Super friends

Ramona Fradon still draws the heroes

by Chuck O’Donnell
December 16, 2010 01:07 PM | 10 10 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Ramona Fradon of Olive thrives in the world of comic illustration at the age of 84.
Editors were wringing their hands last winter, worried that Olive’s Ramona Fradon had fallen behind schedule with the graphic novel she was drawing.

“While she was penciling the pages for the book, she actually slipped on the ice near her home and shattered her (non-drawing) arm,” said Gan Golan, co-writer of The Adventures of Unemployed Man. “We had no idea of course, and in the two weeks she was in the hospital we heard nothing from her.

“But then, she suddenly re-emerges on email and cheerfully says that she’s dutifully back at the drawing board again, trying to catch up. (She said), ‘It’s going a bit slow because I still have a massive plaster cast on my arm.’”

Actually, she was back drawing even before the anesthesia had worn off.

Like one of the heroes in one of the hundreds of comic books she has worked on in the past 58 years, Fradon came through when the odds were stacked against her.

At 84 — an age when most of her peers have long since packed up their brushes and boards and retired to Florida, Fradon still sits down at her drawing table almost every day and creates comic books.

In fact, the past few years have been a renaissance period for Fradon. She‘s busy making graphic novels and drawing covers for Marvel. Although there’s a practical side to her comic book work — “I have to pay the bills and I live in an old house that devours all my money,” she laughs — she says she‘s inspired because the drawing keeps improving.

“I enjoy drawing now more than I used to when I had to illustrate scripts with epic scenes and multiple characters in every panel,” Fradon said. “Now I draw what I want to draw which may account for why I think my work is getting better. I’m editing out the hard part…I have more time to produce a drawing now than I did when I was working for publications, and that allows me to work it until it’s right. Also, experience enables me to avoid some of the mistakes I made in the past.”

Fradon was a pioneer in a male-dominated industry. The day Timely Comics gave her a war story to draw in 1951 was a watershed moment for comic books. It was soon followed by a big break at DC, where she was given a four-page Shining Knight story to pencil.

 Sure, she says, there were a few raised eyebrows among the men working in the bullpen — the area of the office where the artists, colorists and letterers worked. But aside from few guys who would act “crazy” and “shoot paperclips around the office,” Fradon says, “I was treated fairly and there wasn’t any sexism or anything like that.”

Marie Severin, who worked for the company that would become Marvel and was Fradon’s only female peer during comic’s Silver Age, says they were accepted by their male counterparts because “we showed them that women could do the same work as men, that we were no different. Our work was good. If our work wasn‘t any good, that would have been different. But it wasn’t. We did the work and we were accepted.” 

In fact, DC gave Fradon plenty of creative license and a lot more work. While penciling some Aquaman comics, she helped create his sidekick, Aqualad. Then she also helped create Metamorpho, the Element Man. Both characters are still very active in the DC universe.

Fradon turned to comics as way to earn a living, not out of love for the medium. She and her ex-husband, Dana Fradon, who would go on to become a cartoonist at The New Yorker magazine, were living off the $75 a month they got from the G.I. Bill.

So Fradon collected her brushes and her ink and struck out to make a few bucks. She had studied at the Art Student’s League in Manhattan and then at the Parsons School of Design, so a friend suggested she draw comic books. She knocked on a few doors and found work.

“When I got my first job drawing comics, I thought, ‘This is a silly way to make a living,’” Fradon said. “I had never read comics. I read a lot of comic strips, but not comic books. We were just creating these stupid little drawings for 10-year-old boys. A lot of the comics didn’t even make sense. They were just silly.”

Fradon all but gave up comics for most of the 1960s and early 1970s as she and her husband Dana moved from Manhattan to Connecticut and started a family. Their daughter Amy, well known in the area as a singer, is also a teacher, an interfaith minister and lives just minutes away from her mom.

“I would say she was a pioneer,” Amy said. “She has an incredibly strong spirit. I give voice lessons in her home and it’s not uncommon to hear power tools going off. She‘s always fixing things. If she could get up on the roof, I’m sure she would…When she got into comic books, she wasn’t thinking like an ambitious artist. My mom is just driven. She just does what she has to do.”

In 1973, Fradon was lured back into comics by renowned artist Roy Thomas, who convinced her to do some work for Marvel. Then she moved back to DC, penciling The Freedom Fighters, Plastic Man and The Super Friends.

“She is a wonderful artist,” said Saugerties’ Joe Sinnott, who began working in comics in 1949 and still works on the syndicated Spider-Man newspaper strip. “I inked over her pencils on Fantastic Four issue No. 133. She had clean lines and just a beautiful, clean style.”

Fradon jumped at the chance to become the full-time artist on the newly defunct Brenda Starr syndicated comic strip in 1980, but eventually realized that telling the ongoing adventures of the globe-hopping reporter could be a chore “because all you had were three panels and it was so hard to tell a story,” Fradon said. “It was very rigid. There were a lot of close-ups and not much action.”

