Five Stars: How Kyle Baker Broke New Ground
In Five Stars, Steve Morris interviews an artist by looking back over five milestones of their career.
Kyle Baker is one of the most accomplished cartoonists in comics today, and he's been producing hugely acclaimed comics ever since he first started working in the industry in the early 1980s, with work ranging from madcap comedy to breathtakingly sharp biography. With eight Eisner awards to his name, along with a bevy of Harvey and Glyph awards, he's also one of the industry's most decorated talents.
Starting as an intern for Marvel Comics, Baker's first years in the industry saw him work with industry figures including Larry Hama, Walt Simonson, and Jim Shooter, and picking up a few odd-jobs as penciller and inker.
His first big mainstream gig was an adaptation of the Howard the Duck movie, but his best remembered early projects included quirkier fare like a handful of one-page X-Men gag strips called "It's Genetic!" Always pushing forward, his interest in serialized strips and 'funny paper' comics brought him more work from big publishers, including a series of Cowboy Wally stories and artistic duties on Dick Tracy comics.
It was his breakthrough story Why I Hate Saturn that brought him to the forefront of the industry, a narrative that broke the text apart to create a filmic diary approach to exploring the characters and their world. Baker left the industry for a while to pursue his ambitions in Hollywood and animation, and when he returned years later, his style had greatly evolved; he mixed wild visual comedy like Plastic Man with weighty, considered stories like Truth, the Marvel series that introduced the character Isaiah Bradley.
Never losing sight of his own voice as a writer and artist, Baker also turned his hand to a biography with Nat Turner, a series he published under his own Kyle Baker Publishing imprint. Baker's most recent work includes Benevolence, a sci-fi graphic novel about a controlled situation devolving into chaos, which shows off Baker's gifts for pacing and character.
Why I Hate Saturn
Written and drawn by Kyle Baker, 1990
Published by Piranha Press (DC)
ComicsAlliance: Sometimes with Five Stars we start right at the beginning, but I wanted to jump ahead to one of your earliest ‘big’ projects, Why I Hate Saturn. It really establishes your style, with the words and images distanced from one another, divorcing the actions of the characters from their words. When did you first start making comics, and do you remember when you began to gravitate towards this diary-style format?
Kyle Baker: At the time, comics were just beginning to move from the candy store to the book store, and I wanted to reach people who weren’t used to reading comics. Cartoons like the ones in The New Yorker magazine have the captions underneath the art. As people who read newspapers were used to reading in columns, it was important to lead the eye horizontally rather than vertically. The border was originally designed to keep readers from accidentally reading across the spread.
CA: At the time, it wasn’t a huge sales success. It took years, and is arguably only now really getting the notice it deserves. Is it difficult to take a hit like that --- to build up and work on a project, only for it to then not break out commercially in the way you might have hoped?
KB: I think that it’s never wise to measure one’s worth by the opinions of strangers. I’m just trying to create the work I enjoy. I can’t imagine how sad it would be for a person to live their life worrying about what other people think of them.
When I work, I do the best job I can according to my skill level at the time. I’m always studying, and looking to learn how to write and draw better, and that’s what’s important to me.
There’s no way to guess what consumers will buy. One year everyone loves the X-Men, the next year they all want Avengers or Peanuts. Good for them. There’s plenty of great books to read, and some are more popular than others. If I am listening to a street-corner trumpet player, and I enjoy it, why should it matter that he is not performing for thousands? Why does everything have to be a blockbuster? Everybody can't be rich and famous. that would be terrible.
I think the book was good enough, and that’s really the only thing I have any control over. I can’t control other people, that’s crazy stuff.
CA: It’s really character-driven, and the lead, Anne, certainly seems to be a character who has resonated more and more with readers over the years. How do you put characters like Anne together?
KB: The original inspirations for the book were the plays Harvey and The Odd Couple. The easiest way to create conflict between characters is to have them be opposites. So if one is cheery, the other is dour, and if one is tidy, the other is neat.
I’m also fascinated by the phenomenon of how one’s attitude affects one’s reality. If a person is cheerful and makes choices based on optimism, they will create a different situation than a person who makes all the wrong decisions out of fear or anger. A cheerful person who is faced with difficulty will deal with it and move on, while a negative person will avoid the situation and make it worse. A lot of my books explore this idea.
You Are Here
Written and drawn by Kyle Baker, 1998
Published by Vertigo Comics
CA: You stopped making comics for a while during the '90s before returning with You Are Here. And intriguingly, your style had changed by that point, too, which caught a lot of people off guard. What decides how you go about developing a comic, and how you need to evolve or change your style over time to suit each new project?
