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Ramona Fradon: A Woman's Life in Comics

At the age of 85, comic book illustrator Ramona Fradon is humble and self-deprecating, but there’s no denying her status as a legend in the industry. Fradon was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2006 and has received an Eisner Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ink Pot award—and for good reason. Fradon is a trailblazer. As one of the first women in the industry, she began working for DC Comics in the 1950s and has illustrated thousands of pages, though she’s best known for cocreating the superhero Metamorpho and illustrating Aquaman and the iconic newspaper comic strip Brenda Starr. Despite retiring in 1995, Fradon still draws every day from the home she shares with her husband, New Yorkercartoonist Dana Fradon, in West Shokan, New York. Recently, Fradon contributed illustrations to the critically acclaimed graphic novel The Adventures of Unemployed Man.

From her home in New York, Fradon recently spoke about her strange start in the industry, her favorite projects, and her take on graphic novels. Here’s what she had to say.
 
When you were a child, did you want to be an artist?
Honestly, I never had any ambition to be anything. I grew up in Rochester, New York, and my dad wanted me to go to art school, so I dutifully went. My whole career was sort of an accident. This wasn’t supposed to be my vocation. I’m just a very passive person and I got swept along on the art track by first my father and then my husband. After art school, I married a cartoonist and we were living off of $75 a month. My husband suggested I draw a couple of samples to try to get some work, but I didn’t read comic books and I didn’t know anything about them. I was an ardent reader of comic strips, especially Terry and the Pirates. So I went out and bought some comic books and studied them for a couple of weeks before attempting to draw samples. Maybe I was supposed to be an illustrator, but I just never knew it. I somehow instinctively knew how to illustrate comics and how to dramatize things. I guess I had it in me.
 
When did you realize you had a talent for drawing?
Well, in high school, kids thought I was good at drawing, but I didn’t think anything of it. I ended up graduating from the Parsons School of Design, but initially I wanted a scholarship to attend the school and they didn’t think I was good enough to get one. I really don’t think I exhibited any sort of talent until the ’80s, when I got the job illustrating Brenda Starr. That’s the first time I remember thinking I had some talent. It was bizarre to me that I experienced any sort of success before that because I think it took me a lot of time to learn the craft and even longer to hit my stride.
 
As a woman, was the industry welcoming to you? Were there any other women working in comics at that time? 
My first job was at Timely in the Empire State Building and that would eventually become Marvel Comics. There were no women there and I never felt any sort of hostility, though it was obviously odd for a woman to be working in comics. When I began working for DC Comics, I was the only woman there, but everyone would always ask me if I knew Marie Severin. As far as I know, she was the only other woman working in the industry at the time. I was treated like everyone else. I didn’t experience any sort of prejudice. Truthfully, there were just very few women who wanted to do that sort of work.
 
From around 1965 to 1972, you left comics to raise your daughter. Was it difficult for you to stay away for so long?
I did some work during that time on Metamorpho, but the whole time, my two-year-old daughter was clinging to my knee and wanting my attention when I had to meet a deadline. It was ridiculous, so I really enjoyed being away from the deadlines. My daughter and I used to draw together and by the time she was 16, she was better than I ever was. I guess she figured that both of her parents were already illustrators, so it’d be boring for her to enter the field.
 
How would you say the industry’s changed over the years?
In terms of pay, it’s changed enormously. When I left comic books for the Brenda Starr comic strip, the pay scale changed dramatically. I was getting $75 a page for penciling and inking, but it eventually skyrocketed to $250 or $300 a page. The movies have really changed the whole industry as well. The industry isn’t geared toward children anymore; it’s for grownups. The whole culture is crazy for comic books, but when I was starting out, it was like working underground in a cave. It wasn’t a prestigious occupation and a lot of illustrators I knew wanted to remain anonymous; they wouldn’t tell people what they did for a living because they were too embarrassed of it. Those days it seemed like writers and artists were trained in different fields and sort of ended up in comics. They were raised on classical literature and trained in serious art. Now comic book illustrators have been raised on comic books and I think that makes their work very specific and less accessible.
 
The look of DC Comics in the ’50s and ’60s have become classic, iconic images. At the time, did you know you were contributing to such a legacy? 
Absolutely not. They used to stick the originals down in the basement or just burn them to get rid of them. We never got any of the work back, and if we did at the time, I’m not sure we would have wanted it. The movies really changed how those comics were viewed; they brought out certain qualities and created a universal appeal. Fans turned them into something more; they recognized something bigger inside them. The only downside is that sometimes it seems like the original characters get lost in the movies. For example, the Batman movies exaggerate every flaw and personality attribute; they’re very gothic and intense.
 
