Attention Newsarama Readers: You now literally have nothing to do for the rest of the day, because Kyle Baker has put his acclaimed graphic novels online…for free.Call him crazy, or crazy like a fox, but it’s a sly move. Baker’s comics are often like the funniest movies never made, and he’s able to veer wildly from style to style as both a writer and an artist. Unfortunately, even though they’re called “comic” books, it’s hard to sell comedy in comics. So while Baker’s work has a loyal cult of readers, it’s had trouble staying in print, or getting the same level of caché as other works that are more dramatically complex, and depressing.
This new format puts several of Baker’s best works online with accompanying ads and links to where you can buy hard copies of the books, sometimes at highly-discounted prices. There’s also a “Donate” button, if reading this work for free makes you want to give this man money.
But if you’re still on the fence, here’s a quick look at some of Baker’s books – and why you should check them out.
The Cowboy Wally Show (check it out here): Released in 1988 by Doubleday, many readers didn’t know what to make of this book – but time has only made it more relevant.
Taking the form of a documentary, it’s a look back at the life and career of Cowboy Wally, a drunk, overweight, incredibly stupid entertainer whose success in the business has revolved around his ability to create any number of brain-dead TV shows, films and in one case, an entire network.It’s an excuse for Baker to go insane depicting any number of Wally’s productions, some only taking a few panels (the dubbed-over Japanese flick “Ed Smith, Lizard of Doom”) to full chapters (Wally’s “existential” French Foreign Legion flick “Sands of Blood” and his take on “Hamlet,” filmed entirely in a week inside a jail cell with modern dialogue and paper cut-outs).
Produced around the same time that Baker was doing such books as The Shadow for DC, The Cowboy Wally Show pioneered the format Baker would use for many of his graphic novels -- having the text appear separately from the panels without word balloons, a format similar to movie storyboards.
The effect takes a little getting used to, but it puts a greater emphasis on the subtle-but-exaggerated facial expressions that characterize Baker’s works – the scenes are often dialogue-driven, but are still feature some of the most expressive art in comics.
Also, it’s damn funny. Baker will do anything for a laugh in this book, and usually gets it. I’ve actually gotten friends hooked on comics with this book, and retailer friends of mine have bought up remaindered copies of this book and hand-sold them to customers. There is a cult of Cowboy Wally, and it deserves to grow.
BONUS: I’ve said this for years – imagine Wally’s voice as Stephen Root in NewsRadio. It adds a whole other level to the work.
Just a few years after Cowboy Wally, Baker achieved a breakout success with his next graphic novel…Why I Hate Saturn (check it out here): Originally released by DC’s pre-Vertigo “Mature Readers” imprint Piranha Press, this was the breakout critical hit of the line, earning an Eisner Award, a rave from Rolling Stone and being picked by The Comics Journal as one of the “Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century.”
A hilariously dry, sepia-toned parody of New York and LA self-absorption, 1990’s Why I Hate Saturn is a sort of antidote to the dry, existential works of such 1980s novelists as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Though it’s in some ways a time capsule of late-1980s NYC, its razor-sharp dialogue and merciless characterizations are still relevant.
The short summary is that it’s about Anne Merkel, a depressed columnist for a hip NYC magazine (cost: $4 U.S., $5,000 Canadian) whose life has descended into an endless spiral of alcohol and bemoaning the singles scene (the book came out well before both Sex and the City and Seinfeld, and is far more acidic than both). Anne’s life is uprooted when her hippie-dippie sister Laura arrives from out West, annoying Anne with her cleanliness and upbeat attitude – and her belief that she’s “Queen of the Leather Astro Girls from Saturn.”The story takes a variety of bizarre turns, including a third act that sends Anne out of her element to California to look for Laura, that somehow leads to a climax somehow evoking the ending of Thelma and Louise (a year before that movie actually came out), only with heavy artillery.
Baker tweaks the storyboard style from Cowboy Wally slightly for Why I Hate Saturn, employing more close-ups of the characters and elaborate page designs, sometimes incorporating full paragraphs of text next to the art, and having whole sections consist of long conversations – a graphic novel that’s close to a “regular” novel.
That’s very tricky to pull off in comics, but it works because of Baker’s expressive art and dead-on dialogue – observe for instance, this exchange between Anne and her African-American friend Ricky, after he’s explained that Anne’s magazine wants him to write a “Black column:”Anne: “That’s idiotic. You’re going to be writing about stuff you don’t know anything about.”
Ricky: “It doesn’t matter. Magazines are printed for one reason. To sell advertising. With a Black column, they can sell more ads for Black stuff.”
Anne: “Wait a minute. In New York, even though Black radio stations are in the top ten, they can’t sell ads, because Blacks are a sucky demographic. They have no money.”
Anne: “So how come ‘Daddy-O’ is suddenly courting Black readers?”
Ricky: “What? They don’t want any Black readers!”
Ricky: “Look, Black music is in, Black culture is in, but Black people will never be in.”
