Ken Bald: 1920-2019

Veteran cartoonist Ken Bald is someone who can truly be said to have grown up in the American comics industry. Bald, who died on March 17th, was born on August 1st, 1920, went on to have one of the longest and most prolific careers of any cartoonist, as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records, which honored him in 2017, not once but twice, as the "Oldest Comic Artist," and the "Oldest Artist to Illustrate a Comic Book Cover," which he accomplished in 2016 at the age of 96. Because of the many contributions he made to the comics industry, as well as the epic length of his career, Ken Bald deserves to be much better known than he is in the present day. Many comics creators are given legendary status if they hang in there long enough, but Ken Bald really was a legend.

Born in New York City, Bald grew up in Mt. Vernon New York and later attended the Pratt Institute, and at some point took classes at the Toronto College of Art in Toronto, Ontario. After graduating from Pratt, Bald moved to Englewood, New Jersey.

His first published work was a fan drawing printed in More Fun #9 (April, 1936) which had the distinction of being the first standard-sized comic containing new material. It was published by National Allied Publications, which later became National Periodical Publications, more familiarly known as DC Comics. After attending the Pratt Institute for three years, through 1941, Bald immediately joined the Jack Binder shop which packaged entire comic books for various publishers, Fawcett, Nedor, and Lev Gleason Publications. At first, the Binder shop was a modest affair, with Bald and a handful of other artists working in Jack Binder’s living room. However, within a year or so, business was so good that Binder was able to rent a Fifth Avenue loft and employed fifty or sixty artists. In addition to Bald, Binder employed such future greats as Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Bill Ward, Kurt Schaffenberger and Pete Riss, among others. Studio mate Gil Kane recalled in a 1996 Comics Journal interview, “Binder had a loft on Fifth Avenue and it just looked like an internment camp. There must have been 50 or 60 guys up there, all at drawing tables. You had to account for the paper that you took."

In addition to being a fast and excellent artist, Bald was one of the pioneers in studio production techniques. While working at the Binder shop, Bald, along with Jack Binder and other editors, developed the techniques for mass production of comic book art and scripts that made the industry possible and profitable. Despite his youth, Bald was so skilled and professional that he eventually became the art director for the Binder shop, sometimes supervising men who were much older than he was.

Bald’s first professional work featured the super-fast character Hurricane and was published in Captain America Comics #7 (Oct. 1941). By 1942, while still working in the Binder shop, Bald began contributing features to Fawcett Comics, including Captain Marvel, Captain Midnight, Spy Smasher, Mr. Scarlet, Bulletman, and Golden Arrow. After working in the Binder shop for several years, Bald began working in the Beck-Costanza studio in Englewood, New Jersey, producing a great deal of work for Fawcett.
However, his comics career was cut short when he enlisted in the Marines in response to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Bald served in the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division in the Pacific, including service in New Guinea and New Britain. He fought in the battles for Guadalcanal, Pelelieu and Okinawa, eventually working in Army intelligence and rising to the rank of Captain, and was decorated for his service.

After being discharged from the Marines, Bald returned to comics in February of 1946 and went right to work for Timely Comics, drawing characters like Captain America, Miss America, The Blonde Phantom, The Submariner, Venus, and The Destroyer up through July of 1949. One of his notable accomplishments from this period was penciling the first story featuring Namora in Marvel Mystery Comics #82 (May 1947). Working with writer/editor Stan Lee, Bald co-created The Witness (Sept. 1948), a character that lasted only one issue. Working with another writer, whose name has been lost to history, Bald also co-created Sun Girl, who headlined her own bimonthly comic for three issues (Aug.-Dec. 1948) as well as appearing in other Timely titles. While working briefly in studio with Stan Lee, Bald also collaborated with Lee on a booklet entitled The Secrets Behind the Comics (1947) one of the first books explaining how comic books were made. Stan Lee was apparently a big fan of Bald’s work, at one point calling him “the best comic artist in the business.” Stan and Ken were best friends for more than 70 years, and their wives Kaye and Joan Lee were also best friends.

In addition to his work on Timely superhero comics and some pulp illustrations, Bald also drew many pages of teenage humor strips for titles like Millie the Model, Mitzi, Willie, Nellie the Nurse, and Cindy where his knack for drawing pretty girls came in very handy. His assignments also including drawing romance strips for titles like My Own Romance, Loveland, and Lovers through the late ‘40s. Bald noted in later interviews that he would frequently dress his wife and children up in costumes to take reference photographs for his comic book artwork and advertising assignments.

Among his many other credits during the 1940s, Bald also drew Doc Strange and Fighting Yank for Better Publications as well as work for smaller publishers like Feature Publications, where he drew The Black Owl and Ace.