KB: When I started in comics, the printing was terrible, and so was the paper. We used the cheapest paper and printing presses, because comics were distributed widely to newsstands and grocery stores. As a result, the style of art in comics was created for the awful printing. We used heavy black outlines, because the color registration was so bad, the colors would spill out of the line, and the paper was so cheap the ink would bleed and splotch. We lettered by hand because typesetting was expensive.
By the '90s, we were using the kind of high-quality printing and paper that magazine and book publishers used. We could finally reproduce paintings and pastels and photos. So it seems silly to me that we were still using an art style designed for a cheap lithographic process that was no longer in use.
I work in all types of media, including film, television, games, newspapers, and magazines. I try to keep up on the latest techniques and tools that my contemporaries are using in these fields.
CA: You’ve been at the forefront of making comics digitally for decades now --- one of the first to properly letter comics using a computer --- and with the advent of You Are Here you were one of the first to produce your comics digitally. How important has digital technology been to your process?
KB: I started my career designing books for Milton Glaser’s studio. We did educational books for Barron’s. I had also done some newspaper advertising for the Columbia Record club. In the advertising and book publishing business, we always employed the latest technologies, whether it was photostat machines, typesetting machines, Pantone film, art projectors, Airbrush machines or computers.
Now I use the same technology that is standard in the world of commercial graphics. I use 3D, motion capture, desktop publishing, inkjet printing --- and anything else that helps me do better work. Most entertainment is distributed electronically, whether via TV, web, or phone, so it just makes sense to create the work that is most compatible with the delivery system. I have a scanner and a camera, but if I can create the work in the computer, I can skip the scanning.
These days, my work is distributed across so many platforms, that it's common for the same piece of art to be used in a printed book and a digital book and a web page and a game or app as well as on apparel and housewares. It’s important to have a good high-resolution digital file stored.
And I work with multiple vendors. I work wIth printers, publishers, manufacturers, app stores, etc. The work has to be easy to transfer among all these people. The t-shirt maker may need a jpg file, while the book printer wants a pdf, and the TV network or streaming service needs Targa files or Windows movie. Some people want Maya. I have to be able to deliver all of that quickly and seamlessly.
Written and drawn by Kyle Baker, 2004-2006
Published by DC Comics
CA: The sheer range of works you’ve released is staggering --- but what’s most interesting is how much your particular sense of humor rings out in your work. Plastic Man, for example, is pretty clearly "a Kyle Baker book." Where did you start when the assignment came about, and how do you take a pre-existing character and make him into something so unique to your own sensibilities?
KB: DC asked me to take one of their characters and work it over. They suggested the Creeper, but I couldn’t really figure it out, so I suggested Plastic Man, which had always been a comedy book created by Jack Cole. I used to enjoy the Beetlejuice animated cartoon show, and the joke was that Beetlejuice always turned into different objects but retained his personality.
The same gag is effective in Disney’s Aladdin, and Nickelodeon’s Fairly Odd Parents, so I knew I could get a lot of mileage out of turning Plastic Man into stuff.
CA: You’ve said that sometimes you think the dialogue doesn’t even figure into Plastic Man at all --- it’s the visuals, the story and jokes you’re telling there, that matters. What’s your writing process like?
KB: I usually write the the story in my head, and then I draw it out. I draw before I dialog, because it’s a visual medium. In the case of Plastic Man, the whole joke is the funny shapes he turns into. You can’t write a funny shape. Just because you write “garden hose” and it sounds silly, there is no guarantee that it will work visually until you draw the picture.
Plastic Man as a blimp was a great funny picture, and I don’t really think it moved the story forward or had any purpose --- but it was funny to see a blimp wearing goggles and a smile. The time he became a graffiti mural was fun also.
Written and drawn by Kyle Baker, 2005
Published by Kyle Baker Publishing
CA: Nat Turner took existing text from The Confessions of Nat Turner, then used your art to detail the unseen elements from that text. In essence, you allowed the art and text to contrast and disagree with each other. Is it difficult for you to shift gears into more serious storytelling, or do you find this comes as naturally to you as any other work?
KB: It’s probably easier, because I don’t have to think of jokes. The mechanics of story construction are always the same, whether it is a comedy, a horror story, or a romance. The writer must set up the characters, premise and story elements in a particular order, and then the conflict unfolds in the second act. With comedy, I have to make the conflict funny somehow, and add gags.
With Nat Turner, I just set up the characters and the conflict, and the rest takes care of itself. Also, since the story is based on history, I can’t really change a lot of the details. He has to get hanged at then end, because that’s what happened.