It’s sad, hilarious and a dead-on bit of satire – and part of why Why I Hate Saturn remains a fan favorite.You Are Here (check it out here): Published by Vertigo in 1998, in additions to reprints of Baker’s earlier works, this full-color entry is more farcical and plot-driven than Baker’s earlier works – but still contains plenty of laughs and even a little suspense.
Noel Coleman is an ex-thief who’s gone from the dirty streets of NYC to the nature-filled valleys of Phoenicia, NY, and settled down with a nice girl named Helen, who’s so deadly-sweet that she not only lets animals into the house, she talks to them…and they listen.
Noel just wants to go back to the city long enough to sell his old apartment, but this just happens to coincide with a man whose wife he slept with – who also looks an awful lot like a 1950s-era Robert Mitchum – getting acquitted for violently butchering said wife and going after Noel. On top of this, Helen’s followed Noel into the city with big news and keeps insisting on enjoying the sites and the sunset – and Noel himself is finding his old way of life mighty tempting.You Are Here brings action and adventure to the comedy of Baker’s previous works, while featuring art that’s even more exaggerated than before, with use of computer-generated images, bright colors and heavily cartoonish figures in what’s an often-sordid plot filled with knives, strippers and other great things.
There’s plenty of satire (Noel explains he sells his art to people whose perception of criminal life comes from films like Pulp Fiction), but it’s combined with scenes of slapstick (at one point, Noel has to chase after Helen while carrying a container full of gasoline that comes perilously near any number of open flames) and chilling darkness (the violent climax is reminiscent of Jonathan Demme’s film Something Wild in how it turns a light, silly comedy into a dark, tense thriller).
It’s silly, cynical and sometimes thrilling all at the same time, such as a sequence involving an elaborate chase around Central Park involving multiple Hansom cabs, cops, and a very annoying clown. And it all comes down to an ending that’s grim, hopeful and goofy all at once.I Die at Midnight (check it out here): Released in December 1999 as part of “V2K,” a Vertigo end-of-the –century event (it was a strange time), this novella in the vein of You Are Here is shorter than the other works we’ve covered, and might be a good introduction to Baker’s work for the wary.
The premise is simple: Larry (who looks an awful lot like Nic Cage) is bummed that his girlfriend Muriel has dumped him, and swallows a ton of pills. Just afterward, Muriel shows up saying she’ll take him back. Now, Larry has the immense problem of getting the poison out of his stomach while not revealing to Muriel the rather extreme, unstable actions he’s just taken over her. Adding to the trouble, the one doctor who can help Larry is being stalked by Muriel’s other ex, and there’s a huge crowd outside as New Year’s Eve approaches…Baker uses CGI even more extensively in I Die at Midnight, and the combination of this with his regular art style is sometimes uneven, but adds to the disorienting tone of the story. There’s plenty of slapstick (Larry desperately running around looking for a place to discretely throw up) and action (the climax, which involves jumping out of windows) and some sly shout-outs to Baker’s other work (take a look at the movie posters in Times Square).
The premise might be a bit too dark for a film, but it’s the equivalent of a good action-comedy – with a strange sweetness at its core.King David (check it out here): Baker combines the actual story from the Bible with a variety of visual styles in this 2002 Vertigo GN that tells the tale of David’s life – not just the battle with Goliath and his conflict with King Saul, but his own rise to power and corruption.
Baker goes crazy with the stylistic choices – one page might have an airbrushed look to it, while another might look like something out of the Looney Tunes. King Saul is rendered as a demonic figure, while young David is like Conan as a toddler. The dialogue often veers toward modern context and deadpan humor – but the actual story is taken beat-for-beat from the Old Testament, and reveals a tragedy full of epic fights, trickery and a surprisingly chilling ending. It’s worth checking out, whether you’re religious or not.
A few of Baker’s works are just up as samples as of this writing, but they’re well worth checking out. One is Nat Turner, one of the most acclaimed of his recent works – a stark, nearly wordless look at the life and death of the famous leader of the slave uprising that doesn’t shy away from the brutality of slavery – or of Turner’s own violent actions.Told through historical texts, including Turner’s own recorded confessions, it’s one of the best historical comics, and in talking to Baker a few years ago, I found out it’s been highly successful in libraries. You can get it on Amazon here.
Another more recent work is Special Forces, the Kyle Baker equivalent of such anti-war satires as Catch-22. Inspired by the real-life story of an autistic boy recruited as a soldier, it takes a team of misfits – including the aforementioned autistic and a convicted criminal trying to avoid prison – and pits them against a brutal Al-Qaeda terrorist. A story filled with over-the-top violence, sexuality and painful reminders that this isn’t that far from reality, it was called “the harshest, most serrated satire of the Iraq war yet published” by The New York Times. You can buy the collection off Amazon here.
And if you want something a little lighter, check out Baker’s hilarious observations on family life in The Bakers, a wordless comic that’s dead on for anyone who’s ever been a parent – or is afraid of becoming one.
Whatever your taste, there’s something in Kyle Baker’s body of work for you – and now there’s also hours of entertainment at your fingertips for free. So check out one of his books – and if you like it, buy some of the guy’s stuff for giving you all those laughs. You won’t be sorry.