SAFETY HARBOR — Unlike the comic strip characters he drew with consummate precision, Fran Matera never chased down smugglers on the high seas, infiltrated crime rings or exposed frauds.
The artist behind Steve Roper and Mike Nomad, a daily adventure strip that started in the early 1940s, Mr. Matera drew the serial from 1984 until its final frame in 2004. That run with King Features Syndicate saw Mr. Matera through the largest commercial success of a prolific career that coincided with the denouement of his beloved genre.
He never stopped trying to put his stamp on newspapers and magazines, creating new characters through his mid 80s — some sad and frumpy, others muscular or voluptuous — and submitting them for publication. Those efforts fill thick manila envelopes in his Safety Harbor home, where he lived and worked quietly for nearly 30 years.
Mr. Matera, who rode the wave of the "golden age" of comics and its successive downsizing, died at home March 15 of complications from prostate cancer. He was 87.
He grew up in Stratford, Conn., and as a high school student lassoed top-drawer comic strip artist Alfred Andriola with a letter and samples of his work. Thanks to those efforts, Mr. Matera had a job waiting for him in New York fresh out of high school with Quality Comics.
A devotee of Milton Caniff, the creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, Mr. Matera whipped up characters and the shadows behind them in a way that brought adventure scenes to life.
"He drew really well," said Jim Amash, associate editor of the genre magazine Alter Ego and a veteran artist on several comic strips, including Brenda Starr and The Amazing Spider-Man. "His work was never flat, it was always three-dimensional. And that's really tough to do."
His friends and family describe Mr. Matera as a pleasant man who trusted others, perhaps to a fault. He illustrated hundreds of comic book stories and covers before his Steve Roper days, but never got rich doing it.
"The Charles Schultzes and the Garry Trudeaus are the 1 percent," said Amash, 51. "The rest of cartoonists are the 99 percent."
Good and evil never clashed in his life with anywhere near the drama he created in his studio near Tampa Bay.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943 and looked forward to the challenge. A photo from then shows him helmeted and shirtless, biceps bulging as he poses with a bayonet. His superiors soon discovered his talent and assigned the private first class to the Parris Island Boot, a camp newspaper.
"He wanted to fight but they made him draw," said Debbie Matera, 44, his daughter-in-law.
Once again, Mr. Matera stepped forward with confidence. Assigned to guard President Harry S. Truman, who was on board the USS Augusta, he sketched the president from a photo. A copy of the sketch, signed with compliments by Truman, hangs in Mr. Matera's studio. It is dated Aug. 5, 1945 — a day before an atomic bomb landed on Hiroshima.
After the war, Mr. Matera labored for the detective comic strip Kerry Drake alongside Andriola, who created it. For the next 30 years he adapted to shifting demands, drawing for comic books as varied as Fightin' Marines, Speed Demons and The Hulk, while "ghosting" without credit for Nero Wolfe, Rex Morgan, M.D., and comic book companions to Bruce Lee and Indiana Jones movies.
At age 40 he married Pat, a neighbor 10 years his junior. They moved from Connecticut to Florida in the early 1980s.
In 1984, Mr. Matera took over as the artist behind Steve Roper and Mike Nomad, a series about a dashing and sophisticated investigator, Roper, and his more impulsive sidekick Nomad, which at its peak appeared in 250 newspapers. He worked at all hours, a mug of coffee on his drafting table and a cat or two nearby.
But the public was tiring of adventure strips. Readers were too impatient to wait 13 weeks for an episode to play out. In 2003, the writer for the Roper strip died. Mr. Matera, then 78, took over the writing, too.
But by then, Amash estimates, only a few dozen newspapers carried the strip.
Mr. Matera ended his relationship with Steve Roper and Mike Nomad after a contract dispute with King Features, his family said. On Dec. 26, 2004 — 64 years after the Roper character was introduced — Mr. Matera drew its final frame. It was of Roper, now aged, visiting his ex-wife's grave alongside the daughter she had kept secret from him.
His last major project, completed four years ago, is the mural in five panels that takes up an entire wall of the Athens Restaurant, on Main Street in Safety Harbor, where Mr. Matera had been a regular customer.
It is a euphoric composite of white houses on a mountainside against the Aegean and the blue sky. A hot-air balloon, the Parthenon and a few boats complete the scene. Owner Paul Lares had been looking for such a panorama since he opened the restaurant 31 years ago.
"A lot of people have asked me, 'Who did it? " said Lares, 72. "They wanted his name."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.