After 15 years on the strip, Fradon retired and looked forward to spending more time walking in and around Olive, where she finds the visage “very peaceful, and a big contrast to New York City (where she grew up).”

But a funny thing happened: In 1997, she was invited to attend the annual San Diego Comic Con — the largest comic convention in the country. She was stunned that there were tens of thousands of comic book fans, and many of them knew her and appreciated her work. She began getting requests from across the country for commissions.

So she got back into comics, and she realized that they could be a lot of fun. She did an issue of Simpsons Super Spectacular for Matt Groening’s Bongo Comics in which Radioactive Man battle Mufelatto, the Aliment Man — an homage to and spoof of her Metamorpho, the Element Man.

More recently, she penciled half of the hilarious graphic novel, The Adventures of Unemployed Man (Little, Brown and Company, 80 pages, $14.99), a satirical look at the superhero archetypes and the struggling economy.

Marvel has brought her aboard to do some covers for its comics, including World War II-era heroes The Invaders.

“I was drawing for kids then, and now I’m drawing for the same kids except that they happen to be in their 50s,” Fradon said. “For some reason, grown men continue to love comics, and with the advent of the Superman, Batman and Spiderman movies, the whole culture is into comics…I have been fortunate that there is a nostalgia for those Gold and

Silver Age super heroes I worked on, which were the best ones, I think, because they were simple and were just for kids. Comics these days are aimed at adults and are often pretentious, incomprehensible or just plain silly.” ++

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February 06, 2011
WAY back in the mid 1950's, my parents & I lived in a house near Ramona & her hubby Dana. One of them, and I have no idea which one because I was only 3-4 yrs old, did an ink sketch of me....a profile. Unfortunately, the piece has gone missing....I only hope that it's somewhere in the last few boxes of my late Mom's stuff that I haven't gone through yet.

Ramona, if by chance you should be reading this, this is Debbie; my parents were Frank (Pep) and Shirley...I think we lived near you around the corner from the town park? LOL, the only other thing I remember from that time is that one night supposedly there was a wolf out in the yard?? :-)

Would love to hear from you!
Steve Chung
February 03, 2011
I'm a grown man who continues to love comics like I did when I was a young beginning reader. I can honestly say that Ramona Fradon is a reason why this is so.

I had the honor of meeting the artist at Wondercon and San Diego.

I love her versions of Aquaman and Metamorpho and was fortunate to pick up a couple of original art pieces from Ms. Fradon.

Her art style makes the stories fun to read.

I am in agreement with her assessment about current comic books these days. :)
Ivy Garlitz
January 19, 2011
As I grew up reading comics Ramona Fradon was an inspiration to me. I loved her work on Plastic Man, Metamorpho, and the Marvel comics. There were very few comics at the time that showed girls as a hero. Seeing an accomplished woman comic artist helped me believe that all fields were open to me. Thanks Ramona!
Frank D'Urso
January 13, 2011
My first memories of Ramona's work were her pencils (inked by Bob Smith) on SUPER FRIENDS back in the 70's. I am so glad to still see her artwork today!
Bob Buethe
January 12, 2011
I have wonderful memories of Ramona's Metamorpho, Super Friends, Freedom Fighters, Plastic Man, and Brenda Starr. (I'm just barely too young to have enjoyed her Aquaman work, except in reprints.) Reading Metamorpho stoked my interest in science and chemistry when I was a kid. I'm very glad to hear she's still active, and I wholeheartedly agree with her last two sentences.
Bruce Rosenberger
January 12, 2011
One of the artists from my childhood whose style I instantly recognized. I didn't necessarily know who the artist was, but the art style was one of my favorites. Years later of course, I learned the name of Ramona Fradon. Imagine my surprise to walk by a table at the 2005 NY ComicCon and find my icon sitting there doing sketches! It took me quite a while to decide on my favorite, but I now own an original drawing.
Stan Shnootington
January 11, 2011
I loved her work, growing up. She gave me a lot of joy, reading Metamorpho.
Scott Shaw!
January 11, 2011
Ramona Fradon has always been one of my favorite cartoonists. Her specialty is the pure appeal she injects into her drawings; although they may wear ridiculous costumes and wield unlikely powers, her characters have a human quality that most contemporary comic book artists neglect to address. One of the biggest thrills of my own career was when a week's worth of BRENDA STARR comic strip originals were lost in the mail and a bunch of her many cartoonist fans, myself included, pitched in to ink her redone pencil art for those missing strips at San Diego Comic-Con International. What a pleasure and a thrill. Thanks for an excellent profile of one of our field's most respected and unique creators!
January 11, 2011
Oops - "she's", not "sh's". Must gt my "e" fixed.
kid robson
January 11, 2011
All hail the mighty Ramona. I always enjoyed her art on Metamorpho - and I well remember that issue of the FF she pencilled. I don't think sh's ever produced a bad drawing in her life.

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