In 1944 Frederic E. Ray was twenty four years old. As a kid he took up drawing. He collected works of his favorite illustrators, and copied them until his sketches began to look like them. By the time he was twenty he was getting paid $35 dollars a week at Detective Comics (later shortened to its initials DC) working on titles such as Detective Comics, Batman, and Superman .
Fred spent most of his work doing cover art, working with legends like Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, and Jerry Robinson, who made Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. His first work on Superman came with “Superman’s Christmas adventure” in 1940 and Fred Ray’s most conspicuous contribution was to reshape the “S” emblazoned on the Man of Steel.
In January 1942, the USA faced a challenge on a scale the world had never seen before. People needed heroes, patriotism stirred in Americans and their cartoon characters answered the call. In Superman #14 Fred Ray drew one of the classic covers of the Golden Age of Comics. The cover is black, Superman stands in front of a red,white and blue shield, a vanguard for the tanks and planes that follow. On his calling arm, the eagle of freedom.
In 1942, Comic book heroes left the crime filled American underworld and went overseas to take on the Axis powers. For the duration of the war, they would fight alongside the men in the trenches, in the air and on the seas. Fred Ray, like so many other young men, served in the armed forces. He took his sketchbook with him, capturing the world around him. Everyday things that photographers weren’t around to see: Military Police men, soldiers waiting for a train, leather-clad Air Force men chatting with a woman in service while they get their papers. The color of each object labeled so he would know what to paint it later.
When the war ended, Fred Ray came home and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on the GI Bill. He returned to DC Comics and drew for Tomahawk and other western and historical series. As the war years drifted further into memory, Fred’s style and interest changed. His work left the comics and he wrote books about American history and illustrated for historical periodicals.
For Fred Ray, the war, like his contributions to the Golden Age of comics was only one part of his life. Something for which he didn’t ask or receive much credit for. He didn’t dwell on the past although his life’s work was made of drawing it.
Fred’s wartime sketches, drawn in the present of a young man in his twenties gives us a look into a world away from the Supermen of comics, into the reality of everyday people. People doing ordinary things in extraordinary times, doing what they needed to do, in a world at war.