Our Monday Motivation series on GuinnessWorldRecords.com profiles the inspiring stories of commitment, courage and and dedication behind some of our most extraordinary titles. This week we're placing the spotlight on a comic book artist who has influenced the industry with his tremendous work, and is still doing so at the age of 96.
Ken Bald is more than a comic book illustrator - he’s a man that represents a generation of artists who shaped the very forms, capes and uniforms of the iconic superheroes we see today.
Ken, alongside many other gifted sketchers are the forefront of the Golden Age: a period in comic book history during the 40s and 50s where archetypes such as Wonder Woman, Batman, Captain Marvel, and Superman were outlined onto the pages for the very first time.
His successful career and passion for illustrating has led him to become the world’s Oldest comic book artist as well as the Oldest artist to illustrate a comic book cover – all at the striking age of 96.
Beginning his career in 1941, right alongside the start of the Captain America series, Ken became employed as a comic book artist for Jack Binder studios in Englewood, New Jersey.
It was a fitting career path for the young boy who sparked inspiration from the work of Hal Foster, the artist who designed the Tarzan comic strip.
“I remember the exact story, too, it was entitled ‘The Elephant’s Graveyard,’” said Ken, “The storyline was intriguing, but what had me hooked even more was Foster’s beautiful style of illustrating. Looking closely at the strip, I tried exhaustively to create my own version - emulating Foster’s style.”
Those sketches made him a prime candidate as a full time artist alongside other name comic artists Vic Dowd, Kurt Schaffenberger, Bob Boyajian – all whom graduated from the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, New York earlier that year.
Together, the illustrators worked out of Binder’s living room until the boom of the comic book industry, when he then expanded to a New York City location that employed 30 artists.
Recognizing Ken’s talent, Binder promoted Ken within the year to Art Director, allowing him the opportunity to design cover art and manage artists who were twice his age.
What would prove to be the first of hundreds of covers designed by Ken came in November 1943 with issue #14 of Captain Midnight.
The young illustrator paused his career as a comic artist to enlist in the armed services and fight in the Marine Corps during the World War Two; it was a valiant decision that lead him to swiftly marry his current wife Kaye Dowd (sister of colleague Vic Dowd) before heading off to combat in New Guinea.
Though the 25 months would be demanding, and often terrifying, he nevertheless used his experiences as a means of creativity.
“I’ve always loved traveling to foreign lands, visiting as many museums as possible, reading anything that I can get my hands on, watching countless movies, and trying new things. Looking at things I’ve never seen before has always helped me in coming up with new ideas.”
Thus Ken allowed the many adventures he faced overseas to be traced into the pages of his ambitious and intrepid superhero covers.
It drew him to starting a lifelong friendship with fellow comic and eventually, chairman of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee.
“So I left Jack Binder and was now working for Timely (which would become Marvel Comics), as Stan wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer,” laughed Ken, “My first favourite cover is my “Namora #1,” which came out in the late 1940s. This Golden Age Namora is a character that I created and Stan said, ‘We’re going with your creation as she’ll have both boys and girls buying our comics!’”
Working for Stan gave Ken the freedom and excitement he dreamed of when pursuing his career in the comic industry.
Ranging from the Sub-Mariner, Sun Girl, Namora, Human Torch and iconic Captain America, the sketcher lived to create heroes, and did so for the rest of his life.
Perhaps these characters were so tangible because of his many spirited and endearing muses he used along the way – often Ken would call upon his wife and kids to be silhouettes for his art.
“I used my wife and five children in so much of my work. I took tons of Polaroid pictures of my entire family in all kinds of outfits and poses and used these as references to illustrate form. You’ll see my family members in just about all of my work from my early Timely-Marvel days to my syndicated comic strips … Judd Saxon, Dr. Kildare, and Dark Shadows. And even in the TV storyboards I did for Gem Studios later on in my career.”
In fact Ken’s favourite cover of all time would be the result of that convention, for Millie the Model issue #9.
Inked, coloured and written by Ken himself, it was an assignment given to him by Stan after discovering he would be moving to Paris with his wife to pursue her singing career at a famous nightclub.
“This particular comic book was completely created by me while living together with my beautiful wife in the city of lights—Paris! It is probably the first and only American comic book EVER concepted, drawn, and written in France.”
Years after returning from France, Ken would expand his career to not only design comic books but comic strips; where he would become famous for his work on Dr. Kildare and Dark Shadows.
“The biggest difference between the two was that comic books were dominated by superheroes with super powers, versus the comic strips that I worked on, which were based on reality,” explains Ken “There was a big jump in salary going from comic books to syndicated comic strips that ran worldwide. My Judd Saxon strip ran for six years, and Dr. Kildare for almost 25 years. Unfortunately, my favourite, Dark Shadows, only ran for 1 year.”
Though Dark Shadows lasted for one year, the range of work he did varied over the course of 83 years.
In that time he played a hand in every sector of the business, from advertisements, movie posters, storyboards, decades of comic book covers and more with his work in syndication lasting for up to 30 years.
He did this until the later years of his life, when he reached the age of 93 and earned his first Guinness World Records title for being the Oldest comic book artist – taking on commission orders from collectors, fans, sketching headshots, covers and even recreating mastheads.
“I never let age stop me from doing anything. I even played one-on-one basketball with my son and son-in-law up until my mid-80s!”
And keeping that same sentiment three years later, Ken would render what would be his third favourite comic book cover, the “Contest of Champions”.
Done for Marvel Comics at the age of 95, Ken outlined his beloved almighty Golden Age characters once again with total creative freedom – an honour he was grateful to receive during the course of his career, and reflective of his journey through the industry.
“At 96 years old, you’d never think you’d be setting any world records, let alone setting two. Both records have been a great thrill for me and nothing would excite me more, and its tough getting excited at this age (Laughing), but seeing my best friend, Stan Lee, and I in the same Guinness World Records book one day would definitely be one of the real highlights of my career.”
Now Ken continues to go to Comic Cons around the East Coast when he can; to meet collectors, sign artwork, and enjoy the thriving success of the world he helped to create.
“It’s never too late to accomplish anything in life. Just look at me. I can’t believe at 96 years old, I’m still doing commissioned drawings for fans and still going to comic-cons!”
To purchase Ken Bald's recording-breaking Marvel comic-book cover "Contest of Champions", click here.