decades was Fred Ray.
GoCollect blogger Ariel Lazo recently wrote about Five Iconic Golden Age Covers. One of the covers Ariel highlighted was Superman #14. This is one of the greatest Superman covers of all time. While I won’t get into the specifics of what makes it a great cover – as Ariel has already done a great job there – it does lead us to ask: Who was Fred Ray; and what else has he done?
Fred Ray was only 20 years old when he began his comics illustrating career with DC Comics in 1940. His major influences included illustrators N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, as well as comic strip artists Hal Foster and Noel Sickles. His first known work includes shorter pieces in Detective Comics #45 and More Fun Comics #61 and #62.
From the start, Ray’s work was well-liked by DC and, as his initially stiff drawings began to improve, they quickly moved him to produce cover art beginning with Superman’s Christmas Adventure #1. This was followed shortly by the cover for World’s Best Comics #1 featuring Superman, Batman, and Robin. He then began a regular stint illustrating Superman covers beginning with Action Comics #34 and Superman #9.
Ray would continue as the primary Superman cover artist and also pinch-hit for covers for Detective Comics, Batman, Star Spangled Comics, and World’s Finest Comics until he left in 1942 to join the war effort. Among his finest covers are the aforementioned Superman #14 and Action Comics #52.
Besides his cover work, Ray drew images for Superman’s Super Contest in issues of Action Comics and dozens of cards for Superman Gum. He also redesigned the “S” symbol on Superman’s chest, and his design became standard for the character throughout the 1940s.
Congo Bill and Tomahawk
While Fred Ray was extremely busy with covers he didn’t receive much feature work initially, with his only Superman story appearing in Superman #25. That all changed with Congo Bill. Beginning in Action Comics #39, Ray took over the writing and illustrating duties for the Congo Bill feature and would continue on the title until he left for World War II.
After the war, Ray continued his education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts while also contributing a handful of Congo Bill stories. Between his education and his work on Congo Bill, he had developed a lush style that would serve him in good stead when he began work on the Tomahawk feature beginning with Star Spangled Comics #72.
Ray brought all of his abilities and interests to bear in Tomahawk, combining his illustrating skills with a love of history that soon led to the character receiving his own title beginning with Tomahawk #1. His run on the comic was much loved and lasted over two decades. His last known comic book work appeared in Tomahawk #139.
A Man of Many Talents
Ray would go on to write, illustrate, and publish booklets on multiple historical places and themes. Through his research for his work on Tomahawk he became an authority on Revolutionary War uniforms and served as a consultant for the Smithsonian Institution for many years. He drew covers and interiors for numerous historical publications and designed historical medals and figurines for the Danbury Mint. Fred Ray passed away at the age of 80 in 2001.
Want to know more about the great golden age cover artists? Comment below and let me know which artists you would like to see featured in upcoming blogs.