Do you watch many of the comic book movies?
I’ve seen a couple, but I didn’t really care for them. I think I’ve outgrown that stuff or it was never really something that resonated with me. I feel deficient because I know how much people love this stuff, but I just don’t get it. It may have to do with all the years I spent in the industry, watching what the routine process of making comics was. It was a daily grind for us to come up with ideas and none of us had any idea that comics would become this important to the culture. You can’t see it when you’re in it. You just see the grind.
 
What is your process like? How do you go about designing how characters will look?
I have to have a script, but if I don’t have dialogue, it’s very difficult for me because then I don’t know who these characters are. If I have dialogue, I know where they’re coming from and the way they look just pops into my head; how they behave, how they’re dressed, it all comes to me. Writing is so important in comics, but these days I think illustrators have too much freedom. They draw what they want and then someone else just comes in and places text bubbles around the drawings. That’s not how you build great stories.
 
Of all the projects you’ve worked on, what would you say was the most fun or personally gratifying?
Metamorpho because we created characters I could identify with. I liked how they interacted. They weren’t anonymous and in masks; they were real people. As crazy as they were, they were recognizable. I think women really like this project, too. More traditional superheroes don’t relate to anybody; they’re all about fear and aggression, and this project felt different.
 
I think of Metamorpho as my greatest achievement; it was my own thing and I felt like it made a difference. While working on the comic, I developed a style of my own. I had a distinctive style more out of ignorance than anything else. No one draws in my style because it’s eccentric and quirky and was developed as a result of being completely unfamiliar with comic books and how they were drawn before it became my job to draw them. I have an open, simple style. I don’t shade a lot or use much black. I like to think that my characters are more lifelike and believable.
 
What inspires the work you’re doing these days?
Nothing. I’m not an artist driven to create. I draw everyday to supplement my fixed income and because it’s always been a part of my life that provides stability and order. It keeps me busy and when I’m drawing, I feel like I have control over something. I still feel like it’s an industry for men, having to do with their fantasies and preferences. I don’t relate to the content in comic books. Compared to comic book illustrations, my drawings have a softness to them that I didn’t know if people liked. When I started attending comic book conventions, I realized how much pleasure my work had given people and though that doesn’t inspire my work, it makes me want to keep drawing. Before I never realized that I was in the entertainment business, but I’ve entertained people and that makes me happy.
 
What’s your take on comic book conventions? Do you enjoy going to them?
I don’t understand them. I don’t understand why men in their 40s and 50s are still reading comic books, but God bless them because they’re a lovely bunch. I notice weird things at the conventions, like how you don’t ever hear babies cry at them and how kind and good the men are to their children. Maybe a different breed of men are showing up at these things, I don’t know. After a convention I feel like I want to hide in a closet for a couple of days. Comic Con is just a bizarre place for me. There are many eccentric people and it sometimes overwhelms me.
 
What comic books are you a fan of these days?
I don’t know much about what’s going on with comic books these days. I’ve picked up things here and there and I feel like the stories in today’s comic books are too complicated, I couldn’t follow them and they seem very pretentious. The drawings are amazing, but the stories don’t appeal to me. It’s not about my age or me being crotchety, I’ve heard young women say the same thing. One time when I was in grammar school I accidentally walked into the boys’ locker room and I felt so weird. It was bizarre, like I was in a foreign land. In the back of my mind, that’s how I felt in the comic book industry as the only woman working on these projects. I’m sure women in the industry still feel that way. Women are more personal and not as objective. We’re not interested in the hero’s journey or these stories about men fighting evil. I’ve always been more interested in the relationships people have with each other.
 
How do you feel about graphic novels?
I love graphic novels. They’re more coherent and I think some very sensitive, thoughtful stories are being told with them. R. Crumb puts out some very beautiful, haunting things. I wish that were how all graphic novels were done.
 
What advice would you give to young women who are thinking of getting into the comic book industry?
I don’t have any real advice because I don’t know much about how the industry works these days. I will say that they shouldn’t even consider it unless they like the idea of having their life revolve around macho superheroes. I still hear women in the industry lament about how things are and I think it’s because it’s truly a man’s business. I would tell them to do something else, don’t enter the comic book industry. Write your own graphic novel instead.
 
What do you want people to know about your work?
People will have to draw their own conclusions. I’d like to think I made comics a little gentler and less violent, but that’s it. Sometimes you look at comics and everything looks jumbled and ugly. Maybe you’ll look at mine and think, “That’s not too ugly.” Lofty ambitions, huh?