H.G. Peter: From Judge to Wonder

H.G. Peter, House Cleaning Day, Judge magazine. A reflection of Peter’s support for the Suffragette movement.

Harry George (H.G.) Peter (1880 – 1958) is most well-known for bringing William Moulton Marston’s superhero Wonder Woman to life in October 1941.  For the 61-year-old Peter, this was a great stepping stone so late in his career, and he stayed with the super Amazonian for the next two decades, until his passing in 1958. 

When you look H.G. Peter up on Wikipedia, you’re presented with some good information about his career, from his early days working for the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Bulletin, to the magazine work done for Judge and other magazine.  But the description of Peter’s actual drawing is rather odd.  Peter’s early work is said to be influenced by Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations, while his later work on Wonder Woman is compared to Art Nouveau.  I did a bit of a double-take when reading that description of Peter’s work.  I wonder if the authors of the Wikipedia post ever actually looked at C.D. Gibson’s work.  Or someone like Alphonse Mucha for a comparison to the Art Nouveau approach.  Where Gibson employed strong, heavy mark-marking that created great weight in the forms, Peter’s early work was more decorative in its approach, with a much lighter line weight.  In terms of the later work, the comparison to Art Nouveau seems to be grasping at straws.  Art Nouveau illustration often consisted of decorative patterning combined with an organic approach to line work.  I could see a case being made for Peter’s early work being compared in some fashion to Art Nouveau, but the later work isn’t even in the same area code.  There was a goofy expressionism to Peter’s later work, with a heavily brushed contour line and figures that moved with little grace, yet conveyed a sense of power.  Hardly the stuff of Art Nouveau, which was largely curvilinear and organic.

Looking at H.G. Peter’s early work, particularly his work for Judge magazine, it’s not hard to see the stylistic similarities between his work and Nell Brinkley’s.  And that should come as no surprise.  Brinkley pretty much took the world by storm with her Brinkley Girl, with a light and lively approach to drawing that supplanted C.D. Gibson’s solid-but-stodgy approach in comparison.  This is not a dig at Gibson.  The work was beautifully structured, with a weighty, fluid line.  But in comparison, Brinkley’s work showed a different kind of liveliness.  Old school versus new school. The Brinkley Girl was an active participant in life.  Her own woman.  Brinkley’s drawing was definitely influenced by Art Nouveau, with its decorative approach combined with a lyrical line quality.  All of these attributes can be found in H.G. Peter’s early work.

It’s also possible that Peter was influenced by someone like Franklin Booth, whose engraving-like illustrations he would have also been familiar with.  While not approaching anything close to the detail found in Booth’s work, Peter would often employ an area of flat shading and textures to help separate the forms.  These areas didn’t act as engraved lines, as they often appeared in Booth’s work, but they accomplished similar ends.  This comparison may be a slight bit of reach, but there are illustrations by the two artists that share commonalities.

A further comparison could also be made to the British cartoonist, Phil May, who was a master of the flat shading technique.  Billy DeBeck was a huge admirer of May’s and you can see the influence of May’s approach in many of DeBeck’s Barney Google strips, especially in the work from the late 1920s and early 30s.  In fact, DeBeck had his young assistant, a fella by the name of Fred Lasswell, copy May’s and Gibson’s work, as a way of better understanding the kind of ink work DeBeck wanted in the strip.

In any event, it’s fascinating to see the transition in H.G. Peter’s work from the 1910s to 1941 and beyond.   All of the magazine work by H.G. Peter presented here is from Judge magazine, circa 1915.  In this first piece, titled “Seeing Miss America First”, you can see the flowing, decorative pen work throughout, with a bit of the texture that you might find in a Booth illustration.

H.G. Peter, Seeing Miss America First, Judge magazine

Now compare that to this later piece by Nell Brinkley from 1924, and you start to see the similarities in the figures and line work. 

Nell Brinkley

Then take a look at this incredible Franklin Booth piece and you start to notice some of the textures in Peter’s men within Booth’s cloud forms.

Franklin Booth

This piece by Peter, titled “The Lure” shows some additional Booth-like textures and techniques. You’ll notice the lovely curving lines and textures within the clouds and tree foliage.

H.G. Peter, The Lure, Judge magazine

I mentioned Phil May’s work earlier in the post. For those unfamiliar with the Brit’s work, here’s a piece from his seminal book Guttersnipes, published in 1896. You can see May’s flat use of shading as a way of separating the figures in the work.

Phil May, Playing Soldiers. Published in Guttersnipes, 1896.

The following piece by Peter, titled The Lion and the Mouse, uses a similar flat shading technique to May’s.  It also helps to keep a relatively crowded image more readable.

H.G. Peter, The Lion and the Mouse, Judge magazine.

Looking at H.G. Peter’s work, trying to discern his influences, is an interesting exercise, but in the end it’s simply fascinating to view his early work, with an eye on what would come later.  Here’s a selection of pieces by Peter from Judge magazine:

H.G. Peter, Revue of the Family, Judge magazine.
H.G. Peter, On Thin Ice, Judge magazine.
H.G. Peter, Age of Chivalry, Judge magazine.
Age of Chivalry detail 1
Age of Chivalry detail 2.

Finally, Wonder Woman.  In this page from Sensation Comics #38 from 1944, we see Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor in action.  Gone is the elegant lyrical line, replaced with a heavier contour line and bits of brush shading on the clothing.  Peter was always a bit stiff as a figure artist, and while that stiffness remains in works like this, the more dynamic brush work adds a good deal of movement to the piece.  I’ve always found Peter’s Wonder Woman artwork to be goofily charming.  This page is a good example of that goofy charm.

H.G. Peter, Sensation Comics #38, 1944.

Thanks for tuning in.  Until next time, stay well.

Rob Stolzer

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer teaches art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he teaches Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting.

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