INTERVIEW: Lillian and Kyle Baker
I think Kyle Baker is the funniest man in comics. With the exception of the recently completed non-fiction Nat Turner, everything he¹s done has made me laugh, including the artwork for DC’s Shadow series and Vertigo’s King David. After the publication of his second graphic novel, Why I Hate Saturn in 1992, Ben is Dead, a popular e-zine, proclaimed "Kyle Baker is God." Since then, he¹s written and drawn for every major publisher, and his work has appeared in New York Magazine, Spy, Vibe, ESPN and more. He¹s adapted the Dick Tracy movie and Alice in Wonderland for comics. His graphic novels include You are Here, I Die at Midnight, King David, the previously mentioned Nat Turner, several collections of short pieces and a continuing series about his family, The Bakers.
We recently had a chance to talk to Kyle and his oldest daughter, Lillian, herself a talented self-published cartoonist. At eight, she¹s written and drawn five books, most recently The Dumb People¹s Convention. Fans and fans-to-be can see her work at conventions this summer, where she will frequently share booth space with her father.
Lillian and I had just seen Spider-Man 3 the night before, and had a pajama party at my house.
Kyle: Any nightmares?
CMix: She wasn¹t scared. We talked about how everything is special effects and not real.
Kyle: Sometimes, she has nightmares after the movies.
CMix: The title — Babies and Kittens, your new book from Image (scheduled to ship in July). Why both?
Kyle: What¹s cuter than babies? Babies and kittens.
CMix: This is the second book that¹s being distributed by Image, after Nat Turner. What other projects do you have in the works?
Kyle: I¹m writing a book for Watson-Guptill, How to Draw Stupid. It¹s not a graphic novel, it¹s text with illustrations.
CMix: That sounds great, but it doesn¹t sound like something that would sell in comic book stores.
Kyle: There are at least two different audiences for comics these days. What sells the best at Barnes & Noble isn¹t what sells the best at a comic book store. They both think their market is the only one, and no one will buy what doesn¹t sell in their kind of store. I¹ve gone into a comic shop and asked why they don¹t have kids comics. They say, "Kids don¹t like Scooby-Doo." Of course kids like Scooby-Doo. What they don¹t is like most comic stores.
CMix: How do you feel about the competition from Lillian?
Kyle: She¹s very good at it. She¹s done five books.
CMix: Do you have a favorite?
Kyle: I like them all. They¹re all fun.
CMix: Lilli, are there comics you would like to read that aren¹t in stores?
Lillian: I like fairies. I¹d like to read a fairy comic.
CMix: Are there any?
Kyle: Disney and Nickelodeon have that market cornered. They do the cartoons.
CMix: There was that Terry Jones book.
Kyle: That had art by Brian Froud. He¹s done a lot of Lillian¹s favorite books.
CMix: What conventions do you plan to attend this summer?
Kyle: We did New York in February. I¹m going to San Diego (July) and I¹m doing Baltimore (over Labor Day). Check with Liz (his wife), she¹ll know the rest of the schedule.
CMix: It must be difficult to go with three kids.
Kyle: We used to fly all around the world with Lillian when she was a baby. She was one of those babies who would only stop crying if you walked her around the block in a stroller, and she wouldn¹t start to cry until I was completely set up to start signing books. The worst was Germany, where they went through all our bags. We were on a tour where we went from town to town, signing books. We ran all over Europe with twenty bags and a baby. Always racing for a plane or train.
CMix: Tell me about Special Forces? It¹s expected to appear monthly, starting in August. You were inspired by the story of the autistic teenager who was recruited into the armed forces. Is this a mini-series?
Kyle: The story can go on as long as the war does. Every generation has their own war comedy. There was Catch-22 for World War II, and M*A*S*H for the Viet Nam era. Everything in my book is going to be true things I read in the paper. Nothing could be funnier or more absurd than that.
CMix: You¹re going to get lambasted for that.
Kyle: I love reading bad reviews because they can¹t figure out how to attack it when it¹s true. Like with Nat Turner, nobody complained in the first volume, when all these black babies were getting killed. "Oh, that¹s accurate and profound," they said. Then, in the second half, when the white kids were killed, that was different. The same reviewers vcalled it "brutal." It was all historically accurate. It¹s what happened.
CMix: Lillian, do you want to be a cartoonist when you grow up, like your Daddy?
Lillian: Yes. Or maybe a doctor.
