Ramona Fradon was name familiar to Silver Age readers. She started working at DC Comics in 1951 and is probably best known for her work on the character Aquaman. Her personal favorite character, however, is one that she co-created: Metamorpho. Despite her heroic body of work, Fradon argues that she was always better suited to telling humor stories than superheroes. The artist left the world of comic books in 1980, when she took over drawing the long-running comic strip “Brenda Starr,” which she drew until her retirement in 1995.
Since “retiring,” Fradon has been steadily drawing short stories for various publications, making convention appearances and taking commissions. Her latest project, “Fairy Tale Comics,” out now from First Second Books, is a collection of stories and a followup of sorts to 2011’s “Nursery Rhyme Comics.” Fradon spoke with CBR News about her work and career, sharing a look at her story from the book, which is available now.
CBR News: How did you end up working on “Fairy Tale Comics?”
Ramona Fradon: My editor Chris Duffy asked me if I would like to do one and he even gave me my choice of stories.
So it was your idea to tell the story of “The Prince and the Tortoise?”
That’s the one I chose. We had two versions to work from, and, as I recall, we ended up taking features from both. Chris did most of the adaptation to make it fit the comic form.
You went to art school and then began working in comics right after. What made you first interested in art?
My father was an artist and I grew up drawing, so it only seemed natural that I should become an artist. Then, after studying art at Parsons School of Design and the New York Art Students’ League, I married Dana Fradon, an aspiring New Yorker cartoonist. He urged me to try my hand at cartooning and I found I could do it.
Prior to working in comics, had you read many comic books, or just comic strips? What did you enjoy?
I never read comic books, but I loved the old newspaper strips. Some of my favorites were “The Phantom” (I had a crush on him), “Alley Oop,” “Li’l Abner,” “Flash Gordon,” “Prince Valiant,” “Dick Tracy” and “Terry and the Pirates.” Later on, I saw Will Eisner’s “Spirit” and was enormously influenced by his drawing.
Do you have any favorite collaborators from your years working at DC Comics? Favorite characters?
For most of my time drawing comics, I never knew who wrote the scripts I was given. The exception was my collaboration with Bob Haney on Metamorpho. That was a real meeting of minds. His goofy stories gave me ideas about how the characters should look and act, and my goofy pictures gave him new ideas. We laughed a lot while co- creating that crazy feature.
I loved drawing Plastic Man and, of course, Metamorpho. They allowed me to exaggerate, and that comes more naturally to me than drawing superheroes, where you have to be so serious. I’m afraid I have never been able to take superheroes seriously.
Talk a little if you would about Bob Haney and Metamorpho. Where did the character come from, what was it like coming up with the character’s design and what was your favorite part of those stories?
Metamorpho was George Kashdan’s idea. He had studied science when he was in school and he thought of a character made of four elements who could change himself into different chemical compounds. He gave Bob Haney the idea, and Bob fleshed it out brilliantly. I believe George continued to supply the “scientific” details for Bob to use throughout the life of the feature.
Bob, George and I got together to figure out what the character should look like. He wasn’t your average super hero so capes and masks didn’t suit him. I tried a lot of those and finally decided that since he was always changing his shape, clothes would get in his way. So I drew him in tights, with a body made up of four different colors and textures that were supposed to indicate the four elements.
From the beginning, we had fun working on Metamorpho. The characters Bob invented were such deliciously overdrawn stereotypes that they were wonderful to design and animate. What I liked most about doing that feature was the freedom it gave me to exaggerate and be myself.
If you had preferred, would you rather drawn humor comics than superheroes? Do you think your art skills were better suited for humorous stories?
Yes, to both questions. Drawing superheroes never came easily to me. I didn’t have the mythic sensibility and could never really take them seriously.
You were working in comics starting in the fifties. What it was like being one of only a handful of women in the industry?
I believe that Marie Severin and I were the only women drawing superheroes at the time. It’s funny that she was drawing Sub-Mariner while I was drawing Aquaman. People always used to ask me if I knew her, but I didn’t meet her until years later, at a convention. I didn’t work in a bullpen like Marie did so, aside from being uncomfortable with male fantasies and the violent subject matter. I never really experienced what it was like being the only woman working in a man’s world.
How did you come to take over drawing “Brenda Starr” in 1980?
When Dale Messick decided to stop drawing the strip, which had a largely female following, the Tribune News Syndicate looked for another woman to replace her. The late cartoonist, Gil Fox, whose passion it was to discover and encourage talent, called me to the editors’ attention and they hired me.
On “Brenda Starr,” you penciled and inked the strip, while on the comic books you sometimes just penciled. What was different drawing a comic strip as opposed to comic books?
I inked Aquaman and all of the short features I worked on, including a number of mysteries in the ’70s.The main difference between drawing for comics and a newspaper strip is that the newspapers never sleep. They demand six dailies and a Sunday every week without a break, so I never got away from deadlines. Then, too, the format is different from a comic page — it’s more confining — and the drawings are reproduced much smaller. It’s somewhat discouraging to see all of the work you have done reduced to the size of a postage stamp.
I know you worked with a few writers on “Brenda Starr,” but for the first few years Dale Messick continued writing the strip. What was it like working with her?
Dale had always written and drawn Brenda, so she never had to deal with a script, per se. As a result, she never gave me one. Instead, I would get a page of her drawings to work from which was a bit intimidating.
How did things change when Linda Sutter and later Mary Schmich took over writing the strip?
When Linda and Mary wrote the script, I never got one on time. I don’t think writers like to write. I remember taking dictation on the phone from both of them, frantically scribbling down the day’s installment so I’d have something to work on. I never knew what the plots were, and since I was doing the Sundays six weeks ahead of the dailies I could never remember what Brenda was wearing from one week to the next. I think it was a tribute to Brenda’s enduring appeal that the strip survived our tenure.
You drew the strip for about fifteen years. What was interesting about the strip and what did you enjoy about it?
I always enjoyed drawing Basil St. John and his laboratory, and I loved that when he had a baby, it was born with an eye patch.
“Brenda Starr” ended two years ago after a seven decade run. What do you think was the reason it lasted so long and why do you think it resonated with so many people?
Women loved the strip. I heard from a number of them that Brenda was an inspiration to them. One or two prominent women journalists said that they were inspired by Brenda’s example to become reporters. She and Nancy Drew were feminists ahead of their times. Brenda had all of the conflicts women relate in both having a career and being a wife and mother.
You retired from the strip in 1995, and since then, you continue to draw the occasional story. What is it that makes you interested in drawing nowadays?
It’s good to keep your hand in, and it’s still satisfying to me to see my work in print.
Besides “Fairy Tale Comics,” is there anything else you’re drawing or working on right now?
I just finished doing a Mermaid Man story for “Spongebob Comics.” Besides those, I am always doing commissions and drawing for conventions. I’ll be signing with the other “Fairy Tale Comics” contributors at the NYC convention in October.
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