Does Anyone Remember John Giunta by Mark Heike

Duke of Darkness splash pageWhen I was a kid reading comic books off of the stands in the 1960s, one of my least-favorite artists was John Giunta. I perceived him as someone who had a very open, threadbare, slightly awkward style that I found unappealing. If I saw his work show up on a backup story in Thunder Agents or The Fly, I was disappointed. Why couldn’t it have been Wallace Wood, or John Rosenberger instead, I would wonder? Many readers who only knew Giunta from his Silver Age work (he apparently died in 1970) probably held a similar opinion. But one of the wonderful things about working on AC’s Golden Age reprint line is that I’ve been exposed to the creative output of countless artists I’d never seen-or even heard of before, and some of them are quite good. In this case, my eyes were opened to a whole new world when I had a chance to examine the early work of an artists I thought I knew-John Giunta- and was I wrong about him! I wish there was more biographical info on the man himself available; what we do know is sketchy, but interesting. Giunta started out as a comic book fan and reader, as witnessed by his signed contribution to a letters page in one of the very early Cook-Mahon books; the predecessor of Centaur Comics. That fan letter apparently bore fruit, as by Centaur’s Amazing Man #8 (in December of 1939) Giunta’s byline as an artist was appearing there on the “Magician From Mars” strip.Magician From Mars splash page Comic book historians take note here: the “Magician” was actually a girl who wore a costume and exhibited what we would have to consider superpowers. Not only does this predate the first appearance of Wonder Woman by a year, but is an earlier debut than female crimefighters like Miss Victory, Wildfire, Blue Lady, Black Widow, Women in Red, and Pat Patriot-all distaff dare-dolls who appeared in comics before the Amazing Amazon. That means that Giunta MAY have created the FIRST original costumed superheroine in comic book history! That sort of landmark is important around the AC Comics offices! Admittedly, John’s artwork on Magician From Mars was crude-much cruder even than the 1960s work I criticized earlier, but then it was his first professional comic book job after all. He got better in a hurry. Records are not clear in terms of what comic art packaging houses he might have worked through in the early 1940s; if he had unofficially assisted other working professionals or even served in the military during World War II. But when his work started appearing more prominently in the mid-1940s under his “JG” signature, it had matured quite a bit. Flamingo splash pageToiling mainly on features like The Flamingo, Red Cross, Bogey Man, Captain Combat, Mad Hatter and Cisco Kid, produced through the Bernard Bailey Shop, for smaller publishers like Continental, Holyoke and Cambridge House, he sported a bold, new style using lots of dramatic shadows and heavy blacks-the sort of approach that artists like Alex Toth and Frank Miller would be hailed as geniuses for using. Giunta did it first. Being a contemporary of masters of chiaroscuro like Will Eisner and Mort Meskin, he was heavily influenced by them, and while not superior in technique to them, certainly skilled enough to be mentioned in the same discussion. So why don’t any other comic book historians ever talk about him? Well, if he is mentioned at all, it’s usually as a footnote to the career of Frank Frazetta. Fritzi’s first professional job was as an assistant to Giunta. Was it Frazetta’s work that made Giunta’s suddenly look so much better, or did they both get fascinated with using rich, dark shadows at the same time? I can’t say. Likely no one can, since both men are now gone. But it is a fact that Giunta’s unique, black-heavy style was still apparent into the later 1940s, once Frazetta had moved onto apprenticing/assisting Ralph Mayo, the art director at Standard/Nedor Comics. Although Giunta did move on eventually to slightly better-known assignments like Yank and Doodle & The Black Owl at Prize Comics, and The Heap and other features at Hillman; he was often only a penciler or inker in those instances, collaborating with other artists which masked his bold and dramatic approach at the time. His most distinctive work, unfortunately; was on the least-known characters that he worked on, from the very smallest publishers-but it is worthwhile seeing. Men of Mystery #72 coverIf you’ve never experienced the best of John Giunta, check out Men of Mystery #72, for a weird, wild and sort of wacky character called The Duke of Darkness. Imagine DC’s The Specter written as a semi-humorous strip, illustrated by the team of Mort Meskin and Alex Toth, and you might come close to approximating the look and feel of The Duke. Now, as comics evolved through the 1950s, Giunta’s style had to adapt to the market at large, and he slowly but surely moved away from his moody masterpieces, working to render more “realistic” looking scenes as one might see in the E.C. Comics of the early 1950s, and an approach more “open for color” as DC espoused through the later ’50s and into the early 1960s. One can see a similar “de-evolution” (during the same period) in the style of Mort Meskin, who’s 1960s art on DC books is almost unrecognizable compared to his late-1940s work. One can only assume this is what the editors who were hiring them wanted to see. One unnamed DC editor at the time has been qouted as saying “The kids who read the books don’t understand all that black stuff.” So, Giunta was getting better jobs, like mystery stories for Atlas, backups in the Phantom Stranger and inking Big Town at DC, but his creative uniqueness was lost in the necessity to continue to get jobs and maintain a living. Mad Hatter splash pageBut at one time, he was among the very best, even if no one knows it. If you like intense spotting of blacks and interesting approaches to faces and characterization, check out the 1940s comic book artwork of John Giunta.


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