Profile: Elmer Cecil Stoner (1897-1969)

Elmer Cecil Stoner was an American comics artist and commercial illustrator. Stoner was one of the first African-American comic book artists, and is believed to have created the iconic Mr. Peanut mascot. He produced pencil art for the first issue of Detective Comics, published by National Comics Publications (the company that later became DC Comics), and worked for a variety of other golden age companies such as Timely Comics, Street & Smith, EC Comics, Fawcett Comics, and Dell Comics. Near the end of his life, Stoner was also a spokesman for Gordon’s Gin.

Early life

Stoner was born on October 20, 1897, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to Mary Alice and George W. Stoner. His mother was a pianist, and his father a church sexton at the local St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Stoner was the eldest of the family’s three children, though there were two that had died earlier. Stoner left school at 11, as was the custom in coal towns like Wilkes-Barre, but instead went to work at a Woolworth’s as a stocker at the behest of founder Fred Morgan Kirby, who attended the church where Stoner’s father worked. While working at Woolworth’s, Stoner began to learn sign-painting, lettering, and advertising, and soon began to work as a freelance artist in the Wilkes-Barre area.

Creation of Mr. Peanut, first marriage, move to Harlem

The Planters company sponsored a contest in 1916 to create a mascot, which 14-year old Antonio Gentile won. According to the company website, the drawing was “enhanced” by a “professional illustrator,” who added the top hat, monocle, and cane. While Planters never revealed the identity of the artist who made a new version of Gentile’s design. Stoner’s widow Henriette noted the creation of Mr. Peanut as one of Stoner’s accomplishments when submitting a questionnaire for Who’s Who of American Comic Books.

Stoner registered in 1918 for the draft, but was not called to service due to being in school. Stoner attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, supposedly also sponsored by Kirby. While at the school, he earned a number of awards, including the school’s Packard Prize (awarded for best sketches of animals at the Philadelphia Zoo), a Cresson Traveling Scholarship, and a Prix de Rome.

Stoner married his first wife Vivienne in 1922 and moved to Harlem, where his work was featured in a “Negro artist” exhibition at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. According to the head librarian, his work was “splendidly planned and executed.”The couple later moved to Greenwich Village so that Vivienne could open a gift shop, and they became “part of a tight-knit circle of African-Americans. .and hobnobbed with the intellectual elite of the community.”

Stoner and Vivienne divorced sometime before 1927.

Magazine and comic book work

Stoner’s first major illustrative work, a children’s book named Mic Mac on the Track, debuted in 1930. During this time, Stoner worked at Tower Magazines, a women-and-children-oriented series of magazines that were distributed at Woolworth’s stores. This company folded in 1935, leading Stoner to freelance and begin to transition into comic art. Stoner’s first foray into comics was a story in Detective Comics #1, Speed Saunders, and the River Patrol, introducing the character Cyril “Speed” Saunders. Sources disagree about whether Stoner wrote or drew the story, and comic historians Don Markstein and Kevin Burton Smith note that since Stoner’s tenure on the character was so brief (he left after the first issue), that Gardner Fox had potentially created the character.

Personal life and death

Outside of comics, Stoner was an “accomplished pianist” and patron of the arts, and also owned the apartment building in which he lived, at 228 W. 13th Street. According to an article in the Daily Worker, Stoner spent time entertaining United Service Organizations (USO) personnel and providing them with drawing lessons, in addition to “occasionally [giving] art lectures as a means of improving Negro-white relations.” In the late 1960s, Stoner was one of several prominent African-Americans featured in a series of ads for Gordon’s Gin.

Stoner died on December 16, 1969, and had a private funeral.

Style and reception

As a classically-trained illustrator who transitioned into comic art in the middle of his life, Stoner’s comic art was sometimes criticized for not matching up with other artists of the time, as relayed by Ken Quattro: “…Stoner’s work was not in the league of Eisner or Kirby or Fine. He was, after all, a middle-aged fine artist, who had only worked in advertising and magazine illustration, trying to make the jarring transition to comic books. The techniques and requirements of sequential storytelling were new to him and it was apparent.”

Ron Goulart criticized Stoner’s work in his Great History of Comic Books, “Stoner’s drawing is the visual equivalent of fingernails scraped across a slate, and whenever he had a chance to botch the perspective, the composition, or even the inking, he did so with brio.”

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