Reviewing Kyle Baker
I was taking stock recently, reviewing the silver past and anticipating a golden future when I was struck by the fact that for the past six months I’ve given books by Kyle Baker to friends and relatives on every possible gift giving occasion and then some. This speaks well of Mr. Baker, whose line of books now covers every possible demographic.
For the very young or people who just don’t like to think about a nemesis more personal than hunger or gravity, there is his autobiographical work of family theft known as The Bakers. As a comic or a collection these gag panels, comical strips and full-length comic novellas start small and suck you in to a quite often very complicated gag, a combination of motives and subplots only a very accomplished technician such as Mr. Baker can execute. They are wonders of timing and staging that show how valuable he must have been during his sojourn in the Hollywood cartoon business, and how his talent for real-life details would have driven the kidvid fantasists to make his work there living heck. Everything in The Bakers universe can be imitated by a real family and has probably bedeviled your real family in its time.
In the book-shaped The Bakers: Babies and Kittens (Image Comics), the second book of it’s kind (after The Bakers: Do These Toys Belong Somewhere) Mr. Baker confounds the people who have spent their lives in a futile flight from cute. Like R. Crumb, his command of the medium and knowledge of what the eye likes (before the consciousness can muck things up) seduces his audience into taking a ride it thinks it has been on before, and a kiddy ride at that. But the plastic elephant takes a wrong turn and you’re soon in a fix that Ricky Ricardo and Harold Lloyd would shudder to consider. He then spares us the usual sitcom sermon and leaves the world of The Bakers as delightfully unbalanced and full of comic inevitability as it was in the beginning.
Comics is a near perfect medium today, unencumbered by commercials, your neighbor’s cell phone, the sponsor’s amoral code of standards, the way the electronic media is really after your time. No, you’re in the driver’s seat, Mr. Comic Reader (or should I say “Mrs.”?). It’s your choice: Read it one panel at a time, sit down and read the whole thing at once. Laugh. Read that panel over again (you don’t have to wait till summer or even to download it). Put it down on the coffee table and read it again later, or recommend it to your roommate.
Special Forces (Image) is Mr. Baker’s latest of the pamphlet-comics Twentieth Century earthlings found so dispensable. It is a gift for your best friends; anyone you know any less might be offended by something or other in this incendiary document. He re-imagines the War in Iraq to include the sex and violence that, at least until we saw this, only troubled our dreams. There’s a character that reminds me of Tank Girl, only a Tank Girl who has left her tank and Booga behind when her unit was rotated into combat. This has left her without much of a sense of humor, though when the only joke is death, a manic, comic enthusiasm is your best offense, which is your only defense. She is sexy, she kills and doesn’t see much wrong with either one. She is the heroine we most need.
At a recent signing Mr. Baker pretended to be annoyed that there was no major award nomination forthcoming as yet for this remarkable work, surely in the masterpiece class that pulls down the usual awards (of which Mr. Baker has been well blessed). He is surely aware that Special Forces is far too good and too edgy to get through any committee. Time will reward this work with renown when the hot, metallic taste of our nation’s guilt for our recent past has gone away and we can better consider these cultural artifacts that we may not want but surely deserve and desperately require.
With the realization that history illuminates everything but in the ende solves very few mysteries, we receive Mr. Baker’s book Nat Turner. It is his take on one of our most important historical literary figures. Hard to put down, hard to process because of the density a writer/artist can bring to a work, turning it down a page or two before cranking it up till you find yourself staring at a spread long enough to attract attention in the emergency room of your choice.
The Baker backlist is a force of nature. The Cowboy Wally Show, from his “lets see how funny we can get” period is madly humorous. Why I Hate Saturn is no less satisfying but, venturing beyond satire into real romance, dangerously includes insight in the mix with the laughs.
Now there is How To Draw Stupid, from famous maker of artist’s instructional books, Watson-Guptill. Here is his latest masterpiece, a book that won’t teach anyone how to draw but could be the most important book an aspiring artist would ever read.
Mr. Baker isn’t so didactic or bossy as to tell anyone how to do anything: draw, breathe, tie your shoes, eat a peach. If it’s important to you, you’ll learn, you’ll find a teacher or a school, and no one will be able to stop you. If you don’t care, you really oughtn’t to bother about it and, instead, should figure out what it is you do care about, then see above.
The nuggets of instruction in How to Draw Stupid are many and pithy and useful whatever your profession or hobby. This is a window into life as we know it today. It’s just another one of the jokes that thinking about drawing and even, no, especially doing it stupid, would be such an effective and useful pint of view.
Watson-Guptill doesn’t seem to know what a hot product they’ve got. It’s not on their web site. It’s hard to get in comic stores. Maybe someone there got a look at it and said, “Wait a minute. This book is an ironic commentary on its title, rather than a dead boring, barely ethical execution of the title’s over-promise like the books we usually sell.”
Whatever the case, comic fans everywhere should buy one before Brigadoon disappears again into the mist and this bit of wonder is as hard to find as a copy of Instant Piano, an early, hilarious work of Baker, Evan Dorkin and other genius humorists.
Comics are a great gift and everyone should give more of them. I’m a coward in this respect because I now give Kyle Baker instead of thinking, instead of attempting another of those lost missions into the caverns of the big box stores near me. One of these times I won’t come back. I’ll take a wrong turn, get lost and after a while they’ll just put a smock on me and call me an associate.
Some more particular recommendations if you, too, would like to cut down on your thinking:
• If your recipient isn’t on the inside of the comics tent, give ‘em The Bakers in any of its formats. When it ends up on television (can you say “the next Simpsons”?) they’ll all start thinking Antiques Roadshow whenever they look at it. The hardcover presentation is lovely and says “nice gift” even to the hardest cases.
• If you want to break your engagement, give your in-laws as many issues of Special Forces that you can find. Cover them in stains that look and smell of mac and cheese and bacon. Do it in public, when they’ve got their friends over, maybe the preacher, too. For the opposite effect, give it to any of your peers whose opinion you trust.
• Ladies love Why I Hate Saturn. If you want to know Mr. Baker’s opinion of women you only have to look at his drawings of them. They live in a world occupied by few other drawings. Especially the faces and especially when two or more conflicting emotions are fighting it out on said face. My favorites are the faces of female happiness. No woman ever smiles so brightly, with such optimism or hope as in a Kyle Baker comic. (This is also visible in his recent Plastic Man run, as yet uncollected. Canada must be running out of trees.)
• Humiliate the jokers on your list with The Cowboy Wally Show. It will school them that they haven’t had the last insight into show business or hell. Cowboy Wally extends the Hall of Fame of America’s comic leading men without the usual (Krusty) close silhouette of real humans. Wally is real, unique and a monster. We laugh that we may not scream real loud.
So there. You haven’t even heard how many shopping days are left and your holiday giving decisions are made for you. Just be glad we all aren’t getting coal and having to burn it so as not to freeze in the dark. Don’t thank us.
Full Disclosure: The Author is married to the Godmother of one of Mr. Baker’s children and is in conspiratorial discussions with rogue All My Children writers to plot the eventual takeover of Baker Enterprises after pieces like these have made it bigger than Microsoft.