CMix: On your website (kylebaker.com), you have a lot of animation. Why aren¹t the studios throwing money at you to produce features?
Kyle: Not enough penguins in my stuff. I¹ve made a lot of money working for the studios. After Why I Hate Saturn, I spent two years working for Warner Bros, developing sit-coms that never got made. And I worked on the Loony Tunes movie. I got paid a lot of money. I don¹t care that I didn¹t get a single joke in the movie, because it¹s the most money I ever made.
CMix: Why didn¹t they use your jokes? You¹re the funniest person in the world!
Kyle: They want to see a script. If I write a script and it says "Sylvester falls in a pool," it¹s not funny. It¹s not funny on the page, but it will be funny in the execution. I¹ll do a storyboard, but they only understand what¹s typed. Most people can¹t even understand a storyboard. I kept doing my gags as doodles, and nobody knew what to do with them.
CMix: That¹s terrible.
Kyle: I¹d rather do it and then sell it. That¹s what I did with The Bakers. If I pitched those Bakers ideas, no one would buy them. But when you see it, it¹s funny. I like to do humor because comedy is quantifiable. You can¹t argue about it. Either people laugh, or they don¹t, so either it¹s funny, or it¹s not.
CMix: So what do you do?
Kyle: Well, I can make the same money writing and drawing a graphic novel that I would creating a show for Nickelodeon, and I own what I create.
CMix: But isn¹t there more money working for Nickelodeon in the long run?
Kyle: Not for me there¹s not. They don¹t pay WGA residuals, they don¹t pay licensing residuals. I believe that many of the guys who run animation hate what they do. Kids¹ cartoons was not their first career choice. They all want to do live-action for grown-ups, and they think being in animation means they¹ve failed. Because they trained for a career in network sitcoms, they have a formula they¹ve learned which they then try to apply to an 11 minute TV cartoon. They want to see a script with a three-act structure and character arcs. I wanted to do cartoons about animals chasing each other and trying to eat each other with lots of hitting. They wanted to know why the characters were acting like that, what their motivation was. "Why is the cat chasing the squirrel?" BECAUSE SHE¹S A CAT!
CMix: Do they not know Chuck Jones?
Kyle: They don¹t even know Disney! AT DISNEY! You think you could win an argument at Disney by pointing out that Walt himself made cartoons using a certain method, but no. Anyway, at this point I¹d get paid less to create a show than I get from a graphic novel. I make as much from The Bakers as I do from storyboarding the Andre 3000 cartoons. Except next year I¹ll still be getting Bakers checks, and nothing from Cartoon Network no matter how many times they re-run the shows. I recently learned a lot from George Clinton¹s Parliament Funkadelic band. They were helping me with my Myspace page. They have their own record label. They just make records and sell them, and do shows to packed houses.
CMix: That¹s great.
Kyle: Those guys know their potential audience is the entire world, not just what the big record company wants. I mean, when I wanted to do Noah¹s Ark as a cartoon, I had to sell people on the idea of the Bible as a salable book. I talked to a licensing guy, and he thought that Hello Kitty was the only kind of character that could be licenses, because his client base was little girls. I have another friend who runs a comic shop and he says girl stuff doesn¹t sell. People don¹t see outside their sandbox.
CMix: That¹s nuts. How do you find a new audience if you just play to the one you¹ve got?
Kyle: I like to pick a specific audience where there¹s a need and no competition and go there. I mean, look at Nat Turner. I¹ve sold though two printings already, and we¹re still gaining in the libraries and bookstore market. I¹m at the top of web searches for Nat Turner, simply because there¹s not much competition. Most of the people who buy the book have never heard of me. They simply see that I¹ve got a product which could be useful to them. An educational book. With accurate facts. When I started publishing my own books, I searched for ways in which I could compete with the bigger companies. What I learned was that if I stuck to telling the truth, there was no way the majors could compete. Even the news can¹t tell the truth any more. People will say that black people aren¹t a big audience, right up until a Tyler Perry makes an impact. It¹s a matter of knowing where your customers are, and then putting the stuff where your customers hang out. I want Nat Turner in schools. I¹m seeking a major educator to write the introduction, and have it be used in college classrooms.
CMix: I¹m out of questions. Did I miss any further point you want to make?
Kyle: I have no further point. That¹s why I do cartoons.
Artwork copyright Kyle Baker. All Rights Reserved.