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Ramona Fradon was a quiet trailblazer in comics for her entire career

The late artist broke new ground without fanfare throughout her lengthy time in the industry

Ramona Fradon Metamorpho pencils
Image credit: Ramona Fradon

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Since her death was announced February 24, praise has been flowing in from all corners for the late comic artist Ramona Fradon, and deservedly so; her career — which started all the way back in 1949, when she was just 23 years old — has been a long and distinguished one, including work for a number of publishers including DC, Marvel, Archie Comics, and Nickelodeon, as well as a 15-year stint as the primary artist on newspaper strip Brenda Starr, Reporter.

Fradon's open, inviting cartooning style was a mainstay in comics for decades, and she remained a presence at comic conventions all the way up to last year. Fradon was, doubtlessly, a unique talent that will be much missed — but, even in the wake of her death, it feels as if she remains an underrated force inside the comics industry.

cover of Metamorpho, illustrated by Ramona Fradon
Image credit: DC Comics

Born in 1926 in Chicago, Fradon came from a family of calligraphers — both her father and older brother were in the commercial lettering business — and she herself went to art school to study design. It was only after graduating that she got into comics, via a friend of her husband who shared her cartooning samples with DC Comics, beginning a relationship that would continue for the rest of her life. Across the next 16 years, Fradon enjoyed lengthy runs on Aquaman and Metamorpho, a character she co-created with writer Bob Haney, before leaving the business to concentrate on her family.

She’d return in 1972, in a move that would in its own way be trailblazing. Comics was a primarily a male-dominated profession in those days, with the exception of a few — far too few — women making their living in the field. While newspapers employed female cartoonists like Martha Orr, Dale Messick, and Tarpé Mills decades earlier, there was only a handful of women creators in the comic book industry, and few (if any) managed to have the success that Fradon did. Fradon not only returned to the business eight years after “retiring,” but did so in dramatic fashion, soon earning the regular slot pencilling the Super Friends series that ran from 1976 through 1981… in the process, becoming the first woman to regularly illustrate Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, albeit in a series not named for any of the above. She’d already become the first woman to regularly illustrate a superhero, decades earlier, thanks to her Aquaman work; no-one had noticed at the time.

In a strange way this feels like a summation of Fradon’s time in comics. She repeatedly, quietly, broke barriers without fanfare, and demonstrated an eagerness to change and grow that so many of her contemporaries lacked. (Primarily moving genres, with work on House of Mystery and House of Secrets in the ‘70s, as well as comedy work in Plop! and Crazy magazine, and her Brenda Starr run in the 1980s, but she also wrote and illustrated her own kids book, and also worked on Simpsons and SpongeBob Squarepants comics later in her career; she also went back to school in the ‘80s to study psychology.)

She kept working all the way up until her death, both on commissions — I proudly own a Metamorpho sketch by her — and published work, with colorist Trish Mulvihill sharing what is likely her final professional work on social media this weekend, and her work really didn’t miss a step despite her advanced years. It’s a cliche to say about the deceased that the business needs more people to follow their example, but it’s very true in this case: Fradon barely slowed down, remained curious and passionate, and all of that showed in her art all the way up until the end. She was part of comics history — in her own way, she shaped comics history — and comics is lesser with her death.

Fradon died aged 97 on February 24, just a month after announcing her retirement.

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About the Author
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Graeme McMillan

Staff Writer

Popverse staff writer Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.