Thursday, December 2, 2010

Serene Summerfield: The First Lady of Comic Books

(Special thanks to Phil Barnhart, James Ludwig and Hames Ware for their contributions to this article. -- Ken Quattro)

Close your eyes and picture a serene summer field. Feel the warm sun on your face as your mind’s eye conjures a green expanse of lazily waving grasses, white butterflies wafting over sweet smelling wildflowers, the gentle symphony of harmoniously buzzing honeybees and the lilting chirp of birds on wing.

Then open your eyes and read how Jerry Iger portrayed Serene Summerfield to Hames Ware: "She certainly did not fit the description of her name." Lacking a photo of Ms. Summerfield, we are left to ponder his words.

Was Iger, a notorious ladies man, speaking solely of her physical appearance? Or did she possess an ill temper that belied her first name?

Right about now you are probably asking yourself why I am even discussing her. What makes Serene Summerfield significant? Simply this: in all likelihood, she was the first woman to produce original artwork for modern American comic books. [note: NO SHE WASN'T! It turns out, Emma C. McKean has that distinction. See comment at the end of this post for more details.]

About that first name. In actuality her given name was Serena, and she was born August 9, 1885 in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Her father Morris was an immigrant, as were the parents of many of her comic peers. But when he came to America from Germany in 1877, he settled in North Carolina instead of New York City. A dry goods merchant, Morris traveled extensively. On one of his business trips, he met and eventually married Annie Davison of Norfolk, Virginia in 1884. The couple returned to Goldsboro, where their eldest child, Serena, was born. Within a few years, they had two more children, with the family moving frequently to keep up with Morris’ burgeoning women's clothing business. In 1900 they were living in Staunton, Virginia. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, the Summerfield’s had moved to The Bronx. Here we get our first glimpse into the life of Serena.

In 1908, Serena was a design student at the Cooper Union, the revolutionary “free school” that provided a college education to qualified students without need of tuition. That year, Serena won a design award--“for an inlaid table top in the style of the Renaissance in Italy“--that resulted in a $10.00 prize. Serena turned her education into an occupation, as she is listed as a wall paper designer in the census of 1910.

By 1920, the Summerfield’s had moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Serena, by now in her mid-thirties, moved along with them. In 1922, the Summerfield’s moved for the last time back to New York, to Brooklyn, with their unmarried daughter in tow.

The 1920 census describes both Serena and her brother Jerome as "reproductional" artists. By 1925, Serena had her own studio. The previous year, she had illustrated the memoirs of businessman Saunders Norvell. Norvell's book, FORTY YEARS OF HARDWARE, was just as the title implied: a remembrance of his long career in the hardware business and is considered something of a classic for its detailing of a bygone era of American business. More to the point, Summerfield's illustrations for the book are the first examples of her published work to be found.

illustrations from

The drawings therein displayed the competency of an art student, but not much more. She was obviously most comfortable working from photos, for when she wasn't, her subject's anatomy broke down; she appeared lost. The fussiness of her pen-strokes seem to indicate the insecurity of an amateur rather than the sure line of an accomplished artist. She was no Nell Brinkley. Still, she had succeeded in getting published work.

And then, nothing.

Well, there was the short letter she wrote to the NEW YORK TIMES:

Queries and Answers page
NEW YORK TIMES (March 1,1931)

How proper. How reserved. How telling? Serena (under the somewhat more poetic nom de plume, "Serene"), comes across as erudite and as genteelly scolding as a schoolmarm.

Other than a vague reference in a 1935 copyright for a "King Cotton" piece of art (once again, as "Serene Summerfield"), her professional career as an illustrator seems to have been stillborn. Yet, not necessarily so. In the census of 1930, Summerfield is listed as a "poster" artist. Further (if anything can be derived from this information), her brother Jerome was also employed as an artist for the Nuart Poster Company.

But then came comic books. By the middle of the 1930s, this emerging market was hiring artists--a significant development in the midst of the Great Depression. Scuttling along at the lowest end of the publishing industry, comic publishers weren't particular about the quality of the work they bought, nor the credentials of their artists. Pure amateurs were having their worked published alongside that of longtime professional illustrators on the downside of their careers. This egalitarian situation was less the result of politics than of economics. While Serena's skill level wasn't a major consideration to editors, her willingness to work for the money paid for comic book work, was.

Summerfield's first venture into comics, entitled "Stratosphere Special", appeared in Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's NEW COMICS #4 (March-April, 1936). This brief, two-page effort is a curiosity for several reasons.