In addition to his work for Timely, Bald also continued working for Fawcett, drawing Crime Smasher, the post-war iteration of Spy Smasher. At this time, Bald also contributed many horror/mystery to American Comics Group’s anthologies such as Adventures Into the Unknown, The Clutching Hand, Forbidden Worlds, and Out of the Night. He continued working for ACG from 1949-1954. During this time, Bald co-created the “Time Travelers” feature in Operation Peril #1 (Nov. 1950).

From the late ‘40s through 1949, Bald juggled advertising assignments for the Johnstone and Cushing ad agency alongside his comics work creating storyboards for clients like Hertz Rent-A-Car, Air France, Warner Brothers, Guinness, Black Book Directories, Right Guard deodorant, and Xerox. In addition to comics and advertising, Bald was also a pulp illustrator who contributed to the pulps published by Timely, and Street and Smith, publishers of Doc Savage and The Shadow. For Street and Smith, he not only did pulp illustrations, but also drew comics, including Doc Savage, The Shadow, and contributed to other series such as “Rex King”, “Ajax the Sun Man”, and “Blackstone”, based on the famous stage magician. At one point in the late ‘40s, Bald and his family moved to Paris so his wife could pursue a singing career there, while continuing to create art for Timely.

In 1957, with comics work drying up due to the failure of many publishers and the cancellation of countless comic book titles due to the anti-comics hysteria, Bald used his considerable talents to segue into syndicated newspaper strips. He began drawing Judd Saxon, for King Features, about an executive with a nose for mysteries. Written by Jerry Brondfeld, the strip lasted until 1963, overlapping with his most famous comic strip, Dr. Kildare. With his clean, realistic style on Judd Saxon, Bald was one of the pioneers of the photorealistic comic strips that came into vogue in the late '50s and early '60s, such as Stan Drake’s The Heart of Juliet Jones, Leonard Starr’s Mary Perkins on Stage, Alex Kotzky’s Apartment 3-G, and Neal Adams’ Ben Casey. Many comics aficionados consider the Judd Saxon strip his best work. Bald’s gift for capturing realistic likenesses served him well on both Dr. Kildare and Dark Shadows, where he had to work from photographs of the principal cast members from the television originals. While still working on Judd Saxon, Bald also drew an advertising strip called Do You Know? which was sold to various businesses and published at irregular intervals.

Judd Saxon

In 1962, Bald began drawing Dr. Kildare, which was based on the NBC TV series, which ran from 1961 through 1966. The daily strip, written by Elliott Caplan, brother of Al Capp, drawn throughout its long run by Ken Bald, ran until April 21st, 1984, outliving the TV series by an astonishing 18 years. The Sunday Dr. Kildare strip lasted from April 19th, 1964 until April 3rd. After the cancellation of the daily strip, Ken Bald “retired”, though he actually kept working in advertising as well as making convention appearances and taking on private commissions.

Running concurrently with Dr. Kildare for a brief time, Bald also illustrated both the daily and Sunday strip based on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Because he was under contract to King Features, he couldn’t sign his real name to the strip, and worked under the pseudonym “K. Bruce” (his middle name was Bruce). The Dark Shadows strip debuted in 1971, but although it only ran for about a year, it remains one of Bald’s most popular and best-remembered projects.

In the late 1970s, Ken Bald went back into advertising, creating storyboards for Diamond Studios. He was successful enough that after a few years he was offered a promotion at a different agency. From 1981 through 2004, Bald worked as the Creative Director of Gem Studios, a Manhattan art studio that generated storyboards for TV advertising clients that included Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Miller Lite, Right Guard deodorant, FedEx, General Electric, and AFLAC, including introducing the AFLAC duck. Bald’s work was so respected that he was often the artist of choice of many of his clients.

Although the protean Bald had been retired from the comics profession for many years, he briefly returned from retirement at the age of 96 to draw a single cover for Marvel’s Contest of Champions #2 (2016), which earned him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Oldest Working Comic Book Artist, a title he lost the next year to Mad’s Al Jaffee, who is still active to this day.

Ken Bald married actress Kaye Dowd on October 30, 1943, having met her through fellow Binder Studio mate Victor Dowd. They remained married for 75 years and had five children, four daughters named Christophea, Karen, Victoria and Valerie, and one son, Kenneth the III. At the time of his death he resided at the Mount Arlington Assisted Living Facility in Mount Arlington, New Jersey. He died peacefully on St. Patrick’s Day surrounded by his loving family. He is survived by his wife Kaye Dowd Bald, his five children, his 11 grand-children, and four great-grandchildren. He is remembered as a consummate professional, a mentor to countless younger artists and a kindly man who was generous with his time and stories at many conventions. Ken Bald’s personal papers, which encompassed more than 2,900 pieces of original art, including art for Dr. Kildare and Judd Saxon, were donated to Syracuse University.