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Kyle Baker:

The Fabulous Baker Boy

Graphic novels have this reputation for being earnest, so much so that it’s a relief to find any that are genuinely funny. For ‘quality jollity’, few can compete with 37-year old New York cartoonist Kyle Baker.

His solo debut in 1988 was as unexpected as it was unnoticed. Baker had been inking for Marvel to pay for his college bills, while struggling to break into newspaper strips. After the success of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust family history Maus proved that people would buy a big book of comics that wasn’t about superheroes, major league publishers briefly scrambled onto the bandwagon for anything else that might pull the same trick. In the rush, Baker was asked to expand his strip proposal Cowboy Wally into a graphic novel for Doubleday. The problem was nobody could find it, even in comics stores, and it promptly vanished into remainder limbo.

Which was a shame, because it was a much-needed satire savaging the very worst of American showbiz. Cowboy Wally is a fat, drunk, blissfully stupid and self-important celebrity, the sort who is famous only for once being famous. And yet by hook or by crook, thanks to blackmail photos or slush money from organised crime, Wally’s career somehow keeps on going. Baker created the perfect vehicle to lampoon the media, plunging him into idiotic kiddies’ shows, embarrassing late-night chat shows, Foreign Legion and monster movies and a documentary on the making of an inept version of Hamlet.

Snappily drawn and brimming with perfectly timed, hilarious repartee, Cowboy Wally was a revelation: Baker could draw well, and what’s more he could write humour brilliantly. Eventually, his book got a second chance in 1996, when it was re-released from Marlowe & Co. It is as timely as ever, but what is chilling is that Cowboy Wally’s lamest fiascos are being surpassed these days by the excesses of ‘reality’ gameshows and tabloid television.

By 1990, Baker’s mainstream profile had risen after illustrating DC’s The Shadow and Justice Inc., and he sold another one-man project to Piranha Press, the first of DC’s pre-Vertigo mature readers’ imprints. Originally pitched by Baker as a car-chase murder mystery, he developed Why I Hate Saturn into a wry character-driven comedy by focussing on two very different twenty-something sisters, one a lush, hard-drinking New York dame, the other a dreamer convinced, like Kevin Spacey in K-Pax, that she’s come from outer space (hence the title).

While Baker had avoided outlining speech balloons in Wally, for Saturn he ejected all of his dialogue and narration to beneath the panels, storyboard-style. His linework became looser and more expressive, tinted with sepia washes. At over 200-pages, it’s a meaty read with some uncanny similarities at the climax to the movie Thelma & Louise a year later.

Talent-spotted by Hollywood, Baker found himself working for the sort of bigwigs he had once parodied. He made good money for the next few years writing for films and TV, some of which even got made. But like Frank Miller, Mike Allred and others, once creators’ rights improved, he returned to the comics medium, where, for all its faults, he can enjoy almost total freedom, ownership and control. And his books can always double as nifty packages for movie proposals.

His dazzling 1999 comeback to DC was the 156-page Vertigo graphic novel You Are Here. Noel Coleman, a former jewel thief, has been spinning a lie about his ugly past to woo his sweet, sunset-loving girlfriend. But the truth catches up with him and the romantic comedy escalates into madcap thriller with a messy, murderous twist. As the latest softwares came in, Baker had been among the first to use them, making a font from his hand-lettering for Saturn, and now on You Are Here pushing all the buttons to generate eye-popping colour artwork and special effects, if sometimes overegging the cake a bit.

His next Vertigo project took place as the minutes count down on New Year’s Eve, 1999, the deadly deadline for ex-suicidal romantic Larry to get the cure for his unnecessary overdose of pills, while keeping it all secret from his girlfriend. I Die At Midnight is a minor, manic 64-page farce of pre-millennial tension.

In 2002,  Baker returned with a 160-page adaptation of the Goliath-toppling King David, staying faithful to the Bible stories but mining their rich comedy potential to laugh-out-loud effect. He pushes his computerised artwork even further, from flat, outline animation figures to ornate, ‘Magic Eye’-style decoration, from raw pencil sketches to rendered ‘paintings’. As well as silent, kinetic sequences, he also includes longer chunks of text, no longer anchored under corresponding images. More illustrated book than comics, this does work if you give it a chance.

Baker’s stated that he plans to "retire with 20 books on the shelf and live off it, like Will Eisner". He’s well on the way, as a peak at his website (Kyle shows he is currently busy on a Cowboy Wally colour sequel. This finds his star on Death Row appealing for clemency. The inspired title? Free Wally. I can’t wait!

Posted: October 23, 2005

The original version of this article appeared in 2002 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.


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The Cowboy Wally Show

Why I Hate Saturn

You Are Here

I Die At Midnight

King David