Stratosphere Special
NEW COMICS #4 (March-April, 1936)
[image courtesy of James Ludwig]

The artwork and story seem creakingly archaic. With a trip to the Moon accomplished by means of a balloon, Summerfield's knowledge of science fiction seemed to have stopped with the novels of Jules Verne. The feature was a relic compared to work regularly seen in concurrent comic strips and pulps. Still, her amateurish depiction of fin de si├Ęcle fashions and childlike Moon-men is quaintly humorous.

Stratosphere Special
NEW COMICS #5 (June, 1936)
[image courtesy of James Ludwig]

The second installment of "Stratosphere Special" in NEW COMICS #5 (June, 1936) would be its last, but undaunted, Summerfield sold the nearly identical "Space Limited (Above the Stratosphere)" to John Henle. Henle was the shirt manufacturer turned publisher who employed Samuel "Jerry" Iger to put together a new publication, "...containing comics, stories and articles on hobbies,"* the not-so-humbly titled, WOW, WHAT A MAGAZINE! #1 (July, 1936). *[NEW YORK TIMES, Aug. 5,1936]

At Henle Publications, Summerfield found herself working among such artists as Bob Kane, Barnard Baily, George Brenner and Iger's future business partner, Will Eisner.

“Eisner remembers Summerfield," wrote Trina Robbins and cat yronwode in their 1985 book, WOMEN AND THE COMICS, "(as) a big statuesque woman with a pleasant face, a sharp nose and hyperthyroid eyes who wore her hair in a bun.” A visually gentler, if not much kinder, description than that given by Iger.

Space Limited (Above the Stratosphere)
WOW, WHAT A MAGAZINE #2, pg. 17 (August, 1936)
[images courtesy of Phil Barnhart]

pg. 18

pg. 19

As far as the strip itself was concerned, Summerfield seems to have been exposed to more current science fiction artwork in the intervening months since her "Stratosphere Special". The spacefaring balloon is gone, replaced by a more acceptable spaceship that would have been comfortable on the cover of AMAZING STORIES. The women and children that populated her first feature stayed home. Instead, space-suited Earth men encounter more sinister looking Moon men led, apparently, by Diane, "The Goddess of the Moon", fashionably dressed in Thirties chic. The storyline makes little sense and the strip dies with the magazine, ending with issue #4 dated November, 1936.

What then? Did Summerfield linger and become part of the Eisner & Iger shop that rose from the ashes of WOW? The online WHO'S WHO OF AMERICAN COMIC BOOKS suggests that she did, although no specific credits are named. Lacking a definitive attribution, it's quite possible these few efforts constituted her entire comic book career.

Outside comics, only fleeting glimpses of Serena's life are to be found, and then usually tangentially. An August 7, 1937 NEW YORK TIMES article, topped with a photo of an elderly man and woman dressed in 1880's garb, tells of the yearly trip made by the couple on the anniversary of their marriage.

Maurice and Annie Summerfield
NEW YORK TIMES (August 7, 1937)

The couple, "The Maurice Summerfields of Brooklyn" (note the newly adopted French spelling of Morris' first name--quel bourgeois!), were making their 53rd "sentimental journey" back to Norfolk, Virginia, accompanied by their son Jerome. Neither Serena nor her sister Priscilla get a mention.

Serena does make the papers, though, on the Letters to the Editor page of the Oct. 31, 1943 issue of the NYT:


Answering the poem in THE NEW YORK TIMES Magazine by Berton Braley, entitled "We Keep 'Em in the Air"---

...and we're the folks at home,
The little everyday guy,
Who helps the "greasy ground-
Keep 'em in the sky!
For without our STAMPS and
That we little Main-Streeters
They couldn't purchase the planes,
To put 'em in the sky!


This outburst of enthusiastic patriotism is the final "credit" found for the now middle-aged Serena. When her mother, Annie, passes away in 1949, it's noted that she leaves behind, "...two daughters, Miss Serena Summerfield and Mrs. Priscilla Manning". At age 64, Serena had apparently never married.

According to Social Security records, Serena Summerfield died in July 1966 in Brooklyn, New York. She was nearly 81 years old.

Having died before she could ever be interviewed, the fact is that many details about the life of Serene Summerfield remain unknown. Her career as an illustrator seems to have been relatively unsuccessful or at least undistinguished enough that few examples of her work survive.

As an unmarried woman in the early Twentieth Century, it's likely she didn’t have any children, nobody to tell her story. Much, if not all, of her life seems to have been spent within the comfortable confines of her family's embrace, with her poetry and her artwork. Despite the fact that she defied societal conventions of the time by going to college and pursuing a career, as the daughter of a successful businessman she probably never wanted for money, never ventured far. More's the pity, she never knew she was a pioneer.

But we do.