CA: You’ve described your interest in the past for telling "unpopular truths." Throughout your career you’ve made comics, like Nat Turner or Birth of a Nation, that have addressed history and society head on. Unpopular truths they may be, but how important is it for you to be able to tell them?
KB: There is a particular sickness in many people, in that they choose comfort over progress. People want good health, but don’t want to exercise or diet. They want money, but don’t want to work hard. They want success, but don’t want to go through the failure that is necessary to achieve success. So many people avoid going for their goals because they can only imagine possible negative outcomes.
I wanted to tell the Nat Turner story, and I figured it would not have any commercial appeal. I didn’t think it would be a big seller. It doesn’t really have licensing potential. Nobody was going to make this into a theme park ride or giant blockbuster film, at least that is the way I saw it. But I felt that it was a good story, and that it could be educational. It is never going to be as popular as Batman, but so what? Everything doesn’t have to be Transformers or Star Wars.
Everybody doesn’t have to be rich. Just try doing something that helps somebody --- that’s all that matters.
Written and drawn by Kyle Baker, 2016
Published by Quality Jollity
CA: Benevolence was released in 2016, a change of pace that people can still clearly see is "a Kyle Baker comic." What determines the comics you make now, self-published or elsewhere? What kinds of stories do you want to tell?
KB: This time, I wanted to tell a standard comic book-type science fiction adventure story. I’ve been doing super hero adventures for Marvel and DC for thirty years, and know how to make them. I’ve spent so much time breaking new ground and expanding the medium that I thought it might be fun to just do a good old space action team comic. The team start off the series as dysfunctional losers, and gradually have to grow as characters to become heroic.
I wanted to explore how an effective team works through individual differences and, by caring less about themselves and more about others, they can be a strong force for change. If I’m just looking to enrich myself, I don’t get very far, but if I am working to help my family, my community, and my employer, they in turn will help me, and great things get done. Benevolence is kind of like the Scrooge story, where selfish characters become useful to a society, and then find some sort of self worth that way.
CA: How do you find self-publishing, first in print and now digitally, with works like Benevolence? People don’t really get into comics because they want to learn hard marketing, but if feels like that’s a real part of the role now for creatives.
KB: I don’t really think too much about marketing. The key to any business is to provide something of value to a consumer. People want to be entertained. If you entertain them, they will support you. If you are not entertaining, nobody has any reason to bother with you. Everybody wants to enjoy a fun story and look at nice art. And people love to share good things with friends, because it will make their friends happy, and their friendship better. If I see a good movie, I tell my friends about it, because it makes me seem like an interesting guy who knows about cool things.
In this digital age, everybody uses social networks to enhance their social lives. We all want to share interesting items to make ourselves more valuable to our communities. As a comic fan, I share articles from ComicsAlliance so other comics fans will comment or link with me. So my focus is on making the kind of comics and cartoons people will enjoy. The rest should take care of itself.
I self-publish because it's easiest. I want to make a book, I make the book, the book gets published. I don't have meetings, I don't have to change anything to make a publisher happy, I don't have to argue about the format... and it's just so much easier than dealing with a client.
CA: Looking overall at your work, what catches me most is the sheer range of projects. Not many people can say they have comics for kids; for adults; on college curriculum; in libraries; in newspapers; online. What do you think ultimately keeps comics fresh for you?
KB: I like many things, not just one thing. I like scary stories, and funny stories. I like things I can share with my kids, but I also read romances with my girlfriend. I read books, and watch movies, and play video games. So I do all of the things I enjoy. I also teach school because I like helping young people.
I think most people have a wide range of interests, even if they don’t get paid. You might be active in your church or your local amateur sports team. I just happen to get paid for doing things I enjoy. Also, it is the nature of entertainment that popularity comes and goes. Sometimes comic readers are tired of me, but newspapers hire me. Other times, the newspapers stop calling, but I have an opportunity writing television shows. Currently, I’m having a bump in interest because of the Birth of a Nation and Deadpool films.
It lasts while it lasts, and then I’ll have to find another way to feed my four kids.
Creatively, I’m usually driven by a story I want to tell. I’m currently working on a Romeo and Juliet-type forbidden love tale, because I want to tell a story of how love can conquer hate. As I mentioned before, Benevolence is about friendship and teamwork in service to community. These are values I believe in, and the types of stories I enjoy hearing myself. Most of my work is connected by that common thread of wanting to make the world better in some way.
Kyle Baker's current comics work is self-published on his website Quality Jollity, where you can pick up work from throughout his career --- including Benevolence, Why I Hate Saturn and King David. He currently splits his time between making comics, animation, and teaching. You can keep up with his career by following him on Twitter.